The #OurStory series is my attempt at sharing the stories of others, of showcasing different perspectives and viewpoints. I named it 'Our Story' because I believe we have more in common than separates us, that we're all here trying to figure it out, that if we spent more time looking through others' eyes we could see a whole lot more. These are people's stories, but this is also my story. This is your story. This is our story, as a whole. --Robert
As a 23-year-old graduate student, my scope of life can be broken into chapters: my childhood, my teenage years, college, and the chapter I’m living now. Each chapter holds it's experiences, memories, and challenges.
I was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where I spent my first few years by the beach and surrounded by family and immediately immersed into a blend of Guyanese and American culture. Our weekends were spent watching Bollywood movies, at the park, and even getting snow cones at Home Depot (one of my favorite memories.)
When I was four years old, my parents made the decision for our family to move to Georgia for the opportunity to better support my brother and me. My parents, who are immigrants from Guyana, are no stranger to sacrifice -- so while it was difficult to be away from their friends and family, they poured their efforts into their work with the intention of providing more for us.
My introduction to faith was similar to The Life of Pi. At a young age, I was exposed to Hinduism and Islam through my family and Christianity through growing up in the Southern United States. To me, faith meant being surrounded by folks whom you love and can depend on. Faith meant community. Our communities just had different names.
My dad made a trip to Hajj when I was in elementary school, so our family begand observing other aspects of Islam more seriously, like the dietary restrictions. During the summers, I would usually visit my grandparents in Florida, who would take me to Hindu temple with them. At school, my classmates started to talk about religion -- and I was different. I didn't grow up around just one ideology.
It was a pretty confusing time for me. When the tragedy of September 11th occurred, I was in third grade. One of the ripple effects, especially in the South, was Islamaphobia. Carrying the last name Abdullah and having brown skin, led to some hateful things being said to me, which would continue into future chapters of my life as well. In that time, I made the decision to learn as much as I could about different faiths and backgrounds, so that I could understand more.
My Teenage Years
My teenage years included many milestones: braces, awkward haircuts, and lots of hoodies. As I was starting to formulate my identity, I felt the need to go against the grain in as many ways as possible. I wanted to do things atypical of the gender role for Guyanese women, so I pushed to play sports, to hang out with my friends more, and to be involved in extracurricular activities. On the other hand, people began comparing my academic achievements to my brother’s (who was pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor).
So while I was trying to be rebellious in some ways, I was also trying to be more intelligent than my brother through challenging myself academically. This tension led to my first bout of depression and led to my struggle with self-harm (although I didn’t have the words for it back then). At the time, any failure to achieve these high levels of expectation for myself felt like my fault. I began searching for validation through popularity or in having a boyfriend, so these factors also added to my struggles.
I was so focused on fitting in with my friends that I began taking steps away from my faith and faith in general. As my high school years were coming to a close, I had a conversation with my dad about not identifying as Muslim anymore and he met me with acceptance rather than hate or judgment.
Despite the heaviness of the time and the struggles I was facing, I fell in love with basketball. I found a new sense of community amongst my teammates and learned discipline and goal-setting through a game that I was able to find a deep sense of joy in. I wanted to be able to play as long as I could, and I had the dream of playing in college.
As I went through high school, I had the goals of: becoming an honor graduate, playing varsity basketball and volleyball, finding popularity, dating guys, and getting accepted into college. In my senior year, as volleyball season ended and as I was conditioning for basketball, my lung collapsed. This meant I would have no chance at starting a game in my senior varsity basketball season; my college basketball dreams were over.
My depression worsened, even while I achieved my goals, including getting into all six of the colleges I applied to. I did not feel joy, I felt numb. One of my lowest points in my life was graduating high school, because so much of the person that I was no longer reflected my authentic self.
Transitioning into college was another difficult time for me, because so much of the work I put into my identity in high school did not cross over with me into college. The university was so big, and even though I was surrounded by people, I felt so alone. I caught a cold towards the end of the semester, which developed into an upper-respiratory infection, and later pneumonia. By the time I came home for Thanksgiving, my lung was 75% collapsed. During the 9-day stay in the hospital, I began praying. I began praying for the strength to get through the multiple surgeries and for the strength to lessen my parents’ worries.
During my recovery from the surgeries, my parents had to drive me to each of my finals since I was unable to walk a lot. Another piece of my identity was struggling: my academic achievements. It was hard to think of myself as intelligent without the grades to prove it, so my looming depression grew, and I felt like a failure once again.
I made the decision to move home shortly after finals for a semester to recuperate from that experience. I began commuting to school in January, taking on a heavy course load while adjusting to the demands of walking between classes and how it impacted my breathing. On February 6, 2012, I commuted to school as normal, but spent the day in a state of 'lowness.' My depression felt unbearable, and as I drove home I knew it was time to ask for help. My parents helped me into treatment, and they saved my life.
A few months later, I spent time trying to find the right treatment plan. Medications seemed to have adverse effects and I couldn’t seem to click with a therapist. I took a hardship withdrawal for the rest of the semester, and began at a new beginning.
As I look back at my story, I feel a genuine sense of resilience in my heart. I was able to move back to my college town and graduate cum laude. I was able to intern with To Write Love On Her Arms, which felt full-circle: from once being helped to becoming a helper. I was accepted into three graduate programs, and decided to pursue both an MBA and MSW.
I have learned a lot in therapy, and have opened myself up to seeking it out. I now have a plan for my low days. I also have a community of people who have embraced my authenticity.
As I think of my achievements up to this point, I am most proud of February 6, 2012. Beginning the conversation of finding help has led me to live my most authentic life. Even though depression and thoughts of self-harm still impact my life, I have learned and am still learning how to manage it and be able to do anything that I would like to. Recovery is possible, and I am reminded of that every time I look in the mirror.
My relationship with faith has opened up, too. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that faith and culture are not necessarily the same thing. While I may have been met with seclusion in some situations, it doesn’t mean that it will be the case for every one. I am open to connecting with religion in a way that solidifies my values and life, but for now I’m learning.
At Christian churches, I feel my mind clear. At Muslim functions, I feel a sense of familiarity and peace. At Hindu functions, I connect to the symbolism. As of now, my main focus is to live a moral life, with or without a belief system. If I do find one, I’d like to be in a community where mental health can be a part of the conversation.
I’m still learning, though, and I’m open to my beliefs changing.
-Jeniffer Abdullah (23 years old, Guyanese-American)
Jeniffer Abdullah is a graduate student at Florida State University currently studying business administration and social work. She is 23, and spent most of her life in Georgia (and is a former UGA bulldog). Her passion for suicide prevention stemmed from her personal story and largely because of the historically high rates in the country her parents are from -- Guyana. In her free time, she likes watching basketball, documentaries, playing games, and reading.
Interested in sharing your story? Find more details here. I'd love to hear from you!
Other entires in the #OurStory series can be found here.
Stories are posted with minimal editing for grammar or structure, not content. To change what someone else wants to say to fit a narrative I want would be to betray the underlying belief behind the project.