I’ve wanted to write this article for months, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I’m a very extroverted, and yet private person. Over the years, as close friends have learned more about my life, a common question is: How did I never know that about you? I always shrug and reply: I guess it never came up.
The truth of the matter is that, it’s easy for hard things to never come up in conversation. Mental health is one of those hard things.
“Mental health” is such a common term in our culture today, just like words like “therapy” and “depression”, and yet, it’s still too easy to answer, “How are you doing?” with a mechanical and cheery, “Fine!”
I think that for a lot of us, globally, the pandemic showed us that no, we weren’t “fine”. That nothing was “fine”. That our lives, jobs, relationships, and minds needed a shake up.
But in order to really shake things up and start anew, you have to first start with what is. That is, with what is really going on.
So that’s what this article is all about today — my persistent mental health struggles that I faced for 14 years until I recovered last year, and how learning Arabic helped me in that recovery.
I know it’s not necessarily obvious that there would be any correlation between learning Arabic and my mental health, but then again, life isn’t very obvious, is it?
The other reason I’m publishing this article this week is because of a conversation I had last week with a customer who purchased my Arabic fluency guidebook, Zero-to-Fluent. They were upset and disappointed by the curriculum in the guidebook because, in their words, “[I] did not just watch tv for a year and then become fluent.”
I sensed the distaste and distrust in the customer’s tone, that she thought I was lying, faking, a fraud. To be honest, I resented the accusation. I wanted to show her all the receipts of the thousands of hours I spent immersing and figuring my way to fluency — a path I never thought possible, and that I had never seen lain out for me.
But then, I sat back. I got quiet. I got honest. And I thought, “No, I didn’t just watch TV for a year and become fluent in Arabic. She’s completely right. There’s so much more to this story that I’ve never told. And honestly, when I started Marhabtain, I wasn’t in a place to tell that story.”
So here’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, if you’re ready for it.
Part 1. My 14-Year Battle with Anorexia
When I was 14 years old, I developed anorexia. Jan 5, 2021, on my 28th birthday, I decided to go into full recovery.
That wasn’t the first time I’d decided to recover, but I knew, finally, that it would be the last.
Jan 5th, 2021 was a day that I decided to change my life overall. I was going to do hard things, things that I never thought I could, come hell or high water. I was going to show myself the strength I knew was inside me, but that I felt was slowly dying over the years due to my illness.
Beating anorexia was the hardest thing I ever imagined I could do. After 14 years, my eating disorder was something akin to a best friend. She knew my deepest and darkest thoughts. And when I was sad or upset or anxious or depressed, she was always there for me to lean on, for better… or for worse.
Compared to anorexia recovery, learning Arabic fluently seemed like a cakewalk. I didn’t know how to speak Arabic fluently, but neither did I know how to eat “normally”. I soon found out though, that the lessons I’d learn through learning Arabic, were the exact same lessons I needed to understand in order to recover from anorexia.
I think one of the reasons I lived with anorexia for so long was because no one noticed.
I did tell people along the way that I had an eating disorder, but only a few recognized these conversations as a cry for help. I don’t blame them. I didn’t fit the profile for anorexia. I’m a black woman and we are almost never thought to have eating disorders. I have a naturally athletic build. So at my smallest of weights, people just thought I was very “fit”. I was never hospitalized for anorexia. I was never gaunt, skin and bones, with sunken-in eyes and cheeks. My illness never really transcended traditional beauty standards. So no one really noticed that anything was “wrong”.
Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the fact that I survived that long in the shadows. Overwhelmed with grief and with joy. I think of all the other people who are trying to survive every day…
I also know that I lived with anorexia for so long because I wanted to. More accurately, I needed to.
You see, anorexia, like all other eating disorders, is an anxiety disorder. From the time I was 14, as a way to deal with my anxiety, I would stop eating.
We all deal with anxiety in so many different ways. Some people overeat, some drink, some obsessively exercise, others withdraw, binge watch tv, call a friend, journal, take a walk, dance. The thing is that sometimes we deal with anxiety in ways that build us up, and sometimes in ways that tear us down.
I chose a coping mechanism that tore me down. I can now say that without blame or shame.
I used to be ashamed of myself for my eating disorder. Uchechi, you’re better than this. Just stop. Just stop! I’d say. I used to see anorexia as a dirty word, a Scarlett Letter. But I don’t anymore.
For all of us, we create coping mechanisms to learn to survive the environments we grew up in. One day, when you and I are sitting in a cafe together sipping coffee, I’ll tell you all about mine. And you’ll probably leave thinking, “I never thought I’d say this, but anorexia seems like a perfectly normal reaction to those circumstances.”
The extreme downside of this perfectly normal reaction to the circumstances of my upbringing, apart from my very dubious physical health, is that my mental health took a very long tailspin into the dirt. And not necessarily for reasons you’d expect, like body image or self-worth. Something entirely different was at play. Something evolutionary…
To understand what I mean, let’s think about human evolutionary biology. As cave men, we had really basic needs. Food was one of those needs. When we got hungry our brain evolved to send stress signals to our body saying, Danger! Danger! You’re starving. You’re gonna die if you don’t go find a mammoth to kill!
This is why when we’re hungry we become sick or angry or headachy or hangry. This is also why after you eat the feelings go away again. You’ve killed your mammoth and the brain is not afraid for your survival. The stress signals (also called “anxiety”) disappear.
But for an anorexic, when our brain sends those stress signals (or anxiety), we tell our brain: Actually. I’m not hungry. So our brain sends more anxiety. Nope, still not hungry. The brain sends even more anxiety. Nope, still not hungry. More. Nope… MORE.
For anorexics, our brains are dying for us to attend to our evolutionary need for nourishment. And because we won’t, everyday we get overloaded with levels of anxiety that are too overwhelming to even explain.
Over years, this unresolved anxiety manifests into feelings of fear and terror about just about anything, paranoia, panic attacks, depression, extreme fatigue, self-isolation, self-doubt, poor decision making. Every day.
I’ve been through it all and back. I’m not surprised that over half of the people who suffer from anorexia die by suicide. Living in our heads would be a nightmare for most people. It was a nightmare for me.
Part 2: Arabic: An Un-Expected Savior
The very beginning of recovery is called “refeeding”. This is where anorexics finally give their highly malnourished bodies nutrition.
I do want to emphasize that being malnourished is not tied it a particular weight. People of all weights and sizes can be anorexic and malnourished or undernourished. Nourishment has nothing to do with weight. And if you’re reading this article and you believe that you’ve been in a long-term relationship with dieting, restricting, binging, fasting, obsessing, or over-exercising, you likely are struggling with an eating disorder and I urge you to believe that life without it is better than life with it. Go seek help and grab that life you deserve. I couldn’t have done this without great therapists, EMDR therapy, and a nutritionist.
Those first few weeks (or was it months? The time felt so long and so short at the same time) were some of the most physically painful I’ve ever had. When I started “refeeding”, I hadn’t eaten three meals a day in 14 years. I was a vegan. I had disavowed most foods and food groups and had limited myself to a few “safe” foods. So when I started eating again — my body went into full freak out mode. I had fevers and night sweats. I was extremely fatigued and collapsed onto the couch every few hours. I experienced panic attacks, shortness of breath, and extremely deep depression. My blood sugar swung up and down so I was consistently dizzy and headachy.
My body was so used to me ignoring its needs that it didn’t seem to know what to do with this sudden care.
I needed relief. An escape. A distraction. I didn’t know how I would survive this phase without one. In the past, I would have turned to anorexia as a distraction from my discomfort. As strange as it may be to believe — not eating calms me down, helps me focus, and helps me feel like I’m in control.
I needed something new. Something that would take my mind off of my physical and emotional pain, while also showing me what I was made of, challenging me, stretching me. A positive coping mechanism.
Here’s the timeline of what happened next.
Jan 8th, 2021.
I bought 55″ inch flatscreen television and mounted it on my apartment wall. At age 28, I had never bought a TV before, or even thought that I wanted it.
But because I only had the energy to lie on the couch all day, hardly able to walk into another room, I didn’t just want to look at a blank wall all day. I wanted my wall to entertain me and take me into another world. That TV was the best $500 I’ve ever spent.
My therapist suggested I start watching comedies, so I found the Syrian sketch comedy show on YouTube called: ببساطة. Actors like Bassam Yakhour, Ahmad Al Ahmad, Rina Shamis and Nadine Tahseen Beck, filled my life with so much laughter that I forgot how terrible I felt. I’ve seen every episode, but even now when I turn it on, I feel instantly relaxed.
Feb 4th, 2021.
My therapists and nutritionist encouraged me to start eating on a schedule. This was one of the scariest things for me, as someone who had eaten irregularly for nearly 15 years. I had irrational fears like — What if I gain 200 pounds? What if I can’t stop eating? I followed all of their advice — but found myself skipping meals when I felt too overwhelmed by it all.
In February, I really started to see the benefits of the having a consistent Arabic study routine, and I published this article on Marhabtain: How Arabic Finally Stopped Going in One Ear and Out the Other. In the article, I talk about the consistent 3-part process I used to learn Arabic and how daily and consistent structure had taken me from understanding nothing to watching shows without subtitles. I also remembered that while devoting myself to a routine and a new challenge was hard and scary and uncomfortable, there was no way around it. The right structure brings results.
With that, I leaned further into the structure offered by the nutritionist and therapist. I didn’t know if their suggestions would work, but I knew that they had my best interest at heart. And I knew most of all, that I didn’t know any better than them. So I would have to stop half-assing and start eating on a schedule.
To this day, I still eat on a schedule and it’s one of the best changes I could have ever made for my physical and mental health.
Feb 11th, 2021.
The thoughts in my head had started to get LOUD. When I used to starve myself, my brain got very quiet (probably because I was so exhausted) which allowed me to focus. But now, I could hear everything — and most of the thoughts in my head were putting me down and making me feel like trash.
At the same time, I knew that the main reason, I was able to stick with learning Arabic was that I finally confronted the voices in my head head-on, and started to shift those messages. I published this article on Marhabtain at that time: 5 Mindset Changes You Need to Learn Levantine Arabic in Quarantine in 2021.
In this phase, Arabic taught me that I had essentially trained myself into mental patterns of insecurity and self-doubt and self-loathing. And with that being the case, that I could untrain myself. I used this wisdom to rewire my thought patterns regarding myself and anorexia.
Feb 18th, 2021 – Mar 5th, 2021.
I learned through immersion that I would never learn Arabic if I was bored. It was my job to make the experience enjoyable. Around that time I was influenced to publish: 5 Levantine Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Email Newsletters to Start Reading in Dialect Today instead of MSA and 3 Unlikely Strategies to Help You Stay Encouraged While Learning the Second Hardest Language in the World.
In my personal life, I also realized it was my job to make my life a joy. During some of my worst years with anorexia, I felt completely gray and numb. If I was going to convince myself that recovery was better than my illness, then I had to take it upon myself to improve the quality of my life. I had to be the one to bring color into my life.
With this wisdom I: moved into a profession that I now love and left a dead-end job, started drawing and dancing, became more spiritual, took a cross country trip, deepened meaningful relationships in my life, and put emphasis on my mental growth.
Recovery has been the single factor of the past year that has completely transformed my daily happiness.
April 30, 2021.
By this time, I was feeling overwhelmed by recovery. The allure had gone away. How much longer am I going to feel like shit? How much longer until I am well? I thought.
I wanted to go on, but I was exhausted just thinking about how open-ended recovery was, and how it was full of highs and lows.
Around this time, I’d learned from facing Arabic burnout that overcoming burnout took honest self-reflection, which I wrote about in 7 Helpful Questions To Overcome Arabic Immersion Burnout this Month.
Instead of backsliding or hiding my overwhelm for the sake of being “strong”, I used these moments to lean into my therapist and nutritionist more than ever before. Many of the conversations we had were the differences between me continuing with recovery and giving up on myself altogether.
May 10th, 2021 – June 28th, 2021.
This was actually a time when anorexia recovery influenced my Arabic journey. Most of the time I was anorexic, I hated seeing myself in a mirror. I didn’t even like taking pictures. I always had some kind of critique for myself — Is my stomach flat enough? My legs are too thick! Why are my cheeks so fat?
As a result, I felt that I was always hiding myself and wanting to remain in the shadows. Anorexia recovery taught me to challenge all of those thoughts by trying things out and seeing just how dangerous they really were.
Around that time, I released my first Arabic-related video where I showed my face: How to Start Reading in Levantine Arabic (+ Hear Me Speak in Arabic!) and soon after another one called: How to Become Native-Level Fluent in Any Language You Want.
As hard as it was for me to publish these, at the end, I realized: I survived! I didn’t die! I guess that wasn’t so bad afterall!
These videos were a huge leap for me, and I’m so grateful that Arabic gave me the opportunity to challenge my fear. This year, I plan to release many more.
Aug 2021 – Jan 2022.
I spent the next 6 months on-and-off in Beirut where I published: This is How I Learned to Speak Arabic in One Year without a Private Teacher and released my one-year Arabic fluency curriculum, Zero-to-Fluent.
By leaving America for that long, I would be leaving behind all the support that had helped me get so far into recovery: my therapist, nutritionist, and closest friends. I was nervous. Could I do this?
But what Arabic had taught me is that once I had the right method to make the change I wanted, that was all I needed. What came after was just implementation, and getting up quickly when I fell. Eventually, I’d have to go out on my own, and be my own teacher. It was now, or never.
Luckily, in the past six months, I haven’t backslid. There were times when I realized I was unintentionally skipping meals, and then I quickly corrected course. But there has never been a time when I have intentionally skipped a meal, started a diet, or starved myself.
At this point, my life has transformed so much that anorexia seems like a distant memory to me. After 14 years, support from those closest to me, and the wisdom I gained from learning Arabic, I can truly say that chapter is closed.
Part 3: Final Thoughts on the Magical Impact of Arabic on my Mental Health
If there’s anything I learned in this past year it’s this:
10% finding the right method and 90% becoming the person who can endure the right method
That’s what I wish I could have explained to the customer who told me, “You did not just watch tv for a year and then become fluent.”
No, I didn’t just watch TV for a year and become fluent. I became the kind of person who could watch TV for a year and become fluent.
The journey to the “becoming” was the most important journey of all.
As I saw myself do the unthinkable of transforming from someone who spoke no Arabic to someone who could speak fluently and understand native content, I knew that if I carried the same endurance I had for Arabic into anorexia recovery, that I could beat this disease once and for all.
If I took to heart all the wisdom learning Arabic was showing me, and aligned it with anorexia recovery, this would be the last time I ever needed to recover.
I created Marhabtain to encourage us all to take initiative over our own Arabic journey. And in return Marhabtain has shown me something greater — how to change the course of my own life, for good.