Al Rawiya

The Stigma, the Struggles, the Shame: An Interview with Nour Abou Fayad

Adam does not get scared.
He just doesn’t.
He doesn’t overthink, he doesn’t second-guess himself, and he most certainly does not cry.
Yet
That’s all he’s been doing lately.
He’s a mess and he just can’t seem to get it together.
His friend, Rami, is no help.
Nobody is.
Until
Yasmin comes along to reconnect with her homeland. She’s been away for too long. She needs to know her roots.
And she’s the one person who understands what Adam’s going through, even when he doesn’t.
But can two people, both with minds that can’t fully be trusted, help each other navigate the other’s journey towards self-discovery?

The Complete Opposite of Everything, Nour Abou Fayad’s debut New Adult novel

Interview by: The Al Rawiya Mental Health team
Answers by: Nour Abou Fayad
Edited by: Yasmin Kassis

The Complete Opposite of Everything, Nour Abou Fayad’s debut New Adult novel. Photos courtesy of Nour Abou Fayad

The Book and the Important Issues It Raises

What mental health issues do you tackle in your book, The Complete Opposite of Everything

The book predominantly focuses on anxiety and depression and also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What inspired you to write the book?
My own struggle with crippling anxiety and depression. I spent 2 to 3 years navigating this tumultuous world of intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, and perpetual dread alone. It tore me apart imagining someone else going through that too. The utter loneliness I felt at the lowest moments was something I didn’t want anyone else to have to experience. This book is what I needed back then. So I wrote it for the rest of the Nours and Adams struggling right now.

Screenshot of one of the reviews on Nour Abou Fayad’s novel The Complete Opposite of Everything on Goodreads.

One reader wrote the following review about your book on Goodreads, “I love how it makes you feel, even if it’s to a somewhat lesser extent, that you are not alone, at least in the way you think (or overthink [for] that matter) at times when you feel the loneliest and the most scared.” Could you please elaborate on the power of feeling less alone when someone is battling mental illness?

Having a mental illness feels so isolating at times. The illness itself tricks you into thinking you’re all alone, convincing you that no one in the entire world will ever understand the storm raging inside your mind. You have no idea how loud my sigh of relief was when I started discovering others like me. The illness is so invisible and due to societal pressures, you want to make it even more so, and to make matters worse, you yourself don’t even know how or where to seek help because you have no idea how to show or explain what you’re going through to anyone. With more visible physical ailments such as a headache or a broken arm, people know how to relate more, or at least think they can. So, what I want people to take away from this is to listen. Listen to those who are saying they are not okay. That’s how you make someone feel less alone. That’s how they start rising. The more of a safe space you create for them to speak up in, the more likely they will be heard by others who are struggling in the same way. The more awareness that subsequently gets out there, the more the drive to support, to battle, to treat, and most importantly the less of the shame and guilt.

When you were writing the book were you concerned that readers wouldn’t be able to relate to the story and possibly some of the characters?

I don’t think that was at the top of my list of concerns because I was so laser-focused on getting the message of the importance of mental health across. I knew the readers would either be those who are dealing with mental health issues, those who know someone dealing with mental health issues, and/or those who are somewhat in the dark about anything pertaining to mental illness. The way the book was written makes it easy to relate to the characters in one way or another, whether through their nationality, inner thoughts and turmoil, or life circumstances.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

In your book, Adam’s psychologist plays a crucial role in understanding what Adam is experiencing. How challenging was it to write from a therapist’s perspective while being accurate with and respectful of the advice that the therapist in the book gives? 

I had a basic understanding of psychology and really picked up on how a therapy session flows from my own experience with a psychiatrist and psychologist. But with something as crucial and sensitive as this, I can’t pretend to know half of the proper techniques, so I enlisted the help of clinical psychologists Sandra Khalil and Anita Papas. They looked over the text, suggested edits to certain phrases, and gave their own take on how they would handle the sessions Adam attends.

Based on how you were supported or would have liked to have been supported, do you have any advice for parents on how to help their children struggling with mental health? And more specifically in Lebanese families?

First, I think we have to break down the stereotype that kids and teenagers don’t understand themselves yet and are overreacting. Yes, I do believe that during your adolescent years your hormones are all over the place, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there can be a struggle with mental illness at play in parallel. Listen to your kids. Whether they’re 5, 15, or 25, listen to them. I repeat this more adamantly for Lebanese parents. 

Children have inherited their parents’ traumas from the civil war. They are also collecting their own with each passing political unrest period, and are currently living through one of the worst crises this country has ever been through, one that witnessed an astronomical explosion for such a small piece of geography. It would be a miracle if they came out of this alone with their mental well-being intact. If you don’t know much about mental health issues, the internet is your research oyster. There is access to an influx of verified information and all it takes is an open mind.

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

A key theme of your book is relationships and mental health. How much does it affect our thoughts and feelings? How can one best support a partner that is struggling with mental illness? When should they take a step back?

I can only speak from my experience with relationships and mental illness. At the start of any relationship, my anxiety would sound the warning bells if my new partner so much as breathed in a similar fashion as an ex did, picking up on patterns between previous partners to save me the trouble of discovering that this current one is just like the rest of them. What I’ll say about this is what I often have to remind myself – be patient with both yourself and your partner. They are a whole other person with a different upbringing, thoughts, and life experiences. Learn to discern between false alarms and real red flags. It takes practice, but you’ll get the hang of it in time. 

As for your significant other struggling with mental illness, I urge you to listen to your partner, without judgment, and with an intent to really listen rather than replying with your own assessment. Do your research on what they’re struggling with, be it anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, etc. And also, don’t take the illness personally. Finally, when you notice any signs of self-abusive behavior or potential self-harm, your support is needed. However, there are times where you need to step back, especially when you’re slipping into the role of an enabler rather than a supportive loved one. It is important to keep in mind that at the end of the day you are not their therapist and are in no position to handle a serious illness alone.

What would you like the readers to remember most once they finish reading your book?

I want them to remember a lot of things, to be honest. First, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It exists and it’s very real. Also, believe people when they speak up about their struggles. You won’t lose brownie points for being understanding; you’ll lose them for being dismissive. Above all else, I want readers to remember to be a little bit kinder and a bit more patient.

Do you have any upcoming literary work in the pipeline? If so, are you able to tell us more about it?

Yes, I do! I’m still in the research phase and it’s a bit difficult juggling that with a full-time job, but I will eventually get the book done. I think I can tell you that the book is on the fantasy side, but does, of course, have mental health as one of the central themes.

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Breaking Taboos Around Mental Health in Lebanon

You consider yourself a mental health activist. Why do you find it important to shed light on mental health and openly talk about it?

When I started talking about mental illness around 8 years ago, it was because I wanted to have an outlet for myself. No one was discussing it, no one was even admitting to it, and I felt so incredibly alone. I just wanted to write down the noise going on in my mind and try to make sense of it. So when I started posting on my old blog and Facebook page, people started responding, either with encouragement and kind words or with their own experiences. That’s when I discovered the hidden world of mental illness in Lebanon, so tucked away in the deepest, darkest corners that you would think you’d imagined it at first. The more I talked about it, the less alone I felt. So I made it my unofficial mission to trample on the loneliness that others feel when struggling with their mental health. I hated the stigma around it, the stigma that stopped me from seeking help when my anxiety and depression were at their worst and barely manageable. I didn’t want anyone to be in the position I found myself in –  lonely, confused, and scared. That’s why I think talking about mental illness is crucial. The walls, prejudices, and stigma around it need to be broken down because for something that is so common and normal, it isn’t that normalized.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to openly discuss our mental health issues, even with those closest to us?

There are a slew of reasons, but I can chalk it up to two main ones, at least in my case. One, our brain is already so confused, loud, and nonsensical. You have no clue where to start and your thoughts are all over the place so how can you even begin to explain what’s going on? Especially when you’re juxtaposing it with reason number two – social taboos. All around the world, the idea of mental illness has always been shrouded in stigma, misinformation, and inhumane acts against those who suffer from it. The media came along and that didn’t help much, with drama movies about geniuses riddled with depression, bipolar disorders, and ultimately insanity. To me, it’s a cocktail of these, and the fear people have of the idea that the very faculty that leads you through life, taking decisions, feeling your emotions, and driving you to act in certain ways, is no longer in your control. That fear is then projected onto those who are actually suffering.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In your personal experience, what is the best way to support a loved one who is suffering from mental health issues? How do you think one should go about suggesting professional help since it is such a sensitive issue?

The most important thing is to let them know that you are a safe space. Allow them to talk about what’s on their mind as much as they want, but don’t diagnose them yourself or doubt them. You’re just there to listen and be a helping hand. It takes a lot of courage to openly discuss thoughts that lie to you and tell you they are shameful. Research their illness as thoroughly as possible to better understand it and pinpoint the warning signs faster. 

As for how to broach the subject of professional help, make sure you’re doing it in private and in a safe space. Remind them you care about them and want to see them happy and healthy. Remember, your wording is very important. If you yourself went through mental health issues and sought professional help, share that with them if you feel comfortable enough. Lastly, offer to help them search for a therapist that suits them; it gets overwhelming to know where to start, especially in their state.

Have you noticed any changes in the way that the Lebanese are addressing mental health?
Oh, definitely. Again, 8 years ago, barely anyone was talking about mental health. In less than a decade, awareness surrounding it has skyrocketed and people are now more educated on the subject. After the COVID-19 pandemic and especially after the events of August 4, the need for a proper mental health discussion was pivotal, because people were traumatized, triggered, and grappling with anxiety, depression, and PTSD brought on by the Beirut blast. That’s not to say that we don’t have our shortcomings; we still have a long way to go, but we are indeed getting there.

Al Rawiya Team
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