Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 506th story of Our Life Logs |
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Isn’t it funny how we always stick a label on ourselves? From where we were born to what we do, somehow we always manage to tie a label on it. It’s not all bad, though. Some labels act as our family—wearing them makes us proud and feel like a part of something wonderful. And then, there’re the bad ones—they box you into a place you just know you don’t belong. They are like chains, blocking off the world and keeping you hidden in a quiet cell of shame. But you know what is interesting…well, actually really amazing? How, even with the heaviest chains, you can drag yourself farther than you ever imagined. That’s what I did.
I’ll start this story out with a few labels on me (I told you we always manage to do this). I was born in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in the ‘80s. Yep, that’s my first label—I’m a Saudi. And here’s the second one: I’m an animal lover. I like to think it’s in my genes, since my father himself loved every creature. The house my two brothers and I grew up in was practically a zoo. Just to give you an idea, if our door was unlocked, people from around the neighborhood would come in to look at our animals. You name it, we had it, but of course, we couldn’t keep dangerous predators like lions or tigers. One of our biggest showpieces were our horses. Like my father, I loved every animal, but horses were something special to me. No matter what I was doing with one—riding, grooming, or just sitting in their company, I was truly happy.
Besides my love of these animals, there was another reason I’d often seek their company. For many years, I carried a dark secret, one I didn’t have a label for early on. Some days, I had a severe lack of energy, as if all my childhood vigor was strangely zapped from my body. Other days, I carried a cloud of heavy feelings that I just couldn’t understand. When I felt like this, I would head to the stables to spend some time with my pony. While it wasn’t a magic wand, it gave me a comfort that I desperately needed in those confusing times.
When I began school, I felt it was an exciting new chapter for me. I was a bright-eyed little girl, ready to learn. I had big dreams of becoming a vet, and in my young mind, school was the first steppingstone in that path. I was determined to succeed, even with the jumble of weird feelings inside me that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know yet that the “jumble” would turn into a storm that I wouldn’t be sure I could ever escape.
In school, I experienced difficulties, most especially when it came to reading, writing, and math. Numbers and letters would move before my eyes, as if they didn’t want me to know what they said. I’d look to my teachers, hoping they would be able to help me untangle the mess I saw on my papers and books. Instead, their eyes looked as confused as my own. And so, the problem, never addressed, persisted.
My favorite classes like art, physical education, and cooking were swept away under a pile of extra math and science classes, which were meant to help me keep my progress to reaching my goals. Yet my dream of veterinary school withered when I thought of the mountains of books. My optimism for school shrank to nothing, and a hate, instead, began to grow. Those oh-so-familiar feelings of sadness, tiredness, and hopelessness grew along with that hate.
As I grew older, I found myself crammed into boxes by my peers and teachers, boxes with painful labels scrawled on. “Stupid”, “spoiled”, “ungrateful”, “rebellious”—these labels, no, these chains, kept forcing me to the ground. It was like I was in a batting cage, my bat at the ready, sending those labels away from myself every time they were thrown. I knew I was none of those things. But, as they kept on coming, I lowered my bat. Was I really none of those things? If I wasn’t—now, my bat falls to the ground—why would people keep telling me I was?
My family, especially my mother, tried their best to help me, though they didn’t know what was happening to me. Their support and love, though with good intentions, made me wonder why I felt the way I did. I soon began to believe the box I was forced into was where I really belonged. Surely, with such a good family and good life, I must be an ungrateful, spoiled brat to feel this way. This was all the truth…wasn’t it?
During these times of hopelessness, I would find solace in the stables. This was not only for the therapeutic power horses had for me, but for the understanding I felt that I shared with them. Like me, they were in a box, though theirs was more physical than mental. They were supposed to do what others wanted them to do on command—gallop or trot, pull this or pull that. When they acted like horses and disobeyed, they were disciplined and labeled too. In my heart, I felt something was wrong with it. Why did we treat free spirits this way? The longer I wondered about this, the stronger the doubt within me questioned why I was treated this way too.
Near the end of high school, I found an answer to these uncertain feelings when I was diagnosed with depression. I expected to be relieved—after all, I finally had an explanation for the turbulent thoughts and feelings that battered me for as long as I could remember. Yet, the diagnosis placed an entirely new chain on me. In my society, mental illness was taboo. People like me were looked upon with wary eyes, and without expectations. Even with a definition right before them, they’d still refuse to understand me.
So, rather than being freed from my box, I was put in an entirely new one, one that made me feel more trapped than ever.
In getting this truth, I wanted more answers. I needed to know more. Just a simple diagnosis didn’t answer my questions or quell this new storm of fears and uncertainties. The first stop on my quest was the bookstore. Though I knew it would take me a while to decode the floating letters I’d find in any book, I had to find something, anything.
What I did stumble upon, however unexpected, brought back a rush of hope that I had long lost, as if it was a sign from the universe. The book was Monty Roberts’ The Man Who Listens to Horses. It covered a topic known as “natural horsemanship”, something that was in tune with my beliefs of how horses should be dealt with. I found myself going through the book, and with every page, my wonder grew. Monty Roberts took this inexpressible belief I had and laid it out in every way I felt I couldn’t. When I put the book down, I found a blossom of confidence suddenly rise in my chest. Someone, for the first time in forever, understood me. Monty was an odd one out like me. Through his words, I could feel his passion, and his total faith that what he was doing was right.
I remembered my doubt when people said I was things I knew in my heart I was not. It was more like faith, faith in myself. That’s when I realized that this new label didn’t make me any less of a person. Depression didn’t define me, but I would make it compel me to get help so I could finally achieve my dreams.
In 2000, I left the Middle East for therapy for my mental illness, and later that year, I began college. In my first stop, Canada, I approached my therapist with the same bright-eyed demeanor that I held on my first day of school. And I did that with my next therapist, my next college, and my new major. And then my next, and then my next.
Why the changes, you ask? Well, to put it short, history certainly does repeat itself. While I expected support from my therapists and expected to hop right into college and love my major, that simply didn’t happen. My therapists didn’t make any move to help improve my situation; I was prescribed medication after medication, all of which numbed me. Nothing I ever studied felt right for me, even though I was later offered proper help after receiving a long overdue diagnosis of dyslexia. Still, nothing awakened my love or passion. I felt as if I was going nowhere in my life and with my depression. Though my hope, kindled through natural horsemanship, remained, it was fading with every stumbling block. I worried that I would never get to where I wanted—wherever that may be.
It wasn’t until I went to Sussex, England, in 2007 that I found a place where I could truly begin to heal the wounds of my soul. I attended a college in the countryside where I had constant exposure to the hoofed creatures that helped me in my hardest times. I also began to study performing arts. After being unable to express myself throughout my life, I found storytelling and acting to be the outlets that allowed me to set myself free. As pounding hoofbeats filled my ears and a sense of belonging filled my heart, I felt those chains, wound around me long, long ago, unfurl and fall into the wind.
In 2010, I earned my degree and began to travel. I visited and lived in many places in my four years abroad—the United States, Canada, and Spain being my favorite. In my travels, I trained with those who practiced natural horsemanship, and began to study yoga, something I grew to love in my time at Sussex. It helped the feelings of depression move to the back of my mind instead of being focused in the center.
In 2014, I returned to the Middle East, as I wished to reconnect with my family who I had left for so many years. While I initially came to Bahrain, I moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a year later.
Now, I’m not saying that my depression was “cured” in Sussex, or through my travels, or even through horses. After all, it’s still with me. It still makes me feel the pain, it still spells out doubts in my head that I thought I’d already disproved. But it also led me on this path—this incredible, crazy, unimaginable path. It gave me a connection to horses that borders on spiritual.
Depression gave me knowledge about itself, and through that, a deeper view on life. It gave me a reason to shoot for success, because so many thought it’d be an anchor, sinking me. So, I won’t deny the pain depression caused me, but I also won’t deny the good it brought me. Rather than a chain, I’d prefer to see it as a blessing—a sign, a will, to carry on.
This is the story of Dana Al Gosaibi Dana currently resides in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with her five dogs, three cats, two horses, and Murphy the donkey with his goat companion, Eddy. Born in 1980 in Al-Khobar, Dana has had depression—and dyslexia—since she was a child. As she grew older, it worsened, as people in her society refused to understand or support her. After an unexpected confirmation of a belief she held in natural horsemanship, Dana decided to trust in that part of her that believed, which eventually helped her find ways to cope with her emotions.
Dana is recognized as one of the first female horse trainers in Saudi Arabia and has been featured in various media outlets for her work in horsemanship. In addition, she has been featured on National Geographic’s Instagram for her rescue of Murphy, the abandoned donkey, who was found in the desert. Dana also is active in animal rescuing and hopes to one day open an equine shelter. Through her experiences in depression, she headlined a short film about the condition, which also featured a groundbreaking mental illness hotline exclusive to Saudi Arabia.
This story first touched our hearts on March 5, 2020.
| Writer: Safiyya Bintali | Editor: Kristen Petronio |