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Momina Mustehsan Opens Up About Her Fight Against Depression

“It only gets better when you get better.”

50 million people in Pakistan are suffering from mental disorders out of which a huge majority are women. One of these ladies is Momina Mustehsan, a 25-year-old engineer by profession, singer by personal choice, and a public figure by incidence. Not only is she is one of country’s latest celebrity crushes she is also one of the most sought-out celebrities by brands, with endorsements coming her way left, right, and center. How could she possibly be depressed?

A few weeks ago, Mustehsan opened up about the darkest phase of her life, and we could all see it wasn’t easy. Over the past couple of years countless celebrities from Hollywood, to Bollywood and now for the first time our very own local entertainment industry have bravely recounted to their fans their experience with this brutal mental illness, that more often than not gets exacerbated by the limelight. But Momina’s confession comes with a message and hope. We sit down with the singer and talk about coming out of depression with grace.

How did you come to the conclusion that what you were going through was depression?

When you’re physically unwell, you put a label on it and call it a fever, indigestion, etc. When you are emotionally unwell, it’s confusing. You want to define it but since the symptoms aren’t physically present, it’s difficult. People could sometimes misjudge stress for anxiety or depression – but then again, a lot of people misjudge anxiety and depression for stress.

I feel that there isn’t enough talk about psychological disorders around us, especially in Pakistan, for us to identity them correctly. There needs to be more awareness, and open dialogue is a good start.

What made you come out and discuss your bad phase openly?

People look at me and think I have it all perfect. I remember going through a very bad phase in my life post-Coke Studio 9, and a friend said, “you are so successful!! How incredible does that feel??” and I blankly responded “I’m miserable”. She couldn’t believe it.

We all go through these phases in our lives, but not many of us talk about them openly for the fear of being misjudged or frankly – being labeled crazy. I chose to openly talk about my personal experiences with depression and anxiety to show people that it’s OKAY to talk about it, and it’s not something unnatural or isolated. Just like you need to care about your physical health, you also need to care for your mental health. It happens to more people than we think.

When you’re depressed, you often end up on social media, browsing through posts and pictures of others that seem so happy and satisfied with their lives and that makes you feel even worse. I have a significant amount of following, and I am very sure a good percentage are going or have gone through what I went through. I felt obligated to tell them that what you see on the outside isn’t always what a person experiences on the inside. And just because you’re going through a bad phase, doesn’t mean it will last forever. You yourself have the power to overcome it. I decided to share my personal story so that it isn’t all talk, but it backed up by my own personal example.

Was it anxiety or depression?

It was both. After I put up that monologue of me talking about battling depression and anxiety, a lot of people mistook it as me saying it happened to me because of the sudden attention I got. But if you listen closely, I was talking about a phase much before I had any recognition.

It first happened to me when I started college. I was always a very pampered child, and suddenly, at the age of 17 I had started living by myself in New York. I didn’t even know how to do my laundry! I had never spent a single day of my life without my family before that.

I was pursuing two majors at college and my schedule was crazy. I had a constant heavy feeling, I would always feel like crying – everything seemed so very wrong. At times I would suddenly wake up screaming, or wake up out of breath because I felt like I was being choked. I started binge eating and gained a lot of weight and lost all self-esteem.

It took me everything I had in me to overcome it. And it got much better.

But when Afreen happened last year, I fell back into it again. This time it was anxiety more than depression.

Did you seek medical help?

I did get therapy but it didn’t help me much as I wasn’t consistent. I gave up too soon because I got frustrated. I should have made better use of the resources available on my college campus in New York.

I do however believe in the power of counseling and want to say very clearly: there is nothing wrong in seeking help from friends or professionals. It’s always good to open up and talk so that you don’t feel you’re fighting alone.

Did you, at any point, feel like you had to keep it under cover? If yes, why?

Yes. Because for the longest time, I didn’t know I was depressed. Like I said, it’s confusing. I would think its stress. But when that “stress” stretched over months and made me lose all motivation, I knew there was something wrong.

I stumbled on a video about depression and that’s when I realized I was depressed.

How did you fight depression/anxiety?

A year or more after “trying” to make things better and exhausting all my resources, I was binge-eating at a Chinese restaurant. I cracked open the fortune cookie that came with my food and it said, “it only gets better when you get better”.

It was my light bulb moment. It will only get better if I try for it to get better and stop relying on others to come and take me out of it!

What do you think are the three most common symptoms of a mental illness? This might help people identify if they’re suffering from one.

  1. Being surrounded by people but still feeling completely alone.
  2. Feeling upset or sad for no reason apparent reason for prolonged periods of time. Days or even weeks.
  3. Feeling like you are someone who is worthless. Losing all self-esteem. Not feel beautiful. Not wanting to make some kind of effort to look presentable.

Can you give us five most effective ways that helped you fight the feeling?

 Work on yourself:

  1. Identify the things and people that make you happy
  2. Never feel like the victim or sorry for yourself. Try to self-reflect on what you could be doing wrong
  3. Eat right. Work out. Make an effort to look good and dress up.
  4. Try to focus on the good things in life. Look for the positive in everything. Be grateful for everything you do have.
  5. Try to look outside your own problems. Try to empathize with others around you.

Can you narrate any incident which was especially testing for you during that phase but you conquered it. How did you overcome it? What helped you?

My first phase of depression came in college.

Because I had started binge eating, and like I said, I had lost all self-esteem, it came to a point where I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. When people would talk about beauty products and fashion trends, they would tend to leave me out of the conversation.

After the fortune cookie incident, I started eating right and working out every day. Though I hadn’t lost much weight at the time, I still decided I loved myself enough to be photographed just like that. I put the picture up on social media, and though I got fat shamed for it, I was proud of every inch of myself! Because guess what? The girl who had forgotten how it felt like to be happy, was smiling from the heart and soul.

The second phase came post Coke Studio.

Of course, nobody gets engaged to have it called off. But whatever happens, happens for a reason and probably for the best. Firstly, the news of my engagement being called off made the headlines of every news channel and tabloid (local and foreign) before it was even called off. You can only imagine how any girl would feel about that.

Secondly, the day after it was officially decided to be called off, I went to the launch of Cornetto Pop Rock. Only I know how I was feeling on the inside – I was devastated – but I had the biggest smile on my face. It’s not that I was faking it, I wasn’t.

I keep quoting Uncle Ben from Spiderman because I love what he said: “With power comes responsibility”.

I didn’t have to just be strong for myself, but more so for the thousands of girls who look up to me. Because in our culture, if a girl’s engagement is called off, she’s looked upon as defected and discarded, and that apparently is the end of her life. I don’t like preaching with words, I like showing with example. That was my display of strength for those girls.

Describe the moment when you felt the depression bubble lift itself. What triggered it and was it an out of body experience?

It was that fortune cookie that I mentioned. It suddenly made me realize: everyone’s lives were going on – my parents had their own schedules, my siblings were busy with their activities, my friends were hanging out with each other – which is great!

Life was going on for everyone, except for me.

And why was that? Who was holding me back? The change has to come from within you. Like the cookie said, “it only gets better when you get better”. Then why not get better? You are the boss of your own happiness, so why not own it?!