From depression to Olympic goal - an Emirati's story

Emirati weightlifter Amna Al Haddad bravely shares her story of battling depression, explaining how sport became a vital outlet that gave her hope and changed her life.

Amna Al Haddad
by Amna Al Haddad
12th January 2017

article:12th January 2017

This is my story of hope through sports.

Standing by the balcony, gazing into the sand on a warm Dubai day with a sense of emptiness, I said to myself: “That’s it Amna. I have had enough. Enough of feeling this way.”

In 2009, an 18-year-old me did not have any aspirations or motivation. I led a very unhealthy lifestyle, eating a lot of junk food, sleeping up to 12 hours at a time and unable to socialise. I would just wake up to attend university classes and doing homework. Doing the bare minimum was hard work. Let me introduce you to the unwanted visitor that I have known for most of my teens, depression.

Mental illness affects one in four people at any one point in their lifetime, and two-thirds of people with such illnesses do not seek help from professionals due to stigma and discrimination.

Seeking treatment at the early stages was an uncomfortable experience, it made me feel that there was something wrong with me. I was put on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) that regulate nerve cell and emotions (due to chemical imbalances in the brain), however, it made me put on a few kilos, a side effect of such medication for some. I was at one of the lowest points in my life, with no hope that the future could be better.

I decided to challenge the feeling. Having had enough of feeling helpless, feeling heavy and unable to move forward in my own life. That defining thought of saying, “enough is enough,” deciding to stop medication and then taking a step, literally, just one step, toward a better future, was life changing.

And so for a walk I went.

It was a walk that shifted my life – a simple two circuits of Safa Park. I made a conscious decision to get rid of my negative emotions through sweat (and some tears), allowing room for more positivity to enter my life, in the smallest ways.

It goes without saying physical activity is known to improve mood through releasing feel-good hormones like endorphins that reduces perception of pain and increases positivity, especially after a workout.

I needed an outlet; sports became it.

The rest is history. I feel in love with being physically strong and learning to become mentally strong in the process. In 2011, I decided to venture out of my comfort zone because exercising in a gym was not enough, and I stumbled upon Crossfit – an activity that combines the ideologies of different sport principles and pairs them into a single workout. December of the same year, I took part in my first competition, ‘The UAE Fitness Challenge.’ Everyone was surprised to see an Emirati girl running in the heat and lifting weights among the expatriate community.

That’s where my love for competitive sports grew, and so I decided to pursue Crossfit and weightlifting seriously; setting the Olympics as a goal.

The active decision to shift my life resulted in my participation at the Asian Championships – Olympic Qualifier in Uzbekistan in April with the UAE National Weightlifting team, where we gained enough points to qualify for Rio and send a female athlete last summer.

A lot of great results and achievements sometimes stem from a deep suffering inside that no one sees but ourselves, but we don’t have to suffer alone and in silence. Believe that you are not what you feel and that negative thoughts are just intruders that you can mentally kick out and re-direct. Do this and you are one step closer to a better and positive outlook in life.

Reaching out to a few close trusted family members or friends to talk about personal challenges is a brave step, and the most important one – don’t be afraid to seek treatment to get better.

Lifting weights was my way to regain hope. The barbell spoke to me and through sports, I took charge of my life. That’s my story of dealing with depression to training for the Olympics.

Every person has a gift as to why they are here – create your own story of hope.

Amna Al Haddad is an Emirati representative of the US Rosalynn Carter Mental Illness Journalism Fellowship in collaboration with Al Jalila Foundation. She is the first Arab woman to compete in the Crossfit Asia Regionals, 2012 and an Emirati weightlifter. She recently won the Arab Woman Award, Sports in 2016.