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.
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Jalal bin Thaneya is a staunch special-needs activist and has been campaigning to raise awareness for the cause for the last decade.
Since 2006, Bin Thaneya has conducted numerous journeys all across the region to raise awareness, and most notably finished a 2,000km voyage on foot to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia from Ruwais, Abu Dhabi to perform pilgrimage in the holy city.
The travel-weary Emirati opened up to Sport360 about some of the hardships he faced while trekking across the vast expanse of the Arabian desert and his upcoming journey, a Guinness World Record attempt to walk across the seven emirates of the UAE in seven days.
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I am 30 years old. I graduated from Middlesex University in 2010 and I am currently employed at Dubai Ports World as a quality and strategy officer. I started campaigning for special needs 10 years ago. I walked across the seven emirates in 2006 to raise awareness for the Dubai Autism Centre.
After that I started campaigning for other special needs organisations in the country. In 2008, I raised awareness for the Rashid Paediatric Centre, where I conducted a vertical marathon. In 2009, I walked to the Empty Quarter for the Senses Special Needs Centre.
I went on another journey after that, where I walked from Abu Dhabi to Mecca for the Dubai Special Needs Centre. The last thing I did was cycle across the GCC. So the formula I apply is that I go on these long journeys and I document them to talk about the plight of individuals with special needs in the UAE.
How did you get involved with special needs activism and do you feel your work has made a difference?
People often ask me the reason behind my involvement with the special needs community and often my answer surprises them.
I have no one who has special needs in my family. I don’t know or have been in contact with anyone who has special needs. In 2006, there was not a lot of awareness for individuals with special needs. After I finished my first journey, there was a ripple-effect and a lot of activities started springing up in order to raise awareness.
What sort of barriers have you faced?
People’s attitude. It is very easy for me to walk from one place to another; all you need is food and a place to sleep. But people have this attitude where they don’t help you out. It is not the journey in itself that has created any problems for me because you can fix a flat tyre on a bicycle or if you get hurt, you can put some ice on it, take painkillers and continue.
I mainly believe people’s perceptions and attitude has been the biggest barrier in my pursuit of raising awareness for special needs; bureaucracy and just unnecessary animosity.
Is there a cultural stigma?
Of course there is a stigma; there is a cultural barrier in raising awareness for special needs because people don’t want to show this side of the society to the rest of the world. That’s what I personally think. Organisations just don’t want to be associated with this.
There was one event that was stopped, I wanted to do a vertical marathon in Burj Khalifa and the company that was managing the tower did not want to be associated with any cause pertaining to special needs because it did not fit with its overall image. That’s the sort of attitude I have dealt with.
Do you think you have overcome these barriers or changed the attitude?
No, I don’t think so. I really have not had any impact, but after the Burj Khalifa incident I did a journey two years ago, where I walked from Abu Dhabi to Mecca. I had to abandon the idea of climbing the tallest tower of the world completely. I don’t get to be a celebrity or get any fame out of doing these journeys, nor am I aiming to be famous. I do interviews to talk about special needs and use it to underline their problems and their plight. I am merely a marketing tool for organisations that actually are doing something for individuals with special needs.
Can you describe the impact it has had on your life?
The thing is when you go on these journeys and come back; integrating back into society is the problem. Walking from Abu Dhabi to Mecca did take a lot out of me. It has changed me as a person. I was out there for 50 days. It is difficult and requires a lot of discipline. Sometimes you have to sleep on the side of the road, or sometimes you sleep in a car.
I have become more stern and resilient; certain things do not bother me anymore. I have greater appreciation for life and what I have now. When I was walking to Mecca, sometimes there was no food. It was very difficult, plus Saudi Arabia is very big. UAE is a lot smaller in comparison. It is a rough place to be, the people are tough and the road is very long and monotonous. So the whole journey just hardens you.
What is the ‘7 Emirates in 7 days’ about?
10 years ago I walked across the seven emirates. I was 20-years-old at that time. I did that to raise awareness for the Dubai Autism Centre. Recently, I wanted to return back to my roots. I want this to be my last journey.
I went to the Guinness World Records office here in Dubai. They opened a file specifically for me and told me that if I can cover the seven emirates in seven days on foot, they will give me the world record.