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The Way To Hell

Hesham Elsherif

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I have a history of clinical depression and suicidal thoughts. Six years ago, when I was 15, I scrawled, “I hate my life, so I am going to kill myself … Goodbye,” across my bedroom wall. Following that, I swallowed scores of non-prescription pills. It was my first, but not last, suicide attempt. A few years later, I penned a suicide note, entitled “The Way to Hell,” before another intentional overdose.

In Islam, as in other religions, suicide is a sin. Therefore, in my native Egypt and across the Arab world, people tend to conceal their suicidal thoughts due to the severity of the associated cultural and social stigmas. This means that suicides are often registered as “accidental” deaths.

From my own story to those of several other young Egyptians, this project untangles life before and after failed suicide attempts. Connecting with other survivors has been a healing force for me — for us — and I can only hope this series will serve as a source of compassion and strength for those who are struggling in silence.

Egypt

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Hesham, 21.

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“‘You should be grateful to Allah that you're alive today​,’ my mother always tells me. ​Sometimes, though, I feel like I was saved to suffer more and more.”

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“I ​still​ remember the derelict stairwell​ and its endless ​cobwebs​ en route to the ​psychiatric​ clinic​ where I was a returning patient. People would be slumped on the stairs and against the walls awaiting their appointments, torment and desperation evident. It​ felt like the set of a psychological thriller​.”

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“I still remember how I used to lean over the edge of the rooftop where I once attempted suicide — ‘just jump’ running back and forth through my mind.​ ​One day, I sat on​ the edge​ and let my legs ​dangle freely. I remained in that position​ of suicidal contemplation​ for ​several ​minutes​, but​, in the end,​ I was too​ much of a​ coward to let the rest of my body go​.”

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“These days, ​I often return to that rooftop to spend time​ alone​​, save for the company of pigeons ... As they take flight, I ache for such freedom and salvation​​.”

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Bella, 20. “Since I was a child, everyone — including my family and relatives — has made fun of every detail about my life, from my laugh to my walk to my hair. I wasn't behaving like the boy I was supposed to be according to my parents, who identified me as a male at birth.”

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"Imagine your father holding a knife and threatening to kill you because you're a ‘khonsa’ (intersex) — or, as he told me, ‘A mistake that has to be corrected by deleting its existence.' And so my parents decided to isolate me from the outside ​world for almost a year. I couldn't go to school or anywhere ​beyond the apartment door. They seized my ID. No phone or internet. ​They hoped for the disappearance of the ​khonsa who brought them shame."

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"I received testosterone injections, made stereotypical macho masculine​ friends,​ ​started seeing girls. However, despite my attempt to act​​ the ​whole role of a male to the fullest,​ I failed​. My overall health deteriorated as my body rejected the hormonal therapy and as I realized that my condition ​couldn’t ​be​ fixed.​ I ​reached a phase where I could think of nothing else but suicide​."

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“I was at the hospital for a routine treatment when the person who gave birth to me called to announce that she and my family had moved away, abandoning me. They left and took literally everything with them. ​They also killed my cat before leaving. My cat was the only nice thing in my life, the only one who hugged me while everyone else hurt me. So I took a blade and tried to cut myself. A friend intervened. That was my first suicide attempt."

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"In the months that followed, I tried to end my life again and again. My boyfriend Safa found me after I injected myself with four times the normal dose of insulin that I take as a diabetic, plus handfuls of heavy pills. He intervened, forcing me to vomit."

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"​Recently, I was feeling like ​I've​ lost everything. It's too hard to deal with the fact that you can't ​study or ​work, you don't have a family​​,​ you don't have your health,​ you don't have identity papers​​, you can't move or travel. T​he​r​e’s nothing to live for​, so you no longer find a reason to live​.​"

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Abelrahman, 21. “I saw a dead end in front of me while the pressures spiraled and I couldn't find a solution or exit. Suicide was the only way to escape it all.”

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“When I was in high school, I had big dreams to study engineering. My family shared this dream and supported me in all ways, especially financial. My relatives and family friends used to call me ‘engineer Abdo.’ But, after I took the exams, I knew that I wouldn't get a high enough score because I was underprepared. The day before the results were released, I went to the pharmacy and bought a bottle of sleeping pills.”

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“I got a very bad score, plus I failed a subject. So I entered my room, closed the door, switched off my phone and swallowed many pills. Minutes later, I fell to the ground and lost consciousness.”

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"'Why would you do such a thing to yourself?’ my mother kept repeating, consoling me as I laid in a hospital bed. My emotional state was very bad, but people kept visiting me and telling me things like ‘good is coming your way’ and ‘Allah wants better things for you.’”

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“In time, my state of mind and being improved. I traveled and spent time away from home. I retook the subject that I had failed and passed it. At present, I still feel a lot of pressure but now I’m able to see the many different ways to live through it.”

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“Since my suicide attempt, I haven’t taken a pound from my family. I hold my back now.” Abdo currently runs a small independent enterprise, selling shoes online out of his own apartment. Here he is seen holding packages of his merchandise.

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Abdo's customer orders on his bedroom wall.

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“I dream of having a big, successful company. I want to prove myself to others: just because I failed in one direction, doesn’t mean I will fail in all of life.”

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Mohamed, 26. “My long history of depression can’t be summed up in a couple of lines. I can only say that I don’t know what it’s like to be normal anymore. I don’t remember when I experienced first depressive episode, but I do remember the feeling of anxiety and loneliness and self-hatred, and the voices in my head telling me to quit and just go away.”

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"In front of my friends, I act like everything is okay — but inside of me, nothing is okay."

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“I grabbed a razor and wanted to draw streets of blood on my arms and just bleed to death, that was my first thought about suicide.”

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“My last attempt was a couple of years ago: I was about to jump off a bridge, but then I heard ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ by Coldplay. I felt like life was being pumping back through my veins and stopped myself.”

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"How do you resist depressive or suicidal thoughts? You can't. You have to learn to live with them."

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Hesham Elsherif

Egypt

Hesham Elsherif, born in 1997, is a freelance photographer based in Egypt. He started photography in 2013 by documenting the civil unrest Egypt witnessed after its army ousted Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. At the time, he was a 16-year-old student with a point-and-shoot camera, living in a village located 100-kilometers southwest of the capital of Cairo. Since then, he became interested in documenting the daily life of his hometown, Fayoum, as well as covering in-depth cultural and social documentary stories.

www.instagram.com/hesham.a.elsherif