Being an activist, day by day

As a 17-year-old gender activist from Istanbul, my journey started two years ago when my 7-year-old brother once told me that I was lucky because I just simply could get married and I didn’t have to work after.

That was probably the moment when I apprehended who I was going to be, I had to be the voice of change. That was the moment when I realized the risk of this mindset created by the society. Such a stereotype that even could, and would, affect little child’s thought structure. Deeply in my heart, I knew I had to do something, something but didn’t know where to start, nor what to do.

Since growing up, I have always had iconic role models in my life, such as Lady Diana, Coco Chanel, Malala, Michelle Obama and so many more…women who made a difference in the world, women who did not leave of their purposes because people told them they couldn’t do. With their goals in mind, I remember promising myself to take action in the morning because, if not me, then who? If not now, then when? and sending an email to UNWomen to become involved in the HeForShe movement later that night. I remember sending my best friend a text of ”Oh imagine maybe my whole life will change after this email” in a jokingly way, only if I knew it was all true… It all happened very fast after that. I could never, in my wildest dreams, can see that I would become the youngest representative of HeForShe in Turkey but it was not happily ever after that, being an activist, day by day, you find more things that have to be changed. I am living in Istanbul, I do go to a private school and I am more on the lucky side of my country but because of that, I believe it is and should be my responsibility to help girls who do not have the same opportunities that I have, being the voice of young women and giving them a platform to find their own voices. That brings us to the start of my journey with starting the first Girl Up Club in my country, Girl Up Istanbul. Girls have tremendous, often untapped power to change the world. As Girl Up Campaign, started by United Nations Foundation in 2010, our mission is to help girls access their inner power to advance the skills, rights, and opportunities of girls everywhere, in every corner around the globe.

We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate their careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, said the Former First Lady Michelle Obama. Thinking about these wise words, I have noticed the disproportion in the distribution of male and female students in STEM clubs and extracurricular activities at my own school. With the hope of changing that, I have reached out to our FIRST Robotics Competition Team, Ultimate Robotics 7830. It was such a joy and honor to see their tremendous support on the cause. We all wanted to encourage girls to be involved at the forefront of the STEM field. Thinking of ways of how to reach out to young girls around Turkey, we have brought the Girls Who Code movement to our country and became the one and only Girls Who Code team in Turkey. With our school’s support, we have hosted workshops, conferences, teamed up with different FRC teams, and have visited public schools around the city and gave classes to young girls of the basics of coding and the fun side of science. It is such a delight to see young girls’ spark o their eyes when we leave and they say that they want to be the next Margaret Hamilton.

My main focus at the moment is an equal education opportunity. To achieve this goal, alongside working with United Nations Girls Education Initiative to develop better education programs for girls, I am also a member of the Young Leaders Task Force of Girl Rising to reach out and help the girls who’s education is disrupted because of COVID-19.

I cannot stress enough of how much gratified I am of being one of the 300 people who were selected by the United Nations, all around the world, for Gender Youth Activists and now, my biggest supporter and motivation is my little brother who is mentioning my activism everywhere, even in his classroom, with a proud look on his face, correcting people whenever he hears a sexist word, action and encourages his friends to be the part of the change.

You may think my life is perfect. And I am used to hearing these assumptions about my life. Dear readers, the above paragraphs are only the visible part of the iceberg. Only part of my story. I struggle too, and it’s important to talk about that.

Today, I would like to share with you a very personal but also a very common struggle of mine.

This is a thing that, has been so brushed under the carpet, and so stigmatized, people find it easier to play the ‘’see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’’. As an activist and young person, I believe speaking up about those difficult things is and should be my responsibility. Here’s my story:

I have been dealing with anxiety for 5 years now. I am a control freak, I am a very planned person and I want things to be done in a second. Meetings, school, interviews, exams… it can be very overwhelming sometimes. What people don’t understand about anxiety is that it is not just being overwhelmed or being under stress. It is a type of stress that affects your whole life. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by significant feelings of anxiety and fear. Imagine trembling, breathing rapidly, having an increased heart rate every day, every hour, every minute, every second… They give an example from my experience, I have experienced anxiety attacks during math exams. Math has always been difficult for me and my anxiety played a huge role in that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a week straight before the exam, I would tremble, I wouldn’t be able to breathe even. I remember the first time I had an anxiety attack during the exam… At first, my hand started shaking, then my brain stopped, at least I thought it was stopped. I have tried to say something to my best friend who was sitting next to me, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t talk, I was not able to speak. I have tried to write something down, but I couldn’t move my hand. My heart was racing rapidly that my shirt was shaking. When everything started to turn black, I thought, I believed that it was over and I was dying. I remember telling myself that I wish I could tell my parents and little brother that I have loved them and appreciated them, I couldn’t remember their names… Then I remember my head starting to fall towards the table, but I couldn’t lift my head, as if time had been slowed down. My head was falling towards the table but I couldn’t do anything, as if I had no control over my body… I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t know what to do. I have heard my best friend’s voice, but it sounded me like she was shouting at me from thousands of miles away, she later told me that I looked so pale that I have reminded her a corpse. I don’t remember the rest but I woke up at the nurse. After that experience, I knew something was wrong with my mental health and decided to visit a psychologist. I was open to anything, willing to do anything. I have started an EMDR treatment. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b). Shapiro’s (2001) Adaptive Information Processing model posits that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experiences to bring these to an adaptive resolution. (https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/)

I have been treated with EMDR therapy for about a year, but even after that, anxiety does not go away completely so yes, I still have anxiety disorder but I am not facing any anxiety attacks. I try to do meditation every day and also keep everything balanced. It is so important to learn how to say no, to learn things that will make you feel stressed, and trust your guts.

If you are reading this and going through the same things, please know that you are not alone, never were and never will be. I know how hard it is, and believe me, I know the struggles, the stereotypes come with it, I know how you feel when your closest friends, even your parents may be, accuse you of being an attention seeker, or telling you that you are just using your disorder as an excuse for your failure but you know it is not sure and that is what truly matters. You are not an attention seeker and you are nowhere near to be a failure. You are way more stronger and powerful than many of the people around you because no matter what happens, no matter how this disorder affects your entire life, you have to move on and you do it. Even though you are struggling with all of these every single day, you are still waking up and thinking about what your next step will be to overcome those issues, and that is not only inspirational but also one of the most beautiful things. Please, find a safe space, it can be your parents, a teacher, and even a doctor, but talk to someone, because you can and you will overcome your struggles. It is worth it, you are worth it.