Through the Magnifying Glass: An Introduction to a New BeginningHaya Halaw
This series uses a first-person account to challenge the stigma associated with mental health issues. Using narrative form paired with illustrations, we will identify signs of psychological distress and take a closer look at our own attitudes toward mental health.
I sat down one night in our garden with a huge cup of chamomile in my hand, petting the cat near me and breathing slowly. It had been a hectic day, I barely survived an anxiety attack.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder, so you would imagine this type of day is pretty common for me. For years, I resisted visiting a mental health professional, not for lack of symptoms — I had plenty of those — but because I had been told by family members and friends that I was exaggerating, that I was too sensitive, or the usual “it will go away.” I resisted until it got so bad that it was stopping me from doing the most mundane activities.
I felt very alone and detached. I wanted to share my story with people, to get it out of my chest. I didn’t like to suffer in silence, but others hushed me so many times before that I didn’t think it would be different this time.
It was a rough day after many and many rough days, and I needed it out of my system. As an artist (calling myself that still makes my skin crawl!), your biggest cathartic process is, always, pouring your feelings in the form of shapes, colors, and symbols, and of course, that was I was coping until then.
But I no longer wanted to symbolize my illness or dance around the subject!
I wanted to be open about it, to be more direct, and find the best outlet became my priority. Mental health was always part of conversations, but I found very few platforms and sites discussing the subject within the Arab region.
For decades, our region has been suffering through many wars and humanitarian crises. Our people have experienced a great deal of trauma and its psychological effects, but we are still ashamed of speaking about the matter and, more importantly, of seeking help.
In 2019, I had the privilege of working on the Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology, a self-care tool for refugees, which consisted of two parts. A storyline that follows a family escaping war in Syria, my country. This story is inspired by many real stories of people living in Jordanian refugee camps, which I was more than excited to illustrate. And the other part of the Guide contained scientific explanations detailing how our body and brain react to traumatic events and can cope with mental health issues. As you can imagine, the project was everything I wanted and more. Not only did it touch on a sensitive subject in the region, mental illness and trauma, but it hit home, literally and figuratively.
The subject of war and war itself was one of my biggest triggers, so creating illustrations about it was very important for me. I was lucky to be given full creative freedom. The team trusted my vision and listened to my voice.
Over the next few months, I will continue what I started with the Field Guide by using this space to share my experiences living with severe anxiety and breakdown notions and insights related to mental health, the positive and the negative — no clichés, I promise. And I sure hope that you may relate to these experiences and find some relief in knowing that many of these hurdles are not unique to us as individuals but a common response when our brain is trying to keep us alive.
So, hi. I am Haya, a Syrian freelance illustrator/painter, based in Amman, Jordan. A dog lover, a pessimist, and the anxious girl next door, and you will read my mind again here.
Haya Halaw is an illustrator/painter born and raised in Syria, based in Amman, Jordan. She produced 15 children’s books since she launched her career and worked with multiple magazines and newspapers. Her work mainly discusses the themes of melancholy, loss, and wide spectrum of human emotions especially after fleeing the war from her home country.