Bilal’s Story

My journey started when I was fourteen years old and when I realised that I have a problem. Back then, I did not even know what dyslexia means. I also had ADD (attention deficit disorder). My mother sent me to some of the major schools in Pakistan, but from third grade onwards it was getting difficult for me. I had trouble writing letters properly. I could not concentrate at all, even if the class was quite. Schools here don’t understand learning difficulties and they are not able to only pay attention to one person in class. Bottom line, the schools were not able to accommodate me.

My mother ended up pulling me out of the big school and I started going to a smaller school. The teachers were more understanding, but some of the teachers and also of the students were bullying me and were incredibly mean to me. I used to cry every day. I was so sad these days, I literally could not talk. I could not write properly. In the end, I was labelled the clown of the class for the rest of my time in school. I used to be beaten by other students.

Since I ended up not passing any of my subjects in school, I started being home-schooled for two years. The teacher was very strict; she really wanted me to learn. I started writing long essays and believed I could return to school. But when we started looking for schools, schools again were not understanding my issues. Instead of offering me extra attention, they suggested I should go to fourth grade even though I was supposed to be in 8th grade. This was very bad for my self-esteem.

My home-school teacher started looking for schools abroad and ultimately I decided to go to a school in India. The school had everything that one could want to do: sports, arts and science – every facility you can imagine. Also in India I had to continue in eight grade and I was already sixteen years old. People of my age were two or three grades above me. In the beginning I was teased for being in such a low grade. But I started to settle in.

In eight grade there was a swimming tournament about to happen. Initially, the others were a lot faster than me and the teacher said I can’t participate. I was heartbroken and asked for one more race against the swimming team captain. I won against him in backstroke and started to be part of the swimming team. I also had a solo photography exhibition at one point. I started building up a reputation in this school.

Despite all this, I was often very angry at school and got into a lot of fights. I started cutting myself, especially after fights. I used to break glasses with my hands to seek attention. I had a lot of mental problems during this time. Often I wanted to just make a deep cut in my arm, so that the mental pain became physical. My teacher said: ‘Why don’t you just take all the frustration out in your art work? Whatever you think of, draw it.’ This has become very important to me.

After graduating from high school, I came back to Pakistan to study art in Lahore. No one knew me there. I really went from something to nothing. I started to build a big ego and kept on being rebellious in my school. My hostel roommate was not very nice: he was senior and we got into a big fight. When the whole fight settled, I started to put him on fire by putting petrol on him. Luckily the situation could be resolved.

I used to cry every day during my foundation year at university. Because in my school I had all these privileges, now it felt like I was not receiving anything. Towards the end of my first year, I started dating this girl – I really liked here. At one point, she suddenly left me and I didn’t even know the reason. My whole class went against me. I became desperate at this point and started doing things I should not have done. I started ruining her reputation.

When I lost her, I felt like there was nothing left and I became suicidal. I wrote a note and stuck it into my warden’s room to explain myself. I was locked in my room for two days. I switched off the light in my bathroom and was just there, trying to slit my risk as much as I could. Honestly I did not have the guts to kill myself. Luckily I also had a friend who was a psychologist. And even when I could not turn to my counsellor, my friend was always available.

Things became so bad that I decided to drop out and come back to Karachi. In Karachi, I went to see my therapist every three days, then weekly, then weekly turned out to be monthly. I started to improve emotionally, started to get positive about things around me.

However, my girlfriend at that time wanted me to be someone else; she wanted me to be an office worker and not a photographer. Things did not work out and I became really angry. I broke a glass on my head and I was gone. I started to go to therapy every day at this point. My therapist saved me completely. If it wasn’t for her, I’d not be sitting here in front of you. She helps me with some exercises, she tells me to go out and do things that I love. She is very encouraging. Now my photography has kicked off and I feel a lot more positive about my life now. I am not afraid of failing anymore.