ISSN 1759-2836 (online)
When I was around seven years old and my sister played her Lionel Richie or Barry Manilow records, I would cry. Not because I didn’t like her choice in music, but because I was so sensitive to the words of the songs. Was that a sign that I was destined to find life a bit more difficult than your average person? Looking back, I can now see that even at that young age I showed signs of mental health problems; for instance, I used to have to repeat certain simple tasks like turning a tap on and off before it felt safe to stop.
When I was 17, I experienced my first panic attack which was a truly terrifying experience. It didn’t help that my parents also panicked and thought they should call an ambulance. However, my mum said we shouldn’t, because she was afraid I would be taken to the local Psychiatric hospital and word may get out amongst the Serbs. She called a friend instead and the next day I went to see my G.P. who prescribed me tranquillisers and said he would like to refer me for psychiatric treatment. My parents initially refused thinking that I could just snap out of it; I didn’t leave the house for three months. At the time I was studying for my A’ levels and only eventually managed to go back to school with the help of a very kind teacher who came to pick me up from home and helped me find a way back into the classroom again. Reluctantly my parents agreed to my getting the psychiatric treatment I so desperately needed, but they would not allow me to be seen at the hospital. The mental health professionals either had to see me at home or at school.
And so I learned from my Serbian immigrant parents that airing anything that could be perceived as negative about you or your health to your fellow Serbs was a big taboo; that anyone with a mental illness wouldn’t be accepted by our srpski narod and that my ‘Marriage Eligibility’ rating would plummet.
I was very much a part of the Serbian youth community up to this point and for some time after, but it was very difficult for me to keep up the charade of being ok in myself. Life would have been so much easier if I could only have confided in my fellow Serbs and told them of my struggle with anxiety and panic attacks and perhaps received their love and support, but sadly I had been conditioned into being afraid of the consequences of doing such a thing. My parents (misguidedly I believe) thought they were protecting me. Who would marry me if they knew I had such problems?
I am therefore grateful to our dear Lord that I was not born with a physical disability. If I had been blind, for example, I don’t know what would have become of me. Would I have ever been taken to an igranka? Would I have been allowed to mix with my fellow young Serbs? I would most likely still be living with my parents, too trapped by the mass of cotton wool they would have wrapped me up in - and I have had my fair share of the stuff as it is.
I have never been truly free of the anxiety and other mental health related problems that began all those years ago but I am a very honest and open person and it goes against my nature to pretend to be something I am not. I decided that if I had to hide my true self from my fellow Serbs then I didn’t see much point in being amongst them; I couldn’t be part of a community that might judge me as being flawed. I have suffered because of this though, because I have missed out on the essential community spirit that joins us in the fact of being Serbian and sharing a common bond of our Serbian heritage. I may have been born in Great Britain, but I am not a true Brit and I don’t truly belong amongst the British. My blood is Serbian and my heart belongs to my parents’ motherland. So I live uncomfortably between the two.
It wasn’t easy for our parents to settle in the United Kingdom; they had to leave a great deal behind them and it is understandable that they clung and still cling to their fellow Serbs. Without each other we would be in danger of losing our identity. Serbs are great family people; we believe in Gospod Bog and our great saints; we love music and dance; we work hard and obey the laws of the land; we are always there for one another in times of grief. I am asking that we accept one another ‘warts and all’ and to recognise that all humans are flawed. It’s time to scrap the ‘Marriage Eligibility’ register. All Serbs deserve to find acceptance and love and our community will surely grow stronger for it.
By Mila Đaković