Many of us would agree that laughter and good food make life worth living, and Zeenat Fayyaz combines both. She runs a five-week cookery course at a community cafe near her home in south London and each lesson begins with five minutes of laughter yoga. She demonstrates one exercise – exaggerated movements where she pretends to make and then drink a milkshake that finishes with a great “Ha ha ha”. “The concept behind it is your brain can’t differentiate between real and fake laughter, so you get the same health benefits,” she says. Besides, it’s so silly that real laughter follows. “It connects people; it’s an icebreaker.”
Fayyaz, 62, says she wanted “to do something for myself, something I can call my own. I’ve been cooking all my life and so I’ve turned my life experience into something I can support myself financially with.” It feels like “a miracle”.
In 2011, Fayyaz had a breakdown. “For three years, I had catatonic depression, where everything stopped. I couldn’t speak, laugh, walk – nothing.” People in a state of catatonia are unresponsive; in some this can include not moving, speaking or eating. Her four grownup children were shocked – despite dealing with difficult circumstances throughout her life, she had always been a happy, positive person. “They didn’t know what was happening. They had no knowledge of depression, and they were just like: ‘What’s happened to Mum?’”
The breakdown, Fayyaz believes, was the result of cumulative stress and trauma. She was born in Kenya, to Indian parents, then moved to India for three years as a child, and has lived in the UK since she was 11. She met her husband and married at 19. Because he was Muslim, and her family was Sikh, she was disowned. Fayyaz converted to Islam and changed her name but she says she felt, as a convert, that she was never properly accepted by her husband’s family. It felt isolating.
She endured traumas: one of her babies was stillborn. Then there were financial stresses – the family was made homeless at one point – and her marriage eventually broke down. She was left to bring up four children alone. She fitted jobs around childcare (working in a creche at a gym, then in recruitment), but, she says: “I always felt it wasn’t me, like I wanted a bit more from life. I hadn’t finished my education, my childhood wasn’t that great, but I always had a smile on my face, and always dreamed about a better life.”
In her early 50s, when her children were young adults, with the youngest two still studying, her mental health collapsed. “I thought: ‘I’m never going to recover,’” she says. “I was suicidal.” She had tried medication and counselling, and was offered electroconvulsive therapy. “I was just, like, I’ll try anything. I felt like I was not here, anyway.” In 2012, Fayyaz had three sessions, under general anaesthetic, and for her it worked. “I started coming out. I started feeling like I’d woken up.”
Her children were a huge support, even though it affected them all. “I’m really thankful to all my children, and without them, I feel I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says. One of her sons noticed a local project, Loughborough Farm, which brings together the community to grow produce on derelict land. He offered to take her. It became, she says, “part of my recovery. I started volunteering with growing stuff and it’s therapeutic. I got this determination to get better.” She had a lot of help but it took courage to seek it, “and it’s really hard when you’re in that state. But I feel if people can have that courage to go out there, it really helps.”
In 2017, Fayyaz took a laughter yoga course, and started running classes at Loughborough Farm. Two years ago, she started her own community interest company. With funding from the national lottery, she now runs cookery classes, focusing on Punjabi recipes and using local surplus food. “People learn about spices, and how to cook from scratch. We live in quite a deprived area and my aim is to teach people to cook at home.” She still has what she calls “down days”. “But I can recognise it, then I take a break.”
The classes, Fayyaz says, “have given me self-worth and confidence that I can achieve my dreams.” She plans to go to India, and to learn more about its different styles of cooking. She has also started learning to swim and to ride a bike, “the things I didn’t do when I was younger. People will always say things like: ‘At your age, what’s the point?’ But I sort of think I’ve just turned 21.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org