Saba Malik, a DiscoverU life coach, founder of MuslimBipolar.com and author of “Blessed with Bipolar, the Muslim’s 3 step support guide for mastering bipolar” tells us exactly how bipolar isn’t something you see on the surface. We were lucky enough to have Saba Malik take us on a journey through what her mental disorder was, to what it is today, how she overcame her struggles and what she thinks others can do regarding their very own bipolar. “It’s weird, but now I can’t imagine my life without this major functional disability. It has meshed so well with my personality that it’s not something I have. It’s something I am.”
Her words are empowering, her approach is uplifting – we asked her a number of questions which she answered with wisdom, kindness and in depth, read on and be ready to be inspired.
How did you come about becoming diagnosed with bipolar, i.e what were the initial trigger signs or alarm bells that suggested you need to get help?
Well I had depression for months, but I didn’t know it was depression – and then I had a manic episode which lasted for 7 days, and it was very severe. To be diagnosed with bipolar type 1, you need to have a manic episode for around 7 days, I passed the criteria.
What happened in the 7 days you had a manic episode?
I didn’t sleep that whole week, I didn’t eat – I think it would make for a good show on TV maybe. I had increased energy, so much so that my dad who is pretty strong couldn’t hold me down or I would be running and he couldn’t stop me. Grandiose thoughts.
What was your most grandiose thought?
I thought that Allah was directly talking to me and shaytaan was after me, and… I don’t remember a lot of it, which is the funny thing, because most of the time when a person comes out of the mania episode, or severe suicidal episode, they don’t remember a lot of it, and it’s the family or doctor who fills in the blanks. Or I read my doctor’s report and I’m like “Oh my God.” That’s just the summary. I don’t know the details and that’s pretty typical. Like at the beginning you think “woah, that was me?!” then you read about the symptoms of bipolar, and you actually see it’s quite similar.
Did it help to know the symptoms that were a standard for bipolar?
It did, but only after I accepted it, because I went through a 2 year period of denial. It was funny because now I think “why did I deny it?”. In one of the classes I went to about teaching kids with disabilities, there was this article that charted how when a child was diagnosed, the parents are at loss – so what is the process? So first comes the denial, then grief, sadness and the last thing is acceptance. So there is a whole wave that people normally follow, and when you know that, you learn, 1) I’m not the only one and 2) knowing that sort of normalises it, or you understand it better – and you can deal with it in a much better way.
In your book you say that if you were in the right state of mind, you would not say some things you did when you were in the manic episode which sometimes compromised your modesty. How did you deal with this situation which some may find embarrassing when you came out of the mania?
- Realising that it was a test from Allah
- Knowing about the woman who had epilepsy and came to the Prophet (pbuh) asking “can you pray that Allah cures me of this?” *This lady came to the Prophet (pbuh) and said, “I get attacks of epilepsy and my body becomes uncovered; please invoke Allah for me.” The Prophet (pbuh) said, “If you wish, be patient and you will have Paradise; and if you wish, I will invoke Allah to cure you.” She said, “I will remain patient,” and added, “But I become uncovered, so please invoke Allah for me that I may not become uncovered.” So he invoked Allah for her. [Bukhari] I could relate to that, and just that one story taught me a lot.
- I realised when Allah gives you something, whether you think it is good or bad, being embarrassed of it kinda hurts you, because you’re not accepting what Allah gave to you. Instead of profiting from it, you become embarrassed and bitter about it and it hurts you. Whereas it could be the same thing, but you could be improving from it and contributing.
Of course that didn’t happen overnight, it took many years, a lot of support from my family and you know physically getting back in shape, eating better, starting my blog, getting back to school and it’s just adding these normal things, but at the same time realising that you have this thing on the side. Which I have to manage and control, because if I don’t, it will control me – and I’m not the kind of person that wants to control everything, just myself, my thoughts and what is within me. So controlling bipolar made me feel really independent and strong.
So in a sense it tasted like success?
Yeah, I mean at the beginning it was like a beast but I do make it kind of like a friend now, because it has really taught me so much. I think if I didn’t have it, I would have been a totally different person.
What would be the top 5 things that having bipolar has taught you?
- Intellectually and since I was young I was taught that Allah is always with you and He helps you, but the biggest lesson I learnt was experiencing that, and that is very different. You can read an ayah of the Qur’an and learn something from it, but it’s not the same as experiencing the sign. I think that was the biggest lesson because even while I am sick – I know that Allah is there and I think if I didn’t have that – that would be the saddest thing. So Alhamdulillah, I hope I stay like that because it is a gift from Allah and you never know what could happen, it’s my number one lesson and gift from bipolar.
- Just how much my family love me and care for me. It’s a lesson as well as a gift, because some people email me whose family are against them. They already have an illness, and then their family who are poisoning their mind and hurting them, so I can’t imagine what that is like.
- I learnt that bipolar is a very good teacher. At times it is going to teach you or push you at times to live a healthier life and if you don’t, it’s going to come back and keep pushing you down until you pray on time, you eat better, you sleep better, and have meaningful relationships with your loved ones.
- It teaches you to be humble, it really does. You realise as much as I can learn to recover and manage from it, it’s still something beyond you. That’s where Ayyub (AS) comes in, I put this on my wall when I first got bipolar, because he was sick as well, he got bed ridden and he got bed sores, eventually there were worms that were coming out of them – but he praised them. He exclaimed that Allah created them and I was like “oh my God, that is so crazy, how do you do that?” You know, he couldn’t control the worms, they were ugly but he saw the beauty in them, and bipolar can be very ugly at times and that’s when I realised that I have to see the good in it. So many times when I am depressed, I reach out to people that I love and get closer to them. If I hadn’t gone through depression, I wouldn’t take that step. So it does humble you, which makes you go in directions that you wouldn’t normally go, because humility gives you this power or strength to go in new place. Whereas I think if I had pride, “oh no I wouldn’t need that, I’m sick I can handle it, they don’t need me” and I would walk out. So it humbles you, it allows you to grow as pride hurts.
- Bipolar taught me that I am crazy, and I know it and I love it. Not always, but you were telling me that I have humour in my work, because if I don’t, it gets so heavy and stressful and I actually learnt that from my family. Mostly during my mania, I would do funny things, and they would tell me about it afterwards, and we would laugh about it. It was a good way to release the stress.
Most people who have bipolar, when they are in their low and high, they feel like they become a burden on their family due to their whole family dynamic revolving around them, i.e they begin to feel selfish, then they start to neglect their family support and isolate themselves – what would be your comment on this?
I have gone through that, in the early stages – and I didn’t even recognise it. Especially when I would get better, I would just sense it. My advice to people who are going through that, who feel like they are a burden to their family, is to communicate, because if they don’t, that feeling of feeling like a burden can really harm them. Actually, to be honest – their family probably doesn’t feel like they are a burden which doesn’t reflect reality, so it is the illness talking. If they continue to go with that, especially with isolating themselves it will get stronger and louder, it could cost them their health and life. So they should let their loved one’s know, because they will probably disagree and validate their feelings, hopefully. If not, then you can reach out to your community and friends – your family doesn’t have to be your biological family.
You could have a support group on a blog which is what I try to do on my website. Support can be anywhere, it doesn’t have to be restricted to one place. Talking about it really helps, because when the thoughts and ideas are left in your head, you feel like you have little control of it. When you write it down, or tell a friend, it really eases the burden and you can deal with it better because it becomes more objective and less about you. For example when it was 2am, and my family were sleeping, I would call helplines, and they would validate my feelings, tell me that it was okay – yes they were strangers, but they were providing the support that I needed. It’s mainly just talking about it, because that feeling of burden is not coming with you. There was a time when I let that go, and it cost me, so when you get this feeling, talk about it, write about it, just get help.
There is a big misconception around spiritual defects and mental health, especially when someone isn’t practicing prior to their diagnosis/episode, and on the road to recovery, they then became practicing – people usually associate their recovery to becoming more practicing due to their “connection with Allah” and ignore the external help they received – how would you address this?
The people who say this, they probably don’t know you took medication, went to support groups, and took care of yourself physically, so they are just going to see the spiritual side because either that’s what they are seeing, or what they want to see. When you go to the doctor’s office, and there are other patients, they could say the same thing, “you got better because you went to the doctors”, so it really reflects the environment and situation you are in, you go to the gym, and people will say you got fitter because you go to the gym. So, you have to say “you know what, Alhamdulillah Allah did bring me closer to Him, and it helped me, I also did xyz.”. There are always going to be people who will argue with you about the other parts of the equation, so it depends on the type of person and their mentality. You can only try, but it’s up to them if they are convinced.
If someone was to say to me that the only reason I got better was because I got rid of a spiritual defect, I would say “can you let me know what that defect was? I would really like to improve, can you elaborate?” – you never know, I find the people who taught me the most are those who shot me down or were my enemies. They pointed out things that I didn’t want to admit or I didn’t see – but who knows, maybe there was some truth? It doesn’t mean you have to accept what they are saying, but you can entertain the thought. There is a famous saying “A sign of an intelligent mind is that it can look at a viewpoint that is opposite to what it believes in, talk about it, understand it, yet it doesn’t shake the mind in its original belief.” With mental health, you are going to get all sorts of comments, so I don’t take it personally, I don’t see it as an attack on me. More so, it reflects how they feel and what they know.
You recovered from your bipolar after 5 hard years, you mentioned that medication, sleeping and eating well etc helped, but what was the ultimate drive that made you come to blogging and motivated you to do what you are doing right now?
- It has brought so much pain to my life, and there is a part of me that hates it so much and thinks “If I didn’t have it, I could have done this, or I could have done that, or I could have gone there” – then I start fighting it, see it as the enemy, and then I think, “I am going to suck as much juice out of you to benefit me and others”. I have to turn that pain into pleasure, otherwise it will take over.
- When I am blogging, making a video, or writing a book – I always think about who and how I was when I first got bipolar, and I think about what I wish someone told me when I was diagnosed, and the ideas keep rushing. So when I think about the old me and the pain I felt, I know I don’t want anyone else to go through that.
- I don’t know if this is weird, but I’m sure other people feel this. Yasmin Mogahed talks about it a lot, when you lose something from this world, and it hurts so much and you are mourning of the loss, you realise how attached you are to it. You realise that you are not from this world, because the pain of detachment maybe hard, but it is pulling you out. It’s at that time, I realise I am just a spirit inside this body, a vehicle, a gift from Allah, and it might have bipolar, or chemical imbalances, but when I leave, I’m not going to take it with me. It’s just going to be my actions, so I do my best and hopefully Allah accepts it. I hope that I can help people and my vision is that my blog keeps going on, and my ebooks are still distributed because I need all the help I can get, to get to heaven. When you have bipolar, it’s like living hell and you can’t commit suicide, that’s not a way out – so while you are here, you might as well make the most of it to get to the best of places.
There is a bit of a taboo around marrying someone with a mental health problem and even raising a child with mental health issues – what are your thoughts on this?
You should ask my mum and my husband. For my mum, I am a child with a disability, and for my husband, I am a spouse with a disability. I am working on getting them on board so they can tell the public how they support someone with a mental illness. In terms of me and my husband, we don’t see it as a wedge. My husband says, “hey I have glasses, you have bipolar.”, there is no good or bad, it’s just what is. Alhamdulillah, that is what normalises it, it’s acceptance of reality and this gives you a lot of freedom, but when you fight it – that’s very hard. It’s like there, but it’s not.
Mental health problems are still not spoken about, in particular bipolar and other major disorders, maybe because they are not as common as depression or anxiety, or people just don’t know or understand it – which makes it even harder to talk about it. What would you say to someone who has bipolar and feels this way?
I think the answer depends on the person. There are some people who feel comfortable talking about it publically. There are other people who don’t even want their best friend or coworker to know, and that could be due to personal preference, or because they are not at that stage yet. I wouldn’t push everyone to come out and talk about it, there is a place and a time for everyone and you have to look at your personality too. If you work at a place where it isn’t widely accepted, you have to be careful about the steps you take, whereas for marriage, I think you should because you both need to engage, and you can assess the situation and the person and how you are going to express yourself. There is no one answer for every bipolar Muslim.
In terms of cultural and social barriers, once you have accepted you have bipolar and want to get help and there are barriers within your family, go to a doctor and then you may get therapy. Through therapy you will be able to deal with the shame you might feel – and by going to the doctor and therapist yourself, you’re making yourself strong and defeating the battles of barriers. You learn instead of fighting these walls, you want to open a door and invite people in and that needs to start with you. You need to first take the step that it’s not something to be ashamed of, you can get help and live a very fulfilling life. Once you have that belief and you take the right steps, people around you will see that, and their thoughts will get affected. Once you normalise it, they will too, and if they don’t then that’s their issue, you can encourage but they have to change on their own.
Do you still have manic and depressive episodes despite the medication?
Yeah. I went to a meeting once, and usually I try to remain positive. There was one lady there who was really negative and kept going in the opposite direction of me. So when I went the following week, I was telling the members that I had a really bad week and the woman said “woah, look at you miss positive”, and I said to her that just because I am positive it doesn’t mean I don’t have hardships, they still come – so I still get sick, but at the same time, I can deal with it better, and I try to prevent it. The ones that I can’t prevent, hey it’s from Allah, I’m gonna do the best within. You can only treat mental illness, there is no cure yet.
When you do get sick, is there a certain thing, person, or process you go through that makes you feel better?
First thing that I do is look at my medication to see if everything is in line, then I look at triggers because I have learnt that there are triggers which bring on the episode so I try to minimise this. All the while, my family are around me.
Last question! Was there one ayah, or dua, that helped you through the 5 years and even now that keeps you grounded?
I have a few. The one that comes to my head is:
“Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear”
That gives me a lot of strength.
Another ayah which I love, that gives me a lot of peace is:
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.”