Growing up, I never knew mental illness was all around me.
I wasn’t aware that it affected me every day. My free time, my imagination, my dreams, and my view of the world – it touched every part of me without me knowing.
It was all around me, the silent suffering. It was not until I reached adulthood that I could really make sense of it all and give it a name. The vibes I felt from certain people. The sadness, the intense feelings, I could literally see in the room as I walked in. I knew instinctively if something was wrong wherever I went.
I can still link memories of places to feelings therefore there are some places I was fearful of and some places that gave me hope and this was due to the energies of the people who were around at the time.
When you notice suffering everywhere, you learn not to cause anyone to suffer. You take care not to tread on anyone’s toes, to offend, to even imply that you need anything, I learnt early on not to bother anyone. I was the ‘good girl’ who would be told to take care of the others; I took on a protective role with my siblings and became aware of so much at a young age, wise before my years.
Although I forged my own identity, I never really caused any harm to anyone because of this need to be considerate, the need that would in turn make me suffer. I used to feel the world’s weight on my shoulders, I felt everything too greatly and somewhere along the line I had told myself it was my responsibility to make sure others didn’t suffer and when they did, it would cause mental and physical suffering within myself alongside with them.
I believe empathy is borne out of struggles and not something we can just turn on and off: I suffer therefore I recognise the suffering in you; it’s like an unseen energy that only you can feel.
In this way however, you suffer deeply too and the load on your shoulders greatens until you learn to lessen that load and share it with others and let them help you in the way that will benefit us all.
You see, vulnerability reveals our humanness. The very thing we think that will make others see us as weak or incapable is the very thing that draws people to us. We need to be able to reveal our true selves, otherwise we are all just wearing masks and no one truly sees the real us and the effort it takes, the energy, the falsehood, to wear those masks and to uphold them, which can lead us to destroy our authentic selves.
The self we need to connect with and bring out into the world, free of masks and pretences – leading to a peaceful and content life.
However, to take the mask off, we need to communicate, but – we’re not allowed to reveal our mental health issues. Why? It is seen as a weakness, or low emaan (faith) and you should merely ‘pray’ away the sadness though you may already be praying desperately. People don’t think it happens to you if you have faith or if you’re ‘strong’, and yet it can happen to anyone for it is not a test of how resilient you are, rather it is simply the effect of having too much to bear or being strong for too long, and sometimes chemical imbalances that we definitely can’t influence easily.
We desperately need to change the rhetoric around mental health. We grow up hearing ‘he’s crazy, she’s crazy’, with it being accepted as the true evaluation of a person’s behaviour and I wonder when we say this about someone, where exactly is our empathy?
If we understood that mental health exists, if we knew the different ways in which it can manifest, we might understand the behaviour we see as ‘crazy’ has an explanation.
If we applied empathy and knowledge of the mind to the way in which it can affect a person’s behaviour, the way in which they view the world and make decisions, how it affects them physically, emotionally and socially, then we may be able to help them feel more understood and supported.
We would also be well equipped to stop the stigma, when you grow up hearing this type of damaging narrative, it’s likely to prevent you from seeking help, because if you’re hearing voices, or having negative thoughts, self harming, or feeling worthless, you may see it as some sort of failure and you certainly don’t want this label of ‘crazy’ applied to you.
Perhaps this is why we find so many in the Muslim community suffering in silence, men especially, because they have not witnessed self-awareness and emotion in their role models. They remain unaware of how the strongest man of mankind bereaved, wept, struggled, sought company and was very aware of himself, and his well being – the Prophet Muhammed pbuh.
However, they’re not taught this version of “manliness”, which leads to doubts of their manhood if they were to ever go against the norms.
For women, we are told to cry and get over it because there are bigger things to be doing than dwelling on our depression. We are told that women are emotionally strong, this is constantly reinforced and while there is no doubt that women can be strong, isn’t this another way we are shutting women up from saying they need help? Are we allowing women to admit they are struggling? If Allah SWT made a woman’s nature to be different to men and put in place rights for women to be protected on all accounts, due to this very nature, then why are we spreading a different dialogue?
We grew up seeing self-sacrifice on every level from our mothers and we are taking it one step further with careers and community work to be done in our ‘extra’ time but there is not actually any ‘extra’ time – we are just replacing our self-care time with more work.
Instead of being appreciated and praised for being wonderful mothers and wives and sisters and daughters, we now make women feel like they are failing on every level.
Imagine the lessons we are teaching the future generations of boys and girls? The dialogue simply needs to change. Instead of asking what’s wrong with people we need to ask what’s happened to them. What have they been through? When we ask if someone’s okay, are we really asking to know? Are we listening to the answer?
I wonder if we only scratch the surface of people’s lives and maybe if we took the time to delve deeper, we would affect people in a more beneficial way. As someone who’s always hated small talk, the truest time I knew was when I was travelling and met philosophers, artists, musicians, great minds to have great conversations with. They were people who weren’t afraid to share their deepest most thoughts with me from the word go. The conversations I had were deeper and more authentic than some of the daily interactions of five minutes here and there even with loved ones and that’s a sad reality.
I know life gets in the way, and with technology, our feelings get lost in translation. We need to have those face to face interactions, the ‘check ins’, the ‘how are you really’ conversations, the ‘let’s talk about how you’ve been feeling coffee’s’, the ‘I’ve just come to see you because I couldn’t see how you were over the phone’ visits.
Sometimes empathy and compassion require bravery. We need to be able to penetrate those walls that people surround themselves with, when they are suffering. When people isolate themselves, we need to notice, and search for them and check up on them.
We need to see behind the smiles and the ‘I’m okay’s’ and we need to not be afraid to ask if there is more that needs to be said. We need to offer ourselves up as guardians and supporters to those who have no one else to turn to and we need to also make sure that we take care of the ones closest to us.
In this way we can take care of the world, one person at a time. We have to adjust the mentality of “someone else will help” and start by seeing yourself as someone who can make a difference, to one life, to one soul, with one word, one conversation, one text, one gift, one hug, one smile, one intention, and one message of ‘I am with you’.
Having suffered from mild depression myself, I now know how isolating it can be and that it’s got nothing to do with how strong you are and if I’ve ever told you to just be a bit tougher then I’m sorry.
Depression for me was like a weight on my stomach when I tried to get up in the mornings. It was like a weight on my head when I tried to sleep at night. It was a weight hanging off my shoulders when I tried to motivate myself to do the things that needed to be done. It was a weight around my ankles when I tried to leave the house, and it was a weight on my heart that stopped me from feeling any joy.
It robbed me of time and made me do the one thing I hate more than anything.
It made me do a lot of nothing.
Doing anything else was exhausting beyond despair.
I would sit feeling paralysed, unable to do the many things I wanted. Things I knew would help and give me hope, get me closer to the goals I cared about but could not yet taste because this ‘mental fog’ would not allow me to. There was a constant whirr of thoughts, buzzing around in my brain where one thought led to another, and I would find my whole body tense and aching just from the strain of thinking. At the time, I didn’t acknowledge that my mental strain had manifested into a physical pain, but I now realise, many of our illnesses could be eliminated if we recognise and address the underlying psychological issues.
Sure, I functioned enough on a physical level that no one would need to worry, and in some ways, I overcompensated, I took care of my children, the house, the needs of those dependent on me, additional activities, but I was just piling on the physical load, ignoring the dire need to mentally unload – and at that time I didn’t know how to ask for help.
It goes against what we think about depression. Stereotypically it would be dealing with a constantly sad person but we forget how many people are functioning depressives or have ‘invisible’ illnesses.
We see their smiles and not their pain, we see their strength, but not their struggle to ‘overcome’ and hide or beat their illness. They suffer the most and so are the most emphatic, as I’ve come to know, my physical pain, my mental struggles, my trials have all made me more emphatic, more compassionate, more able to look outside of myself, and it gives me an important awareness which can help me in aiding those who are also suffering.
It becomes a personal duty.
Before I found my faith, I spent a lot of time in the Mind, Body and Spirit sections of bookstores, I would lurk in that corner and want to scoop up all the books and absorb the wisdom they had to offer.
I was drawn to the positive thinking ideology and I believe a lot of my resilience came from reading those books. Looking back, I can see that I tried to follow mantras about ‘being positive’ and not dwell on negative things. I wonder if that was a certain danger zone many of us put ourselves in though, that we think we have to be happy and light all the time, we hate our darker experiences and thus we push them so deep that it’s almost as though they don’t exist and that is the start of an unhealthy mental state.
Something happens when you suppress emotions and when you experience trauma, it’s as though you can feel yourself leaving your body, or that’s how it was for me. I lived in London in my 20’s and what had once been fun and exciting, the height of my career and living on a disposable income, eventually became train delays, suffocation on the underground, absorbing the anger and energy of the people around me, never feeling rested and always rushing, not to mention the loneliness of living in London in a part where ‘neighbours’ just didn’t exist and it was a very isolated place to be.
I remember wanting to be able to tell someone, to say I didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t do it. It seemed silly. What would I say? I almost already knew the answer I would get, or I thought I would get anyway – to just get on with it, to be stronger, and what was the problem anyway, because if you looked at my life from the outside, as we nearly always do, it looked perfect.
We seem to have this fear of being anything less than perfect. It is this fear that keeps us trapped within our suffering. We just need to be able to break free and we can only do so once we allow ourselves to put this fear aside, peel back the layers and show our true selves.
We would be amazed by how many others are wearing the same scars as us, are crying the same tears, are struggling with the same issues, and even better, how many have wonderful lessons and wisdom to share with us, that may just change our lives, that may just save us.
Mental health and self-empowerment go hand in hand. I believe with the right knowledge of how our minds work, we can become more resilient and use our traumas and our difficult experiences as stepping stones for growth. A teacher once told me that he felt having therapy was a privilege, for how many other people can you talk to in your life who will listen without judgment, without holding back whilst navigating your way through your thoughts and learn things about yourself, how many of us have precious time allocated for this?
This self-growth and enlightenment is about holding ourselves accountable and utilising what we know by educating others with events, workshops, and freely available information. I believe this is empowerment for people, who otherwise would have felt that they did not have a voice in how they were treated – having an important role in the decision making of their treatment if any is key.
Knowledge is power. Whilst denial is common and can occur in some cases, sometimes we need someone neutral to tell us what they see as we may not be able to hear it from the person closest to us and take it as criticism, sometimes it takes hearing it from a third party to understand that there is an issue and knowing this ourselves is the first step to healing.
What is the first step to pulling ourselves out of a difficult situation? What comes before the decision is made?
It takes courage to recognise that something is not right within yourself in a world of ‘perfect illusion’.
We can talk about mental health all we like, but we will always have those “got it together” people we look up to, and so until those very people stand up and show their vulnerability, show the less ‘instagrammable’ part of their lives, the lows behind their wall of success, and the way they cope, then these words remain stagnant, and that’s how, ‘A Muslim’s Mind’ project was born. It’s about showing the raw side, the real face behind the public face, behind the ‘glamorous’ photos and lifestyle. Behind the smiles is a story that we felt needed telling.
So what else can be done?
We need to widen our support network. How many of us get lost in the world, with only our thoughts for company, which if they are positive can set us free, but if negative, can slowly torture our souls until we feel numb – there needs to be those special humans in your life that can stop you from stepping into that dark space.
We also need to remember that just because our mental health does not affect us, it could another. The very life we help to rebuild – could be the one that’s holding the tools to rebuild ours if we were to ever need them. The love we bring into the world will only come back to us in abundance and I truly believe that the answer to mental wellness is in taking care of others, of being of service to others because by creating wellness in another, we are also creating a world of wellness for ourselves to dwell in.
One of my favourite quotes is “Be the person you needed when you were younger” – Ayesha Siddiqi. We sometimes search for the things we missed in our childhood, whether love or acceptance, company or praise, and by becoming that person we may be able to bring the light to someone else’s present darkness.
Go be that light and watch how it surrounds you. Watch how it heals you in places you didn’t know you needed healing. If you’re in the darkness and you’re searching for that light, reveal your struggle, so that others know you’re in need of that light because none of us need to suffer in silence when we have each other.
If you or anyone you know is in need of support please contact your GP or use our Get Help page.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of Gaya Magazine.