Real talk

Dealing with Depression and Anxiety as a Young Muslim

I’ve been wanting to make this post for years. Recent events have made me think I shouldn’t have waited so long.

If you are the parent of a child who is going through this: I know it’s hard for you to understand. I know it’s a lot to take in. I know you’re worried about your kid. And I know you don’t want anyone in your community to think any less of them if they find out about it. But please read this before you try to fix the problem on your own.

If you are a young Muslim struggling with these issues: You’re not alone. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, from God, from your parents, from your friends, from your teachers, anyone. Just keep asking for help. I know it’s hard. It will get easier, I promise.

When I was in high school, I started struggling with my mental health. It wasn’t the first time, but by my senior year I had taken enough introductory psychology classes to finally realize something wasn’t right. As an Indian, I’ve never been taught to think about my mental health, much less monitor it. That’s just the way our culture is. As a culture, we’re so obsessed with being the best at everything, that admitting you’re suffering mentally is an embarrassment. You’re not supposed to have that kind of weakness.

This was so ingrained in my mind that when I started self-harming at the age of 15, I didn’t even realize what I was doing. Perhaps this was because I always thought of self-harm as cutting. Because that’s the only example teachers give you when you learn about it in school, and that’s the only type you see on TV. I didn’t like cutting. Slicing feels really gross to me, and its too slick. I used to scratch and punch myself. It was the easiest to hide. I did it out of anger. I had trouble communicating with my parents, I had trouble making friends, and I had a very hard time adapting to change (in this case, going from middle school to high school). I couldn’t take it out on anyone else without repercussions, so I thought nobody would care if I took it out on myself instead (spoiler alert, I was very wrong).

In school they told us that most kids who self harm do it to feel like they were in control of something, because they couldn’t control anything else in their life. I guess that applied to me? I mostly felt like I had so much pent up anger and emotion that one solid thwack to my thigh would help me let it out. The sudden jolt of pain would knock the wind out of me and I’d double over, unable to breathe for a few seconds. It took the tension out of my muscles and release all the anger and sadness and tears that I’d locked up all day. But then it became a crutch, and it’d happen several times a day. And then hitting myself was no longer satisfying enough. I’d have to scratch myself too. It left long, jagged red marks down my arm once, and for the next two days I walked around my house hoping no one would notice, but even more than that, hoping someone would. My sister jokingly pointed at my scratches and said “don’t self harm” the same way a teacher would remind her preschoolers to wash their hands. I laughed awkwardly, and that was the end of it. No one else noticed it.

Some time after I started my AP Psychology class during senior year, I had convinced myself that I had borderline personality disorder. I’ve never seen a therapist, so maybe I was right, or maybe I was wrong. I’ll probably never know. But I was so convinced there was something wrong with me. My mom shut that down immediately. She told me it was all in my head. Um…yeah, mom. That’s kinda the point? 

I had my first panic attack at age 16, the summer before senior year, when I tried to get my driver’s license. My mom and I were in line at the DMV, and she told me to save our spot while she got some paperwork she left in the car. I had already been feeling dizzy before she left. And as I inched closer to the front of the line, the room started spinning, it became hard to breathe, and all the conversations around my warped into an unintelligible hum in my ears. I quickly hobbled out of the DMV and awkwardly tried to stick my head into the lidded trash can outside to throw up. It was embarrassing.

From there, it only got worse. Especially once I started college. Anxiety takes a toll on you body. Like I said, I never went to a therapist, but I’m pretty sure I have generalized anxiety disorder. I panicked over everything from tests and presentations to meeting my friends for lunch. It ruined my life. Anxiety isn’t just a mental thing. It has debilitation physical affects. Aside from being a little manic and over reactive all the time, the constant anxiety resulted in chest pains, numb limbs, nausea, and lethargy. It wasn’t just when I was having a panic attack, I felt like that all the time. It became normal for me. Once, after a particularly bad breakdown, my dad said “we just want the old you back” and it startled me. I had been like this for so long, I had forgotten what it was like like not be anxious all the time. It had gotten so bad that I didn’t even want leave my house or hang out with my friends. I panicked just going grocery shopping.

I spent a few years trying to convince my mom to take me to a therapist. She’d agree, then never make an appointment for me because she thought I’d gotten better. It was a constant cycle of that for about two years. I held it against her for a while, upset that she could see that I was suffering, and needed help, but I’ve come to see it from her perspective; she didn’t want there to be anything wrong with me, so desperately so that she tried to convince the both of us that it would just magically disappear. And more than that, she was afraid that if other people found out that I was dealing with this, they’d think less of me. She offered to take me to a therapist far away from our city, so no one we knew would find out about it. In a tight-knit Indian community, gossip spreads fast. No one wants to ruin their kid’s chances of marrying into a good family. I get it. It’s unfortunate, but I get it. And I don’t blame her for it. She was just looking out for me.

One day, after a lot of crying on my part, my mom made all the phone calls and chose four therapists for me and asked me to chose the one I liked most. Finally, after all those years of begging and crying and struggling, I was going to get the help I needed.

….Except I chickened out.

About a week ago, after the news of Kate Spade’s suicide broke, my mom asked “Why didn’t she just ask for help?” I kept my mouth shut, but I was instantly reminded off how long I had to ask for help before I got it. And how difficult it was to accept once it was offered to me. If you’re a parent or friend or sibling of someone who you think is dealing with depression or anxiety, please, please, keep offering them help. And if you’re the one who’s struggling, keep asking for help. Its hard. Its so damn hard. Nobody tells you how difficult it is. But you have to keep trying.

Eventually, after a lot of begging and pleading, my mom agreed that it would be best for me to start taking medication. I didn’t feel like talking to a therapist would help me much, especially one not versed in the nuances of Indian/Muslim culture, and I had spent years using online resources and self help techniques to get as far as I could without medicine. If I needed to talk, my would always be there. I started taking medication for my anxiety in October of last year, and I can honestly say its the best decision I’ve ever made. My head is clearer, I’m more relaxed, and most important, I’m happier. Once my body had adjusted to the medicine, I realized I had forgotten what it was like to not feel anxious all the time. And then, a little later, I forgot what it felt like to feel anxious all the time. Alhamdulillah.

But between asking for help and receiving help, I hit a lot of roadblocks:

  1. People are going to tell you its because you aren’t praying hard enough. I saw this a lot when I tried to google what Islam says about anxiety. One sheikh went so far as to say taking medicine for anxiety is not recommended. I’m sure he wouldn’t say the same if he was asked about high blood pressure, or allergies, or cancer. Why mental illness? A lot of sites (and by a lot, I mean the very few that even bother to speak on the subject) offer duas and prayers verses of the Qur’an to help you through it. And sometimes they go so far as to promote the experience of those who were struggling and found peace solely by relying on dua. That’s nice and all, but they almost never suggest talking to a therapist, or a friend, or reflecting on any proven psychology-based methods of dealing with the problem. Moreover, they make you feel bad by telling you your iman is weak. This is not a solution. Its insulting and felt like a personal attack on my status as a practicing Muslim. Not only is it insulting, it ignores a major symptom of the issue. When you’re depressed and anxious you already feel lethargic and full of self-doubt. You procrastinate everything, shy away from all activities, have a hard time concentrating, and just generally feel like your not good enough for anything. Of course someone experiencing these feelings will have a hard time praying. How do you go in front of your Creator when you feel like the world is against you? When you feel like everything you do is wrong? They tell you that prayer is all you need. Duas are enough to heal you. I don’t doubt that. I sincerely believe we need prayer to feed our soul. But in order to get to a point where you are able to make dua and concentrate in your namaz, sometimes you need a therapist, or medicine, or coping mechanisms. And I think that’s okay.
  2. Your friends can’t always be your therapists. I ruined a friendship because of my depression. I was dealing with a lot, and I expecting my best friend to carry that burden alongside me, but she didn’t. She didn’t understand what I was going through, and she wasn’t equipped to support me. I blamed her for it for a long time, but looking back on it now, I should have never expected her to be able to help me. Some people can handle it well. Others can’t. No one is to blame. I know we grow up being taught that we should be able to tell our friends everything and they should be able to help through everything, but I don’t know how true that it. Some things are too heavy and too dark, and sometimes we need real help. We should accept that.
  3. You will hit rock bottom. And then you’ll do it again. And again. And again. During my third semester of college, I crossed the street every morning hoping I’d get hit by bus. I didn’t want to die, but I wanted a break. I needed an excuse to stop worrying about all of my responsibilities and all the expectations I was trying to live up to. I thought if I got hit by a bus, it could buy me some time. By my fifth semester of college, I ended my friendship with one of my best friends. And at the start of my third year, another best friend of mine committed suicide. I’d never felt more alone.
  4. Getting help is scary. Its embarrassing, you have no idea what its going to be like, and the entire time your worried the doctor is silently judging you.

But its worth it. All that suffering and pain is worth the feeling of relief you get when you start to feel better. I see people struggling, and I remember how I felt just a year ago, and I wish I could show people how it feels to make progress. To be happy after so many years of struggle, to feel content for no reason, to not be afraid. Its so freeing. And I know there are a lot of people who gave up too early and will never experience that feeling. My heart hurts for those people.

If you’re currently suffering from anxiety/depression, I hope reading this helped you realize you’re not alone, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Please ask for help.

If you’re not currently suffering from anxiety/depression, I hope this gave some insight and a better understanding of what someone you care about may be experiencing. Please try to help them.

I hope I’ve said something remotely helpful.

If you are my mom and you’re reading this, well, sorry mom. I know you probably don’t want all of this out there, but I figure if I can help at least one other awkward Muslim girl feel better, and maybe prevent them from going through what I went through, then I don’t care what else comes of me posting this. If someone has a problem with it, then they aren’t worth my time.

Moral of the story: “Verily, with every hardship comes ease” [94:6]

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