Muslim…and Bipolar! Coping with Mental Illness today

Muslim…and Bipolar! Coping with Mental Illness today

In the summer of 1999, I took my shahada in a small, sunlit room in Illinois. I was 13 years old, and had spent the prior year trying to end my own life. Fueled by a feeling of disconnectedness, despair, and intense pain, I took piles of pills, drank bottles of Raid and WD40, picked a lock and stolen one of my father’s hand guns, and finally took an entire bottle of blood thinners. In a way, I felt like I was being rescued through my conversion – in another, it was a path by which I could rescue myself.

This behavior was not new to my family which has suffered and struggled with mental illness on both sides for several generations. From a young age both my brother and I exhibited signs of manic episodes, characterized by intense hyperactive highs and dark, depressed lows, but it was when I was 12 that I decided to take matters into my own hands. While back then I could not communicate the cause for my behavior effectively to my parents or the parade of therapists, I can now explain that I was not simply depressed and suicidal, but that I felt no sense of connection to the life I was living. Perhaps I felt that God had somehow made a mistake and I had been born into the wrong life. I imagined that if I died I could either be reborn in the right life, or at least be happy with God. My conversion to Islam helped me end my suicide attempts, but did not cure my illness, and it is about that I intend to write.

When Islam came to me, I had a spiritual epiphany, a moment in which suddenly the world made sense and I felt my place. Islam was worth living for, no matter what else was going on around me. Most Muslims assume that symptoms of my illness would totally remit, but that was not the case. My life after my conversion continued to spiral downward, as trauma and turmoil at home worsened. I went between periods of dark depression, anger, hopelessness and then periods of high energy, sleeplessness, and what I can only describe as mental hyperactivity. Islam’s prohibitions on drugs, alcohol and pre-marital sex did keep me from seeking these vices as a means of comfort from the pain, but it did not keep me from unknowingly developing other ways of acting out and hurting myself. I developed an eating disorder, my relationships continued to suffer and while I never attempted suicide again, I was often tempted.

I was confused as to why my conversion did not “save” me. I was alone with almost no other Muslims in my part of Wisconsin, and while my conversion was about seeking God and purpose and not about people, I felt entirely alone nonetheless. I prayed, fasted, performed my duties with enthusiasm and was still suffering. It was not until I befriended a Muslim family in my late teens, after leaving home and about to enter college. That was when I was finally able to confide in them that I had been diagnosed with depression. I expected my friends to wrap their arms around me and offer religious and worldly advice on how to feel better, supported and to never feel alone again. Instead, they withdrew from me, regarded me with suspicion, and told me just to pray more. I felt rejected, and blamed. Was it that God was angry with me? Did God love me at all, and this question was the source of my pain? This reaction caused a new framework to develop in my mind, one in which suffering was punishment, neglect and anger – something I somehow deserved.

In college I had access to free counseling.  I deeply disliked this idea because at the time I felt getting help would mean that I was too weak to handle my problems myself, but my pain had reached a point that I was unable to function in classes, manage my moods, and the mental hyper-activity was making me feel, for lack of a better word, crazy. After a review of my medical and personal history, the therapists diagnosed me not with depression, but with bipolar disorder.

While the causes of bipolar disorder are unknown, it frequently occurs in people with a family history. People with bipolar disorder fluctuate between periods of hyper activity, which can include difficulty sleeping, concentrating, poor control of temper and a drive to start lots of projects and activities. Symptoms of bipolar disorder also include depressive episodes which can range from mild to severe, posing a risk for suicide, lashing out, and an inability to finish projects/activities started. On either end, drug abuse, eating disorders and problems with finances, relationships are common. [1]

This is what the books and doctors say bipolar disorder looks like. Though none of them could describe what it feels like.  It is like every part of my psyche is at war with the other parts, cloaked in a darkness in which I cannot see a way out. At times, the hyperactivity would evolve into a panic attack, for which I was hospitalized several times. I would eat any and everything I could so that my body would be so busy digesting that I might actually be able to fall asleep. When that didn’t work, I would eat and then take sleeping pills. And when that no longer worked, I found other ways to make myself feel good, like spending money I didn’t have, which like the eating only created more problems, but they were problems I could wrap my hands around and to some extent, control. When that no longer worked, I resorted to smoking. While I never resorted to drugs or alcohol, I thought about it often sometimes even wished it.

I was offered medications to help treat my disorder. Popular medications for bi-polar disorder are Lamictal and Lithium, and I was put on the former. Lamictal [2] is used to treat bi-polar disorder and epilepsy. It delayed some of my symptoms, but when my supply ran out before a refill the withdrawal was more excruciating than the illness itself. I felt I had lost my mind, was filled with uncontrollable and quickly changing emotions, and could do little more than cry and hide in the darkest place I could find. The medication was also difficult to obtain. The free counseling at my university did not cover medication, and to get it I had to complete confusing and time consuming paperwork, wait several weeks for it to be filled, and to top it off, I was quickly building a tolerance to the medication. This tolerance to the medicine baffled my therapists. They were confused and frustrated, and since I could see that in their faces and hear it in their voices I felt guilty just being there. I wanted to get better, but they, made me feel that if I didn’t fit into the mold of “what a mental health patient should be” then suddenly they had no time for me. I stopped going, and they just never called to see why.

Many people now believe we can now prove that prayer heals. I agree.But at the time my relationship with God became more and more strained. I was angry that God had created me “sick”, which was ruining all the work I had done, kept me from creating strong friendships, and put me in my own little hell. I wanted God to talk to me and give it to me straight. I avoided prayer because the vulnerability I felt during prayer would cause me to lose the minimal amount of control I had, which barely allowed me to function each day. Additionally, the stormy war that was raging inside my brain made anything close to prayer or meditation extremely difficult. I was overcome with guilt, and now firmly convinced that God was angry with me, and this would only continue to get worse.

The religiously minded often say it is good to remember we are not in control. It humbles us and makes us pious, but that was not the kind of control I was trying to capture. A loss of control meant mental chaos, more pain, more lying on the couch holding my head and screaming at myself and God. Surely, I believed, it must be better to maintain what control I could have than to go through that. I no longer felt safe in prayer.

I married my husband Badr shortly before my formal diagnosis. While complications with immigration kept us physically apart, we were always on the phone or emailing and texting each other. I decided I needed his help to survive, or I would not be able to handle this illness much longer. Together, we became very familiar with bi-polar disorder, planned ways to manage my ups and downs, identified my triggers and made a plan. We took control. Even when I was at my worst, he learned that he could not fix it or save me from it, but he could be there to listen, to support me, and to clear the path. It was not easy for him, and it took years to nail down a solid strategy, but he did not give up even when I did.

Islam gave me a reason to live, and so even when I wanted to die, a sense of duty toward Islam, toward God, was the only thing stopping me. I was angry at God, but it did not stop me from loving God. I do not remember how or when, but eventually I learned that God was not angry with me, or torturing me. I was just made different, and while that difference brought me great pain it also allowed me to see things others did not. I could see the suffering, the details and inside of other people’s pain. Aside from this, a mind that constantly exists on the periphery is also one that can see beauty where others do not. I was outside the norm, and finally understood that if I wanted it to be, my differences could be a good thing. Maybe I was not made sick. Maybe I was just made different, and being different hurts and gives us new challenges, but that does not make it bad. If God meant for us all to be the same, we would have been created that way. Differences are opportunities for learning.

A friend of mine, who is a Christian minister, put it best when she said “no one has wider shoulders than God”. Despite my anger, lashing out, and the darkness, God did not leave. I learned that God can take my pain, and will always listen. The Qur’an opens with, ‘in the name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate,’ and I found God with me when the smoke cleared. I found God was my friend, who was not what my Muslim friends told me God was. They were wrong when they said all I needed to do was pray more, as though this suggestion absolved them of any need to “deal” with me and justified their ignorance and neglect. They were wrong when they wondered if I was possessed or bewitched. They were wrong when they said my pain was due to some deformity in my character for which I must atone. They did not, and do not, speak for God. I was different, but that did not deserve stigma. Stigma is a choice to remain ignorant out of our own fear, and I do not believe there is any room in Islam for that.

God was with me, loving me, every step of the way. Bi-polar disorder, and most mental illnesses cannot be cured. There is no magic recipe or special prayer that will “fix” me. I do, and will always, continue to struggle with the symptoms of bi-polar disorder. I still have difficulty dealing with my peers, who often assume my symptoms are due to a deformity of character, struggle with depression and an addiction to food, but I now understand I am not alone. The steps I slowly take to find my balance are making a difference. With the exclusion of “dirty” food, my manic episodes have decreased significantly, for example, but most of all, I stopped torturing myself for suffering.

People should have permission to suffer. We torture ourselves for suffering – for having difficulty with prayer and fasting, for thinking dark thoughts, or expressing pain. We punish ourselves, as if we think we can overcome illness through it, but all we do is increase our suffering substantially. When we let go of the guilt, we let go of the blame, and already our pain is improved upon. We are not bad, wrong or damned because we are suffering. We did nothing to deserve this, and it is not a punishment. Letting go of the guilt is the first step to a better life, and toward a deeper, more loving relationship with God, and yourself.

Mental illness can be unpredictable. As human beings we try to make sense of things and control them, and when we cannot, we tend to think that it is because we were not strong or smart enough. When diagnosing or treating a mental illness, there is almost never a constant. The medication did not help me, but that does not mean it will not help anyone. As Muslims, we are encouraged to seek healing as much as we seek knowledge. Having an obstacle to overcome and learn from is part of life, and we all have our own. Through my battle with bi-polar disorder, I found my path in life and my path to God. If you are suffering, seek help.

Start with a counselor. Most jobs provide Employee Assistance Programs that provide free counseling or make referrals, confidentially. Even if you do not have health insurance, there are programs out there to get you the care you need. Reach out to your local hospital or social service office and start asking questions about programs, assistance and resources. Try to identify your triggers, things large or small that seem to set you off and cause you prolonged pain. If you can, talk with trusted family and friends to see if they notice patterns in your behavior. Take a good look at your diet and surroundings.  Processed food can make mental health worse, not to mention physical health. If you can, go organic or start your own garden. Being outside and connecting with the planet is meditative and a great outlet for energy. If you are stuck in a place, a job or neighborhood, that makes your health worse, start taking steps to address it. Praying and fasting are important and valuable ways to heal, but prayer does not just happen five times a day. We can talk to God, vent, cry, complain and sing, at any time. You do not have to worry that you are not saying something right or are unable to get your point across – because God knows.

For Muslims one of the most difficult steps to healing is family. We are a diverse community with a diverse set of needs and expectations, and an array of cultural baggage. If you can, have a family meeting and be prepared to be honest about what you are going through, what you need from them, and make a choice to work together. This is also possible with a trusted friend, religious leader, chaplain, or medical professional. Counselors and therapists are also there to help. Whether it is a doctor, friend, or family member, build a bridge with someone who is willing to be in your corner.

If you are concerned about a family member that may be suffering, approach them gently. Offer to listen, and have patience. If you or your family are struggling with a crisis, such as a suicide attempt or addiction, get help and do so as a single family unit. If you are frightened and unsure of what to do, calling the United Way Hotline, #211, available anywhere in the country, will connect you with someone that is qualified to make referrals and help you immediately.

While not every possible context can be addressed, the steps toward help remain in letting go of guilt and blame, building a relationship with a “support buddy”, and making a plan based on your needs, abilities and understanding that the path to healing is not a cure, it is not clear cut and it will most likely change but there is a way to live healthy and be productive. Your experience may equip you to reach out to someone else in pain. All suffering is an opportunity for learning. Despite the pain, we as individuals and a community have the opportunity to reach out, form meaningful relationships, protect each other, and become closer, stronger, by letting go of fear, blame and control, and acting with compassion, forgiveness, and patience, especially toward ourselves, and therein lies the path to God.

Noura Rockwood is an American convert living in New England.


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