Losing My Mind and Finding It Again: A Muslim’s Journey With Bipolar Disorder

“I seem to have fallen out of time.”

It’s my final year at high school. We’re watching part of The Hours, a film adaptation of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Like Richard, I’m walking through some fractured timeline, where my long days and blurs of my past have all blurred into one. Once the girl who would dance and sing and speak poetry, I am a ghost cowering in a corner. I am in limbo, stagnating and lost — and I can’t place why. It’s frustrating and disappointing and hopeless.

I am always praying. Even as I’m praying, I’m feeling an emptiness that nothing can fill.

I am a dead girl, falling into a bottomless pit.


It’s my penultimate year at university, and I start up a conversation with a student on campus. When she turns to ask about my endeavors, she seems enthralled by them: pursuing two passion project start-ups, opting out of my program to move toward my “real” purpose, applying to exciting jobs and master’s programs interstate.

In my rambles, I mention that I’m torn apart despite experiencing what others would find exciting. This eventually turns into a confession to a kind stranger on campus:

“I just want someone to tell me that something’s wrong.”

Why aren’t I centered when all these beautiful things are happening for me?

Stepping forward with newfound courage to share my burden, I meet with a best friend and mention my bad dreams about suicide. I’m flustered and looking down at my feet. Calmly, she says,

“What’s so bad that’s happened to you that you want to kill yourself?”

I’m deserted.

It is horrible to say, but it’s much simpler to place depression on the repercussions of childhood trauma. When I think nothing particularly bad has happened to me, I feel even less worthy of labeling my sadness as depression or feeling at all worthy of that title.

Being told to “cheer up,” to “not make contact until you feel better,” shows me that I am sick in some way.

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Digital note, 26.05.18. What it looks like to beg for mercy during heartbreak.

It’s the beginning of my master’s year. I receive a pamphlet about counseling to one of my alias email addresses. I walk into the clinic to a hijab-wearing Bengali Muslim woman smiling back at me. A version of myself, only older.

“I don’t care what happens to me,” I stutter.

It’s a feeling that permeates sad times, self-sabotage and experiences when I would put myself at risk. When I’d make elaborate plans to run away from home and leave behind everything I know. When I’d plan to do things that could harm my well-being. When I would reject sincere expressions of love to me because I couldn’t imagine myself deserving of love and attention.

We perform a body scan and I start crying in the first moments of the exercise. I’m ravaged by guilt. I’m a burden on my family who once saw so much promise in me. I don’t deserve their prayers for me. Whatever I’ve achieved is not my own. When she asks me to meditate on my shoulders, they hurt. When she asks me to meditate on my chest, it aches.

She asks why I had such an extreme immediate reaction, but I feel like a broken heart without knowing a cause. How did this happen to me?

Diary, 26.06.19. This is the sound of my own heart destroying itself. Can you hear it?

It’s still close to a year that I see a psychiatrist, after a GP ticks beside “crisis situation” on my referral form. I wait a few months for an appointment with a renowned psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute, one of the most prominent mental health institutes in the country.

I describe my persistent melancholy like a “veil of sadness washing over my life,” feeling guilt and shame while struggling with hopeful experiences in my personal and professional lives. I feel “volatile.” I feel a conflict, a “resistance” within that I can’t place.

The psychiatrist is nodding and jotting quickly on his notepad. I can see myself being measured and like a game, I wonder what score I’ll get. Just how screwed up am I?

He confirms that my counselor was right in wanting to treat depression; I exhibit obvious symptoms like “brain fog,” poor memory, lack of concentration and, at my lowest, suicidal thoughts. From feelings of being “torn apart,” he probes my sudden bouts of hope with characteristics like creative excitement and reduced need for sleep, contrasted with my usual fatigue and comatose.

He then starts elaborating on bipolar II disorder.

As if to convince me, he pulls out fact sheets detailing its common emergence in mid to late teens, when I’d felt my moods and personality had drastically started to change.

I’m told that most people with bipolar II reach out when they are in tough depressive episodes — that their bouts of elevated mood and activity can go unsaid, unrecorded and untreated. To me, experiences of hopefulness and confidence, increased goal-directed activity and excitement are not things you complain about; rather, they are hopes for healing and becoming better.

As our conversation grows deeper, I start to understand that my “highs” are more grandiose or destructive than I’ve led myself to believe. These “hypomanic episodes” are recognized in hindsight: a million rummaging ideas; spending dusk till dawn working on projects that would never fully manifest, come into being; planning to jeopardize my life when I only felt I was “newly enlightened” and meant for better things.

In hindsight, I feel like such a conflicted, “neurotic” person because I have these “up” moods when I feel immensely frustrated or enlightened — often both — then back down to my “lows.”

Oftentimes, these moods of hope and despair will happen all at once and manifest in a frustrated, conflicted endeavor that crushes my heart.

Even after relating to the fact sheets I’ve been given, I struggle to accept my diagnosis. I still feel like I’m making things up. My mind is fighting a frustration that I might have needlessly suffered for all these years.

The reality is: now in my early twenties, I feel like I’ve already reached rock bottom. I can’t steep any lower. There’s no reason for me to resist medication, despite a quiet fear that side effects will sabotage what I have left of my mind.


It must be by the grace of God that from the first night of taking medication, I feel brighter. I feel this is too soon and wonder if I’ve placebo-ed my way to feeling better. I get up for Fajr with no complaints, when I’ve been unintentionally missing prayers from being stuck in my comatose. I’m being beckoned to hold on and have faith in my healing. I’m being shown that there is hope.

Bipolar II is still not very well understood; at this moment, there is no conclusive cause or cure. Through genetic links, I may be able to identify my experiences with those of relatives, but that’s all.

It’s early days, but I can feel my memory improving. I can feel that it takes less effort to focus my attention and feel productive — no longer hopelessly dysfunctional.

After having described myself as a “dead girl walking” with fractured memories time and time again, I feel like I’m finally a living thing.

At last, my mind is my own.


Some of our best lessons are learned through pain and suffering. These are a few things I’ve come to know:

1: You can be a grateful person and a suicidal person at the same time.

I consider myself a grateful person by “Islamic standards”: prayer, dhikr, duas for myself and others. I have been suicidal as this grateful person, to the point where my dreams and daily thoughts are infested by it.

Mental state can in part be remedied or confirmed by improvement in iman, but it can also be completely separate from it. For me, no amount of praying and talk therapy will keep my health at bay. I am being medicated, and that’s what helps me.

Now, my prayer and practice feel better than they have ever been. Now that I’ve confronted my health and been active in dealing with it, I feel even more devoted and at one with my Creator.

2: Remember what you’re here for.

We all have a void within us that can only be filled by our Creator. We are here to do our best, both in our practice and worship and in our efforts to leave the world better than we found it. This requires mental strength and willpower. This means you need to feel well to help someone who is not feeling well. Help yourself and then help your neighbor.

If you are praying as best you can and your mind still isn’t settled, go to the root and treat it. Your practice and daily efforts will improve, and you will be better for it — in this dunya and the akhirah.

Subpoint: You are here for a reason.

Your Creator put you here for a reason. If you are still here, there is a reason for you. You are good at things. Maybe a lot of things, or maybe a few. You can do great work to help others with these things. You can feel like a fulfilled human with these things. You can be grateful for these things and ask to become better.

What matters about us are our character and doing. It goes through all scriptures; I’ve heard a priest say, “We are love and good deeds.” It’s a universal craving and what keeps us going. Find purpose not in others, not in entertainment, not in fleeting things — but in yourself and your actions, both worldly and spiritual.

Remember that your voice matters. What you are going through right now can become part of the story you tell that saves someone else.

3: We’re better together.

The best things happen when societies and humanity as a whole are united for a cause and in action. The sooner we stop fighting about the legitimacy of mental health issues, the sooner we can heal as a community and help people understand their health as separate from their faith.

It also needs to become much more widespread that imams are trained in counseling and know what to maturely advise depending on the circumstances of those who go to them seeking help.

4: Things will get better.

Things will get better: that thing that people always tell you. Open your heart to turning the page.

Image quote, sent to me by my dad on 29.10.19 at 1:04 PM, eight days before my psych appointment.

Even if you don’t trust the advice of flawed people, turn the pages of your Creator’s words to find comfort.

Hope

Ash-Sharh (The Soothing)

94:5 With hardship comes ease.

94:6 With hardship comes ease.

With every difficulty there is relief. So important that He tells us twice. Believe in your better days. May Allah ease your heart.

Peace

Ad-Duhaa (Morning Light)

93:1 By the morning light.

93:2 And the night as it settles.

93:3 Your Lord did not abandon you, nor did He forget.

Just as the dusk turns to dawn, your life is in phases of dark and light. You have not been abandoned. This chapter will end and a new chapter will begin.

93:4 The Hereafter is better for you than the first [life].

93:5 And your Lord will give you, and you will be satisfied.

It’s okay to find peace in the final resting place. Remember the beautiful life that awaits beyond this one.

Protection

Al-Baqarah (The Heifer)

2:186 And when My servants ask you about Me, I Am near; I answer the call of the caller when he calls on Me. So let them answer Me, and have faith in Me, that they may be rightly guided.

He said: “Do not fear — I am with you.” You are calling Him, and He is near.

When you feel a tension within, remember that He has not abandoned you. Take care of your health and you will become closer. Take care of yourself, for your self and your Creator.

Infinite mercy

Az-Zumar (Throngs)

39:53 Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves: do not despair of God’s mercy, for God forgives all sins. He is indeed the Forgiver, the Clement.”

For the innocent bystanders to your self-sabotage. For the soft targets to your moods and sadness. To the people who have hurt and neglected others from the ways that they have acted or treated themselves.

If you are haunted by a past, there is always a light. Remember your Creator’s compassion.

Whatever mental state you are in, for whatever reason, remember that you are worthy of forgiveness. You are worthy of mercy.

Turn the page. This is the beginning of the rest of your life.

Written by Numa

Am I The Ideal Muslim Woman?

Feeling out of place within your identity as a Muslim, let alone a Muslim living in the west, let alone a Muslim woman living in the west – is something that isn’t uncommon. It’s easy to feel displaced even if that can be hard to admit sometimes. So often, us Muslim women are facing struggles that no other group of people seem to go through or understand. Whether in our communities or in the public space – our self-worth, and empowerment can feel like it’s fleeting at a constant rate. What helps me find that inner strength again and feel genuine ease is remembering my heritage of being a Muslim woman and the strength that is woven in that history. We have so many resources that connect us back to the great women of Islam – empowerment is at our fingertips.

In today’s society, where we see others abusing women in unimaginable ways, it truly can become almost involuntary to envelope in these feelings of self-loathing and doubt. We begin to get stuck in this mindset that our personal growth as individual Muslim women is stagnated and limited within both our own Muslim communities as well as our larger society. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve experienced the feeling of being overwhelmed by the superficial portrait of the “ideal Muslimah.” I mean, who even is she? Does being the “true Muslim woman” mean succumbing to the male-controlled cookie cutter woman? Does it mean unconsciously assuming stereotypical attributes assigned by non-Muslims and western media? Where does my individual spiritual reality lie in all of this? Does it even belong to me as a Muslim women? Why must we have this strange feeling of unfamiliar self-consciousness when wanting to pursue personal spiritual goals? Am I inevitably striving to fit into this one-dimensional, non-existent image of a “perfect Muslim woman?”

Does being the “true Muslim woman” mean succumbing to the male-controlled cookie cutter woman?

So many questions, but the answers are not too far away. All it takes is looking back into the very first real women of Islam. Yes, real, living, breathing women – each with her own individual differences, mind, strengths, and weaknesses. They were simply humans, just striving to the best of their abilities to please Allah (SWT). It’s important to remember that the priority of the first women of Islam was always to stay near to Allah (SWT). Yes, they were daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, but ultimately those priorities were secondary to obeying Allah. They didn’t fit into that one-dimensional image painted by today’s patriarchal culture and society. In fact, they more often than not inadvertently rebelled against those “norms.” Amongst them were great scholars, teachers, poets, entrepreneurs, and health-care providers to name a few. They are heroes and it’s important to consider them as nothing less than that.

As young Muslim women growing up or even as more mature Muslim women, we have been so accustomed to having to feel like we are a burden or “un-Islamic” for dreaming big, for speaking up, for striving for our deen individually. We begin to blame and often “feel bad” about wanting to further our professional careers or personal growth. Perhaps even the toxic patriarchal cultural mindset kicks it up a notch and we begin to internalize rhetoric such as, “Why would a Muslim woman even bother to aim high when Allah has ‘commanded’ her to remain at home permanently and not be seen or heard in any sense?” We begin to internalize these false ideas and this is what ultimately shapes our outlook on our potential. We need to start actively flipping the questions, like, “Why can’t a Muslim woman have an impact on the community?” Enough of being unkind to ourselves, because this is not what Islam teaches us. Eliminate harmful cultural thinking that ambitious women are un-Islamic or “too modern.” I’m not “too” anything. I’m just enough.

They are heroes and it’s important to consider them as nothing less than that.

This is detrimental behavior to feed to our young girls especially. To teach the youth to perform merely the obligatory aspects of Islam is theft. We must not teach let alone act upon Islam in such rigid, violent manners. Our Lord is nothing less of the Most Merciful, so why does our own practice not reflect that? It’s so easy to feel alone in today’s age as a Muslim woman. Not only are there a number of stereotypes that work against us, but standards are being lowered while expectations are being raised. This faulty and imaginary definition of the picture perfect Muslim woman does not exist. It only hinders us on a global level from striving to be better as it’s counterproductive in its messaging towards us.

I’m not “too” anything. I’m just enough.

What I don’t think I will ever truly understand is why do they want so badly to deny us of our basic humanity? It’s as if Muslim women can be nothing more than an object of ultimate obedience. Sorry, but I’m not a dog. Our predecessors were genuinely liberated by Islam and empowered by Allah (SWT). Strength and valor was a result of their practice and dedication to the deen. Because of their true belief and following of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Allah (SWT), were they able to grow and live fulfilling lives. This is the very reason why we need to go back to our own roots now more than ever. We need to change our cultural narratives and stop hiding behind the comfort of these norms that seem so “set in stone.” When we look back at the powerful people who carried out Islam in the best of ways, we will then be able to thrive in this dunya just like they did. Honestly, without us looking back at our own history, it becomes so much easier to fall victim to cultural restraints, thus being overcome with the sense of a distorted identity. That is how we become brainwashed and manipulated. It sounds lame, but knowledge truly is power.

Why do they want so badly to deny us of our basic humanity?

If you’re conflicted about how you can live Islam in a way so that your character genuinely speaks to it, seek out knowledge. Seeking out self-knowledge will always bring you to your authentic character. When you become self-assured in your identity as a Muslim woman, that vibe will manifest in all areas of your life. Always remember, “perfection” is not a part of our duties as Muslims. We can only strive to do our best, ask Allah (SWT) for His Mercy and Forgiveness, and try again.

And yes, you can still make a lit cup of chai for your family and also dominate the professional world.

Surviving Corporate America

I woke up one recent Sunday morning feeling strangely anxious and overwhelmed. This feeling is kind of foreign to me or at least has been foreign to me ever since I’ve become closer with Islam and Allah (SWT). I’m usually always able to pinpoint and trouble shoot these feelings by reflecting upon my current relationship with my daily prayers and the Qur’an. I always try my best to stay on top of these things in order to keep my imaan (faith) at bay while working in the cold, heartless “heart” of New York City and corporate America – but let me just say, it is tough out here for people like us. Striving for the deen, maintaining a level-headedness and mindfulness while working in corporate America, where people only care about making their sales and pleasing business partners. It’s exhausting in all aspects, to say the very least. You almost begin to adopt this false, unrealistic mindset that everything in life is a business deal – even your relationship with your family and Allah (SWT). We have to take a step back and truly realign ourselves and our motives when we begin to develop this type of outlook.

I often think about just quitting work altogether. It’s not an entirely bad idea, but this is also a test that Allah has placed me in. I’ve always been a very strong believer that we need more Muslims permeating different industries. It’s great to have Muslims in the medical field and in social activism, but we need to be visible elsewhere. I’ve always been the only Muslim working in my office. I feel like it’s a responsibility of mine to clear misconceptions of Islam and the Muslim community to the people I work around. It’s a nice feeling to explain the simplistic teachings of Islam to people who don’t really know anything about it aside from what the media teaches them. This is always a weirdly rewarding aspect of being able to work in corporate America, but its definitely not all peaches and cream. People are nasty, horrible, and soul sucking in very creative ways.

Sometimes (most times), corporate life just takes a toll on you. It makes you feel inevitably trapped, hopeless, and completely consumed within a monotonous lifestyle. Whenever I’m feeling down about work, the best action I feel I can take is mentally step back and remember my purpose – our purpose here on Earth. Our purpose on Earth is not to slave and work and kill ourselves over corporate America – no matter how practical/popular that might seem. Our purpose and our worth are far greater. Our potential is greater and our existence is so much more than getting stressed daily at a 9-5 office job surrounded by white people whose values are so far from your own.

What is our purpose then? I mean I’m just a twenty-something year old girl, how am I supposed to answer this existential question that we all ponder about? I do know one thing for sure: our purpose is to follow Allah (SWT). Seek out knowledge actively, build bonds, be kind, explore this planet, and to love. I’m really not trying to sound all hippy here – but we must re-examine and reflect upon ourselves and our Creator in order to heal from the anxieties created by our jobs or anything for that matter. It’s so easy to feel lost and paralyzed in fear due to harsh and stressful work environments. Just remember to protect your heart at all costs. Don’t let them take ownership of who you are. It’s not worth it.

“Our purpose and our worth are far greater. Our potential is greater and our existence is so much more than getting stressed daily at a 9-5 office job…”

Whatever job you have, I beg you, please do not take what people say to or about you (whether it be your manager, co-workers, clients, etc) so personally to the point where you feel as though you are not worthy or good enough. Do not take their mannerisms and words so heavily to your precious heart and soul. Do not allow them to burden your spirit or change your character for the worse. If you are not a negative person, do not become one. Do not become them. Resist the common behaviors that enslave you to this worldly life. Do not beat yourself up about all of your “flaws,” that you forget all of your immense blessings. Do not hold on to their negativity so strongly. Do not bring it into your home. Do not let their words and their perception of who they think you are, alter who you really are. You can do it. Allah (SWT) created you for a far superior and more significant reason. Do not worship these people or the workplace. It’s not that deep. This life ain’t the one.

Reflections: The Meaning Behind Allahu Akbar

I remember being a little girl and watching my mother pray. Her dupatta (scarf) delicately wrapped around her head as she stood on my favorite blue janamaz (prayer rug). Continue reading “Reflections: The Meaning Behind Allahu Akbar”