Depression and Self Harm: My Struggle with my Mental Health
As a Pakistani-Muslim born in the West, we are almost engineered to be successful. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, we’re bred to work harder than they did, to make them proud. My upbringing was no different, my mother instilled in me the importance of education. I grew up believing an education was your ticket to a happier life, and by the time I was at an age to get serious about my studies, I developed a passion for science. I was enticed by how God created cells, why trees were green, and how life was the way it was. I was consumed by his bounties and the passion for understanding them.
When I reached the fifth year of high school, my mother encouraged me to take up five ‘highers’, the equivalent of A-levels. I think inside I knew it was too much pressure, but I was naïve and wanted to please my parents, so I took on these subjects, not knowing the physical toll it would eventually take on me. As the year progressed, my body began to punish me for taking on these subjects and I was terribly unwell. I was however in a state of obliviousness to my own physical stress. Looking back, I know why I didn’t accept my failure, why I kept pushing on despite all the stress: it was because inside I was wanted to prove to my parents that I was capable of this. Ultimately, I ended up destroying my health. Exams rolled around, and I did the best I could and waited for results day.
Results day eventually arrived, and I’ll never forget the feeling I got in my stomach when I heard a thick envelope squeeze itself through my letterbox, the scramble of my legs as I ran to the front door, and my heart when I opened up the letter. I can honestly say that I have never cried like that in my life. Failing your exams is already bad because, in many ways, you’ve messed up your life, but when it’s your parent’s dream as well? I knew I had completely ruined their hopes and dreams for me, and they didn’t let me forget it. I don’t want to paint my parents as awful people because I now truly believe that they were grieving, but I would be lying if I said their words didn’t affect me in any way.
When I went back to school in August, something had changed inside me. I can’t explain what it was, but I felt like I had tried to glue my pieces back together and had lost some in the process. I don’t fully know what happened when I went back to school, I just remember sitting in class one day and listening to my friends talk about their weekends, and all I could think about how much I wanted to die. Somewhere then, I began self-harming and imagining my death. I started to believe it was what my parents wanted, for me to disappear and for all my failures to go away. I had also given up on my faith.
I had a friend who was also suffering from depression and had advised me to go to my GP. However, although I knew I was unwell, I wasn’t ready to leave it. I was terribly frightened by the prospect of being ‘cured’. If I didn’t have my depression, what would I have? What was the point? Until you get depression, you would not understand that it requires insane compliance from the sufferer, and it’s incredibly difficult to train your mind into believing that life goes on after depression. It’s both terrifying and exhausting.
I still remember that one night, a family friend came to visit, and she was telling me how great her life was and how she was firing at all four cylinders. I remember asking myself, ‘what made me give up? Why have I given up on myself?’ I think something clicked inside me there and that same night, I spilt every detail about my mental health to my mother.
My mother was incredible and promised me that she would help me get better, and I’m so blessed to say that she succeeded. Starting small, I began studying my religion and eventually stopped self-harming. My mother explained to me,
“Every day you wake up thanks to Allah. You can decide if you want to look at life half full or half empty. That part is up to you, not Allah, not me, not your friends. You.”
The fix did not take place overnight, and in many ways I still don’t consider myself ‘fixed’ – it’s not like you’re a car in a garage and all your problems can be magically solved. It’s a daily struggle. While I didn’t feel like a different person when I awoke the next day, I began training my mind to stop any negative thoughts I had, and I began counting small victories and trying to see the positive in every situation. It was hard, but I got there.
I do think that my faith and my struggle with my mental health go hand in hand. Whenever I felt stress/anxiety or the urge to self-harm, I performed salaah and made duaa and that would bring my mind to ease. My faith was still a struggle and my mother understood that, so she began watching Islamic speeches and reading the Qur’an with me. We also marked a day of the week where we drank tea and discussed all the calamities we were dealing with, big or small. My mother insisted I talked about them instead of letting them fester inside of me.
Another thing that really helped me climb of depression was embracing my hobbies. Looking around, I’ve realised that unfortunately many Muslims don’t even seem to have hobbies. I attended a seminar on mental health several months back and was quite startled to see how many Muslims in the audience had no answer when asked about what hobbies they have. Rediscovering my love for oil painting and using that as a way to channel any negativity, along with reading classic literature, something I hadn’t done in over a year, really helped me in my uphill struggle with my mental health. When I was depressed, I didn’t feel like there was any joy in life, and I cut myself off from any emotion outside of pain. Having a love for Italian renaissance has allowed me to visit different countries and admire art from many centuries. It’s made me appreciate talent, effort, and dedication and it baffles me how I denied myself this passion for so long.
I know I was incredibly blessed to have a mother who was understanding and compassionate toward a situation of bad mental health. There is so much stigma on mental health and not everyone may be as blessed as I was, so educating this topic to Muslims is urgently needed. As a Muslim, mental health is something that is seldom touched upon and to this day, I still haven’t told many of my Muslim friends about my struggle with mental health due to fear of reaction. If these issues were heavily discussed at seminars, mosque circles and Islamic societies, it would provide safety for Muslims to reach out and get help. Too many times, mental health is swept under issues related to ‘lack of faith’ and this is extremely damaging for unwell people. If my mother had simply told me to pray more, I may have never recovered. I strongly believe that there needs to be an online service for Muslims to talk about their mental health and obtain counselling. I have volunteered with an online service called ‘Seven Cups of Tea’ for several years now which offers online counselling and provides ‘listeners’. Not everyone has the ability to seek out help in person, so to have a safe online place for Muslims to talk about their issues would be extremely beneficial.
If I can offer any advice to fellow Muslims suffering from mental health problems, I would recommend discussing them with a friend, or someone you trust. If you don’t have someone, write your feelings and emotions down on paper. I have countless journals filled with my scribbles and it definitely helps to assess your thoughts. Another thing which I would recommend would be to take a portion of your day to thank Allah for whatever it may be. Depression can make you feel like there is no hope in your life, but even before you sleep at night, list all the things you are grateful to Allah for and it will surely help.
Today, I look back on these days tenderly. Allah tests us all in different ways, the important thing is that we don’t lose hope in our faith. I don’t believe I’m completely fixed, I still have moments of doubt and panic, but I know that ‘after every hardship comes ease’ and I just have to have faith in my Lord because Allah is the greatest planner.
17-year-old me who was suicidal, failed her exams, lost her friends and had a terrible relationship with her parents is now doing a master’s degree in Microbiology and is the happiest she has ever been. It’s safe to say that I could have never become the person I am without going through my depression and for that I am eternally grateful.
Life is fluid and in a constant state of movement. So, if you’re going through a tough time, you’re never ‘stuck’ – because life is always moving forward, and although you may not see it now, just have faith, seek help and counsel, be positive and I assure you, you’ll make it.
If you’re suffering from depression or have concerns regarding your mental health, you can visit 7 cups for free, anonymous and confidential online text chat with trained listeners, online therapists & counsellors.