As a Muslim Woman growing up I watched family and friends alone in their Mental Health struggles. Muslims believe that any calamity which befalls them is a test from God. Thus during peoples bouts of depression others would advise them to seek help through God and prayer.
Now, as a person of faith I understood this advice and clung on to it for dear life, without having ever challenged myself on this. If all we are supposed to do when we are struggling is pray, then why would someone be encouraged to also see a Doctor if they are physically Ill? Why then would a person be encouraged to visit the Optician if they are having problems with their vision or a dentist when they have toothache? I didn’t question this growing up at all.
As a young adult I began to struggle with anxiety and low mood. I found myself becoming impatient when I couldn’t shake those feelings. When I felt praying wasn’t working, some would say your ‘ إِيمَان ʾīmān is low’-meaning your faith is weak. This would then fill me with a great sense of shame and guilt. I felt I wasn’t a ‘good enough Muslim’ and I should perhaps pray harder and be more patient. As a result I bottled up my feelings and plastered a smile across my face.
Looking back, I realise that during my adolescents I was always being told to look at those who were 'below' me. Whenever I felt sad or upset, I would often be reminded that children as young as 10 were being married off in some parts of the world, forced into child labour and exploitation. People were living in war torn countries in extreme poverty. Why then am I so upset when I had food on the table, a roof over my head and a loving family? So I learned to not talk about my worries as I felt ungrateful because my life wasn’t ‘so bad’ compared to others.
I began to only share my worries with God. This I thought would be the ultimate cure to my anxiety and low -mood. As I was often reminded that God would help me through, I believed this with all my heart and still do.
As I learned to bottle up every life experience and emotion, I was also shutting people out, turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms and In doing so I was finding that my connection with God wasn’t getting any stronger, in fact I became resentful and I could feel myself drifting away from my religion and my loved ones. It became a vicious cycle- pray to God for comfort and ease and then when I didn’t feel ease, I felt angry and resentful. Soon after guilt and shame for being so impatient and demanding that God cure me. I felt like I was strapped into a hamster wheel. On an emotionally draining cycle.
It took a life changing event for my whole perspective to change. I experienced the loss of my father. After he died I was overcome with emotion. I realised that I didn’t feel comfortable talking to family and friends about it- It wasn’t something I was used to doing. However, I knew I needed to speak to someone when I fell into a pit of sadness that just wasn’t going away. I wasn’t managing this sadness and began to throw myself into work. A friend recommended I see a counsellor. I wanted these feelings to go away, so much so that at that point I was willing to try anything! This is when my life quite literally changed. Not only did I go into therapy and till this day continue to see a therapist; I also embarked on the journey to become a therapist. I recognised the detrimental impact bottling up my emotions had had on my life.
With this new found self-awareness I realised that I had to free myself from the conditions placed on me by others to be a “good Muslim”. My religion and my connection with god was vital in my life but it was personal to me. Any conditions God had placed on me to be a good Muslim seemed very far off from what others had expected from me.
I quickly learned that my religion also recognises Mental Health struggles. It then begun to make a little more sense for me. If God has provided us with Doctors for our physical health, then these therapists too are a means by God to help us through our mental health struggles.
This was a turning point for me but also an alien concept. I had been doing something one way my entire life- sharing my worries only with God. Trusting only in God. How now was I to also trust people? Share my vulnerabilities with them? To me it felt like I was being disloyal to God. I often had to remind myself that Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) stated “Trust in God but tie your camel”. The lesson I took from this Hadith (prophetic saying) is that I need to use all the resources which are available to me, take ownership and take control of the things that were within my reach and then put my trust in God for the outcome. As stated in the Quran “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an 13.11), so I too had to physically do some work to change things!
After my father passed away, I focused on making changes. I realised the only way I would feel comfortable with sharing my experiences and emotions were if there was a guarantee my secrets wouldn’t be spilled (I will dive further into my trust issues some other time)- this guarantee of course was the counselling contract. Speaking to a professional about all the things which were quite literally eating me up allowed me a new sense of freedom. I was helpless to God and reliant on him but the things I had within my reach and the tools within myself were the gifts that God had given me , so who then was I to reject them? Maybe God was answering my prayers by giving me a therapist. I can tell you one thing I’m sure of, my therapist was indeed a gift to me. A gift I never knew I needed and now I can’t imagine ever making it this far without.
I seldom give advice, but I leave you with this. For people suffering with mental health struggles and keep hearing ‘have faith to get you through, pray to God to guide you...' You shouldn't have to pick one or the other. People of faith are not showing disobedience to God by speaking to a therapist. A person who is suffering shouldn’t have to feel worse by being led to believe they are doing a disservice to their religion. You can have both, God to bring you out of darkness and but also a therapist to be a part of your journey.