As I sat down to write this, I found myself at a loss for words. How do I begin to summarise a years-long struggle with my mental health when I am only now able to call it what it is - depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and an eating disorder? I knew these words intimately from having spent countless hours reading articles, psychology textbooks, and any other materials I could get my hands on and yet, when it came to translating all the symptoms I felt into medical terms, I’d hesitate. As a teenager seeking help from other teenagers, we all skirted the big words. We’d never say we were depressed, just that we weren’t feeling too good, or we had trouble sleeping. I went for my first psych session at 22, and still found it hard to answer when my psychiatrist asked me if my overarching mood was anxious or depressed. I settled for demotivated.
I had to ask myself, then, why I struggled so much with calling a spade a spade. I knew deep-down that the intrusive thoughts I have aren’t normal. I know the rush of guilt I feel around all things food-related aren’t normal. I certainly know that my visual perception of my body changing all the time was not normal, and yet I couldn’t let myself call it what it was. I blame the environment I grew up in for this blatant denial. I was born and raised in South Asia, in the midst of all its wonders and its terrible outlook on mental health. We only ever heard our elders speak of mental illness with disdain, and embarrassment. If someone in the family was diagnosed with a mental illness, it was a stain on their reputation, a secret one kept hidden away from the knowledge of others. If you were Muslim, they had a few other justifications: a weak Iman. Is it any wonder then, that all of us growing up here found it hard to ever admit, even to ourselves, that something was wrong?
My declining mental health, paired with the way my community treated mental illness as a whole, inevitably led me to questioning my faith. I would often question my intentions around Ramadan, as fasting often felt rewarding to me for entirely non-spiritual reasons. When I’d perform a voluntary fast, I’d wonder if it was truly for spiritual reasons, or if I was just indulging my eating disorder. Wearing the hijab started to feel like yet another way I’d perverted my faith into helping me with my body dysmorphia. I’d feel like a liar and a fraud when I prayed, because I’d been told repeatedly that if you were religious enough, you wouldn’t be depressed. This time, I couldn’t turn to the internet for help. Advice around mental health as a Muslim, and the unique struggles it presents were scarce. Nothing on the struggle to hold onto your faith as I slipped deeper into the extremely isolating world of eating disorders and there was absolutely no one to turn to as I worsened.
Seven years into my struggle, I finally found some hope. I learnt that the first psychiatric care centres originated in Arabia. It made me realise how our cultures have perverted so much of our faith. The old scholars had a greater understanding of mental health then than we currently do: simply put, you cannot treat it as an isolated entity, removed from the patient’s internal and external environments. Today, we’re told to pray and have greater Tawakkul, while we conveniently ignore the circumstances that create and sustain our declining mental health. I’m not denying the importance of faith in holistic healing. However, there is a balance we need to rediscover in dealing with and treating mental illnesses within our communities. Our mental struggles are valid, and so is our faith. One does not negate the other, and seeking to improve your mental well-being is as much an act of faith as anything else you can do, despite what our communities may have led us to believe.
Written by Ziqra Zarook