By Farzande Jehan
“And what is the matter with you sister, you are not well either?”
She is speaking to me in Urdu. We are both Pathan. And now I am thinking of one universal ailment that I can supply this lady with and leave it at that. I say that I have depression. She looks at me puzzled, looks at the lady sitting next to her, searching her face for a clue but to no avail. Can I explain ‘depression’ to her? This is going to be difficult. Why don’t I..
“I have a mood disorder.”
Pakistanis use the word ‘mood’ and ‘moody’ all the time; she should know. As I wait for a response, the same blank expression on her face. No comprendo. Rescue her furzy, she is losing you.
“Okay, so sometimes I am very happy, bohth khush,” I raise my hand as high as possible, “And sometimes I am very sad, bohth khafa.” I bring my hand down low.
The thing’s been expressed in the right words.
To elaborate I say: “What I come here for…” -and there is newfound confidence in my voice too- “…is to make sure that it is leveled.”
This I demonstrate by slicing through the room with my theatrical hand. I resettle in my chair. I have successfully regained my right to be here. I am quiet not because I am rude, but because I need composure.
I was 23, visibly Muslim, living in NYC, and just about ready to enter an adulthood promised to many of the youth of my time. I was a graduate student the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had all but completed two of the courses that led to my degree. I owed many of life’s successes and some failures too -but more of the good- to my ex-commuter status. My family preferred that I live at home, so I’d take the D from Brooklyn and transfer to the 1 somewhere in Midtown (God help you on the weekends when maintenance reroutes).
The summer of my onset, two white passengers in an underground train whispered about the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The couple scheduled to get help from martinis to cope with their pain.
The isolation I experienced and the spiritual inclination I harbored from a young age worked as seamless elements in the pursuit of removing me from my reality… your reality. I lived in a place that was in extreme contrast to the ideals I cherished. New York did successfully provide the tools that accurately identified the whatnots so that the whats that mattered remained.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How do you reconcile a reverence for a Deity that felt too far? My jugular vein reminded me of vessels and of things that hold quantity. Water indeed is life and Muslims agree that God is everywhere, so where do we draw the line? If I labored just enough, the distance that separated me from my Creator would shorten, I believed. The city that never sleeps left me sleepless.
A dirty curtain separated the men from the women. We were in the fourth season of the year and I start counting mine from Spring. My family returned to the go-back-to-your-country type of country in 2014, before Trump came to office and after Obama dropped drones on my ancestors’ homeland. A heater was supplied for the menfolk. The woman who was interviewing me earlier tended to her sick child, laid stretched out on the seat because her daughter had difficulty sitting up. Mental distress carries the marker of a plague struck in nations like the one where I live. Poverty exposes what little cover there is.
The office we were in was Dr. Rehman’s. His portrait was grinning at us. It seemed to be saying, “Give me your money you lunatic, you need help!”
An ayat from the Holy Quran about shifa, remedy, that it is ultimately in the hands of Allah , hung on the opposite wall, punching the arrogant grin in the face. In life we seek balance. The verse reassured me: “Don’t worry so.” It seemed to say: “Answer the man’s questions and go home happy – all is well.”
I breathed in as I looked down at my feet. I know that in Spirituality, things have specific destinies too and not just mortals. The thought that visits me from time to time: maybe it’s the shoes I am wearing that are carrying me to places where I don’t belong, belong.
A woman placed a prayer mat in front of me that day for herself. She was facing the qibla for the fourth time. I patiently waited for my number to be called. “Twelve!” I heard. Covering my face -because now I will be passing through rows of men- I got up to leave the patients’ patience testing room.
I was twelve-years old in the year we immigrated to America, eleven when I first landed on the brave soil. We were arriving in two hours and mother wanted everything in order. The first thing she saw was the sight of her younger daughter’s head. My head! It needed attention. It required attention. I almost wanted to cry when she was brushing my hair, and not because she was pulling at the strands. I had tears in my eyes because I had tasted Tropicana orange juice with no pulp for the first time in my short life.
My best friend from high school had paid me a visit on my second hospital stay, I had been in treatment for four months and in denial of my initial diagnosis. The proceeding to dump all medicine and carrying on with life until trouble lurked once more -the serpent raising its head drama played itself out. It’s a common prelude that way too many people experience in the initial processing of a newfound knowledge about the self.
Brooklyn was hit by a storm so severe that my family walked several of the miles on the day I was getting discharged. There were no taxis in sight for hours and the MTA was not functioning. My friend was expecting her first baby and had rushed to see me. She had a bag full of oranges to give to me. The setting and the process of checking in to visit your loved ones -and not to mention the presence of other patients who are sometimes in worse condition than you are- has the potential to throw your visitors off. I did not want to shock her but I was too helpless in offering an alternative view.
People go to zoos to see animals in cages. Seeing me in a gown, though I had my head covered, a scarf -in that was the familiar-, had I seemed weak to her? Was I the sight people conjure when they think ‘mentally ill’? This was my friend, and I wonder how much of the stereotype I filled in for her and to what degree, if at all? Had she had pity on me or was being sympathetic her character trait? Shouldn’t unborn children be kept away from sick persons like me at that time?
For those of us in societies where there is chaos within and a violence outside, was I mentally ill if my brain is part of my body? I was bodily ill, wasn’t I? Organ-ly ill. My mind had not stopped working. I was not pagal*, No! (*refers to somebody who is insane and is mainly a pejorative in South Asian communities) My brain had gone into overdrive and my thoughts were shooting at each other. This I know because I lost control. How did I allow myself to become so wild that I needed to be tamed? What was this force? Was it even my fault and does every event have a cause? I must have looked like a prisoner yet I have tasted freedom. Out of my own free will, I carried a transaction to deposit the ‘me’ in me in the hands of the One who made me. Whereas qismt (destiny) is sometimes cruel, God we know is always Merciful.
It requires strength to hold an image of a person you care for, far removed from a space that you once shared and to meet them at that threshold. An image like that is etched in memories for long times. Sadaf knew of my liking of oranges. Her gesture meant more than any flowers ever could represent her love for me. My employer was her ex-employer, otherwise knowledge of my hospitalization(s) was usually limited to family. After getting discharged and being somewhat stable at this point, I visited her at her house. Ibraheem assumed that the beauty mark on my chin was nothing but a button! That if he pressed on it, I would turn into a walking/talking toy. I let him play for as long as he wanted since I loved seeing the smiles on his face and the way he would giggle. I’d behave like a robot and only stop the awkwardness when he’d press the button again.
The disorder that I have and the control that it has over me is somewhat like little Ibraheem’s curiosity. It presses a button and I turn into a person other than me. I please it. I entertain it to the extent where it starts to get bored or needs a diaper change not when I lose the strength to continue. The only downside in playing this game is that the thing habitually forgets to turn the button off. It leaves me running into walls and breaking things and getting hurt in return. We need a team of rescuers, a hospitalization, and strange medicine with stranger names to bring me back.
I was shocked when I first read in our Islamic literature that the Creator laughs.
Abu Razeen reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah laughs at the despair of his servant, for he will soon relieve him.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, does the Lord laugh?” The Prophet said, “Yes.” I said, “We will never be deprived of goodness by a Lord who laughs!” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 181]
I understand a thing like that somewhat differently from how others read it.
After spending my twenties toiling in making sense of it all, my recovery has a lot to do with a change of terrain. It is the distance I needed to sort things out. I studied Orientalism in New York but read Edward Said speak of his love for an aunt who helped Palestinian refugees find shelter in his Out of Place: A Memoir here in Pakistan. The human component of scholarship, something that was missing previously, became vital at closing the gaps of humanity I was made deprived of. Healing begun.
By sharing my story, I’d like for people who are diagnosed with illnesses like bipolar to keep steadfast. No matter your creed or the place where you are from, know that you are not alone. And for family and friends who bear witness to the turmoil that infects a loved one to stand strong. Your strength or lack thereof has a direct impact on our wellness.
In the Quran it says that we will be tested with sons and wealth [Surah Al-Anfal;28]. Having a mental illness is a kind of test that has no beginning, nor a definite end. Take care of your health before sickness visits you is a famous saying of Prophet Muhammad . There will be days when you feel frustrated and question the just ruling of a Just God. Reach out and feel blessed, for being a Muslim carries the weight of family keeping bonds.
Ideally, the Ummah is one that conducts checks and balances so that the affairs of our Muslim brethren are running smooth. Unlocking and internalizing the goodness and the kheir that Allah has placed in the world for our taking requires humility, an admittance of our own neediness followed by the realization of and acknowledging our smallness in a universe that is run not by us. Believing in God and trusting in Him are not the same.
The meaning of the word Islam is peace. Muslims exchanging the greeting of peace with other Muslims is an experience. Transferring that practice and truly living that peace needs patience. The challenge of living with and sometimes outliving a mental illness requires a tailored kind of submission. The hush of stability hums low in the beginning when loud is the announcement of a calamity. Faith after all is belief in the existence of hope alongside the tragedy that is life. What is more, our bodies are rented to us. The obligation of living inside them is not a punishment. It is a privilege. The challenge is to be at peace with our predicaments and that can be easily achieved since I believe that all of us are capable of nourishing our minds and feeding our souls, perhaps not at the same pace but the possibility of recovery is guaranteed once we take that initial step. It is realizing the potential of and exercising resilience itself that saved me. To transfer that hope in the mode of words is the least I can offer. May Allah accept, ameen.
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