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Tackling the Mental Health Taboo: Part 2 A Personal Reflection

In my previous post, I wrote about how our physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health are intricate systems within us that are more strongly tied together than people realize. And that if you want to be completely healthy, you have to take care of all of them. And from my own personal experience, I can only try to express to you how devastatingly awry things can go when you don’t.

Last fall, I had bronchitis. I pushed through thinking I could just get over it. I couldn’t. I tried cough drops and put a humidifier in my bedroom. That helped a little, but not enough. I had to relent and go to the doctor. And anyone who knows me knows I have a strong disdain for going to the doctor that I won’t get into at the moment. Nonetheless, I went. They gave me an antibiotic. Turns out, I’m allergic. Two guesses as to how I found that out. Now you know why my disdain is justified. I talked with my doctor and we eventually figured out what would work for me. It took quite a while for the bronchitis to subside, which was bothersome, but it wasn’t detrimental. I just had to be patient and tough out some of the symptoms until then.

When I was emotionally under the weather this past winter, I thought I could tough it out. I knew exactly what I was struggling with and what I needed to do to get through it. So I chose to focus on other things I had going on at the time and waited for the symptoms to go away. They didn’t. They got worse and eventually seeped into the other areas of my well-being. My struggles consumed my thoughts. It was non-stop worst-case-scenario thoughts about everything. Everything! [Mental health]. I still went to work and tried the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. But then I lost my appetite. I could barely eat anything no matter how hungry I was. Before long, I couldn’t even finish my beloved cup of morning coffee without my acid reflux flaring up. My chest felt like it was on fire. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep at night [physical health]. Without any proper fuel for my body, it began to shut down. It got so bad that I couldn’t even focus during my prayers from how bad I felt. It was hard for me to focus while I read Quran because I was so consumed by everything else I was dealing with [spiritual health]. I was slowly, silently, completely overcome with anxiety!

anxiety

I could no longer handle things on my own. I had known this for a while. But I hate feeling like a burden on anyone, so I still kept it to myself. Then it got really bad. There were two nights that I tossed and turned but there was not a minute of rest. On my drives to and from work, I could barely keep my eyes open. So while I prayed that evening, I begged God to help me get over my unwillingness to ask others for help.

And then finally, after this had gone on for almost a month, I told my mom (because moms make everything better, duh!), and she told me something that seemed like a foreign language to me: Maybe you should take some time off from work. Mom, what is this crazy-talk? I don’t take days off. I’ll be fine. I’m the tough one, remember? I’m the one that’s calm when everyone else is in crisis. I have a high level of self-awareness (sometimes too high and I need to back off myself, but back to my point). I know what’s going on with me. I’m doing what I have to do to get better. It just needs time to subside.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t fly with mama. She said, you need to “rayi7 nafsik,” which is loosely translated from Arabic as “give your soul/self some ease.” As much as I can talk my way in and out of most things, when your mom knows something is up, you have to let her do her thing and take care of you. And she was right—obvi, moms are always right. So I took a day off work: a mental health day. And looking back, if I’d done that sooner things might not have gotten so out of whack. Should’ve. Would’ve. Could’ve. It was inevitable, though. I wasn’t making self-care a priority. And who should know better than anyone that you cannot be any good to others if you’re not keeping up with your own needs? This girl, obviously!

I was slowly, silently, completely overcome with anxiety!

In the weeks prior, I had experienced an emotional setback that I didn’t acknowledge. I tried to play it off like it wasn’t difficult to bear and distracted myself with other things. Clearly, that didn’t work. It was like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water. I thought to myself, I still have my prayers, and as long as I pray, things will get better. I tried reading, listening to lectures, and making duaa (supplication), but the symptoms were relentless. I no longer had it in me to do it alone. I did that thing where you go through your contacts to figure out who to call, but you feel so alone and isolated that you end up not wanting to bother others with your struggles. But I eventually convinced myself to figure out who I can talk to.

I reached out to a good friend (she’s the best actually) of over 15 years who I so admire and look up to. She’s like another big sister to me. We talked about the struggles we go through in this life and how it is all part of our journey and the role of Islam in all of it. And we talked about taking care of ourselves. My friend is also a social worker and dedicates herself to so many amazing causes (I seriously don’t know where she finds the time to do so much… And looks absolutely fabulous doing it, I might add!)

During one of our conversations, she reminded me of something that seemed so profound to me in that moment: we are verbal people. We are talkers. In good times and in bad, we talk things out. It doesn’t behoove us to deal with things internally because that’s not our nature. And, hello, we really don’t have to. We should absolutely surround ourselves with good people to have productive conversations with about what we’re thinking, feeling, going through—everything.

After speaking with that friend, I spoke with my mom. I spoke with my sisters. I spoke with a few trusted friends. I spoke with respected people from our masjid community. I was finally able to hear my thoughts out loud and deal with them. And through all of that, along with my prayers and duaas (and I’m sure the duaas of those around me), things got back on track Alhamdulillah (all praise is to God).

take what you needLike I mentioned before, I work in the mental health field. I have all the tools at my disposal to be able to deal with stressors and the unexpected twists and turns of life. I also have a high level of self-awareness, so I am much attuned to my needs: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. But all of that wasn’t enough. I needed an outlet. I needed to talk it out. And I utilized several outlets because each one served a different purpose—each was meant specifically for the different needs I had at that time. I needed spiritual guidance, I needed TLC from my family and people who knew me best, and I needed my friends to tell me stuff straight up but also remind me of the awesome qualities I had that would make it possible for me to get through this. I’m super serious about the last one. Because in the midst of chaos, we will not remember on our own.

One thing I was told years ago is that you will never get everything you need from every person in your life. Each person will fulfill some of your needs, but not all of them. And once you figure that out, you don’t have to feel let down or bogged down by some of the relationships you have with others where that happens. And you’ll also learn how to create and have quality relationships with the ones you love, even if they’re not perfect or exactly what you want.

What I was also reminded of during this time is something that seems so obvious in retrospect. Doctors and nurses get sick. Therapists go through emotional obstacles that require healing. Religious leaders and teachers continuously pray, make duaa, and work to strengthen their relationships with Allah (SWT). Being an expert in any respective field doesn’t make a person immune to its struggles. And just because we live life knowing that there will be joy and sorrow, ups and downs, highs and lows, that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t seek consultation and guidance from others when it becomes too much to bear.

I am blessed (and grateful) to work in a field where I have so many resources that I can tap into for these needs. I am able to reach out to so many of the awesome people I’ve worked with at any time and vice versa. I was obviously not being very resourceful in the examples I gave about myself—I’m very independent and stubborn. Actually, I’m stubborn about being independent. I have a hard time letting people help me with things I know I can do on my own. But of the many things I learned through this experience, I know even more now that taking care of me means taking care of all of me: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. There is no but. It’s all or it’s awry—as I know too well. And if the burden becomes more than I can bear, there will always be people willing to help lighten the load.

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