March has arrived and with it comes spring, the season of freshness, renewal, and new beginnings. But this is also the time where many (unknowingly) may be coming out of a darkness associated with seasonal affective disorder, a depression that’s related to the changes in seasons. This is why I’m addressing the topic of depression here, to bring more awareness to something that so many suffer through in silence. I want to let you know that you aren’t alone.

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

It was three weeks before my daughter’s third birthday when I started feeling this heavy blanket of sadness over me throughout the day and restlessness at night. It seemed to be fueled by constantly thinking about our first year together. I was an unemployed and unmarried new mother trying to figure out this new life that I had been thrust into overnight. My thoughts of that first year post-childbirth revolved around feeling as if I hadn’t done enough as a mother for her. How I didn’t hold her enough, kept her indoors too much, focused on myself more than I should have–all these thoughts that made me feel like I didn’t take advantage of the time when she was a small, cherubic, little being. Now, she was a bigger human, growing like a weed, leaving me feeling like I was losing out on precious time with my baby.

“But as the days went by, the sadness only got deeper.”

At first, I believed these thoughts were normal, kind of like the sadness many people feel about their birthdays and the aging process in general. But as the days went by, the sadness only got deeper. It got to the point where I was actually not feeling…anything. I felt flat. It’s like I was taking in the world around me like a computer takes in data–without any feeling, without any reaction, just intaking one piece of information and outputting another. 

What Set it All Into Motion

Just days before her birthday, I was in bed reading Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, and there was a chapter that talked about the manner in which the famous poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was a single mother of two who took her own life in her kitchen while her children were sleeping. She was said to have severe depression, and I started thinking about how intense it may have been for her given that she fought through two of the strongest instincts of our species–the first one being the basic human instinct to survive at any cost, and the second being the primitive instinct of a mother to protect her children. This led me to conduct a mental exercise of what it would take for me to do something similar–how I would do it, who I would call beforehand to take care of my daughter, etc. It was my way of getting into her head, by examining the recesses of my own. It’s something I typically do from time to time where I take journeys into the depths of other people’s psyches to better understand myself. Call it my research into the human experience!

The next day, work was hard, home was harder, and I was exhausted beyond belief. After finishing the bedtime routine with my daughter and confirming that she was sound asleep in her room, I went into the living room to decompress before heading to bed myself. There was a swirl of emotions in my chest, and billowing thunders of thoughts in my head. I was unable to calm either of them down. I took out my journal to start pouring these powerful torrents from my pen out onto paper, but within minutes I was blinded by the overflow of my tears and choked up by my sobs. I had no idea what was happening to me, but all I kept thinking was I’m not ok. I’m not ok. I’m not ok. After a few minutes passed with no relief in sight for myself, I decided to call my sister who lived across the country from me. Despite the really late hour of night, she thankfully picked up my call. I couldn’t even reply back to her “Hello.” All I could do was just keep sobbing, and saying “I’m not ok.”

“I’m Not Ok’

I gave myself a long weekend by taking the day off right before my daughter’s birthday (which fell on a Saturday). It also happened to be the day I had an appointment with my therapist, which took place on a bimonthly recurrence. From the moment I woke up, to the hour before my appointment, I was just a walking zombie in the world. The whole day I’d been fighting the feeling to cancel the appointment because there was nothing I wanted to say or talk about in the session. I could barely speak at all about anything, let alone about my mental state of not-being. But I kept the appointment because, although outwardly I was completely emotion and motionless, inwardly I knew that I needed help. Badly.

“She needed me to shake things up”

I didn’t say a single word for the first 15 minutes. Sitting across from me, my therapist was silent as well. His style isn’t one of picking or prodding me. He knows that I will speak when I’m ready. In those minutes, I was engaged in a furious battle going on in my mind, which made me unable to actually speak any words through my mouth. Tell him about all the good things that have been happening at work! No, I will not. Tell him how far you’re coming along with your life-coaching business! No, none of those things matter right now. My overachieving side wanted to scream out that everything was fine, while another part of me, the one that was in pain, didn’t want to be shoved into the shadows anymore. That part wanted to come out, and let the light of day shine on every crack, divot, bump, crease, wrinkle, pothole–all of it.

I walked out of there with a signed paper, stating that I was going to call him every day for the next three days, to let him know that I was okay and that I wasn’t going to hurt myself. My therapist had put me on suicide prevention watch. I was utterly confused. Even though the minute I let the words come out of my mouth telling him about the mental exercise I conducted in suicide, I knew that I was going to get a strong response from him. A voice inside even told me not to and tried to stop me from speaking about it. But that pained one inside, she needed me to talk about it. She needed me to shake things up.

Better Late Than Never but What If…

I’m in my early forties right now and have been receiving therapy on and off since I was in my mid-thirties. A really difficult personal relationship pushed me to finally seek help. But I should have done so many, many years before. I should have sought therapy shortly after my father passed away a couple of weeks before my high school graduation. At minimum, I should have looked into grief counseling. 

“Destructive behavior was bringing me closer to the pain”

At that time, that was the most devastating thing I had experienced in my life. Although I was part of a large Pakistani-Muslim family that was surprisingly well-connected with each other (relatively speaking), I don’t recall having many meaningful conversations about how the passing of my father affected us. Actually, I only remember these kinds of conversations taking place after I had a few drinks. Destructive behavior was bringing me closer to the pain that would become my biggest defining moment of that time.

Drinking While Muslim

As I am sure you know, drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam. But the drinking culture in America can make it hard to avoid, especially when you are facing a ton of pressure (social or otherwise) and stress in your life. Many of my peers, Muslim and otherwise, started drinking while we were in high school, however I waited until later in college when I was 20 years old. Before then, I never felt like I wanted to drink so I didn’t, but maybe the peer pressure finally wore me down or the passing of my father made me emotionally more vulnerable. Whatever the case was, I made up for the years of non-drinking in my twenties.

“Alcohol helped me feel the happiest I’ve ever felt…and also the deepest ends of sadness”

Without fail, my nights always ended with me in tears, crying about all the sadness I had within. Whether it was over a difficult relationship that I was currently in, a past failed relationship, or the ever-present sadness of the death of my father. Alcohol helped me feel the happiest I’ve ever felt, most connected I’ve felt to people, and also the deepest ends of sadness. It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I finally parted ways with drinking alcohol, which hasn’t been easy to do since everything in the Western culture, even my work culture, revolves around drinking. But I’ve managed to maintain this for myself because I know the darkness that can quickly come around the corner when I don’t.

In reality, many Muslims drink but not enough talk about it. It is a growing problem in our community, especially when it’s abused or used as a coping mechanism to drown down our sorrows, or to avoid dealing with life’s many stresses and challenges. We need to promote open and honest conversations with one another, especially with the youth, and teach them healthier and more beneficial, long-term techniques to help them cope with their struggles so that they don’t resort to alcohol, and aren’t vulnerable when confronted with it, like I was.

This Wasn’t My First Rodeo

It took many years for me to realize that I have mild depression, which is characterized by its persistence. It’s always there. Back then, I didn’t call it by its name, because I didn’t know there was a name for it. I accepted it as just another part of who I am, kind of like the scattering of freckles on my face which have always just been there.

“I believed I should be strong enough to solve my own problems”

My life could have been very different if I had become aware of this much earlier. Like I said before, I most definitely should have gone for counseling after my father’s passing because that pain was at the center of many of my pivotal decisions. But I didn’t because I believed that receiving “outside” help was a sign of human weakness. I even refused to read self-help material back then because I believed that I should be strong enough to solve my own problems.

I believe that this way of thinking had been deeply rooted in me through my family upbringing. My dad died of a heart attack, suffering in silence from years of hard stress. He used to get up in the middle of the night pacing the house thinking he had heartburn, but we found out some of those “gas” episodes were in fact minor heart attacks.

Denial & Shame, It’s in Our DNA

My family isn’t the only South Asian, Muslim family that doesn’t openly talk about their problems. There are many that suffer in silence because speaking about mental health is taboo in our culture, and because of the strong sense of shame that we hold onto and let define our lives. Anything that will lead us to a bad or nonexistent marriage has to be avoided at any cost, so shame has a very broad-ranging definition in the South Asian society.

When it comes to mental health, there is extremely low awareness around this topic because not enough people are talking about it or taking it seriously. If no one talks about it, people don’t know that they aren’t the only ones going through what they are. When there is no sense of community felt, one feels isolated and could potentially suffer more than necessary. So, it’s important to find a way to talk about it, as well as other methods to improve your mental health. 

Five Ways to Improve Your Mental Health Year-Round

Strengthen Your Faith

The first time I ever reached out to God on my own accord was when my father passed away. I needed to believe that he was being taken care of. Prior to that, it was at the behest of my parents that I would read namaaz, or recite the Quran. But it was that day that I decided that I needed to create my own relationship with God, and it started out by me simply asking “Allah, please take care of Abbujji”.

Some people have an “all or nothing” attitude when it comes to Islam, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be that way. You can build your own connection with Allah in many different ways.  

These are the tools I’ve been using over the past few years which have helped greatly with my mental wellness:

    1. Conversations with Allah are not restricted solely to the prayer rug or reciting formal duas. I speak to Allah in everyday language, numerous times a day to give thanks, ask for guidance, and express joy.
    2. Namaaz/salah is a deeply meditative experience for me, where I consciously use my body and mind to flow through feelings, and reconnect to the universal power that is Allah.
    3. Ramadan is something I greatly look forward to every year because I use it as a much needed reset for my body and mind. Mental wellness is very much connected to how we feed our body. Fasting helps us detox in a powerful way, while also giving us the opportunity to being mindful about life in us and around us through prayer.
    4. Listening to Taraweeh on YouTube has been an amazing way to quiet my chronically noisy mind at night. I may not fully understand the Arabic words that are being said, but the natural intonation of the poetic language used in the Quran impacts my brain in the most soothing way.

Being able to make my faith my own and practicing it in a way that heals me, has helped me appreciate it more. I strongly encourage everyone to ask “is my faith working for me?” and then feel empowered to make it. It can be done!

Find an Ally 

I promise you that there is someone in your life who cares for you deeply and wants to help you be the best version of you. We all do. Our job is to let ourselves be open, honest, and vulnerable enough to let them in. Once we let those well-intentioned people in, our next task is to be courageous enough to share some hard stuff with them. It’s enough to let them know that you are just not “okay,” because sometimes we don’t understand what we are feeling, but we know that it’s weighing heavy on us.

Practice Courage

To be open about who and how we are takes courage. In the South Asian community, we never want to let others know there is something wrong with us, and that type of thinking only hurts us more. To break this generational cycle of shame, I truly believe that it starts with us practicing to be courageous. Just like we train our muscles at the gym, we can train our mind and heart by taking certain actions. Do something that scares you, and then do it again. For example, if you’re afraid of the dark, stay in a dark room for a few seconds. Then do it again, this time for some time longer. Then, keep repeating it over and over again. Standing in a dark room is different than opening up to someone about your pain, but many small steps can lead you to great distances.

Get It Out

Some may have to work their way up to actually start talking about their depression or pain, and that is completely ok. What’s important is to release the toxicity of this feeling, which can be done through writing, painting, building–anything you can do with your hands. I prefer writing, old-school style with pen and paper, because handwriting is a powerful tool for healing. It’s used in many forms of therapy because of the power it holds in strengthening the immune system and mind.

Take Care of Yourself

Even if our community is not yet ready to be completely open about depression and its impact on us and our relationships, there are still many other things you can do to bring about positive change in your life. By seeking information and help for yourself, you are taking the powerful steps to building the community we all need, starting with yourself. It’s in your hands to actively bring about positive change in your thinking and in your life. You could have all the resources and people at the tips of your fingers, but you have to make the effort. You have to be patient and open to different measures and advice because it may not be easy, and it may take some trial and error before you find out what works for you.

The steps that I took for myself were:

  1. Writing about what I was feeling
  2. Looking up information about depression & its different forms
  3. Reading about others who suffer from depression
  4. Talking about my experiences with friends & family

From this initial work, I was able to understand what my particular flavor of depression is which helped me figure out the best ways to manage it. No one depression is exactly like the next.

Lastly, a very important part of my self-care is to practice kindness to myself. Sometimes, it gets too easy for me to think that there is something wrong with me, which leads to the feelings of loneliness. I also have to practice expanding my own mind. I don’t like taking medicines and pills (and currently don’t take anything for my depression), but over the years I’m learning to allow myself that space, that if I need it, I should get it. Medicines can definitely help but it’s important to be mindful about what you take, and make sure you understand their uses and side effects. You have the power and the right to help yourself in any way that you need it.

Be Around the Right People

I started off this piece saying that you are not alone. That is the absolute truth. I am not alone in my suffering, nor am I alone in my healing. I believe that we humans are meant to coexist in a community of many through both our joys and sorrows. Thankfully in this day and age, it is much easier now to define what that community looks like. Make sure your community is made up of people who will be able to hear you say “I’m not ok,” and return that with “I’m here for you.” It’s ok for this to not happen overnight, because it certainly hasn’t with me. Take your time, do it at your own pace, and let the goodness come pouring in!

Have you ever dealt with depression? If so, we would love to hear how you have managed it for yourself!

Aishah Iqbal
Aishah Iqbal

Someone once told Aishah that because she was born in Indonesia, she was Indonesian. Of course, she disagreed because her family is originally from Pakistan. But Aishah also had a hard time completely believing that she was a Pakistani Muslim herself since she never lived there. At a young age, she had experienced many different countries and cultures with her family, with each stop deepening her own confusion about who she was. This lead to many years of crafting a persona that looked great on paper–pursuing higher education at respected educational institutions, working in highly sought after positions in well-known companies, and living in places that many people dream of visiting. But it was only after she gave birth to her daughter, as an unmarried woman, did Aishah finally realize who she was and why she wanted to be here. From that moment on, her life has been adventurous and fulfilling in ways that she never imagined. Now in her 40s, Aishah is not only a highly successful marketing executive in Silicon Valley, but also a blogger, author and life coach for moms. To see how she views the world and life around her, follow her on Instagram @aishahiqbal.

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