Wrestling for Control of My Mental Health
Mental illness is a unique issue in that everybody has an opinion about what it is, how to treat it, the use/efficacy of medication, etc. Often, the person suffering doesn’t have a voice. In the past, I worked as a caretaker and nursing assistant for patients with physical illnesses; particularly cancer, diabetes, and kidney failure. I’ve also assisted people with neuropsychiatric diagnoses. There’s a distinct difference in the way we treat physical illnesses versus mental health issues. I believe this is due to the stigma attached to mental illness and a general lack of knowledge concerning the subject.
I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when I was healthy. I have bipolar disorder (bipolar 1), anxiety, ADHD and PTSD. At times I feel like a walking billboard for the DSM handbook. I was formally diagnosed in 2006, however I’ve been struggling since I was a teenager. I knew something was wrong in high school when I experienced repeated bouts of depression, mood issues and severe hypersensitivity. But at that time I had no name for what I was going through. I just thought I was different and somehow deficient. I was active in sports, had a close knit circle of friends and a supportive, loving home environment. Yet none of that shielded me from developing mental illness. That’s been the hardest for me to accept. Occasionally, I still feel as though all of this is my fault in some way.
Looking back on my college years, I see now that I was very troubled. I had extremely destructive coping mechanisms and no awareness of how my mental state affected my daily existence. I hit rock bottom during my last year of school. By that time, my lifestyle was wild and out of control. I didn’t care whether I lived or died at one point; I just wanted the pain to stop, and to find relief from the emptiness. I remember curling up on my bed in the dark one night and feeling the most alone I’ve ever felt. I knew things had to change or I wouldn’t make it. Soon after that I was introduced to Islam and eventually converted. I thought this was what I had been looking for and an answer to my problems. I was correct and mistaken at the same time. I did have a deep connection with Islam and knew I wanted to live according to this religious tradition, yet I was naïve in thinking I didn’t need to seek medical help for my psychiatric issues.
By 2006, I had a family of my own and was teaching at a private religious school in my area. I was studying in an intensive Quran memorization program and taught classes of my own, both during the week and on weekends. I thought everything was going great. But increasingly I noticed periods where I couldn’t function and I had trouble maintaining a sense of stability. I found a psychiatrist in my community with whom I discussed my concerns. He diagnosed me easily, as the symptoms were pretty textbook. I was ashamed but at the same time happy to have an answer about my mental health.
The initial response to my diagnosis was a superficial acceptance, that indeed something was wrong and I needed professional help. But quickly the tone shifted from one of understanding to blame and judgement. As my episodes became increasingly severe, people around me decided they knew what was happening with me better than my psychiatrist. They felt that mental illness had no place in a religious setting and that I needed to tap into my faith in order to heal. I was advised not to rely on Western medicine and that I simply needed to ‘toughen up’ and face my responsibilities as an adult. I listened to this advice despite my misgivings, and my illness got much worse, not better. After repeated episodes, meltdowns and unusual behavioral changes, I began to feel ostracized because of my instability. I finally decided to go to the hospital for treatment, as I recognized that I couldn’t handle this alone anymore.
This was the best decision I could have made and one that saved me. In the hospital I met so many people who knew exactly what was going on and how to help me. It took a long time and a lot of hard work, but I finally began to understand mental illness and how to proactively deal with my issues. After I completed a partial hospitalization program, I remember approaching the director of nursing for the psychiatric unit. In tears, I thanked him for his program, for giving me back my life and restoring my dignity. I told him that because of PHP, I had learned invaluable tools with which to handle my symptoms. And for the first time, I didn’t feel like mental illness was a curse that would ruin my life.
To this day, I still receive feedback on how to handle my diagnoses. Mostly from laypeople, well-meaning though they may be. But I’ve learned that the best way to address this situation is to listen to my body, and to my clinical team.
Tips for staying in the driver’s seat with your illness:
1. Always seek professional help and listen to the experts.
2. Know that it’s your right to deal with your health challenges in whatever way suits you best, not other people.
3. Never apologize for how you feel or accept being treated as ‘less than’ for having a mental illness.
4. Remember what they say about opinions 😉 and realize that when it comes to mental health, everyone truly does have something to say, helpful or not.
5. Find your tribe! I can’t say this enough. Find those who can relate to you and help you move forward despite any difficulties.
6. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. This can be a struggle when your illness affects your thought process and overall mentality, yet it’s vital to your well-being.
7. Ignore the naysayers. At the end of the day, you are the only one facing your particular issue(s) and the effects on your life. Leave those who only want to tear you down for those who will lift you up and inspire you.
8. Advocate. Advocate. Advocate. For yourself and those in the mental health community. Your voice counts and your experience matters. Help yourself and others by speaking up and helping to combat stigma.
9. Be vocal and specific about your needs. People can’t help you if you don’t tell them exactly what will work for your situation. *You may need to be repetitive until they get it 🙂
10. Give yourself a break. Don’t beat yourself up when things aren’t going well; remember that ups and downs are a normal part of life, and it’s even more true with mental illness.
By focusing directly on how mental illness manifests in my life and by following my doctors’ lead, I’ve been able to not only function but actually thrive in spite of whatever obstacles I face. I wish the same for anyone with similar life tests.
I am an African American Muslim in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, learning to come to grips with mental illness and the role it plays in my life. I am an advocate for mental health issues in general, and more specifically for Muslims dealing with Mental Illness. My goal is to bring awareness to this subject and to do my part in erasing the the stigma surrounding this disease. I have 3 beautiful children who are my inspiration and my world.