Today’s blog post is from another guest contributor. She is the writer at themuslimhippie, which discusses the intersection of race, culture and mental illness. I’m so excited because she has agreed to write a series of posts about her experiences with mental illness. Here is her first! Let us know what you think in the comments below.
I’d like to begin by stating that I was thrilled and humbled to be asked to write for Slay Girl Society. I’m new to blogging and happy that my posts resonate with those in the mental health community. Today I want to talk about my experience being a mom living with mental illness in a Muslim community. It’s hard enough living with a bipolar I disorder. Harder yet when you’re a parent and spouse. And it’s even more complicated when you’re part of a tight-knit religious community. I’ll start my story here: When I was a new mother to my three beautiful children, I faced a reality that no mother should. I could no longer care for my kids properly due to the fact that I had suffered a complete emotional and psychological breakdown. I just couldn’t look after myself or anybody else in my family because I had gotten so sick. At the time I was teaching at a private Islamic school in the DC metro area. Nobody knew what the problem was. I had repeated bouts of mania and depression, but back then I didn’t understand what was happening. During periods of mania I was extremely irritable and agitated. I didn’t sleep and I rarely ate. Even when I did eat, I was ravenous and losing weight. I felt constantly revved up. Every little thing my kids did worked on every nerve I had. No matter what. And they were extremely good as far as children go, so it was hard to understand why I was constantly frustrated. My friends would pull me aside and tell me to calm down; that what the kids were doing was normal, and nothing to get upset about. That didn’t help. In fact, it made me more frustrated and frankly embarrassed. Embarrassed that I couldn’t control myself and embarrassed that I let the smallest things get to me. During periods of depression, I couldn’t take care of my hygiene or that of the kids. And I wasn’t able to cook or clean much, if at all. And I slept so much. I just didn’t want to get out of bed. My husband at the time also was unclear about what was happening, and tried his best to understand. It was extremely hard on both of us.
When we moved from a small condominium to a house closer to mine and the kids’ school, I thought things would get better. But they didn’t. My symptoms got even worse. I was annoyed with everybody all the time and constantly frazzled. I couldn’t manage the children at all. And it was noticeable. One day when I was teaching my 3rd grade class, one of my students mentioned that her father was a psychiatrist. I jumped at the chance to get his information and called him right away. By this time I was really struggling, worse than I ever had before. In college I had gone to a psychiatrist and psychologist for depression issues but I stopped seeing them when I became Muslim. I mistakenly thought I wouldn’t need that kind of help any longer once I was more religious.
Anyway, when I went to see this doctor, he initially diagnosed me with ADHD. This was because I only described those kinds of symptoms to him. I didn’t mention the depression or agitation. I didn’t think I needed to. Plus, in those days, depression wasn’t really talked about in my community. And when it was, it was deeply frowned upon. Religious people don’t get depressed was the general consensus.
For a while, the ADHD meds helped calm my anxiety. And they helped me tune in more to my job as a teacher and as a mother. But shortly thereafter I had a severe manic episode. I knew things were going south when the neighbor made a comment about me mowing the lawn so often. At one point I was using the push mower on my grass up to 6 times a day. I realized something was really amiss. So I went back to the doctor and let him know what was going on. He diagnosed me with Bipolar I and quickly got me on a mood stabilizer and vitamins.
Initially, those closest to me were supportive. They knew something was wrong and agreed with my decision to get help. But that support soon evaporated after I started taking medication for my bipolar disorder. People felt that as a Muslim, I shouldn’t rely on Western medicine and that my problems were only spiritual in nature. They told me that if I just re-established a firm connection with God, my issues would go away. So reluctantly I listened, though I also tried to keep up with my medication regimen in addition to the prayers.
When I first got sick, I didn’t understand the importance of psychiatric medicine and ended up not staying compliant with my treatment. Both due to my own ignorance of how ill I was, and because of the stigma I faced. Of course this led to a complete and total breakdown. At which point we had to make a drastic decision. My children’s father was extremely busy at work and couldn’t take time off to support my needs. He was not only taking care of our family but his family back home in Senegal. So because of my illness and his work schedule, we decided to send the kids to his family in Dakar so they could help us take care of them. It was the hardest decision of my life, but I knew if we didn’t do something, I wouldn’t make it. And I was extremely worried about the kids living with someone who wasn’t well. At this time, neither my ex-husband nor I knew anything about inpatient treatment or any other support for those with mental illness. And certainly nobody in my community mentioned these things to me. Maybe if we had known, we would have done things differently.
Needless to say, the choice to send my children overseas changed my life. Of course we missed each other like crazy and we talked multiple times a day for the entire time they were there. And I was able to visit multiple times. But while I was here, I focused on getting well, and learning more about bipolar disorder. Over time learned to trust my medical team with my health, instead of my community. Though I understand that people were well-meaning. With treatment and hard work, I was able to get my illness under control. And my kids have been back in the states for the last 5 1/2 years. I’m now able to be the mom I always wanted to be and keep up with my mental health as well.
I’ll never forget the time I spent without my children. To this day I wonder if we did the right thing. But knowing that the kids are now fluent in French and Wolof (Senegal’s national language) and have close ties with their family in Senegal, makes it all worth it. Especially since they returned to a happy and healthy mother. Being a parent with mental illness is a challenge I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But with proper support and treatment, you can be a successful parent and a healthy patient. It just takes time.