It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – Charles Dickens
If you are looking for something related to philosophy or epistemology, psychology or spirituality, something related to rediscovering ourselves in motherhood and marriage, a story about unaddressed perfectionism, an existential crisis, depression, the tug of war between being intellectual and emotional, between being too feminine and not feminine at all, then welcome. You are in the right place.
Where do I start?
[Before I do, I need to put a DISCLAIMER here: This post is not a diagnosis, a cure or professional advice. I write foremost for myself- to make sense of things which have recently gone haywire in my life, secondly to put my writing out in the world for hopes that some soul somewhere may benefit and thereby make my experience one with more meaning than it seems to be right now. Thirdly, to produce a piece of ‘writing’ that people may enjoy 🙂 I acknowledge that this may only be *my* experience, and only my circumstances, so I encourage others to seek proper Islamic knowledge as well as professional psychological diagnosis for their own circumstances. The least of what one can gauge from this piece, hopefully, is the importance of each science or art Allah SWT Has Placed on this earth. Bismillah (beginning in the name of Allah- God)]
The featured Image of me and son number one is one which depicts the truth of my times in Okinawa being the best of times and the worst of times. My personal times I mean. Till now, at least. It was the best of times as we were in the most beautiful island on Earth. Golden beaches, crystal clear water, sometimes deep blue, sometimes turquoise, the most breathtaking sunsets. And here, in the photo, we were at a park. It’s called Neo park, but it was more like a haven of simple nature. It was not so pretty and not made up as other places we had visited and neither was it as beautiful as the botanical gardens Japan is famous for, but as we walked through the track they had made, I stopped as soon as we reached this particular tree. It seemed to be the tree I had always only read about in books. Even now it seems like a dream and only the picture testifies that I was actually there, right beside it, a wanderer but also a mother. I spent only a few moments beside it, not hours as I would have liked and imagined, sitting beneath it, indulging in a book. In Jannah, in shaa Allah. Does it really show that it was the worst of times? No, not really. But as I remember the park itself, it reminds me of how it wasn’t really something so special. It wasn’t really something to boast about – the picture hides that fact. Just like the apparent goodness of my time in Okinawa hides the difficult aspect of my time here.
So how do I begin? What is this about? It is about an existential crisis to put it bluntly. But let’s start with motherhood.
Motherhood is a topic written about by thousands. It is a reality of life still confusing to me. It is an experience of life I am still going through. Perhaps, my difficulty in this regard arose because of three things: 1) my need to Philosophize everything in life, 2) my need to follow guidelines and instructions in whatever I do and particularly guidelines that would lead to a successful Hereafter, not just a successful dunya, 3) my need to be exceptional, if not outright perfect or super at whatever I do. Notice the word I used- yes, I was used to being gifted- whether it was art, writing, reading, I always found myself above average in most things, except … household skills – no wait, I could even be exceptionally organized once upon a time, but that miraculously changed, thanks to – hormones? taqdeer? Bear with me please.
Reading on a multitude of topics, I realized this about myself in retrospect- I had always been studious- and I had come to define myself by my worth to study, disseminate knowledge and make sense of life. Household skills took a back seat. I mean, sure, I could bake well since high school. I learnt the basics of cooking when I was a teen. I never became an expert at roti making though (ah yes, my deep woe of never being a good gol-roti bahu)… Five years down the road in marriage, my husband surprised me (no, shocked would be a better word) by making a perfect gol roti. Failure. That is what I felt. As I write this, it seems unreal the sense of failure I felt at that time. Surely, it could have been a time to rejoice and celebrate my husband’s unexpected expertise at something so ‘womanly’ as roti making? But all I could feel was failure and guilt. Guilt at not being a superwoman. Guilt at not being a super housewife. Guilt at not having everything in my house under order. (It did not help that I saw my husband’s mother as well as my own mother be the most expert, super housewives) Guilt at feeling incomplete in my life, as I found myself on a tiny island, where my husband had started his new research as a Mathematician, and where I had to face isolation -social and intellectual. It was in this scenario, that I began to question who exactly I was.
The questioning came with anxiety attacks. It came with bouts of depression. Sure, I was a Muslim. That was my first identity and one I had always identified with. But I had always been a cool, idealist, sensitive but not whiny type of intellectual being. I use the word being because I never really even identified with being a ‘woman’ for fear of being associated with sensitivity and crying and emotionality. I never identified myself with mothering and housewifery.
But here I was, a woman to the core. I think all of us have femininity and masculinity in us. This is a topic for another time. But here I was, unable to face the femininity in myself.
There seems to be nothing exceptional about my story, but at the same time there was. I read articles on articles about staying at home moms and their struggles. But there was something rare about what I experienced in this island called Okinawa – the Hawaii of Japan.
I had a crushing experience. I felt despair, darkness in my soul, hopelessness, loss of interest in life. In short, it was nothing short of a mid-life crisis. It touched an existential crisis of sorts. But the punch line was, I always thought I had passed all that. I couldn’t believe I was going through it. I thought I had the answers to everything. I thought that my four years worth of deep study of my beautiful Deen was all there was to learn about life and the hereafter.
And I was wrong. And I was right.
I was punched hard in the stomach, and I fell down, the wind knocked out of me, on all fours.
What did I do? How am I here, writing this?
It is not a journey that can be penned down so easily. I cannot write about the heart-wrenching moments and sometimes hours of pain I felt, searing through my broken heart and soul. I cannot explain what exactly ‘pained’ me. Was it the fact that I was at a point in life where nothing seemed to make sense- not the marriage I had said yes to, for the sake of my Deen, not the children I had who were a fitnah, not the 10 years of Deen I had studied, which were not helping me in my crisis when I wanted. I did tawba again and again, because surely, that would bring ease again. But I kept falling down, bruised and hurt. In such a time and place, I turned towards psychology. What was wrong with me?
Over a course of months, I began to realize that it may just be other, very simple, practical things that I was not paying attention to; perhaps simple skills that I was lacking.
So I turned to psychology to understand myself better. But I was afraid of it. I was at a place where I had never been before. Was it marriage? Was it motherhood? Was it my idealism that was destroying my inability to live like others? Things seemed simple and profound at the same time. Everybody looks for love and happiness. We look for it in the ‘wrong places’ they say. It is only truly with Allah SWT. But I couldn’t find Him. I tried so hard. And some days I did. As I poured my heart out to Him I knew He would make it ok. But on other days, I could not make sense of my life and my akhirah. It was my fear of akhirah that made me hopeless. Surely, the fear is supposed to be there
وَلِمَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ جَنَّتَانِ ﴿٤٦﴾ فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
But for such as fear the time when they will stand before (the Judgment Seat of) their Lord, there will be two Gardens- (46) Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?- (47)
But why was it leading to despair? Why couldn’t I find a balance? Why, even after reminders from my husband about the Mercy of Allah and about hope did I fall into the crippling fear again?
I knew the only way out was to have hope. But I was afraid of false hopes. But I had to hope. I was afraid of failing but I had to try. I was afraid of losing but I had to strive to gain something.
A psychotherapist told me that my ‘being’ was facing fears because it had been exposed to sudden loss. It made sudden sense. I couldn’t heed my husband’s words, or everything that was stored in my brain because I was questioning it all. Because I had lost trust in something. There was the loss of my mother in 2009, then there were two other incidents which were deep losses to myself. They involve other people/organizations and so I have left them unnamed here and hence the exact nature of those losses also remains unmentioned- but they were deep. And profound.
I thought about the losses the Prophet (s) had faced. I thought about losses other people faced. But what was troubling was the isolation I felt within my own story. They had not felt depression. But I was feeling it in my soul.
I felt like I was abandoned by everyone I knew. I tried desperately to hold on to the Rope Allah SWT mentions in the Quran, but the truth was, that I felt I was drowning. That every rope I thought I was reaching out for was slipping out of my hands and letting me sink deeper and deeper.
There were a billion small steps that one needs to take from rock bottom I think. A million tiny thoughts that provide the bubbles that let you breathe. A thousand positive reminders that you desperately hold on to.
Risking simplification, I propose that these steps helped me:
- I knew I was facing isolation, and a kind soul whom I had never met but contacted on whatsapp told me that I had to strive harder to reconnect to people. As I did that, over the period of a month or two, I connected on social media to people I felt I could relate to. I consequently also brushed off and disconnected the influence and advice of very close people in my life- whom I considered close because of the years of life we shared, because of experiences we shared, because our relationships had been made in Allah’s Name. And despite all that, I was standing at a crossroads in life where I simply *had* to disconnect – because they were no longer positive for me. I had to make sure it was not a condescending letting go- it was because it was a desperate need at that time. They were debilitating me. They could no longer lead me back to my Allah SWT, who was the Sole Relationship I knew I had to keep. It was the relationship that was taking the brunt too. Yes. It was a spiritual, deep struggle within my being. It was a war of thoughts. A war of emotions.
- I had to tell myself that my struggle had meaning. That there was a purpose. A higher and positive purpose. When we tell ourselves that this is a crucial lesson we are being taught, then the pain we are going through is easier. So I believed that there would be light coming in through the cracks. That yes, though I eventually had to figure this out, that I had to make sense of the things that were not making sense, I also had to trust the uncertainty that life is. Uncertainty is a part of being human. We do not know what is going to happen in the future. We do not know if our efforts will necessarily bear fruit in this life. Unexpected things happen. We are afraid of our akhirah too. But, this is part of being human. And that is when I saw how tawakkul (trust) in Allah swt helps believers in this uncertain world. Even my mental war within cleansed me of sins or granted me reward. This uncertainty wasn’t a curse- it was a rahmah. It was a win-win situation in shaa Allah no matter how hurt I got in the process. (I also had to white-wash certain things I had heard which I previously couldn’t forget – so I voluntarily, consciously let go of the thought that this was a punishment because I was failing in being patient. I chose to look at it as a Mercy for me.)
- I realized that ‘depression’ was not something that should be mentioned at all in places like Islamic talks. Depression is a clinical illness, and if it is mentioned at all, then it should be done with far greater awareness than it ordinarily is. It is not always ‘only’ spiritual and only because we are far from Allah swt. There may be other reasons such as isolation, because Allah swt has Made us social beings. Mentioning that a true believer would not or could not be depressed may make someone who lacks a deep knowledge about Deen become despondent. And the speaker would only be egging him onwards in his despair.
- I *had* to improvise. I had to find meaning and enjoyment in so called ‘fruitless’ activities, because I realized I had some time on this earth – and even though I desperately wanted to only do those things which made a positive difference to my akhirah, I knew that mundane things could be made ibadah… and that I was thinking too much and reading too much into it. So I picked that sketch book again and drew. I started with the sunrise. I sketched. And I took in the details of that sunrise like I hadn’t for a long time. I had forgotten what Nature could do to us. How Allah SWT Has Called His Creation signs that point to Him. Even today I need to remind myself of this. I do not know where and how I lost this lesson that I knew so well in my teens. But I decided to relearn it.
- I realized practise and experience makes one wise. There was so much knowledge of do’s and don’ts that I had accumulated, that I realized that a person like me needed to stop and pause. I needed to put it all into action now. I was inhibited because of all that information and I had to come out of it by action. Even if it meant starting a blog which would make me question myself every time. Am I doing this for fame? Is there any ikhlas in this? Is this just lahw? As I questioned myself, I began to learn that I must choose positive answers. Yes, yes and yes. It is not fame, rather it is a hope that people will benefit. Renew the intention. Allah SWT will Judge me. Not my teachers, not my friends, not my spouse. He is Nearer to me than my Jugular vein.
- I was filled with doubts about myself, my decisions, where I was in life, and even about the people in my life. So I connected to the ONE THING which I knew about for sure. Which carried no doubts. The Qur’an itself. Laa raiba feeh. Wherein there lies no doubt. (Qur’an 2:2)
This last point is important. Alhamdulillah for the sarf and nahw I studied in the last decade, that I could engage with the Qur’an at a deep personal level. We can study the tafseer, recite, memorize. We can connect with the Kalaam of our Lord to get some clarity in our thoughts when we are so confused. This connection itself alhamdulillah brought some stability in my inner self. I kept letting go of any sentences that were ingrained in my heart that I may have heard in talks/bayans that were crippling me or making me negative. My husband reminded me that anything negative in our mind was a misunderstanding of what we were comprehending- because Deen brought nothing but positivity. (as I mention my husband a few times, I also feel a need to clarify that while he tried his best to help me, he also hurt me at times, as that is what life is. It is not a perfect fairytale. None of us is perfect and we each make mistakes. But striving in this world is the purpose of existing therein, and creating that fairytale in the Hereafter is our purpose for striving here. Alhamdulillah)
So I kept filtering the negative thoughts. I faced anger. See post Anger. It also helped to realize that anxiety or mental health issues arise when we have unaddressed emotions within ourselves. And so I paid more attention to my emotions. Why did I feel angry? Was it really a misunderstanding my husband had that angered me? Can I clarify it? Why was i confused? What was I confused about?
As I did all this, I began to see the positive truths about things. I had always ‘known’ them. But I hadn’t ‘felt’ them during this time of depression. It was as Dickens says: I had everything in front of me, I had nothing in front of me.
I still struggle. There are days when I wonder why the world is so insensitive. Why are we so lost in our own happiness, unable to serve others? Even those who apparently are serving others have imperfections. They can be insensitive. I can be insensitive. That is when I remind myself that I need friends I can really relate to at my level of philosophizing. Friends who can relate to what I feel and say. There were many such women whom I connected to during this time, and I am grateful to each of them, and to Allah SWT for making me realize there are so many out there like me. And that even if sometimes as we pass through this tunnel of life, I may not feel like I have anyone next to me, I am going to come out at the other end in shaa Allah.
These struggles are ongoing. They are a part of life. Some of us may be tested with wealth, some with the loss of lives, some with physical sickness, and some with mental illness.
Through all of these tests, the navigation needs to be made with the help of the Qur’an. The navigation has to be made with this deep belief that Allah SWT Loves us and Wills the Best for us.
Sometimes we lose the basic self esteem that we are supposed to have – the self respect that our connection with Allah SWT Grants us. This inherent belief that we are worthy of love. We are worthy of belonging. It is sometimes simply a lack of this self worth that make us distant from our Merciful Lord.
(The especially Merciful, the eternally Merciful)
Sometimes, I think, this was the best of times, because He Wished to Show me, that at times it is only in His Mercy we can find relief. The same Mercy that I used to think people take for granted… I learnt to cherish it.
وَهُوَ الْغَفُورُ الْوَدُودُ
And He is the Most Forgiving, the Loving (Affectionate)
(Quran; Surah Burooj 85:14)
Sometimes we seek Him. We learn about Him. At other times, He Teaches us Himself. And you realize, even when we were seeking Him, it was still Him, Seeking us.
Prophet Sulaiman’s dua is one that I wrote down and pinned on my kitchen cabinet:
Beautiful and comprehensive. Ameen
“My Lord! Grant me the power and ability that I may be grateful for Your favors which You have bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may do righteous good deeds that will please You, and admit me by Your mercy among Your righteous servants.”