Episode 1 - Muslim Woman with Bipolar
How to Deal with Bipolar Disorder as a Muslim Woman
Jul 2, 2020
Asaalam alaikum, this is Saba Malik, and welcome to episode one of the Mentally Fit Muslims podcast.
It all started in 2003. I was in college, and I was nearly done. But I went from getting 98% in calculus to barely passing linear algebra. I became so depressed. I used to love sitting in the math lab and listening to Shaykh Mishary recite Surah Mulk and doing integrals. Math was music to my ears. And it certainly showed on my report card. I also tutored English and I was active in social clubs around my school.
Then, slowly this beast crept up. It was always there. I felt there was some monster inside me. My nickname as a kid was “jin.” Yep. I was always moody. But I just saw that as a part of me. And I always had anger issues. School, studying, books, library, that was my refuge. And I always carried a journal with me. I started journaling in grade eight when I was in high school, and anytime I felt alone, misunderstood, or scared, I just took to my pen. You know, it was the only place I felt I could control my thoughts.
And in high school, I would see all my classmates, you know, chilling and talking. But I just didn’t feel like I fit in. And not just because I wore the hijab, but because I felt I had something, something growing inside me, something scary that I couldn’t even understand myself. I did many things that brought me very, very close to death. I don’t know where I got those ideas from, and why I actually went through with it. I felt like there was some monster inside me and it would take over. And when I would come out on the other side, I didn’t recognize who I was anymore.
I would look at all the destruction I did, from broken plates and walls to broken relationships. And I just had no idea how I could “flip.” And of course, other people around me were just as baffled as I was. Only they would say, “You know, let her be. There’s, there’s something inside her or she’s crazy. Leave her alone. There’s a jin inside her.”
And you know, it’s only recently that I’ve had the courage and even the stamina to tell my therapist about this “jin” label I got all my life. To the people who said it, it was funny, it was a way to explain something they couldn’t understand. But decades later, it still burns. So if words can burn, they can surely heal and that’s my hope for you.
If you’re listening to this, if you’re feeling alone, if you’re feeling misunderstood, if you’re feeling like an outcast, if you feel like you’re being stoned with stigma, whether you’re depressed, bipolar, divorced, “fat and ugly.” Well, welcome, my friend, your home. And here’s my story.
So back in 2003, I went from a high achiever to missing class and falling asleep in the tutoring lab. I just couldn’t keep up. My brain became muddled, and relationships became hard to maintain. I was full of rage and doing things like banging my head and ripping the drywall open. There was not a dragon but dragons and dogs and gargoyles raging in my head. They barked and barked and I was scared to death. So what did I do? I masked that fear with anger. And I just acted out.
Pretty soon the down came and man what a fall it was. I couldn’t concentrate in school, I would sleep a lot. I didn’t want to see anyone. Life just became a drag. Then I started university. I got accepted into a very prestigious and very rigorous program. But at that time, I just couldn’t handle it. I chose an easier program. But it wasn’t about the school because even that easy program became difficult. It was about the jinn inside me and whether I went to Harvard or Phoenix University, it would always follow me because it still does. I would get up and get ready for school and instead of going to class I would just skip and end up falling asleep in the library. Everything weighed me down, mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally.
Then, all of a sudden in 2004, the sun rose bright and shiny. The depression lifted like an umbrella flying away with the storm. Everything was fresh. I could think clearly again, and things looked new. Spring was here. I felt on top of the world. I felt free and light… too free, too light. I went so high without any drugs. I just rose and rose. I felt like a leaf being carried by the wind. And at that time, I was taking a chemistry class. I had a midterm and it was so easy. I knew every answer, and I finished the exam in an instant. I don’t know how I came home, but when I did, I felt so calm and peaceful. I was reciting the Quran and I felt I could finally think clearly again. But this was the calm before the storm.
Just as high as I rose, I fell. And man what a fall it was. I didn’t know it at the time but that was my first full-blown manic episode. I didn’t sleep or eat for seven days yet I had the energy of a horse. A Shaykh came to see me but that was a disaster. They thought I was possessed by a Jin. First I’ve been acting like a jinn all my life and now I’m possessed by one. What the heck is going on?
Well, I ended up in the hospital and after weeks of hospitalization and a lot of tranquilizers, I finally felt somewhat normal. You know, there are certain things you clearly remember when you go through a madness like this. And this was certainly one of them. I remember asking the psychiatrists, you know what is going on? She said, Well, we’re not really sure. It seems like you had a lot of stress and pressure and you had a nervous breakdown. So here are some pills, take them and you’ll feel better. Okay, Doc. So I went home, I took the pills, you know, for the amount that she gave me, for the time she gave me. I got better. So I thought I don’t need them anymore. You know, I thought that chapter was closed.
In 2006, I ended up back in the hospital with a whole manic episode and all that lovely stuff. Only this time it hit hard. And this time it was hard because it was public. And when you fall in public, guess what? Oh, do the vultures have a feast! And what a feast I became. That’s when I finally realized I had bipolar because I remember actually grabbing the notes from my doctor and actually looking at them and seeing that they had put bipolar in my file. But they never told me. Now I knew.
Even to this date, that time in my life still haunts me. Decades of therapy, self-care, life coaching, working out, and eating well, cannot undo the damage of careless words. Words like, “Did you hear what happened to her?” Words can burn a scar so deep, you can’t even recognize yourself anymore. The stigma, the gossiping, the fake friends…it becomes worse than the mental illness itself.
But my friends, if words can burn, they can surely heal. And that’s my hope for you. If you’re listening to this and you’re feeling alone, you’re feeling misunderstood, you’re feeling hurt, you’re feeling like an outcast, you’re stoned with stigma, whether from others or yourself, if you’re feeling depressed, you’re bipolar, or you got divorced or you lost a job if you feel you’re “fat and worthless”… welcome, my friend. Welcome home.
And the next two years were the most difficult time for me. It’s all haze. Now there are cobwebs in my memory. There’s an emptiness because, in those years, I became more and more invisible. I just retreated from everyone and myself. I was put on a high dosage of meds. I took the doctor’s words and took every drug she gave me. I was desperate for any cure. And in the span of one month, I gained 60 pounds. I went from running and playing soccer and skipping rope to barely being able to get out of bed.
Many psychiatric medications are chock full of side effects. And one of the deadliest ones that took me years to realize was weight gain. And if you’re taking Zyprexa, please please watch out. I was put on that and I had no clue about the side effects. In 2008, my older sister, my rock, the one I can still call at 2 am for help, took me to a seminar about mastering depression. It was an eight-hour drive, but she drove me. I remember sleeping in the bag while she drove. It was 3 am but she got me there. She got me to that seminar and everything changed from there.
The lecture was by a Shaykh that I really admired. And he combined psychology and Islam really well. And subhanAllah there, I got one message imprinted in my brain and heart forever. The message was: If I commit suicide, I will go straight to hell. That’s what the teacher told me. I mean, I knew it from before, too. But this time, somehow, someway, it really, really stuck. That seminar gave me such a heightened sense of myself. And I learned I had so much power. I had a lot of mental power over this depression and bipolar. It wasn’t a life sentence. And there was actually a lot I could do to stay away from suicide. I could stay away from ending my own life.
At this time, I also got a life coach and my life completely changed. That’s when I first started blogging, and that changed my outlook on bipolar. I found meaning in this beast. I realized that I had a mental illness for a reason. And that was to help and support other Muslims suffering from it. I went through hell and I made it on the other side, I made it out alive. And I must share this with others, with people like you who are still living through that hell. That became my life’s mission and still is. You know, the truth is, I still feel hurt. Bipolar and all the destruction, it still burns me today. And I have to do something with that powerful pain, that powerful energy. I have to channel it somewhere. So I come here. I turn that pain into words so you and I have a vocabulary for something that is almost incomprehensible. And it seems like I’m all about helping you but you also help me. When I sit here and record my story for you, hoping it makes you feel not alone, I don’t feel alone either. You’re actually the one helping me. You are lending me your ear. You are allowing me to enter your personal space and giving me your precious time. Just knowing that there’s a soul listening to my story on the other side, makes it feel real. It makes it feel real because it makes me feel it’s not all in my head.
It wasn’t because I didn’t pray enough. It wasn’t because Allah was punishing me. It was a real pain, real, raw mental pain. And you listening to these words validates that pain. And I’m deeply grateful to you for that even if I have no clue who you are.
I kept on blogging word by word. I documented my recovery. I documented my lesson from bipolar. And people started coming forward with their own stories, their own jinns, their own public stonings, and our words became our weapon. And just as words can cut and burn, they can surely heal. And that’s my hope for you.
So if you’re listening to this, and you’re feeling stuck, and you’re feeling hopeless, and you feel like there’s no way out, you feel the misconceptions of your illness, your bipolar or depression, you feel them caving in, you feel them eating you alive, then welcome my friend, welcome home.
So it was 2009 and even with a year of advocating and learning about my disorder, I still got another severe manic episode. This time it ended my teaching career just as I got started. I got sick on the job and I just couldn’t step back into the classroom. It was too traumatic. I looked for pity, for understanding, for help, but in all the wrong places. It wasn’t in the drugs, or the doctors or therapists. It wasn’t even in my family and friends. Each time I sought comfort in these things and these people, I just got sick and when I sought comfort in anything other than Allah, I would feel more pain. And I would just fall to my knees each time and when each time I fell to my knees I finally felt home. I was with Allah.
And that’s why I love prophet Ayub alayhi asalaam’s story. You know, he lost everything. But he didn’t lose “it.” He didn’t lose hope. He still didn’t lose life because he had Allah. Even at his lowest when he was bedridden, and he couldn’t move he said Alhamdulillah. He said, thanks to Allah.
So, bipolar was becoming less of an illness, and it slowly started becoming a blessing. And I ran with that. So at this time, I had a personal trainer. I was beginning to lose that Zyprexa weight, and I was working out regularly. And this really helped me keep bipolar under control. In September 2011, I completed my first half marathon. I found the love of my life. My mom said that I started walking at eight months when I was a baby while most kids are just learning how to crawl. I also started recalling vivid memories of running in my grandma’s fields on her farm. So running was freedom, it was freedom from my monstrous thoughts.
Then, I finally got married. It wasn’t easy, especially when I would tell the guys who came that I had bipolar. Telling them about my illness became a really, really good filter. And I don’t say that in a bad way. Hey, if you can’t handle that crazy side of me, thanks for letting me know. At that point, having bipolar wasn’t a personal failing anymore. It was just like having another condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.
And alhumdulillah, Allah finally sent me an angel, my hero, my rock, and my biggest supporter. He continues to be by my side and he really encourages me to continue my advocacy work. In November 2013, I completed my second half marathon. The same year I did a color run with my husband. Then I got pregnant and sick. After my daughter came, I had severe postpartum depression. I had severe manic and depressive episodes, and they required multiple and months of hospitalizations. My husband became my lifeline and May Allah protect him and bless his soul.
You know, subhanAllah, Allah never gives you hardship without giving you so much ease along with it. It’s like the hardship is wrapped up in a present with so many blessings around it. My daughter and alhumdulillah, masha Allah turned out perfect, and she’s the perfect child in every way. The pain of having her was all worth it. Allah gives me life through my daughter because the suicidal storms still clash with me. But this time, they never stay because I’m not just saving myself. I’m saving myself for my Noor. She needs me and bipolar can never take me away from her. So getting married, having a career, having a baby, any big life change, you can think of, good or bad, can bring a manic, or a depression episode.
In November 2015, I did my first 5k after giving birth. It was probably the most difficult run I did. But I’m glad I did it. Because shortly after that one, I had the deadliest suicidal attempt. nothing short of Allah saved me that day, my brain was gone, my body was gone, my everything was gone. But not Allah. I held on to him and he picked me up. It’s a time in my life that I can still recall vividly. And sometimes the memories scream at me again and again. And I have to see the lesson in it: That Allah is the One and only He can truly save me or take me. My life is really in my Creator’s hands. I’m happy I did that 5k right before this dark time because it became like a marker. And since that three-mile run, I’ve shaved off more than 20 minutes from my running time. In August 2016 I did an endurance 5k. I was probably one of the last people but I did it. I didn’t know it was an endurance run. And I saw my neighbor running with the breeze but alhumdulillah, I still finished and when I did, I fell to the ground and kissed it. It was like my Bolt moment, just my own moment.
So that 5k was a good stepping stone into my first 10k run. In May 2017, I did my first 10k. It was definitely difficult because I had to drive to another city, run the six miles and then drive back the same day. I forgot to factor in that drive and it was brutal. A brutal run can burn. It’s real. It’s physical, the pain is raw. And you know, in an odd way, it’s invigorating. I moved away from self-harm and channeled my energy into running. As my feet thump on the pavement, I feel pain, but it’s a pain that brings joy. It brings healing. Of course, it’s endorphins too but there’s something spiritual and running, I find, you know, especially when the sun is just peeking through and I can see the morning dew and I can smell the earth, I just feel at home. Then words don’t burn so much anymore. Words become just words.
In September 2017, I did a 6k trail run. It was a beautiful run. And if I could I would do it again. 2018 was a tough year and that reflected in me not doing any runs, or maybe not doing any runs actually made it a tough year. It wasn’t like a crazy, erratic, tough year, but it was just nothing much happened. So I deteriorated a lot. So what did I do in 2019? What else could I do? I did a 5k. I did a 10k. And I did a Spartan sprint. Yep. All in one year. Was I manic? No. I was actually sane during this whole time. So running keeps me sane. And there’s a whole support network behind that too.
And this is my story so far. It’s so far because I’m still alive and my journey will only end when I’m one with the earth. Until then, bipolar is still with me. It still pains me. It still taunts me at night, it often haunts me. And it festers in my mind. Sometimes it pesters my daily routines. But with another word I write. I pray and I get up again. Words can most certainly burn. “Oh she’s just crazy. Yeah, man, she’s just psycho. Stay away from her. Don’t go around her. She’s messed up. She’s got something in the head. She’s just pagal. She’s a bad Muslim. She’s so moody. She’s just depressed.”
Words burn but they also heal. So if you’re listening to this, and you’re feeling alone, like I once did, if you feel like no one gets you, if you feel hurt, if you feel alone, or you just feel different. If you can’t take the pressure if you just don’t fit in… Welcome my friend. Welcome home. We are the wild ones. We’re the crazy ones. We’re the “bad Muslims.” We’re the misfits. But mentally ill? We are not. We are fit. We are mentally fit because to survive the mental crap we go through, the mental storm we go through, we are forced to be resilient and strong. Anything less would have burned us to the ground.
So what did I learn from my bipolar journey, my bipolar story so far? Number one: what is meant to hit you will hit you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Number two: a mental illness is a great filter to weed out the fake friends and the real good ones who truly, truly matter even if that means people in your own family. Number three: Allah is truly the only One with you. Number four: tests and trials never come alone. They are side by side like two trains. They are always wrapped in blessings. You just have to be willing to see it and open them. Relationships are everything. Your relationship with Allah, with yourself and your loved ones.
I hope you enjoyed today’s show. See you next time.