Posted on Nov 07, 2019
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
Anyone walking into the house would see nothing out of the ordinary. My infant son crawled around after his toddling sister while I stood at the kitchen counter, slicing onions in a painstaking attempt to make them paper-thin for dinner. I slid the razor-sharp knife through the translucent white bulb, letting the fumes sting my eyes. I sniffled and wiped at the tears flowing down my cheeks.
Anyone walking into the house would think they were from my task, but that wasn’t the cause for the tears. No, they had been spilling from my eyes most of the morning, a testimony to the helplessness I felt from the inability to keep the crawling feeling from creeping up my spine or my heart from palpitating every waking hour.
Anyone walking into the house would see me as just another woman making dinner. They probably would not notice my finger twitching on top of the knife handle, which got more intense as the kids started to cry and made their way to my legs. They would not hear my pulse coursing so fast and hard through me that I felt it throb under every inch of my skin and pound in my head, intensifying the babies’ shrieks and the drone of the preschool show.
All of it streamed into my ears, mixing with the obsessive thoughts of death that had kept me on the edge of sanity for months. You’re going to die. You’re going to die. It played in my mind like an mp3 player on repeat. Nobody ever noticed that.
The babies didn’t notice either. They just saw Mommy, the person who had whatever they needed. My son tilted his head back and held up his arms. He screeched. More than an irritation, it pierced inside of me, making my heart reach the point that it felt like it was going to burst through my chest. You’re going to die. You’re going to die.
I looked down at him and my daughter, who tugged on my t-shirt stained with who-knew-how-many-days-of-mothering. There was no way I could remember how long I had worn it or even my last shower. I couldn’t remember my last moment alone without the raging fear racing through me.
I let go of the onion, but not the knife. You’re going to die. You’re going to die. It was all too much. I felt like an animal in a trap, desperate to do anything to escape. I wanted nothing more than to have the kids stop, for everything to just stop. You’re going to die. You’re going to die. I yanked my daughter’s tiny hands from my shirt and stomped away from her and her brother. I couldn’t help them or myself.
I went into the bathroom and slammed the door. Their little muffled cries seeped inside. I couldn’t get away from them or the obsessive thoughts. I lifted the front of my shirt, now wet with tears and sweat covering me. You’re going to die. You’re going to die. I looked at the knife in my hand and thought of how I could use it to end months of lack of sleep, pain, grief and despair.
Time out. This is hard to retell. I need some tea and a breath. All right, where was I?
When Quran and Prayer is Not Enough
I was pinned down, shivering and cowering in the bathroom with a knife, like some bad Lifetime movie. I was alone and scared. Nobody knew how badly the thoughts and feelings wracked my mind, body and life. On the outside, I looked fine. Well, save the rumpled old clothes and messy hair, but what new mother doesn’t look that way? I didn’t understand the torrent of emotions ripping through me. I thought I was going crazy.
I hid it at first. I was a new mother, and there was no way I was going to admit to anybody or even myself that I was not doing a great job. After all, I prayed for these little blessings. But, the anxiety just got worse. One big mistake I made was to read Islamic scholarly books to address my problems instead of seeking professional help. I would read that all I needed to do was pray or read Quran more. It sounded great, but when a person has you’re going to die running through their mind and is on constant edge, it is impossible to concentrate on prayer.
Anxiety negatively impacted my ibadah. I was detached from worship and only felt worse because it didn’t “fix” me like the books said it should. So, I was a bad Muslim and turning into a bad mother.
I snapped at the babies more, becoming less motivated to care for them as twitches and spasms plagued me. I was exhausted with no prospect of re-energizing myself. Sleep evaded me. When my little ones slept, I shuffled through the halls or sat on the sofa, staring out the window. Another mistake I made was asking my general practitioner for help. She gave me some pills and sent me on my way. All those did was make me pass out. I slept, but I couldn’t do that often. My husband worked 80 hours a week. I needed to be conscious for my babies.
Layla with some of her friends after she addressed the symptoms of her anxiety and put treatment goals in place.
I set the pills on a high shelf next to my Quran and forged ahead. My ability to function dwindled. I was reduced to deciding between caring for myself or the children with what little bit of energy and focus I had left, which became less and less as the days passed. On that day, in the kitchen with the onion, I ran out of both. That was how I ended up crumbled on the bathroom floor.
Thoughts of harming myself or my kids jolted me to the reality that I needed professional help. I dropped the knife in the sink. My haggard visage stared back at me in the bathroom mirror. I had to pull myself together. But first, I balled up on the bathroom floor and screamed and cried, drowning out their little voices and scratches on the door.
After the last tear fell, I picked myself up, grabbed some animal crackers and juice, and lay in the middle of the living room. The babies climbed on me. Cracker crumbs fell around me as I called my husband and told him that I needed him home.
“Don’t worry, Layla. I’m coming now.” It was one of the most wonderful things he had ever said to me. By the time he got home, the house looked just about the way I felt inside. He scooped up the babies and looked at me, his eyes filled with worry. “I got the kids.”
There was a time that I would gloss over how bad I was feeling, but I was in crisis. That is where my anxiety had me.
Soon after, I found a therapist. The first thing he told me was that I wasn’t going crazy, I was experiencing anxiety, and it was treatable. Anxiety can be a serious condition made worse when the person living with it doesn’t get a break from triggering stresses, and motherhood is packed with it. During the three years prior to that pivotal moment, I lost a child, gave birth to my daughter, lost my mother, gave birth to my son and lost my grandmother. All of that and a bunch of hormone shifts served as catalysts for the “mother” of all anxiety episodes.
Insomnia came first, then the obsessive thoughts kicked in along with physiological symptoms that made it increasingly harder for me to care for my children.
Treatment and Healing for Mood Disorders
Untreated mood disorders do not fix themselves. They fester. My previous attempts to treat it failed because I did not understand what was happening to me. The more I learned about my disorder, the better Muslim and mother I could be by diminishing as many symptoms interfering with my worship and mothering as possible. I worked on techniques to cope with my anxiety. I paid more attention to my diet and appreciated the importance of exercise. Slowly, my symptoms faded.
Although anxiety symptoms may seem to come out of nowhere, they can be tenacious, causing ravaging effects on a person’s body. I was pretty weak and had to contend with muscle exhaustion, lack of energy and aches and pains. I discussed a care plan for our children with my husband. Alhamdulillah, he prioritized my need to heal and took on more responsibilities at home. I had to focus on restoring my depleted energy before taking care of home and family. I learned to avoid letting the daily level of care my children required drain and leave me vulnerable to another anxiety episode.
Living with a Mood Disorder
Triggers are going to happen. Sometimes, they don’t have that big an impact, but there are times when they can agitate anxiety. Noticing when a symptom manifests is important when assessing if it is time to shut things down and center one’s self.
Layla with a handle on her anxiety, living life!
With proper treatment, a game plan and my husband’s support, the mind-fogging effects of obsessive thoughts and constant fear lessened. I was able to engage in substantive ibadah that stabilized my emotions. I set aside time alone for salah, dhikr and reading Quran to connect with Allah and quiet my soul. When my anxiety was at its worst, I could not avail myself of spiritual advice. Once the symptoms diminished, I was able to benefit from Islamic scholarship about anxiety as a tool for prevention and use the advice offered as a way to reduce the length and intensity of any impending anxiety episodes.
The babies who scratched at the bathroom door back then are now in college, and we became parents to four more. With each pregnancy and birth – and through the stages of our kids’ lives – I tried to stay proactive about my anxiety and its influence on my relationship with them as their mother. It hasn’t always been perfect, but alhamdulillah, my anxiety has not been as bad as it was that day.
I benefited from constructing a self-care plan with a combination of professional and spiritual tools to keep my anxiety at bay as much as possible. It would be great if Islamic scholars collaborated with mental health professionals to help Muslims dealing with a range of issues. I was eventually able to bridge the gap between the realities of my condition and Islam, but it is a precarious to state to experience, which can lead to a crisis of faith that some do not escape.
Alhamduilillah, there are organizations like Institute for Muslim Mental Health and the Muslim Wellness Foundation that focus on mental and emotional well being in Muslim communities, but there needs to be more. Given the range of mental health issues Muslims struggle with, a holistic, Islamic-based approach to healing that integrates layers of scholarship, research and cultural relevance could help individuals and their families.