“Muslims don’t get depressed.”
You may have heard this before. If you did, you probably felt irritated, upset or even more depressed. If you’re hearing this for the first time, you’re probably just as shocked and angry as I was.
If you agreed with that statement, then you are wrong. Muslims do get depressed. That’s because Muslims are people. Humans. Some battle depression on a regular basis.
Today, I’m writing about depression: what it is, why people like me have it and what my faith has to say about it.
Having lived with long bouts of depression my whole life, I can say this: depression is a paradox. Sometimes it’s genetic, caused by an imbalance of hormones or chemicals in the body; sometimes it’s caused by environmental factors. And sometimes it just happens.
If you Google search “depression”, you see people looking miserable, curled up in a ball, holding their heads, often in a dark room. In all honesty, this looks more like a hangover than depression. Depression isn’t something that’s so identifiable. Outwardly a person can appear normal, chipper and even upbeat, but inwardly they feel gloomy, almost dead.
As noted by Andrew Solomon in his excellent TED Talk, the opposite of depression is not happiness; it’s vitality. Depression leeches your drive to live. And here’s the kicker:
When we’re depressed, we often know it’s absurd. We are well aware of all the good things we have in our lives, but we have no vitality to find happiness in these things. Depression isn’t just one of those things you can cure by saying “just pray more” or “just look on the bright side”. We know there’s a bright side, it’s shining right in our faces, and we want more than anything to be wrapped in its light, but it doesn’t penetrate beyond the skin. Depression is like being trapped in a maze inside a glass box filled with darkness, and you’re trying to find the door.
Package of Me
It took me a while to understand that I had mental illnesses. Though never clinically diagnosed, throughout my life I dealt with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive tendencies and more. In my teens, I thought I’d grow out of them when I was an adult. As an adult, I realized that I wasn’t ever going to grow out of them. I realized that I was going to be dealing with these things all of my life.
As for what causes it, I couldn’t tell you. Sometimes it’s triggered by an event in my life (such as a traumatic experience with a sheikh). Sometimes it’s just because I woke up and things seem indescribably off. Sometimes it just happens.
It took me a while to realize that I was going to be dealing with depression and mental illness my whole life. But when I did, I just came to accept that these are part of the package of me. It’s part of who I am. And you know what? That’s ok. Sometimes it’s ok to not be ok. Sometimes you just have to talk straight with yourself and say, “Today I am depressed, I don’t know why, and that’s ok.” And then look forward to better days.
Towards Calmer Seas
The immediate problem is that people (not just Muslims) seem to equate “depression” with “being ungrateful”. Or that “depression” is just about being sad all the time. That’s not true.
There seems to be this perception among the over-zealous that, as a Muslim, you should have no attachment whatsoever to worldly life and that if God chooses to take something away from you—whether it’s a job opportunity, or the life of a loved one—then your faith is weak if you feel sad because of it. They believe that being a Muslim somehow makes you immune to mental disorders or even general sadness. Again, that’s not true. But being a Muslim has given me strength to deal with depression.
There are two aspects in particular that have helped me to accept my depression.
First is that no storm lasts forever. There are two verses in the Qur’an that I’ve held onto as a lifeline through difficult times: “And, behold, with every hardship comes ease: verily, with every hardship comes ease.” (94:5-6). To me it’s a promise from God that no matter what difficulty you go through, it’ll eventually pass. Things will get better. They always do.
The second is that we are all tested in ways that are unique to ourselves. Some people are tested physically, some financially, some emotionally. Some mentally. I’ve been blessed with much good in my life. But many of my tests have been inward. Depression, anxiety and the rest are all inward battles that may not manifest themselves on the outside. In the process, I’ve been able to help those who are going through similar issues.
These are the circumstances God has given me and, as bizarre as this may sound, have become part of who I am. Mental illness is a part of me, but I don’t let it ruin me. If I could change that part of myself, I wouldn’t. So I say alhumdulilah—thank God—not because I enjoy being depressed, but because I know that without it, without the long struggles I’ve had to go through to face it, I wouldn’t be who or where I am.
There will always be grey days in our life. That much is certain. So while we can’t control the storm that rocks our ship. But we can batten down the hatches, adjust the sails and keep ourselves from sinking as we sail towards calmer seas.