One of my first memories is of being sat in the big leather armchair that nestled in our living room bay window. I’m no older than 4 or 5 and my feet, dangling miles above the floor, are still warm from standing on golden strips of sunshine that fall across the flowery, red carpet. My mother is knelt before me, perfumed with the smell of freshly cooked chapatis, her warm, floury hands on my swinging knees. She’s asking me a question, smiling her ever-giving smile.
Do you want to break your fast now?
Of course I don’t, not yet. Not until the crisp, steaming samosas are lined up in a row. Not until I can peek over the thermos and catch a glimpse of the milky, sweet tea topped with caramel froth. Not until the golden strips on the carpet turn to streetlamp orange, surrounded by nothing but blackness, turning our living room floor into a sleeping tiger.
Obviously my mum can’t let me wait until sunset. As always, she compromises. One-eighth today (which of course is far bigger than 1/2) and another 1/8 tomorrow. One hour. No food, no drink. The devil locked up and only God has the key. It’s Ramadhan. It’s the time for hot curries and fluffy rice, creamy pink puddings and prayer calls, twinkling mosque lights hanging from the very same ceiling that looked over me as I took my first baby steps, that shelters hundreds of people every single year. Community. Family.
Face the facts
Cut to 18 years later. I am standing in an alleyway that stinks of piss. I am wrapping a headscarf back around my head, the stench of forbidden alcohol seeped into my clothes after a work night out. Out of nowhere, that first memory fills the darkness. My knees buckle as I fall to the floor in tears. On the bus, the voice in my head is screaming:
What happened to that 5 year old kid so eager to finish a fast, to learn the Quran, to pray 5 times a day? What happened to the girl who was always top of her class at Sunday school, who attended every function and wedding and commemoration? What happened to the young woman who walked her sister down the aisle, all the while imagining when her moment would come, when she’d give her parents a son-in-law, grandchildren? Teach them what she herself had been taught, continue the cycle.
It is only now when I look back that I realise she never actually existed. I did all of those things because it was all I had ever known, it was what my family and friends did. It was what I had to do to belong. Growing up within Islam, every aspect of your life is taken care of, from what you eat to how you dress, from the events you attend to the times you pray and the months you fast. Every milestone is covered, your community becomes your family. It can be beautiful, it can be life saving, even redeeming. When lived truthfully, it will break every misconception you might see or hear about.
But it simply wasn’t me. There was, and still is, no connection. From the heart, from where it matters. For the longest time my brain shielded me from this disconnect between the life I was required to live and who I actually was. It was a matter of survival. The structure of my whole being was wrapped up in this world. Walking away would leave me vulnerable, without any frame of reference, without a system by which to live. It would be like being born all over again but this time I would be completely on my own. And yet, as I look back now, I realise that every experience in my life all led to that very realisation; that walking away was the only way to survive.
At the age of 11 I started secondary school, a place I did not fit into. I was the only person in my year who wore a headscarf and my working class roots were miles apart from my fellow middle-to-upper class students. I tried and failed to learn how to belong. Eventually I stopped trying to make conversation; what was the point when I could never last a couple sentences? I retreated inwards, to books and writing and other worlds, counting down the days when I could finally walk out and never come back.
Finally that day came. Although I entered a confident, outgoing, some may even say popular primary school kid, I left a painfully shy, under-confident, introverted, awkward young woman. Seven years of schooling and the biggest thing I learnt was that something was seriously wrong with me.
Introducing a lifelong friend
There’s no doubt my depression began during those seven years. I felt nothing but anger, self-hatred and pain. And the worst part – I didn’t know why. I walked through each day with a knot deep in my stomach, pulling so tight there were moments I couldn’t breathe. I would lie on my bedroom floor, gasping for air, tears and snot all over my face, staring up at the poster above my bed of God’s name that I had drawn myself. Sometimes the desperation and anxiety would become so overwhelming I would get on my knees and beg, plead, cry for help, for an answer to a question I didn’t even have the words for. Most nights I would fall asleep repeating the same thing over and over; ‘I wish I’d never wake up’. I was beyond lost; I didn’t know who I was, what I was doing, or what I wanted from life. The only thing I did know was that something wasn’t right and that I had to fix whatever that something was; my life truly depended on it.
Find your tribe
University slowly started to pull at the knot, unravelling the strings, giving me a peek at something in the centre that I couldn’t yet make out. I learnt about cultural capital and suddenly my school experiences started to make sense. I didn’t fit in not because of me, but because I was simply from a different background, a different life. I had nothing in common with my classmates so no wonder I didn’t fit into their world. Pennies were dropping into the thermos.
My degree also brought with it the opportunity to travel, something I thought a woman couldn’t do by herself. Without realising it, I was brushing against the walls of a box I didn’t even know I was in. The hammers that were chipping away at it came in the form of different cultures, different ways of life, different people. My people. The people who saw me for who I was, under the headscarf, the brown skin, the layers of shyness.
Although university renewed my sense of belonging, depression remained my companion in this new world. The disconnect between myself and my religion was growing wider but it was something my brain continued to shield me from, it’s thickest defenses surrounding the fact that disconnect was the cause of my continued unhappiness. The possibility of leaving religion was incomprehensible. It was simply not done. Islam was a way of life, the right way, the only way. It was all I had ever known and I didn’t know of a single other person who had left it.
We all have that one moment in our lives that we realise, when we look back, was the moment that defined us. I consider myself lucky because I had two. The first came when I stood in a Hindu temple in Gloucester during a course at university. I was surrounded by candles, their flames merging together, dissolving into golds and reds and blues that rose up against the shields my brain still held up. The smoky incense was drawn in by the pores of my skin, travelling through the layers and into my lungs until I was breathing the same air as my Indian ancestors. The shield began to shake as the room filled with the chants of the people around me. They rose and fell like waves, my body feeling every vibration in every cell. I grew hot and then cold. The room grew dark and then light. The people grew quiet and then deafening. I needed air. Fresh air. I needed the world to be bigger than I had known it.
The shield shattered as I walked through the doors, and out of the box.
On the way home I realised I had experienced a greater spiritual connection standing in a temple for one minute than I had for the past 20 years in a mosque. Islam was not the only way. I had a choice.
That was my first defining moment. It would still be a little while until I had my next one. Until I finally had the courage to leave. Like I said, I didn’t know anyone who had left religion. It was a path without a trail blazer. And I definitely didn’t have any fire within me.
I started to research, to try and find someone who might have already struck that match, who could tell me I wasn’t crazy, assure me I wouldn’t regret this decision after I left this world. The prospect of eternal punishment petrified me. But what I found online was so much worse;
Culture drowning out the truth of religion, Ostracism, Loss, Anger, Pain, Guilt, Shame.
I would lose everything. Everyone I knew, my whole life. If I left religion I would be completely and utterly alone. I would have to run away. Away from my parents, my siblings, my home. My best friends. My community. Away from the thing that structured my whole life. That told me how to be a human being. And I would have to take all that shame with me. I would replace a life of pain with a life of guilt, and I didn’t know which was worse. I closed the laptop and sat for the longest time, until the sleeping tiger stirred and stretched, padded over and stroked her head against my legs, scratched her claws against my arms.
Guilt. Guilt was always worse.
I put the whole thing out of my head, I told myself it was a silly idea. That the doubts would pass, like everything else. I graduated. I started work. I rose up, I came down. The cycle of life. Up until then I didn’t even know I had depression; I had been having highs and lows for so long I thought it was completely normal. They were the Unsaid things, like the midnight arguments and slammed car doors. The things you keep to yourself. This would be my life from now on and I would have to accept that because the alternative, what I would have to do, it was not worth thinking about.
Covering the truth
But knowledge, insight, realisation. It’s like an infection. It sets in and starts to spread. I couldn’t escape the fact I was living a lie. In those years of limbo, I wished over and over that the final penny had never dropped, that I could turn back time and not know again, that those shields had been just a little stronger. Perhaps it would have been easier if the lie wasn’t so obvious but I couldn’t escape that headscarf, the people that would come up to me assuming who I was, the glass bottles and angry shoves, the spit on my face and the burning heat of bruises. And all that time the constant thought that went round and round:
‘This is not me’.
There would be times where I would stand in front of the mirror, putting on and taking off that headscarf over and over again, until the threads pulled and ripped. Eventually I would roll it up into a ball, throw it in the bin, and pull out the next one. Other times I would throw it across the room in anger, imagining it was the knot in my stomach that still hid from me the secret it bound tight. Other times still I would stand in front of the tracks waiting for the train home, watching my reflection in the windows of the carriages passing by, trying to match the glimpses of that stranger to the real girl I knew was me. Towards the end it was my body I wanted to throw across the tracks instead.
And so came the second defining moment, standing in an alleyway that stank of piss, wrapping a headscarf back around my head, disgust saturated on my breath. I sat on the bus on my way to Breaking Point, the last few threads in my stomach unravelling and trailing behind us. As I descended the steps, I carried home that final discovery that had been hidden for so long:
It was never about choosing between pain or guilt. It was only ever about living your truth.
There was no second choice.
It’s been three years since I wrote a letter to my parents and got on a coach to France. I genuinely thought I would never see my family or Birmingham again. Today, I’m not only back in England but also back in the same job. Although I have no contact with my extended relatives, my relationship with my family is stronger than I ever thought it could be, something I am incredibly grateful for. Depression is still a part of my life but surprisingly I’m also grateful for her too. I’ve learnt that she is more friend than foe, who comes into my life when I start to stray from living my truth. When I look back, I realise that every trial was doing just that. If there hadn’t been such a massive, visible disconnect between the life I was living and who I really was, I most likely would never have fought so hard to live my truth. And if I hadn’t done that I would have let life pass me by, a far more painful fate than anything I have experienced.
I still believe in the beauty of Islam and struggle when I hear people criticise it because I have seen first hand how much good it can bring if it connects to its followers. Although I’m still not sure what I connect to, I know that I will always believe in people.
Beautiful, messy, inspiring people.
They continue to surprise me, to give me the hope and strength to do all that I have done. The decision I made had a huge impact on my family but we are working through it together, bound by something stronger than the guilt or shame or fear that fight against us.
But perhaps that’s a story for another day. All I can say for now is that the mind is a funny thing, it can play tricks on us, convince us that things will be worse than what they actually are. Quite often they don’t turn out anywhere near as bad and even when it gets really tough, we still manage to find a way. So please, go for it. Whatever that ‘it’ is that will let you live your truth. The only thing holding you back is the belief that you are unable to do it. But you owe it to yourself to do it anyway.
There is no second choice.
Image credit: Free-Photos
H currently lives and works in Birmingham, England. Writing is quite literally a life-saver for her and has long since been the release she uses to process her depression. This post is a significant marker in her journey as it is the result of finally coming to terms with her past decisions. Next she will be embarking on a journey to raise more awareness of mental health within her particular culture and previous religion.
You can read more of her work and any future updates on her Instagram blog: https://www.instagram.com/goodthoughtsbank/
You can also listen to her newly launched podcast here: https://anchor.fm/goodthoughtsbank