Photo credit: Hana Shafi AKA Frizz Kid

Depression Doesn’t Just “Go Away,” Even During Ramadan

It is 6pm, and the platform is unbearably hot.
The train just arrived, but it’s useless to even try to get on. Post-work rush hour in Grand Central is no joke.

I have no energy to fight the edgy commuters, so I stand back and watch them battle to squeeze themselves in the door, squishing themselves like sardines so that the doors can actually close and stay closed.

It’s okay. I’ll wait for the next one.
A few minutes later, the next train arrives, and I’m relieved that it’s less congested. I quickly scan the car to find a seat, but I’m not quick enough.

My commute home takes at least 45 minutes. I look around and want to yell out, “Excuse me! Where are the reserved seats for exhausted fasting Muslims? Any takers!!! Please?”

Of course, I don’t do that.
I barely have the energy to muster an “Excuse me.” So I remain standing as I lay my heavy bag down between my feet, put on my headphones, and try to absorb the cool air conditioning.

I close my eyes and focus on the rhythmic Qur’anic recitation filling my ears.

This Ramadan is hard.
It is really hard.
Not only because of the ~17 hours of daily fasting, but because, on top of this, the depression I’ve contended with since last winter did not magically evaporate with the arrival of more sunny days, or with the welcoming of this blessed month.
I felt so much anxiety leading up to the first day of Ramadan.
I felt unprepared, both emotionally and physically. I wanted the sadness and exhaustion and lethargy to go away already. To not ruin my month.

But mental health illnesses do not work this way. And it makes it no easier when a prescriptive hyper-celebratory Ramadan spirit is forced onto us–in mosques, in our homes, and on the internet–as an antidote or solution to depression. Making us feel like we’re not doing it right. Like we’re not fully feeling it. And that somehow that’s our fault, because we’re just not trying hard enough, not praying long enough. Not being Muslim enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the silence and erasure that comes with depression, both in and out of the Muslim community. Because it’s not easy or desirable to share its impact with the people we interact with everyday–whether family, colleagues or friends–over time, I’ve developed a different sort of consciousness with Allah SWT as result of depression. A telepathic communication of some sorts. A divine dialogue that happens not only during sujood, but at any moment throughout the day when I need a witness, whether on that crowded subway car, or during an anxiety-filled sleepless night. It is a vouching process, a “You see this happening, right?,” sort of witnessing that I need in my everyday life to function.

I think about this new kind of intimacy I’m learning to develop with Allah SWT as a result of depression. Because no one knows. No one sees. No one witnesses our most internal struggles like the One.

And for many people with depression, the feelings of isolation, lack of focus, lack of energy, physical aches, anxiety, sadness, and emptiness can actually be magnified during Ramadan.
But I think it is possible to have divine intimacy magnified during Ramadan. With fasting, no one knows. No one sees. It is one of very few forms of worship that is completely solitary; that no one else feels, receives, or knows of except you. I’ve begun to envision my fasting as a way to develop further intimacy with Allah SWT–not only through conversations and supplications–but by contemplating the corporeal impact of fasting itself.

Photo credit:  Hana Shafi AKA Frizz Kid
Photo credit: Hana Shafi AKA Frizz Kid

As my body and mind are altered, tempered, and activated in different ways, I open up new avenues of closeness and softness with Allah SWT. The empty spaces that come with fasting–the hunger, the headaches, the thirst–are new avenues for Allah SWT to see me. To witness what I feel. No one else knows. No one sees. No one else witnesses.
I am halfway through my commute home, still without a seat, when this popular verse begins, “O you who believe, fasting is decreed upon you as it has been decreed upon those before you…”
These are verses 183-187 of Surat Al-Baqara, known as the “fasting verses.” But ayah 186 is not about fasting at all. In between ayahs that describe the guidelines and virtues of fasting, ayah 186 pauses to read, “And when My servant asks you–concerning Me–indeed I am very close. I respond to the call of the supplicant when they call upon Me. So let them respond to Me and believe in Me so that they may be guided.”
These few verses affirm how to me divine witnessing, fasting, and depression are divinely woven together.
To Muslims struggling with depression or any form of mental health issues this Ramadan:
Whether this is new to you or familiar since childhood,
Whether this is short term or chronic in your life,
Whether the episodes are daily or sporadic,
I extend salaams to you and want to tell you this: You are loved. You are worthy. Your struggle is seen, and heard, and felt. This sucks. This is tough. Yes, it is okay to think that and say that outloud. Don’t feel guilty for not meeting the expectations you had for yourself, or because it feels very different from previous Ramadans in a way you didn’t expect it or want it to. You are not weak for needing witnesses. You are not weak for feeling so heavy. You are making it through another month the best you can in this difficult dunya.
I pray that our spirits find ease, rest, and light throughout this month and beyond.
Submitted By Zeinab Khalil. You can read more of her thoughts on Twitter at @Zaynabon.