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Understanding Mental Health, Trauma & Triggers Through Imam Sajjad

A therapist once told me that I could never be fully happy and that if I ever want to be otherwise, I should be reliant on anti-depressants. It was an immensely painful diagnosis, to have a specialist tell me plainly that I was a lost cause. In the contemporary world, mental health is either dealt with in absolute abruptness or disregarded completely. Therefore, I resisted the idea of it being that rash and revoked conforming to the narrative that you are either sick or you are not- there is no in-between.

With more and more people coming out as depressed and anxious, the world seems to be spiraling toward what seems to be a global mental health pandemic. For this purpose, I was eager to understand if the ailments of the mind were really that new. Or perhaps were they always that common to never have been addressed before?

For every social, emotional, and psychological ambiguity that bothers me, I consciously direct myself to the lives of the Ahlulbayt (the family of the Prophet (PBUH).) In a similar fashion and in order to destigmatize mental health, I resorted to the humble and insightful abode of the Prophet (PBUH) and his family because there I find answers and consolation. Because how could the righteous and rightfully glorified Ahlulbayt deprive us of refuge from the sadness of the mind and the depths of despair? Where can I find an example put into practice by them to feel less alienated? 

So let’s talk about mental health at the center of which will reside the most traumatic event in Muslim history, the Battle of Karbala. While I drag Karbala into this article, I promise you the answers are right here, within the survivors. Because like every other affliction that the Ahlulbayt had experienced, Imam Sajjad the survivor of Karbala, whose lasting affliction was absolute gloom. 

Sajjad- The Ailing Survivor of Karbala

One by one, at every corner 

Sajjad was slain with gazes and stones 

In Karbala, he did survive

But only to die a million times 

Imam Sajjad is the 4th Imam and the son of Imam Hussain who was slaughtered mercilessly on the plains of Karbala. He despite not having fought physically in battle, sustained far greater injuries- through emotional and mental trauma. The sickness that ailed him during Karbala as history recalls, was not a lasting one. Hence, it was the state of him post-Karbala that is more befitting toward his recognition as Bemar e Karbala/The Ailing One. 

Trauma & Triggers 

Gender, age, social status, and spirituality do not determine the extent and impact of the recipient of trauma. The trauma lives within the survivor such that it is revealed and revived in the form of triggers. Imam Sajjad like all trauma survivors experienced and responded to triggers throughout his remaining life post-Karbala, demonstrating what can be termed as PTSD in a contemporary light. 

Grief and trauma can have an everlasting effect on one’s mind, emotional and physical health.

The Imam, despite holding political and religious office as the sole caliph of his time, remained tormented by the remembrances of his past. He was reminded left, right, and center taking him back to the massacre he had witnessed and the loss he had experienced. The mere sight of water, drinking water brought over him a surge of inconsolable tears. Food placed in front of him caused him grief. He cried night and day such that and much like a survivor in the modern day gets to hear, the Imam had also been told on numerous occasions that he cried too much. He would faint when he cried and tears would be blood stricken indicating the gravity of his pain.

It concerned him if an animal was fed and quenched before it was slaughtered. He was questioned on the length of his mourning period

In modern-day psychology, these are called triggers that tap into the brain reminding one of a traumatic experience from the past. Grief and trauma can have an everlasting effect on one’s mind, emotional and physical health. Demonstrative of this symptom, the 4th Imam had transitioned into old age quite aggressively that on numerous occasions he was mistaken as elderly, when in fact he was quite young. 

Coping through Karbala

There is healing in vocalizing and sharing experiences. The epitome of Karbala is lamenting and vocalizing grievances. A significant practice established by Imam was to vocalize his experience and the massacre of Karbala with all of the gory details. He laid the foundation for one of the most cathartic and pivotal customs of mourning that is observed in the modern day.

So it goes without saying, that this practice represents coping through sharing grievances while others lend a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. The contemporary and evolved representation of this is a support group. How remarkable is that!

Isolation-A Conversation with God

Mental Health is such a taboo that an immediate prescription for anyone coming forth is the first-aid dose of prayers and supplication. This reiterates a self-proclaimed idea that calamities of the mind are somehow a result of deviance from the path of the creator. This not only invalidates a person’s experience but puts them in a state of far greater confusion and hopelessness. It is a terrible injustice to diagnose a grieving soul with such harsh determination so if you or anyone around you conforms to the same practice it should stop. 

Members of the same family end up receiving trauma and based on their threshold their symptoms, responses, and coping mechanisms vary from each other. The truth is what fits like a glove on your hand can be too tight, and too loose for another hand. These are variations that need to be regarded when it comes to dealing with our trauma or helping another with theirs.

The idea of loneliness and isolation becomes a place of fear and is far off from life.

A common symptom of mental health woes is the incredible urge to isolate oneself. One feels a sudden withdrawal from life and society which includes even a complete dissociation from what a person previously was. Isolation is also an observed symptom from the life of Imam Zain ul Abideen but this isolation is not a place to fear, instead in his life it came as an opportunity to converse with God. 

Am I prescribing prayers and supplication? Errr, hold on…..

Many of us find ourselves shunned by society and then patronized by our own thoughts. The idea of loneliness and isolation becomes a place of fear and is far off from life. Sometimes isolation is not a choice but a necessary measure one takes to feel safe. Safe from an environment that categorizes them as too sensitive, gloomy, or hurt. So it is actually society that drives people away. If this is so obvious, then 

Why do people still behave this way toward survivors? Why isn’t there unconditional support for someone reaching out for help?

The simple and completely obvious explanation for this is that we humans by nature are incapable of providing absolute and unconditional support to each other. It is controversial to believe but it is the truth. Whether it is your sibling, therapist, best friend, spouse, or parent- their attention and aid will most likely have an expiration date. It will take one small sigh of frustration to make you feel like a burden or liability. What I am trying to say here is that you will find yourselves alone and with your thoughts but it is not something to fear. 

The same Imam who was given the title of Bemar e Karbala, the ailing, grieving acquired another glorious title of Sayyid us Sajideen/The Leader of Those Who Prostrate. For he in his periods of isolation and withdrawal resorted to the comfort of a prayer mat and made conversations with the creator. Confessed and confided within him his pain and poured his heart out. Perhaps, there is some truth to prescribing prayer and supplication to a distressed person but not for the same reasons.

Now onto another dilemma.

“If supplication offers a miraculous recovery then I am afraid I have to ask for a better understanding, that why someone so pious and close to Allah still felt absolute never-ending gloom?”

The remarkable takeaway from Imam Sajjad’s life is that supplicating does not offer a complete memory loss of a tragic event instead it provides immunity to the weight of the trauma making it easier to carry. In his practice and demonstration, he is not propagating an unrealistic flight to recovery. It is a well-rounded exhibit on the Imam’s part, for the purpose of making isolation a less lonely place, conversing with a companion whose attention is timeless and whose mercy and understanding are the greatest.

Imam Sajjad destigmatized grief, depression, and isolation so that we could feel less alienated and tormented by the pain that inhabits our minds and souls.

There is immense comfort in interpreting Imam Sajjad as a vulnerable survivor of Karbala. Imam Sajjad destigmatized grief, depression, and isolation so that we could feel less alienated and tormented by the pain that inhabits our minds and souls. And for the rest of us, never ask someone how long it will take to get over something.

So my dear survivor, like every spice and herb added to a pot of curry the amalgamation of our experiences and struggles add to our distinct flavor. Karbala is about revisiting wounds and like that, a wound from the past can still hurt today. Revisit your Karbala again and again, as long as it takes.