Depression. Looking back, I realise I never really understood how common this ailment is. Generally, it does seem as though the signs of it can manifest very differently, between men and women, and between one person and the next.
‘Depression’ is a heavy term, which seeks to describe a rather heavy experience. It may be caused by, accompanied by, or intensified by, experiences of stress — financial, academic, interpersonal, existential; rage; hopelessness; fear. A feeling that might mimic… jet-black tar being poured into your very brain.
Recently, I learned more about how worryingly commonplace it is. Postpartum depression, for instance. An illness that affects so many women – new mothers. Recently, I had a very interesting and insightful conversation on this topic, with someone I know. About her own experiences with postpartum depression. First child. The ‘baby blues’; an encompassing sense of discomfort and restlessness; difficulties with bonding with the child, at first; fatigue… and also insomnia; suicidal ideation. Depression is always deeply difficult, and it is all-encompassing.
But what had made her experience especially difficult, she told me, had been the following: the (almost-malicious) reluctance from other women, who had been through the very same thing, to be there for her; to help — and to help in a compassionate, no-interrogation-required, sort of way.
The most curious thing of all is when fellow women open up about their struggles; explain that they had been through the same things. But then, in subsequent conversations with these same women, they proceed to actively deny it outright. Like they are there for you, one minute: being all ‘present’ and relatable and empathetic. But then, and maybe this is an attempt-to-have-the-‘upper hand’-thing, it is withdrawn. Presence, comfort, empathy and assistance: simply gone with the wind. Enter coldness, lying, and ‘competition’.
“Postpartum depression? No, never me!”
“Anxiety and depression? Why is it always ‘anxiety’ with you? Why can’t you think more positively?”
What can we do to be there for new mothers, or fathers, or students, men or women, old or young, friends and family – anybody who might be facing depression? According to the person I had this conversation with, there had been some people who had insensitively interrogated her; had essentially blamed her for this mental health condition; fled from her, at the very time during which she needed them the most.
And others were present with her. Shared their own experiences – and some had experienced post-birth depression with each child they had – willingly and honestly. Told her she is not alone; proved this, to her. Took care of her baby, while she got a chance to catch up on some much-missed, much-needed sleep. Some people, when they assist another in their times of need, it is straight-in, caring, no-questions-asked. And others: you guessed it. It is like they need to feel superior; gain some sort of advantage; may remind you of their ‘kindnesses’ long afterwards.
When I went through major depression myself, I know I too just wanted people to be there for me. And some people really, really were. I felt bad: it must be draining to be in the company of… what I had been like. Lost in my own world; in deep, murky mental waters. I am most thankful for the friends and the family members who were just ‘there’ for me. The particular friend who came round all the time; the cousin who did the same, just to sit and watch movies together. They made me feel cared-for; far less alone.
During that time, I also really, really just wanted to know that others had been through the same – or a similar – thing, and that there was a possibility that I could make it out alive, and okay.
If you are going through depression right now, I can promise you that it is possible to make it out of this alive, and okay. It may necessitate quite a lot of patience – Sabr – though, and some effort.
It may feel like the whole world is just carrying on – exactly as it does – and there you are, trapped. Stagnant, and suffering. And so alone, and how on Earth could this ever get better?
And aren’t we all just meant to pretend? That we are men – stoic and ‘strong’ – and women: ‘faultless’ and put-together, and surely depression only affects those of us who… lack willpower? Lack mental strength and resilience? Do not exercise a ‘positive outlook on life’?
Depression is not a personal failure, and between ourselves and others, there is no fair comparison at all. Depression is very real. It affects more people than we might be aware of. From the ‘class clown’ who would always appear to be smiling, to the high-achieving student, to the gym-obsessed lad.
In Islam, we believe that all of life, ultimately, is a test. And so, if, for instance, someone were to open up to you about their depression, what would you do? Be there for them, or turn away from them?
Treat them with empathy and compassion, as true as you can manage, or… turn your nose up at them and affect superiority?
When talking about depression, I really think we must also talk about loneliness. So many of us feel lonely. Even when surrounded by people.
I do not want to ‘blame’ the schooling system here, but for example, I, personally, noticed that my social connections began to become drastically, terribly frayed as and whenever school became more intense and demanding. Like my personal studies – work, and work-related pursuits – had been fighting to become all there really ‘is’, and the most valuable thing of all, in my mind.
Plot twist: it is not. ‘Work’ and my academic and professional pursuits only augment my life where they are good for me. Rooted in purpose, and not in burdensome immoderation; not when I am perpetually feeling alone and like I am not good enough, and like I must be fundamentally in conflict with my own self in order to be ‘successful’.
Individualism. Racing after; chasing personal goals, and sometimes sacrificing all that we are, and have, in order to get there. This time in my life has sort of made me fundamentally reframe things; giving the most valuable things their due value in my life. These things are tremendously ‘fruitful’ and worthwhile for and to me, though they are not ‘economically productive’. I don’t think the most valuable things are particularly ‘quantifiable’; we are known to seek undue amounts of worth, purpose, meaning, community, and self-definition, through work, almost exclusively. Like everything else comes only secondary to it. This leads to that detrimental cycle of focusing primarily on ‘work’ in order to seek to compensate for those other things we may be lacking and seeking; this primary focus on ‘work’ holding a monopoly over our time, and efforts, and energies, altogether necessarily takes away from what we are able to organically ‘invest’ in our families and communities; the structures that are actually able to organically love us back.
When my cousin wants to speak to me about how much she loves Ariana Grande, that is probably more important than I can, at present, realise. Understanding the Qur’an better: that is also very important. Purpose, and ‘goodness’ and community: these things are profoundly, unavoidably, important. A strong, love-bonded community: there for us when times are somewhat ‘good’, and there for us when times are more difficult, too.
Good, supportive relationships; honesty, presence, consistency, and community. If we stoop down and build, then they will come, Insha Allah.
I think that, ultimately, Deen and collectivism – taking care of our relationships with Allah and with and of other people – are the most important things. But also, when we commit ourselves to making these very things our priority: know that Allah, Al-Razzaq, takes great care of us, too.
“Whoever helps ease one in difficulty, Allah will make it easy for him in this world and in the Hereafter.” [Sahih Hadith]
With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.