“Depression”

Around this time last year, I had been struggling with a major episode of depression (and anxiety).

[Sometimes I feel concerned that I may be sharing excessive facets of myself and my life on this blog of mine. But I sincerely believe that these things must be talked about, therefore I suppose this is a risk I am willing to take.]

Overpowering suicidal urges, piercing and burning pains throughout one’s head, issues with focus and memory, an unmatchable feeling of exhaustion. For roughly two months straight, my entire existence felt like one giant walking panic attack. Nervous lump in throat, heart always pounding, not able to truly be ‘here’ at all.

Some people chose to think that I had been making it all up, or that I myself had chosen to be in such a difficult state. I can assure you, nobody at all would ever choose to go through such things. In truth, I think I am a rather optimistic person. I am especially fond of the idea of persevering; of… mountain-climbing. And I know that neither anxiety nor depression, nor bipolar, nor all these other mental health conditions, are indicative of any sort of personal failure. Some people can make it all the more difficult, though: by being ignorant, or even angry towards you, when all you are trying to do is get better.

All in all, I do not feel as though the terms we commonly ascribe to these conditions are that useful or… accurate. Because we use the term “depressed” to describe both the impossibly challenging neurological condition (which, often, like a 20-foot-tall dark monster, appears out of nowhere, and brings to your being the most pain you have ever known) and the reactive emotional states of misery/sorrow, alike. Same with ‘anxiety’. If anything, the phrase ‘atrophy of the mind’ might be most fitting when it comes to Depression (that severe inexplicable type that would appear to plague certain families, I mean: there is undoubtedly a genetic element to it). And, since the mind and body are so deeply integrated with one another, mental atrophy is something that every millimetre of you comes to feel.

Mental atrophy is: disorientation, and it is extreme fatigue. It is wanting, desperately, to know why, yet discovering that none of it can be rationalised, reallyIt is the seeming decay of one’s mind, before one’s very own… mind. Suicidal thoughts, pounding voices; a feeling of poison being injected into both sides of one’s brain. Headaches, body aches, wanting to eat too much, or wanting to starve oneself (without actually…wanting to). All I can say is that it is the worst thing I have ever known.

And, Alhamdulillah, for me, in this moment, it is nowhere near as bad as it used to be. [It is barely even here!] But I sort of want to really hold onto my knowledge of the severity of the formerly quite intense experience. I want to remember how important it is, to truly be there for anybody who tells me they are suffering from one of these diseases of the mind. I want to remember how important it is, that we work together to find true solutions. To mental atrophy; to other mind-generated ‘implosions of the self’, including anorexia, complex-PTSD (etc.)…

And, perhaps a better term for ‘anxiety’ (i.e., the disorder) would be… ‘life-destroying fear’. [What am I afraid of, though? There is no explanation. Such things, one finds, cannot be intellectualised]. And it all comes out of nowhere, and it will not let you sleep at night, or rest during the day. Everything in your head flips, upside-down, and your whole universe is sinking. Total suffocation, and… nobody else can hear it.

“There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment.”

Muhammad (SAW), Sahih Hadith

Right now, it would appear as though most of the ‘treatments’ humanity has found, for these neurological/mental health conditions are… woefully experimental. Trial and error. Unsure of themselves. A mind-numbing pill here, some talking therapy there. And, on the whole, there is this emphasis on ‘managing’ the conditions, not necessarily on trying to resolve them, once and for all.

There is so much to learn about mental diseases; so much stigma to work on eradicating. And there is a cure, out there somewhere; not merely one that dulls all feelings, causing patients to walk around like apathetic robots [this, along with intense sickness and insomnia, had been one of the terrifying side effects of a particular medicine I had been prescribed]. There is much to be learnt about; much to be found.

Indubitably, there is a significant ‘biological’/neurological component to consider. Mental health disorders are evidently quite hereditary by nature. I wonder if the theories pertaining to ‘inherited trauma’ are true. Or, perhaps, it is something about the nervous systems of particular individuals that renders us more susceptible to… being so badly affected by stress? 

If stress (and stress-based conditions like Generalised Anxiety Disorder and PTSD) are analogous to a bushfire, then what we term Depression is the aftermath of the destructive blaze: a mental forest that has been burnt to the ground. Bare and seemingly utterly destroyed. So, some key questions that arise might be: 1) What, exactly, makes certain forests more flammable than others? Overactive minds? Larger amygdalas? 2) Just how does stress manage to affect so many mental faculties at once? 3) How best can we make the ground fertile and good again; how can we rebuild those forests that had been lost to the flames?

And, how can we prevent fires that occur in the ‘more flammable’ forests from becoming massive and destructive ones, in the first place? I think emotional intelligence undoubtedly needs to come into play, here. Especially if a child, for example, might have a high genetic predisposition to Depression, his or her emotional needs should really be looked after, at home. A little bit of emotional nurture can go a long way. Sadly, in some families in which the levels of predisposition to mental illness are high, adults can be extremely dismissive of, and even abusive towards, children. Thus, ‘the forest’ is quick to catch on fire, and quick to burn right to the ground.

Does stress always precede mental atrophy? [When it comes to ‘endogenous’ Depression, those who suffer from it more often than not also suffer from one or more anxiety disorders, OCD, etc.] Is the condition, then, in concise terms, a holistic and ongoing sense of exhaustion? 

[Stress (as a result of life events) is typically the factor that ‘realises’ mental health conditions in people, though some have a particularly strong genetic predisposition to them. This is explained by the ‘Diathesis-Stress Model’]

“I have Depression.”

“…Oh. Why don’t you try thinking more positively?”

“No I mean, I suffer from the neurological condition that is commonly referred to as ‘Depression'”

“Oh. You should exercise more! No matter what you do, though, do not take medication. You can sort this out by going jogging, and by eating more fruit and veg, and drinking water. Also, have you tried meditation?

“Well, —”

“You should go and spend time with your family members more. And cheer up! Smile more! Stop being miserable. There is so much to smile about! I feel sad too sometimes, you know! I normally just get some ice-cream, watch a movie or something, and it goes away.  It’s all about emotional resilience! Everyone goes through what you’re going through, you know…”

“It’s not like that. I don’t —

Never mind…”

There are ‘biological’ things to be considered, when it comes to Anxiety and Depression, and related disorders, certainly. But, what is unique about mental health is that there are also spiritual, social, and emotional things to consider. The way in which our societies are organised, and how they function. Stresses, and stress relief. And, just how accurate might, for example, Freudian views on such things, be?

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/19/depression-awareness-mental-illness-feel-like

An “implosion of the self”, a flood of leaden waters. And you cannot stop them.

So if/when somebody tells you that they suffer from, say Depression: please try not to dismiss them. When it comes to family members and friends; when it comes to your ‘boys’ who may even laugh off their own experiences of it. I hope you do not attempt to speak over them, or to look past them.

I hope you try to look into their eyes, and try to be there for them; try to really listen.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Evolution

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

We are all products of evolution. Whether to a theist, or to an atheist, this is an undeniable fact. To ‘evolve’ means ‘to change over time’. We all change over time, always: both physically, and in terms of our non-physical qualities, such as personality traits.

As the Qur’an states, after the conception process, we begin, in our mothers’ wombs, as ‘Alaqas – as clinging substances. There is no life within these clinging substances; the cells that they consist of do not simply ‘know what to do’. They are clearly drawn towards doing what they do by some kind of force (although atheists maintain that this information – this process they must follow to achieve the perfect end product of a human foetus – comes ‘naturally’ to them) and, ultimately, via an evolutionary process, we end up with a human baby. This baby, whose heart begins to beat, at some point, while it is in a state of uterine obliviousness and bliss, will go on and evolve to become a petulant toddler, and then a curious child, and then a moody preteen, and then a hormonal teenager, and so on, and so forth.

The concept of evolution is not one that is antithetical to the Islamic tradition. There may be some intellectual disputes on the topic of macro-evolution, but ultimately, even if it is true that certain processes can lead one species to branch off into a completely different one, this does not disprove God. Moreover, with further regard to the atheistic notion that such evolutionary processes – whether on a macro- (e.g. concerning an entire species) or more micro- (e.g. within the womb) level – occur based on unguided principles [every cell, every atom, involved, simply ‘knows what to do and when to do it’], the proponents of this view would appear to disprove themselves when they claim that an external creative force is not behind these creative processes: things like genes are. Genes are, essentially, ‘bio-historical documents’; they contain information. Do they write themselves? Or is it an external force that writes them? Once again, as with many atheistic ideas and ideals, we enter into a cyclical argument.

How do these genes know what to ‘pass on’, and what to filter out? Are genes what we should come to see as the supremely intelligent creative force? Are they our creators? Such considerations bring into my mind the following Qur’anic verse:

 

“Were they created by nothing, or were they the creators [of themselves]?”

– Qur’an, (52:35)

Indeed, the Qur’an covers, in its topics of discussion, practically every academic pursuit known to man. [Fascinatingly, Ibn Khaldun, the father of the social sciences, based much of his book – which went on to inspire the modern discipline of Sociology – on Qur’anic statements]. This particular verse, from Surah Toor, adeptly addresses the topic at hand – a topic that combines philosophical considerations with more biological ones.

According to popular atheistic discourse, we did indeed come from “nothing”. And then, by consequence of some unguided evolutionary process, we were ultimately the “creators [of ourselves]”. Physical beings are beings that are a) finite, and b) constructed of parts. We adhere to both criteria. So do our genes – which are some of the ‘parts’ that we are constructed from. According to this view, we are, in response to the Qur’anic existential challenge, both products of nothing, and products of ourselves.

            When I first read Yuval Noah Harari’s infamous book Sapiens two years ago, I was absolutely mesmerised. I thought the book was wonderful, in particular in how it took ideas from a broad range of disciplines, and wove them together into one eloquently-constructed storyline. It was simple and comprehensive; I consumed its content more or less uncritically. But eloquence can be deceiving: both Noah Harari and Richard Dawkins are clear testament to this fact. It has been strange but enlightening – reading such staunchly atheistic works a first time, without thinking to deeply question their premises, and then, again, for a second time, after having actually done my own broad research.

Harari’s book is widely recommended among world leaders, renowned university lecturers, fellow train commuters, and more. But neither its eloquent style of construction, nor its popularity, satisfactorily remedy the fact that there are many flawed assumptions that are presented as concrete fact, within this book. The authors of such books must recognise that they have a huge scholarly responsibility: their central role lies in bringing often esoteric academic knowledge to the generally book-loving masses. So why on earth has Harari omitted the reams of anthropological theories and their corresponding evidence, which threatens to wholly undermine what he is trying to say? I understand that a book consists of a finite number of pages (and, it is a physical object since it consists of parts. But did the book create itself? Or did it have an author? But, alas, I digress.) and so it would have been more or less impossible for him to have included every alternative view. But a simple statement in which the author acknowledges that what he is theorising may just be at least partially incorrect (just as Charles Darwin included an entire chapter, in his first book on evolution, on why his theories may be incorrect or flawed) would do much to prevent people from blindly consuming such ideas.

It is more than possible for a person to be a theist and to also subscribe to a notion of evolution, at the same time. But it is also possible to question such notions as the only possible purpose of human life being to procreate; that ‘natural selection’ has an agenda and an end goal [according to the atheistic view, it is a blind process, and yet one that is somehow very heavily goal-orientated]; that religion is just an unfortunate by-product of this biological process, which branched out – evolved, even – into becoming a social one, too.

The universe itself has been in a constant state of evolution, since the dawn of time. The concept of evolution involves both the dimensions of space, and of time: it comprises changing physically (thus, the changing of an object’s relationship with space) over time. But, upon what information did this massive process occur? The Big Bang was undoubtedly triggered by something. But was this something self-aware and intelligent? Theists and deists say: yes. God. Atheists, essentially, say: no. Every atom that acted towards the culmination of this universe somehow just knew exactly what to do… Are atoms the ultimate creative, intelligent objects? But we consist of atoms – they are components of our physical being. Did we, in line with this view, give birth to ourselves?

To better understand this all, I would strongly recommend watching lectures delivered by Subboor Ahmad, who is a speaker for iERA (the Islamic Education and Research Academy). What I like about his academic work is that a) he does not outright reject all notions of evolution. But he explains, rather well, that these notions do not, at all, disprove God; b) his theories concerning the Fitrah and, within this paradigm, why there exist myriad religions today, as opposed to a singular one; c) he speaks, at great length, on the topic of the non-contradictory relationships between science and Islam, and d) his claims are well-researched and well-balanced. His eloquence clearly does not disguise beneath it a stark weakness of argument.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020