Seeking professional counseling in the Muslim community has long had a stigma attached to it. Looking deeper into the intracommunity dialogue, we see that various cultural groups rationalize mental health education differently. For example, in South Asian communities, if an individual shows signs of needing mental attention, black magic (hoaxes or curses) is often suspected as the culprit behind the mental illness. It wasn’t until my own experience in a powerless state, where I needed external guidance to work through my emotional distress, did I fully understand the necessity of reevaluating harmful societal norms and liberating oneself of those misconceptions.
It felt like the walls were closing in on me. I sat in my apartment, talking to my mom on the phone about my travels to war-torn Kashmir to do development work earlier that summer. I kept flashbacking to the brave people I met, remembering jarring thoughts of the military, and reliving the internal dialogue of feeling imprisoned. My life back in America sat in such stark contrast to my time abroad that I felt powerless in integrating the two realities. As the phone conversation continued, my breathing became increasingly erratic, and I inched closer into a panic attack. My mom kept reminding me to be grateful of what I have, but her reassurances were only faint background noise against my heaving sobs. She finally said, “I want you to see a counselor. You need to talk about this with someone who can help you help yourself.” Despite my incapacitated state, I found great comfort in her words.
Growing up, my family wasn’t the most open to seek counseling. Like many Muslim families, the idea of a stranger advising you seemed like more trouble than it is worth. There was concern over counselors misunderstanding or dismissing cultural and religious nuances. And even if the counselor did understand our values, seeking guidance outside the traditional family support system signaled weakness and frailty. And even worse, admitting that one required professional assistance brought with it concerns of the larger community spreading rumors about the cause.
Going back to my moment of vulnerability, I can’t help but be in awe of my mother’s ability to accept that she she did not have the tools to help her own daughter. It was such a departure from my past experiences with her, and I began to wonder when this generational change occurred. Over the past year (before my summer in Kashmir), my mom had been sharing the lessons she learned on a radio show where the host, a trained therapist, offers feedback to callers seeking her input. I didn’t find the fact that my mom routinely tuned in to this radio show noteworthy, but what did catch my attention was her development, over time, in appreciating that there are tools and techniques a counselor can teach to open the mind, think differently, and help oneself out of broken feelings.
She would call me to share those stories in hopes of guiding me in her motherly way to a higher level of consciousness. At first, the stories sounded like lectures, but over time I saw the strides my mom had made, consciously or unconsciously, to move past her limiting beliefs and cultural baggage. There was such power here. And in the process of shedding light on my life, she was teaching herself to have greater agency over her life. The topics ranged from resolving marital discord to caring for aging parents; some of the stories were relatable and others weren’t, but more importantly, the stories became moments to unearth and discuss many of our own family issues.
After the conversation with my mother, I began seeing a counselor for my anxiety. It’ll be a long journey but the thought of integrating my experiences from Kashmir to my life in America excites me. I haven’t fully processed my journey, but I know that it will turn into something beautiful, producing with it moments of clarity, compassion and empowerment. And this journey has become easier upon my mother’s recognition that sometimes you just need an unbiased person to share with, who can equip you with techniques that will enable you to cope with current and future difficulties. It takes great strength to acknowledge when you are in over your head. At least in my family, a shift is taking place. It may not be newsworthy but in my book, it is life-changing.
(Photo: Joe Houghton)
Sarah Jawaid is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.