My girlfriends and I talk constantly about how difficult it is for us to find suitable husbands nowadays. “We’re amazing,” we reassure ourselves, half-jokingly, half-sincerely. “Anyone would be lucky to nab us!”
Maybe we are all amazing, but there is something a little extra that I bring to the table–I have a mental condition called Bipolar Disorder Type I. People react with surprise and skepticism when I share my disorder, brushing it off with a “Oh, but you’re so normal.” I do appear normal to those who do not know me very well (although what qualifies as “normal” anyhow?). I am sweet, kind, friendly and funny, but behind the easygoing exterior, I know all too well that my brain likes to play tricks on me, making me feel like the happiest girl in the world or the saddest. The mania episodes are incredible highs and the periods of depression can be debilitating lows. I also have to contend with panic attacks and anxiety, just another extra dash of unpredictability in the already spicy emotional cocktail.
Now that I have said that, I suppose I no longer look amazing to a potential partner. Family and friends remind me that whoever I end up with will be truly special because he will possess the courage to accept me as I am. Am I pretty awesome? Of course I am! But to most people searching for a wife, my disorder is seen as a liability. Knowing this leaves me feeling frustrated and anxious (did I mention I suffer from panic attacks?).
My anxiety is only exacerbated by the fact that Muslim and Arab culture does not easily accept mental illness, often chalking it up to some sort of spiritual deficiency. I have been told by well-meaning but, frankly speaking, ignorant Muslims that if I just prayed harder, Allah would remove this trial from my life, or that my sins are the cause of my episodes of depression. Some have even discouraged me from divulging my mental disorder to a potential suitor—“You’ll scare them off!” So apparently I should conceal my illness only to spring it on my husband after I’ve already ensnared him. Ethical? I don’t think so.
I usually do tell guys when I think they are ready to hear it, but some men never are. I have had several suitors, but after discovering that I have bipolar disorder, they all walked away. In fact, I was engaged for two years to a good Muslim man, but we were both young and eventually he decided that my mood swings were too much for him to handle. I don’t harbor any resentment towards him and his choice, because my mood swings are difficult to handle when not managed properly by medication, therapy, diet and exercise.
Being diagnosed with a lifelong mental illness is enough of a punch in the gut, but only in the past few years have I come to realize the ripple effect of this insidious disorder on other parts of life, namely my marriageability. I had always assumed that by 23 I would have walked down the aisle and by 25, would have popped out one or two babies. I am 27 now and happy, but with no wedding in sight.
I decided about six months ago that even if I marry one day, it would be best if I did not have children. There is a 10 to 25 percent chance my child would inherit my disease. Pregnancy itself would be rocky since I cannot take the medications that help regulate my moods because they can harm the fetus. I am also more likely to suffer from postpartum depression after the baby is born, and once I come out on the other end of PPD, my bipolar disorder would keep me from being emotionally available and present for my children during periods of mania or depression.
Some days the mania is so acute that I cannot stop talking or moving and can be a danger to myself and those around me. This does not happen very often thankfully, but if it did I would not want my children to witness it. I would not want them to grow up with a mother who is unable and unwilling to play with them or pay attention to them because she is languishing on the couch, depressed. And of course, this brings us back to my marriageability. I am well aware that when I explain to a potential suitor my decision to not have children, my marriage stock will take a nosedive! If refusing to become a mother is unusual in Western societies, it is unheard of in Muslim culture.
Having said all this, I sincerely believe that my bipolar disorder, the enormous black cloud that it is, has brought with it a kernel of gold– I am spiritually stronger because of this mental condition than I would have been without it. After years of self-doubt and self-pity, I am slowly coming to the realization that God has handed me this enormous tribulation because He believes I can handle it. And you know what? So far I have. Each time an episode threatens to swallow me whole, I come out intact, “for indeed with hardship comes ease” (Qur’an 94:5).
I know myself much more deeply than most people my age. I am a braver, more resilient, more confident, and more God-conscious person because of it. If that means I have to navigate this life as a single Muslimah because a man is not willing to understand that I am much more than my diagnosis, then so be it.
Nabilah Safa lives in Michigan and enjoys reading, writing, and baking cookies.
Photo Credit: Asim Bharwani