Islam Saved My Mental Health and Returned My Soul
By Christopher Patrick Nelson, Pacific News Service, 11 July 2003
I am a 26-year-old Irish American who converted from Christianity to Islam in order to save myself.
Although I never had a problem taking the Prophet Jesus as a role model for a way of life, I needed more specific guidance with day-to-day behavior – my own was out of control. After studying Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, I concluded that the example of the Prophet Muhammad served as a blueprint for a comprehensive spiritual life.
And that saves me. Literally.
Let me explain. When I turned 14 I was put in a psychiatric ward for my out-of-control behavior. I felt high and acted on any impulse as though it were a fabulous idea. I would try to kiss girls I just met, as if we had been going out for a long time. Not a good idea.
Then the pendulum would swing from high and energetic to low and depressed. I found no pleasure in anything. I wanted to sleep all the time, and, far worse, I wanted to die. I slit my wrists several times.
First I was diagnosed with "paranoid-schizophrenia," a label psychiatrists give you when they're not sure what your problem is. Later I found out I was bipolar. "Bi" means two, and "polar" means extreme. Trying to have any kind of relationship, a job – a regular life – while shuttling back and forth between two extreme moods has been the biggest struggle of my life.
Many of those who knew me treated my episodes as immature misbehavior and blamed me instead of my illness for my antics. I remember getting fired from a pizza shop job in less than a week for my manic behavior. I would talk a-mile-a-minute, like Robin William on stage, while I rang up customers.
If that sounds funny or even romantic, that's not how it feels. Mania might be fun, but the ensuing depression is pure hell. It sneaks up on you like the devil, insidiously. I remember staring at something innocuous, like a coffee table, and suddenly being overwhelmed by the conviction that life is meaningless.
Western medicine may help, but it does not cure me. Medication was mandatory at the adolescent psychiatric ward in San Jose. We had seven group therapy sessions a day, chores, wretched meals, and then medication time. As the shrinks mixed and matched my meds I felt as if I were wading through thick oatmeal.
Eventually, outside the mental institution I found something that finally helped me with being bipolar: Islam.
I'd always felt, deep down, that my illness had something to do with my soul. Western medicine – drugs and therapy – could, therefore, never cure me. How could it when it does not even recognize that I have a soul? Islam, on the other hand, taught me how to purify my soul from disease through a science called Sufism, a holistic system of diet, belief, law and social structure. Islam gave me a sense of personal responsibility that chemical-dependent Western psychiatry did not.
I found the emphasis on reciting certain invocations to God most helpful. In order to protect themselves from demonic elements that can do harm, followers of Islam recite prayers. The discipline and the act of praying helped me deal with my mania directly.
When that mania comes around, I feel like I'm surrounded by a dozen cops, all hurling accusations and insults at me. So I pray. I listen to and believe in the words that I utter. I grow lucid and peaceful and calm, and then – click – I am.
Reciting prayers, though, may not be for people who just want to deal with mental distress. And I'm not at all suggesting that people go off their medications just yet. There are prerequisites to the effectiveness of the practice, such as the belief in what one recites. And it's about more than just prayer: a strict life is a must. Avoidance of pork and intoxicants, as well as a supportive, mosque-based community are crucial parts of being Muslim.
Dealing with mental illness is a lifelong struggle, but now I feel that I am finally in control. I have a soul. And Islam teaches me how to purify it.
Nelson writes for Silicon Valley De-Bug, a PNS publication by young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.