Monday, 1 July 2013

“How I walked away from suicide” (By Mohammad Zafar)

This was something I thought I’d never have to or would want to share, but recent experiences have really pushed me to do so. It’s something I still haven’t even told my closest friends. What led me to share it was because I came across a surprisingly high number of articles, videos or discussions about Muslims struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and even having suicidal thoughts. I don’t know if I have solutions but I wrote this piece so that perhaps someone might benefit from my experience and approach their difficulties differently.

I’ve broken it down in 3 parts so it may be easier to read through it.


Part 1 (How the stress built up)

[Allâh does not want to place you in difficulty, but He wants to purify you, and to complete His Favour on you that you may be thankful. (5:16)]

The truth is no one wakes up one day saying ‘Oh, I think I'll kill myself’. Even as a child I knew from that age suicide was ‘Haram’ (prohibited), it was something Allah didn’t allow. And the simple thought of it was something that never even crossed my mind. Of course at that time it didn’t really need to. But what led me to go from being adamant on never thinking about taking my life, to considering it, and then finally planning to go through with it?

It was about a couple of years or so ago for the first time in my life I found myself sitting and speaking with a counselor - the way I got there was completely accidental. I was never one to express myself and preferred to never speak to anyone about any issue I had. When I did speak to someone it would only be out of dire need. But I was meeting the counselor for a reason - I needed some direction as to where I was heading in my life. I felt almost anything I tried was leading me to failure. Perhaps the counselor would help.

I told her what I felt: "I’m tired of trying and failing. I’m tired of hearing people trying to motivate me. I’m tired of the cliché ‘don’t give up’, ‘keep your head up’ gestures. I just want to put this behind me and move on".

I knew there were certain factors in my life which were the roadblocks stopping me from performing the tasks that everyone around me “expected”. But I had no clue what it was.

I went to university one day struggling with issues I couldn’t point my finger to. I can still recall that day. The professor was speaking but I could only see him moving his lips. People around me were talking to each other and yet their voices were silent. It was like my mind just hit ‘mute’ and all that I could hear in my head were the voices from my past memories. I tried and tried to get them out and there I would find myself again overwhelmed by them. I didn’t have the energy to cry. I just sat there still, neither moving my head nor getting up.

I thought back to my earlier years when I was five and my family and I moved to Canada. I had a normal childhood just like anyone else. Loved cartoons, and as I’m told, was very talkative and energetic. The turning point probably came at age 6. I needed to have immediate surgery on my nose. However in the operation the surgeon made a mistake replacing the cartilage to my nose and it resulted in a slight deformity on my face. The front part of nose was partially flat, something very difficult to ignore if you saw me back then.

And so my entire childhood, kids my age would taunt me, make fun of the way I look and beat me up at times for no other reason except that I “looked” weird. I wish I could have memories of better days, but this was it for me - a living nightmare.

I remember one day at school when one student came to my best friend and starting making fun of my appearance. I hoped in the back of my mind that at least my friend would have my back, but he in turn also started laughing. I guess he was scared in that situation but since I didn’t have many friends back then, it made it hurt even more. I could see from the side of my head them looking at me, including my best friend, pointing to their nose and just laughing. I turned my face away and just kept my head down.

It was a normal occurrence for me to be walking down the street as a young kid while girls my age would walk past me and within 5 seconds burst out laughing. Perhaps it was something else, but I couldn’t help and think it was me. I tried to keep it in, how will long will this last I thought? The next day would sometimes be worse than the day before. I didn’t know how to handle it. If I stayed quiet and patient, the mockery would just continue.

At times in school during recess, I would be walking alongside a wall when two or three kids from the school would start throwing tennis balls at my direction at full speed. They would taunt me throwing the ball right in front of me and right behind me as I would try to duck and avoid getting hit. And when it drilled my face, they would laugh and sarcastically say “oops, I missed. I was just trying to hit the wall”.

I started to become more and more distant from others and wouldn’t speak much. I became extremely anti-social. Anything I’d say or do had to be disregarded because of how I looked. And worse, there was no way around it. No matter what I did or what I said, nothing could change the way I looked.

My parents later put me into an Islamic school. It didn’t really change things (kids are kids of course). Now there was just a different group of students to bully me.

When coming back from school I wouldn’t bother even leaving the home at times. When I would go outside, people in the street would look at me with awkward stares - you would think I’d get used to it right? No, not one bit.

Things took a turn for the worse, when I was 11 our family friend came to our doorstep and announced dad had passed away battling cancer. My sisters screamed in shock, I walked up to my mother to hug her and she, completely overwhelmed by what just happened, pushed me away and broke down crying. So the only male influence I ever had in my life was gone just like that. I never had a male role-model to learn from - it was just my mom and five (older) sisters from there.

Right before high school I finally had surgery to repair my nose. And although now I 'looked' like a normal kid, I certainly didn’t feel like one. You know the parable “when you keep pushing someone into a corner, sooner or later they’ll turn around and come back at you”? That was essentially me. The years and years of verbal/physical abuse caught up and now I had become extremely cranky and rude tempered. This included getting into fights with anyone who made fun of me, yelling back at teachers, cursing, etc. I basically became what you could label as a ‘troubled kid’.

But I felt I had to act this way because there was no way around it. No one had my back. My friends would walk away. My dad was dead. My mom could hardly speak English. My sisters had no clue how to deal with a brother - as I was the only guy in the house. I felt in order for anyone to show me respect, I would have to scream back to them so they would understand I was no pushover.

I also couldn’t speak up for myself. I didn’t know how to respond when someone taunted me in front of others, my immediate response was just to curse, yell or fight back (even if it were an adult). Teachers and elders would always look at me as a spoiled kid or someone who had no respect for others. My family friends would often ask my mother why her son was so distant from people and bad-mannered. I felt like no one around me understood who I was.

Ya Allah when would this end? I felt something bothering me inside. I started having mental breakdowns as a teenager. I wanted to run away. I wanted to leave my home, run and just run. Where? I had no idea, just run until I could run no more. My mom had no idea what was going on in my life, but can I hold a grieving widow responsible? I was a regular kid just like others around me, I wanted friends, I wanted some attention, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted people to stop looking at me with disgust…I couldn’t find it anywhere.

I just knew that I could only find that peace I so dearly wanted in Islam. So one day I went to my mother and said: “mom, I can’t go to this school anymore, I want to leave this place and go to a Quran academy, maybe memorize the Quran. Or just go to the mosque every day and pray. I just can’t go to school”. She was very unwavering on the thought of leaving school and continuously told me “No”. So over the remaining stretch of high school, I would start skipping classes upon classes. In my eyes school only represented hurt feelings, loneliness, betrayal, bullying, and heartbreak. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I would show up to class uninterested and gave every reason for teachers to assume I didn’t care.

But I was fortunate to have a couple of teachers from Islamic school who were very understanding of my situation. They never yelled at me despite my obvious behavioral issues. I would go to school sometimes just because I felt “welcomed” in their class. What made them great was I could look up to them as older siblings rather than teachers. They didn't just come to work for their paycheck, they really cared about all their students. But unfortunately both of them would move to different locations and I would lose my connection to school again.

Several times throughout the year I would wake up suddenly in the middle of nights with something I felt was piercing through my heart. It was a weird feeling. I felt disturbed and extremely confused. I felt lost in this world, like I didn’t belong here. The only remedy I found was crying. I would start crying profusely and not know why I was doing it. I found no words to explain how I felt except for the stream of tears that would run down my face. And no matter what I did, things just wouldn’t change.

Who would want to continue living like this? It was at that point I started to ponder committing suicide.

Part 2 (To commit suicide or not? Back-and-forth battle)

[“Truly, Allâh is with As-Sâbirin (the patient ones)” (2:153)]

But the notion of suicide didn’t stay long with me. How could I do it I thought? It’s Haram. Then the waswaas (whispers) of Satan would start: ‘But lying, backbiting and cheating are all haram and yet many people still do it. Even the ones who would discourage you from suicide do it’. So I thought maybe I should do it then. Honestly what would be the point of living? I wasn’t going to hurt anyone and I also didn’t want to upset Allah (swt). I would tell myself that all I’m doing by staying alive is getting Allah (swt) more and more upset by sinning. Suicide would at least bring the sins to an end. To say that I was going back-and-forth with myself those days would be an understatement.

It made sense to me at the time to go through with it. I just about convinced myself and not even the thought of my mother and sisters missing me had any effect. But the sole reason I didn’t go through with it at the time was because I just couldn’t convince myself that Allah (swt) would be happy to see me come to Him like this. If I truly loved someone I would want to make the best first impression I could to them. And I felt that in the loneliest of times there was always Allah watching over me. When I had my back turned against the wall, the One and only One that could help me was Him. And I thought, what if I was about to be thrown in Hellfire, how could I have the audacity to call unto Allah to help me if I came to Him like this (i.e: suicide)? That concern, and nothing else, is why I’m still alive today.

But not going through with it didn’t really change things. Out of dire distress I would begin to sob and cry (for reasons I didn't know) over many more sleepless nights. And sometimes out of dire distress I would go walking outside for hours heading nowhere.

Time passed as it usually does.

I kept my issues private. Barring a few breakdowns I seemed to be handling it quite well. High school was finally over but my mother wanted me to go to university now. I was however fed up of school as I had nothing but bad memories from it. I couldn’t endure more. Although I passed high school barely showing up for classes, I couldn’t keep this up in university. I tried, and then left. I went back and then left again - a cycle which I became very tired of. So I started working any job I could find to stay busy. Work felt a bit easier. I didn’t have to think, just do.

I was just tired of school. As soon as I went and sat in my chair the memories would start. As soon as I tried to study, the memories would start. I couldn’t study at all with these issues bothering me. However my mom wouldn’t stand the thought of seeing her only son do this. She and my sisters would all gather up and repeat the same things to me: ‘you’re doomed for failure, you’re going to regret this’; ‘do you want to work as a loser your whole life?’, ‘what will people say?’, ‘you obviously don’t care about your future’, etc. I know they said it with the best intentions but it got to a point where I didn’t feel like coming home anymore.

I would roam around the streets late into the night just so I didn't have to go back home and hear another lecture. I couldn't help but fantasize about a destination I could walk to right there and then, but I just didn't know where to go, where to look and where to even start. I was lost, just completely lost. Even though I knew my family wanted what was best for me, I found the most practical solution in simply distancing myself from them.

They wanted me to do things my friends were doing, and I had become fed up of them comparing me to other guys who were doing better than me. I just wanted peace of mind and no one to bother me but that clearly wasn’t happening. And worse, I still didn’t know why I couldn’t do the same things my friends could. What’s wrong with me I used to think day and night?

At that point I felt like I didn’t belong in this world (again). There was something wrong with me. I wasn’t capable of doing anything while others around me did it with ease. I prayed and prayed for death. I would cry making dua to Allah so that He could take me off this earth. I slept at times hoping my life would end as I would die in my sleep and wake up to meet Allah. Instead I would wake up in my same bed disappointed and knowing that I had to go through another day.

My patience ran out. Everyone around me would advice me on how I should be living my life. I was tired of receiving advice. I started to have mental breakdowns again because of the stress. But I did a very good job of hiding these feelings from others, only my mom would see me in distress. Her motherly love led her to become more patient with me. “It’ll get better, don’t worry. You don’t have to do anything. Just be happy” she would say. Although deep down I knew how much she wanted me to study and that led me to feel even more ashamed. My mom just wanted her only son to study and I couldn’t even do that.

My mental health started to affect my physical health. I felt fatigued the entire day and had no energy to do anything. In a period of a few months, without any change in diet or exercise, I lost more than 20 pounds. My blood pressure was pushing towards the 170/110 numbers, which is really bad. I knew though that my body couldn’t handle the stress anymore.

Back came the thoughts of suicide, but this time they were very strong. I just couldn’t take it now. Allah will forgive me I kept saying trying to convince myself.

So one day I wrote a text message to a friend and indirectly wrote how I was about to go through with suicide. I lost the energy to cry and just did it unemotionally. The police would find the text message in my phone and perhaps that would explain to my family why I did it. I just wanted to quietly leave this world and not bother anyone in the process. And as weird as it sounds, I really wanted to meet Allah.

I prayed to Allah to take my life Himself as I really didn’t want to go through with it. I took off to the Masjid hoping Allah would take my life while I prayed Isha salah or else I would have to kill myself. I came in a little late for Salah as everyone was praying and before I joined, I took a deep breath telling myself that this was my last Salah. The prayer ended and there I was still alive. I walked home frustrated, kicking the ground and upset why my dua wasn’t answered.

I wanted to jump on the street with fast moving cars going by. But just before I could take any further step, those same thoughts that stopped me from committing suicide back in high school would resurface. I just couldn’t go to Allah and meet Him like this. I only had one chance to make a first impression and this just wasn’t it.

Yet things still weren’t improving. I didn’t see any dream. No magic light ran past my home. Nothing drastic happened…everything was just like it was. Although I couldn’t convince myself to commit suicide, I would try that fate help me. So I started riding my bike late at night as fast as I could, with my head down, hoping a car would come and hit me…somehow I survived through it all.

It was an unbearable ordeal, subhanAllah what an ordeal it was. Had Allah not created patience, I felt like that would have been the end of me.

PART 3 (I would go on to thank Allah for all my problems)

[The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Verily, the hearts of all the children of Adam are between the two fingers of Allah. He turns them wherever He wills.” Then he said, “O Allah, the Turner of the hearts, turn our hearts towards Your obedience.” (Sahih Muslim)]

Alhamdulilah things started to slowly improve after that. I didn’t have an epiphany, but I did start to improve slowly. I would learn a lesson one day and then couple of weeks or months later learn something else. There wasn’t any miracle that came and changed things but it wasn’t something that simple either. It was more of a gradual change than something that simply took place overnight.

Things didn't really improve...I improved.

I felt like I really started to mature. I didn’t care much for failure anymore. I started to look at things differently. I became more and more independent, started to spend time with friends and started to dwell into the things that interested me. I stopped comparing myself to others and just worried about the things that would benefit me. I would start to go out of my way to please friends, family, brothers at the Mosque and even strangers (for Allah) and in a short time I started to feel better.

My sister once sat down and told me ‘I think there were a lot of people telling you what to do’ - it was her way of apologizing. I just smiled when I heard that and told her ‘it is what it is’.

I started to think more positive about Allah, how short sided I was subhanAllah. The more and more positive I thought about Allah, the more and more I started to understand things clearly.

The odd thing was, not much changed from before, in terms from just problems - they were still there. But my mind wasn’t occupied with them as much. The only difference now was I didn’t care as much. I wanted to read a book on the stories of the prophets, I wanted to listen to lectures, I wanted to spend time with my sisters and their kids, I wanted to spend time with friends, I wanted to sit down and converse with my mom - and I wanted to do it so He would be more pleased with me. The more I did it, and the more I went out of my way to do it, I felt my life had a better balance.

But I couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t make it large. I didn’t acquire this world’s riches, I didn’t become famous, I didn’t even accomplish much (in terms of this dunya) - yet I felt like I was where I wanted to be or heading to where I wanted to go. It is what has led me to strongly and wholeheartedly believe that tranquility and happiness isn’t in money, respect from people, one’s job or education…it’s within thinking more and more upon what will make my Lord happy.

Allah (swt) was the Best Teacher/Guide/Helper/Caregiver I ever had.

When my dad wasn’t there to show me how to do things, I would come across someone else by chance who would help me. Now when I look back to it, Allah (swt) was helping me through that person. When I had no one to befriend in dire loneliness, I knew Allah (swt) was a dua away. When I was hurting, broke and even (felt) that my own family had pushed me away - I knew Allah (swt) never looked at my wealth, status or what the whole world thought of me. All of it started to sink in. The confusion started to go away. My life was flashing before me again, but I started to view it with a different lens - through the love and care of my Creator. I started to see the positive in almost every hardship…

People could say what they wanted about where I worked - I enjoyed it and was relaxed, so why would their opinions matter? My family friends could look down on me if they wanted - but would their approval or disapproval change my connection with Allah?

I felt at peace with who I was. I didn’t feel I needed to be accepted by others. I just had to be confident in who I was. The iman that entered my heart gave me the confidence I never thought existed. It helped me to speak up when at one point I never thought I could. I started to expect less and less from others and more and more from Allah. I stopped freaking out at mishaps. My anger at the world turned to forgiveness. The past memories, which were nightmares (and I still feel they are), still came back to me but it was a small price to pay for all the good that came with it. I started to thank Allah for all those bad memories.

I stopped forcing things on myself and started to live more relaxed. Now I wanted to study - I had realized how much interest I always had in history and decided to pursue a degree in it. For the first time in my life I felt confident I could actually do it. It didn’t feel impossible to me anymore.

The biggest deception I was in was that I thought my problems had to go away so I could live a happy life. But my problems never went away, and still haven’t. Like I mentioned before, the only difference now is…I just don’t care as much. They don’t weigh on me like they used to. Who other than Allah do I have to thank for that?

Right before publishing this article I came across a quote by Sr. Yasmin Mogahed which I feel really summed up my entire life:
“Your life is nothing more than a love story. Between you and Allah. Nothing more. Every person, every experience, every gift, every loss, every pain is sent to your path for one reason and one reason only: to bring you back to Him”.

Before ending, I wanted to share just a couple of points…

Back in my teens when I used to skip school, I couldn’t tell others I wasn’t feeling well (it was hard to explain). And when I would explain, others around me would think I was using an excuse. They would say “you’re healthy, you’re walking, you’re playing sports…how again you are not feeling well?” They didn’t see any external issues I had and I guess automatically assumed I was perfectly fine.

I kept hearing people telling me “life is hard Mohammad, you can’t be so weak. You have to toughen up” and the cliché “you can’t just run away from life’s problems”.

The way I look at it now is…

Imagine you’re having stomach pain. Will you keep taking advice on how to rid the pain from friends and family (even though they have your best interests) or will you go to a doctor? If it’s a day or two, then most of us would probably go and ask our parents about it. But imagine the pain goes on for weeks? Or for months? Would you still go to family and friends or would you think about visiting a professional, like a doctor? If it’s a no-brainer to visit a doctor for these “pains” then why should one completely change their perception when it comes to battling the “pains” of mental health? Why when it comes to mental health does everyone become a professional?

People’s words would really bother me, especially the ones who had no idea what they were talking about. But when I started to look at the way I just described, I would imagine my response at a barber (instead of a doctor) telling me what to take for my stomach pain. After thinking about it like that, I stopped worrying when others would criticize me. At least they had my best interests, so if anything I could thank them for the worry in their voice.

I certainly am not in a position to advice any of you regarding your troubles. If you’re tired of countless advice, trust me, I know the feeling. But I’ll share with you a few things that really helped me to address my concerns. You could apply them if you wish:

1. I stopped caring what people would think of me and stopped comparing myself to others: I can’t tell you how hard this was to do and also how much it helped me after. Even now when I hear this so-and-so person is doing better than me, I feel happy for them but know that I have my own path in life. I don’t need to take the same path as everyone else.

2. I started to forgive everyone:
I made it a goal I should never sleep if I hold a grudge against anyone.

3. I started to admit my mistakes: I was always embarrassed to admit I did something wrong. I felt that others wouldn’t show me respect if I did so. But instead, others were very forgiving and understanding. Admitting my mistakes made me feel comfortable being who I was. I didn’t feel I needed to be perfect. And knowing that I would slip up from time to time, I wouldn’t look at my mistakes like the end of the world.

4. I became very honest: Honest with myself and with others. I stopped yelling back at people so they would show me respect. Instead if I felt they were disrespecting me, I went to them in private and calmly told them why I didn’t like it. They would mostly stay quiet and just apologize right away.

5. Sincerity was the “secret”: I came across a book by Sr. Amira Ayad called ‘The true Secret’. In it she simply implied how sincerity was the secret ingredient needed to bring the help of Allah. Nothing brought me more hope than doing things with sincerity. The more sincere something was, the more weight it had.

6. I stopped expecting from people but raised my expectations from Allah: I never felt disappointed doing this.

What would I say to a Muslim who wanted to commit suicide? Simple. A reminder of a hadith from the prophet (pbuh) who 3 days before his death said:
"Let none of you die unless he has good expectations from Allah"
[Saheeh Muslim].
Every person owes it to themselves to search for ALL the good Allah has placed within the trials of their lives. The only way to unveil the good hidden within hardships is to think positive about Allah. One would commit the greatest injustice to himself dying with keeping bad expectations of Allah.

I think it’s human nature to hope for God to show you a sign Himself. But what I learned was a sign doesn’t always come to you, sometimes you need to put in the effort and search for them yourself. I don’t remember doing anything specific except that I made a sincere intention and effort to search for those signs.

Nearly two times in my life I pondered and considered taking my life. Truth be told, I would love to meet Allah (swt) as soon as possible but I’ll let Him decide when He wants that to be. I just know I have a lot of work that needs to be done.

Thank you to all of you for taking the time to read through this. If you have questions at all, feel free to contact me: