Living as a Muslim American Woman While Facing Multiple Mental Illnesses

In the President’s first two weeks in office, he tried to issue a ban on immigrants coming into America from seven Muslim-majority countries. Memories of what I went through in my childhood, being bullied for my religion and ethnicity so many years ago, resonate fiercely with me now; hearing all of the anti-Muslim rhetoric today, it sometimes feels as though the psychological trauma I experienced as a little girl in grade school is occurring all over again.

And I can’t believe in 2017, this could happen.

My name is Saima Shamsi, and I am a Pakistani-American woman, writer, poet and visual artist. My mother and father came to this country from Pakistan 44 years ago, and I was born in America.

I have always struggled with chronic depression, ever since I was a little girl in grade school. And for the past 10 years of my life I have also learned to live with and bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.

For my whole life, I have felt like an alien from another planet. Growing up as a Muslim American girl, I seemed more like a ghost than a real human being, floating through life and unsure of myself.

self portrait drawing called 'the contourshonist' that represents a muslim american woman with mental illness
The Contortionist – a Self-Portrait by Saima Shamsi

I was a great student and excelled in writing and the arts; I loved to write stories and draw and paint illustrations. Art class was my favorite class in school, and my art teachers were supportive of me and my talents. I was even selected to study at Governor’s School of the Arts, a summer program for high school students in New Jersey.

I have always been shy and never really connected with anyone until I reached my mid-20s and was in graduate school. But even to this day, I have still never met anyone I could really identify with, and this makes me feel like more of an oddity or sideshow in a kind of circus of life I sometimes feel like I drift through, as if I am a disembodied spirit.

I believe the bullying and harassment I went through as a child has a lot to do with my eventual development of depression, bipolar disorder, OCD and anxiety.

I went to a predominantly white public school in a rural suburban town in New Jersey. Because I am Muslim and Pakistani, I was singled out a lot and ridiculed.

There were boys in my school bus who would even sit behind me so they could lean over me and spit in my hair.

Every morning, the kids who stood with me at my school bus stop would taunt, ridicule and mock me for being different. This made me dread having to wake up on dark, dismal mornings and walk to my own school bus stop alone.

Then when I would actually board the school bus, there were some who would refuse to sit with me, simply because of my religion and ethnicity.

I was often made fun of because my religion was different and ignorantly asked by some of my classmates if I worship cows.

Back in the 1980s and 90s most people where I lived did not know much about Pakistan, including my teachers. People often asked if it was a part of India, and so I would often have to educate them about it myself.

There was one other Pakistani American girl who went to school with me, although she was one year ahead of me. I used to play with her when I was very young, but eventually around middle school, which is when the bullying intensified, we grew apart and no longer were as close as we once had been. But she was one of the first girls I ever made friends with because she happened to live a few houses away from me and we rode the same bus home from school.

I remember at the end of many schooldays two angry and hostile girls who had so much hatred against us because we weren’t white, would pick on us, shout racial slurs and laugh at us for being different as we rode the bus silently home. I felt so threatened and was so afraid that if I said something to them they would come after me more, so I just endured it and stayed quiet.

I’m not sure why I never used that discrimination as a way to bond with the other Pakistani girl. I never even talked to her about it. I was very little at the time, but it occurs to me now that we could have formed a kind of solidarity against the two girls (and maybe even against the many others in that school who bullied me); but it is with some sadness and a bit of regret that I realize, we never did.

I would often bring books to school that I would read in class during breaks. Often they were from my brothers’ collection of Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels.

Once I happened to borrow “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and became fully engrossed in it while sitting in homeroom during a break. One of the boys who bullied me regularly came up to me and shouted at me; he looked at what I was reading and told me all Muslims would go to hell.

He continued to harass me with a steady stream of hate and insults and ordered me to stop reading the book. The teacher, who was a substitute that day, didn’t stop him until I became so upset that I broke down crying.

Another time, a boy who I will refer to as Bob, cornered me while I was sitting at my desk, which was set up against a wall. He fenced me in and put his face uncomfortably close to mine, threatening to force himself on me with an unwanted kiss. I felt violated. For what seemed like an eternity, the class egged him on, goading him to kiss me. It was again immensely humiliating the way this bully treated me, as if I was less than human, and having to deal with his attacks every day ended up having an adverse effect on how I would relate to people of the opposite sex later on in life.

Growing up, I was never allowed to shave because I was told the hair on my legs would just grow back thicker. So I always had to wear long pants that fully covered my legs. And anyway, growing up as a Muslim I was always taught women should dress modestly and not show their legs, so it initially didn’t seem to matter to me.

But eventually when I had to use the gym locker room along with the other girls in class, many of them noticed it and would ridicule me. Every time I had to change, they would laugh and humiliate me. I felt demeaned, degraded and dehumanized. I felt like less of a woman.

I could no longer bear to change in front of them, so I would either have to stand up against a wall in a corner and change, not facing them, or use one of the small toilet stalls to change in.

It was experiencing that degree of humiliation at such a young age that eventually took a toll on me as a young adult. I never told anyone and instead quietly endured it, rather than standing up for myself, which I realize now I should have done.

Years of living with bullying slowly eroded my spirit and wore away at my soul and voice. I kept pent up anger inside. It took years for me to reignite and build my spirit back up, to reclaim my voice.

In that same town where I grew up, soon after 9/11 we woke up one morning to find someone had smashed and broken the glass window of my brother’s car, which was parked in front of our house.

Years before that, someone had also broken our mailbox off its post. But part of what gives me hope is the fact that, years after our mailbox was broken, someone actually came in the night and anonymously fixed it.

Over time, my talents and skills are what have helped me the most. When I was in school my favorite activities were to draw and create art. Eventually, my peers started to take notice of the fact that I was a good artist; as a result, I became more well known throughout school. This is when I proved to myself the immeasurable and limitless value of my self-worth; and consequently, that is when the bullying stopped.

As a young woman, growing up I always had low self-esteem and body image issues and convinced myself I was never good enough, and this made me feel awkward in social situations. In Pakistani culture, girls and women are often very scrutinized over their weight and appearance. Older aunties would always point out to me that I needed to lose weight.

Every time I visited Pakistan, the very first thing my cousins and relatives would comment on was how much weight I had gained or lost. The second thing they would comment on was how much or how little acne I had on my face.

So, I didn’t really feel in place in Pakistan or America. Instead, I felt like an outsider in both communities, like a defective puzzle piece that never seemed to fit in anywhere. I existed in some kind of third space, where both sides of my identity overlapped to form something stranger and more anomalous.

When I reached my early 20s, I finally left that small town and was accepted into a university in London. While I was there, I would spend entire days walking in my purple kangaroo sneakers, all over the city.

During my 20s, I also experienced some personal setbacks from people who I thought were my friends. At the time, these little social disasters and disappointments can feel as powerful as earthquakes in our lives. They can devastate us and chip away at us, until we feel like we can no longer stand tall. And that is when we can topple over like buildings. We may even feel overpowered, demolished.

But this is what I want to say about these little social devastations: In life everyone is so preoccupied trying extremely hard not to have “bad” experiences. But dear reader, please realize this: that bad experiences can be valuable experiences. They can be a source of our positive growth. They can be catalysts. They can help us learn so much, and they can motivate us to get better, to branch out in life, and give us the opportunity to heal in ways we never imagined we ever could.

In my career as a writer and visual artist, I don’t fear rejection anymore because the negative experiences I have had in the past have worked for me. By making me stronger, they have proven to prepare and brace me for the future.

When I returned from England, I entered a deep depression. I was back in America, and although we had moved far away from that small town, I still felt like returning home was equal to failure.

This is when my depression intensified, and also when I was diagnosed with anxiety, OCD and bipolar disorder.

The depression, when it lowered itself back upon me, seemed like a thick fog that covered and obscured the people and things I loved and cared about the most. This fog would rise and creep over me insidiously, mystifying me and confusing my emotions.

It would conceal with a dark haze the light I felt was still inside of me. Sometimes it became like a tidal wave that would grow to an immense and impossible height and then come crashing down on me, submerging me into its darkest depths until all I could see was a black, underwater void.

No other colors seemed to exist in this universe. I could barely breathe in such a state, and if I tried to breathe, it would feel as if water was rushing into my mouth and lungs, causing me to drown.

So instead, I kept all of my unresolved feelings from the past deep down inside of me, repressed because I didn’t know how else to deal with them.

I felt like I lived in a permanent and perpetual midnight with no sun or moon in sight. I felt isolated and alone, trapped inside of the mental illness.

In my dreams, I would fall through the space of an infinite black universe, falling and falling and never landing anywhere.

In my waking life, my dreams started to eclipse the sequence of my reality, blurring the line between what was real and what was imagined.

The anxiety was unbearable. In public, I often felt tense and restless and wished I could hide somewhere unseen.

I wanted the world to open up and swallow me. I longed for a safe haven, a secluded place where I could burrow a cavernous hole deep in the underground so I could escape the anxiety and fear.

I became so afraid of people that I couldn’t bear to be in a room alone with anyone but my parents. I would rarely go outside of the house and usually stayed in my room with nothing but the anxiety and feelings of unease to accompany me.

Then the OCD came to me, seemingly out of the blue. I would find myself lost deep within the labyrinthian maze of my mind, unable to escape the winding corridors of my troubled consciousness.

I worried about the future excessively, would get lost in a seemingly endless despair and the most disturbing and obsessive thoughts would scroll through my mind relentlessly.

It was overwhelmingly strong and powerful. At times, I would experience a rapid insurgence of repetitive thoughts that would invade my head like a combative army.

Words and feelings would break through my mind and develop like a thick, dark film, creating images of fear and shame and sparking compulsions that would not let go of me until I repeated them over and over again.

I was constantly afraid of being contaminated with some form of disease and strongly believed if I were to touch something that happened to be “infected,” I would then become afflicted.

I would then have to wash my hands repeatedly to remove the invisible “pollutants” from my skin and to clean and disinfect myself. I would take multiple showers a day and wash my hands and face so much they would become raw and painful, chapped and red.

On my most difficult days, I felt like I was trekking through an endless black forest, my feet entrenched in the mud below me. I dreamed I would leave tracks in the dirt that went nowhere.

In some of my dreams, I could feel wispy, gossamer-like strands glide over my arms and legs as I stepped through what seemed to be a spider’s web. I would feel as if I were lost in the branches of my despair for days as imaginary thorns and leaves brushed past my dream-face, revealing a hidden world that grew like a fungus from my mental illnesses.

The bipolar disorder was more like a hurricane running rampant inside of me. It was like a chaotic, invisible mass that tried to dominate me and take me over.

I believe some of the fury that came from my bipolar disorder stemmed from the many years I kept all of those experiences of being bullied inside of me. I kept it all in until I could no longer bear it.

I was so full of unexpressed rage because I had never really stood up for myself. I needed to rid myself of the unresolved emotion and feelings.

I would often look out my bedroom window at the woods, teardrops obscuring my view, until the outside world became nothing but a blur. I felt protected by this kind of temporary blindness. It allowed me to distort whatever it was I was looking at.

The tears in my eyes clouded up my ability to see, making everything appear softly out of focus and therefore, safe.

At times, I would lie in bed in the privacy of my room and imagine a large black hole opening up above me. And from this inter-dimensional hole came feelings of alienation and hopelessness.

All of these feelings would consume me until I became just a fraction of myself. I was so mesmerized by the misery it inspired — captivated and fascinated with where the hole could take me.

I would dream of ways to get lost deep inside of it. Through this invisible portal, I would navigate myself into different dimensions. I would become so absorbed by this black hole above my head that I would sometimes enter it and travel through space and time, always waking up just before getting lost forever, deep inside of an alien universe.

Whenever I would feel down, my father would relate to me a saying his father used to encourage him with:

“A diamond only becomes a diamond after it has been cut many times.”

Diamonds are formed at high temperature and through extreme pressure. This means to achieve anything you have to endure a lot of pressure, pain and hard work.

Recalling this saying always lifted me up and encouraged me to continue forward in the journey of my life.

Eventually, a family friend told my mother and father about a Buddhist monk living in India who went by the title of Dorjee Rapten. When he heard about my case, he requested the monks in his temple to pray upon an amulet wrapped in a beautiful red silk fabric with a turquoise design embroidered onto it. It hung from a bright emerald green and yellow ribbon I would always keep near me.

I was told inside of the amulet were tiny gems that were prayed over. He also prescribed a large, round pill the color of earth, made from herbs and minerals. He told my parents to have me take one every morning by diluting it in a cup of hot water and drinking the solution.

It helped me in some sense. I believe it was a step forward I had to take, which would bring me closer to recovery.

And then, one day I was watching TV and the Oprah Winfrey show came on. She happened to be talking about people with OCD and how they were being treated, using exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. This is a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy where the person with OCD directly confronts his or her fears, then abstains from performing rituals associated with that fear.

At first this induces more anxiety, but with practice, the anxiety may eventually subside and sometimes even go away. For example, if one has a fear involving germs on a faucet, they would be asked to touch the faucet and then refrain from washing their hands. This method isn’t for everyone.

My mother and father helped me tremendously; they would both do ERP therapy with me every day. It was most helpful to me in coping with OCD.

Opening up to someone and actually talking about what troubles you can also be immensely effective as another kind of therapy. The person you speak to could be a therapist, parent, spouse or even a close friend.

I educated myself about mental illnesses by researching and reading books and then trying to apply what I learned at home. I also learned to recondition my thoughts, reject negative ones and replace them with positive thoughts. When I found the right psychiatrist, we did a lot of research and through trial and error, found the right combination of medications that would help my compounded issues.

As Jeffrey M. Schwartz says in his book “Brain Lock,” medication can be like water wings, helping you stay afloat. When I eventually found the right combination of medicine it felt like the world opened up to me. Everything seemed brighter, as if the depression was a hazy mist that had previously obscured my vision. Again, medication is not right for everyone.

I started to relate to the world in a different way – with more loving kindness and compassion. My empathy for others who had suffered in life was strengthened and reinforced because I had experienced pain in my life, as well.

I became more alert, and one strange and kind of funny thing I noticed is I realized for the previous years of my life I had never really used my facial muscles to make expressions. I suddenly was more inclined to raise my eyebrows and pull expressive faces. It felt liberating, like I had never really “used” my face to the extent I can now.

Prayer has also helped me a great deal. While I am Muslim I have an inclusive kind of faith. I draw inspiration not just from one path to spirituality but also from Buddhism, and transcendental meditation.

Now, I feel like the best way to use my voice is through creativity and the imagination. So I use my short stories, poems and visual art to uplift and help empower Muslim girls, women, young men and other marginalized individuals by exploring themes of identity, sexuality, coming-of-age, girlhood and womanhood, the body, body image and psychological conditions.

Writing and creating art is important to me because I would like to help others to not feel as solitary as I always felt growing up , to help them see and realize they are not alone.

Inspired by my experiences, my work represents individuals fighting, overcoming and transcending the patriarchy in strange and imaginative ways. I often use fantastical and surreal elements in my writing and visual art because it inspires me and strengthens and revitalizes my mind. The verses and prose I use often describe the tenacity, strength and conviction of women who have been marginalized. In my work as a writer and artist now, I like to represent metaphorical and symbolic imagery and impressions of what it can feel like to be a Muslim woman. 

I know with confidence and certainty if I had never been sick I may not have ever learned as much as I have about myself, the world and this compelling and mysterious universe we find ourselves floating through.  

If I hadn’t endured the struggles I have endured as a Muslim American woman who has faced mental illnesses, I wouldn’t be a strong as I am right now.

I believe creating art and writing about people who feel set apart and different is universal and will resonate with many. It can also catalyze the necessary discussion and societal dialogues that need to be in the world today.

I now have a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from University of London in England, have studied Visual Arts and Illustration at Pratt Institute of Art & Design in Brooklyn, New York, and have earned a BA in English Literature and Art History from Rutgers University. I have also just finished writing a collection of short stories about nonconformist Muslim characters who transcend normal and paranormal boundaries and surpass worldly expectations, which I would like to have published. I am presently looking for a literary agent or publisher who can help me publish my books and represent my work.

I feel the work I do now as a writer and artist has helped me rise up from the past and create something positive out of the experiences of that scared little girl who dealt with racism almost every day of her early school years. Hopefully my stories will help other individuals who feel different, alone or marginalized.  

Any small difference I can make is what makes it all worth it.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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