By Sara M. Abdulla
I always loved Anila, my older sister. So did the rest of our family. But no one knew how to deal with her.
When she was in the third grade she asked Mama, Wouldn’t it be nice to go to sleep one day and simply never wake up? Mama said Anila was too young to have such thoughts.
Anila wore crazy colors like highlighter yellow and cherry red or no color at all, just black. She fluctuated between extremes. Very chubby or very skinny, when kid’s jeans fell off her waist. Very kind or very harsh, when she’d snap at me in the mornings. Very active or very lethargic, when she’d stay in bed for days. There were no in-betweens for Anila. No middle ground.
Mama and Baba taught her to pray, and she did: oh, by God, she did. She prayed five to eight times a day, kept two Qur’ans and a book of duas on her nightstand, fasted all the extra days she could, and spent her free time exploring Islam and its history.
Anila had deen, so our parents didn’t have to deal with her “issues,” which they only saw in their peripheral vision.
But I could hear Anila sobbing at night. Most nights. Sometimes even in the afternoons, if she wasn’t studying or out running. She told me she had pain in her heart, so much pain that she didn’t know how to deal with it, so much pain she couldn’t deal with it.
But still, every morning she got up before dawn and prayed Salut-ul-Fajr, and occasionally woke me up for it. I didn’t usually appreciate it so eventually she stopped encouraging me. In fact, eventually Anila stopped everything.
I would go into her room at any given time of day and see her lying in bed, face-up, wide-eyed and analyzing her ceiling. She didn’t like talking to anyone but usually Anila had patience for me, even at her worst.
She told me her heart hurt so badly that it was physical. Not the type of pain that was longing for God–though with her limited capability to feel, that desire for God was there also–but it was the class of pain that stemmed from existence itself.
She didn’t want life anymore, she didn’t know if she ever wanted it in the first place, and every minute was excruciating.
Once, at a particularly sorrowful time of night, I heard her in the bathroom asking God in her cracked voice why He put her in the universe when she didn’t ask for it, when all she wanted was peace or at least nothing at all.
Anila worried me and made Mama and Baba upset. They said that she was going to ruin her life but she didn’t think that there was anything to ruin. She asked them for help, for some sort of relief. Every single time, they would, like clockwork, point to her prayer rug.
Anila would cry later and say that life had forsaken her, that she must not have even been human or a real person if no one believed how much she could ache, if even God didn’t care for her begging.
She would slap herself every time she said that, because many of imams and sheikhs she’d read about preached that depression was a symptom of weakness, and Anila did everything she could not to be weak: exercising for hours, studying until words blurred together, and praying for strength.
That is, until she couldn’t. She was seventeen years old and had given up on everything.
At some point I began to do my own research about how Anila claimed to feel.
I typed “depression” into Google and checked out books by clinical psychologists and scientists. I read that depression affects about one quarter of Americans sometime in their lives, caused by everything from genetics or biological predisposition to environmental factors or traumatic experiences.
Combinations of those could be lethal, literally or figuratively.
The authors explained that when people are depressed, the serotonin receptors in their brains aren’t working well. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical, associated with happiness, and when people aren’t properly processing serotonin, it is essentially impossible for them not to feel desolate.
Every day that a person is depressed, certain parts of the brain further deteriorate. Some wrote that it was one of the most damaging illnesses a person could have based on “good days” lost and damage done to quality of life.
I showed Mama and Baba what I learned about clinical depression, and I insisted that Anila needed more than just prayer, more than just worship. They wouldn’t tell a diabetic to pray the pain away instead of seeing a doctor. So why were they doing that to Anila?
I gave them information on SSRIs, medication to help the serotonin in the brain go where it needed to go, and studies on the merits of therapy for depressed patients.
Mama looked like she was on the verge of giving up. She claimed that she didn’t care what anybody else thought of her eldest daughter but I heard her talking to Auntie Nahla on the phone about her fears of stigmatization in the community. But Anila is more important that other people’s opinions.
I went into Anila’s room one rainy afternoon – it had stormed nonstop that spring – and asked if she would be willing to get up to see a Dr. Haykl, a psychologist. She looked me dead in the eye– her eyes are the color of oak–and said yes.
I urged her to get dressed and said that I would drive her. By then she was eighteen and could do–and would probably insist on doing–her own paperwork. Anila put on an old black maxi dress and let me play rock music during the twenty minute drive to the clinic.
When we arrived I noticed how gray everything was, like your typical doctor’s office. I waited for Anila in the hallway, reading a TIME magazine. About an hour later, she emerged with a fluoxetine prescription and a tiny bit less haziness in her eyes.
The changes weren’t immediate, nor were they consistent, but they were still there. She began eating foods besides cereal and coffee. She started reading again, beyond just poetry by Sylvia Plath. She went from one prayer a day to three to five.
That fall she went on to attend the University of Virginia on an out-of-state scholarship. We talk every day and she always thanks me, but I just thank God for making one more person, a person I love so dearly, less unhappy in this world.
Baba and Mama began hosting information sessions, dinners and such, at the masjid and at their respective workplaces. They say that they help people understand depression and other mental illnesses, and the causes of them, which nobody likes to speak of.
There are many Anila’s in our communities. It is our duty as Muslims, and as human beings, to cater to what they need.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on AtlantaMuslim.com. Sara Abdulla is a student at Georgia State University. She is double majoring in political science with a concentration in international affairs, along with public policy. She hopes to work in policy or with a nongovernmental organization after college. Her views are her own.