How I Almost Lost My Religion -- And It Nearly Killed Me
On a chilly autumn day in 2008, I texted two friends, called a suicide hotline, and left a voice mail on my mom’s phone about my plan to kill myself. And who knows, I probably blogged about it, too. I was unhinged.
Two officers were at my door by the time I swallowed the seventh pill. By pill I mean the anti-depressant I was prescribed at the time. I effectively snitched on myself before my half-assed suicide attempt even began.
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, I shifted between a conscious state and an unconscious state. In the hospital, they made me drink this black, grainy gunk, so I could throw up the pills. They strapped me to a gurney as I hallucinated conversations with my parents for four hours. I spent two days in the heart/renal care because the fear was that the pills would exacerbate my very minor heart murmur and I would die of a heart attack. When it was obvious seven anti-depressants wouldn't make my heart explode, I was transferred to B5, one of the psychiatric units.
B5 looked like a Downtown Minneapolis chapter of the Crips. We wore blue scrubs, we were blue. During my first lunch at B5, I was greeted by Albert, a surly man who believed he was Yahweh.
“Hello beautiful! Y’all Somali girls is some of the prettiest girls in the world, and they got y’all covering up all your beauty,” Albert said, referring to my hijab. Even though I was a newly-minted New Atheist, I still covered my hair out of routine. “And I bet your vagina’s cut up, too. It’s a shame.” Albert chuckled, and walked back to his room. The room with the cameras.
It seemed like every person with paranoid schizophrenia in B5 thought they were God or they believed -- the way Sue, another patient, did -- that they were God’s little special helper.
“There are only demons, nomads, and humans in this world. You’re a nomad, and I’m a human. Molly, my daughter-in-law, is a demon,” Sue said to me at lunch, scowling. “God is upset with you. God is an Indian man in Chennai. Christianity is a false religion. God is upset with you!!!”
Rebecca, the sweet older woman with Alzheimers sitting next to me -- who unfortunately reeked of diarrhea -- chimed in. “Oh, that’s not nice,” she said in a Minnesotan accent out of a movie.
“There is no God,” I said with the zeal of a New Atheist.
Sue didn’t blink. She dropped her spoon in her bowl and walked away. I had angered Sue that day and started a six-month streak of angering anyone I felt like angering, when I felt like it, all because of my newly-adapted opinion that there is no God.
Before I stopped believing, I wasn’t that religious. I didn’t go to the mosque weekly, I didn’t pray five times a day, I didn’t forbid myself from the fun of dyeing my hair or listening to music. I was only religious in the sense that my mind was vaguely colonized by the belief that I was hell-bound.
My parents had always been fairly secular, with bouts of feigned religiosity, but I grew up around cousins, aunts, uncles and random Somali people who bullied me into wearing a hijab; who made it a point to remind me Yaumul Qiyamah (The Day of Judgement) could happen on a random Friday so I should live my life in perpetual fear of Fridays; who never stopped placing me and other girls into stifling gender roles; and who valued scripture over science.
The day I stopped believing was twelve days before I tried to kill myself. But the seeds of doubt had been there for a long time. Ever since I could remember, I was too left-of-center for a conservative Somali community. It started with, “Hey, I think gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry like everyone else!” and “I don’t see why belief in Evolution is considered blasphemy, guys!” to “Welp, I guess I’m not certain Allah even exists!”
When I was discharged from the hospital, the pain began manifesting itself in new, strange ways, like that time I had extremely unwanted, intrusive thoughts of throwing popcorn at people at the dollar theater. Pain suddenly turned into a nagging, ever-present anxiety, slight mania and a newfound sense of asshole carpe diem. I wore what I wanted, which meant for a huge chunk of 2009 I looked a mess, though I am sure at the time I was trying to be crustpunk. I did what I wanted, said what I wanted and I had no self-awareness whatsoever.
I guess I was making up for all the years I spent being very careful, conscious and considerate of God and everybody else’s feelings, but mostly I was very sick, arguably more sick than before the attempt, because I hadn’t had time to completely process it yet. So, in a way, I blame myself for some of the things that happened to me during that time period.
The things that happened to me? Well, my mom got a call from a distant aunt in Kenya who wanted to know if it’s true what everybody’s saying, that I’m really a gaal (non-believer)? Five Somali girls, including two of my play cousins, shit-talked me in a living room and one of them told my friend about it who told me. I wasn’t allowed to enter the Mall of America on a Saturday morning because I didn’t have my ID on me, and my mall cop cousin was feeling particularly cruel that day and wanted to make a big deal about it even though I’m a) not underage and b) not a criminal and c) her blood relative. (I was still let into the mall by security. I never complained to her boss or her mom.)
Random Somalis I didn’t know came up to me or messaged me unsolicited on Facebook, asking me personal questions about myself. Some relatives gossiped about me to anyone, including my French-speaking cousin who told me everything they said because she was in the throes of a manic episode and couldn’t help it. This is partly why I have spoken to my grandma maybe once in the last four years.
I am filled with a shame for that experience that I can’t justify or explain. All of this, among many other things, happened to me because I was going through something and would frequently put all my info on front street. I was arguing, talking, writing blog posts and Facebook status-updating my every passing thought in an attempt to process losing my faith and almost losing my life.
I wouldn’t trade that period in my life for anything, though. It was the worst time ever but I’m stronger for having gone through it. For the most part, things have never been as bad as that. If I didn’t experience some light stalking, gossip and deliberate exclusion, I would never have developed a language for pain, self-care routines, coping mechanisms or taken myself to therapy to embark on a jihad against depression and figure out what was actually wrong with me. I found out my anger at religion was misplaced, and that the Islam I thought couldn’t be reconciled with modernity actually could.
I am still a person who considers herself Muslim. I just hold onto the doubts that make me the highly critical and analytical person I am. I hold onto these doubts and I hold onto myself, telling myself to take life one day at a time, and let pain and outsider-y feelings fade away.
The pain is not so bad anymore.