As I write yet another email apologizing in advance that I will miss a deadline, I debate whether to provide a reason. Should I write that I am struggling with sometimes crippling anxiety, that I have physical symptoms related to that anxiety and to depression? Or should I stick with “some health issues”? Or is even that too much information? Is it better not to provide a reason at all?
I have written quite a few such emails over the years and it is only now that I both fear and anticipate the response. If I openly acknowledge what others would call mental health challenges, I usually get no response at all or one that entirely ignores that part of the discussion. Using physical illness as an explanation rarely generates a more direct response either, and if it does, it usually takes the form of wishes that I get well soon, as if I have caught the flu. If only depression and anxiety or even their somatic manifestations went away or could be cured!
When I am able, I analyze such responses for what they can tell me about this society’s willingness and ability to take seriously how we feel, how we function, and what either of those have to do with meaningful living.
There are two main concerns in the above: that we cannot openly discuss our mental and physical health challenges and instead we are expected to suppress them in polite company; and that the boundary between being healthy (mentally or otherwise) and being unhealthy, does not in fact exist despite the language we employ that seems to insist on such a boundary.
As I become a little more confident about sharing my struggles, I find that doing so encourages others to share as well. In conversations with my students, undergrads as well as graduate students, and occasionally with colleagues, I see the light of hope and with that hope, I see relief. I understand that academia, my work environment is as much part of the capitalist system as any other workplace, so the expectation to be functional, perform one’s work tasks and generate profit is not surprising. It is, however, hurting countless individuals, women as well as men, and that, combined with my feminist idealism, has me convinced that a system that enables theoretical reflection and sometimes even induces change in society (however reluctantly) should do better than it does at this point. We may have some access to mental health services (also part of capitalism and thus costing money), but professional services are not all we need.
This brings me to my second point, one which is for me at least more directly related to religion. I realize that the mind, body, and soul division is the product of a particular history, philosophy, and time period. But I do not experience these supposed parts of my being as three distinct thirds that form a whole. They seamlessly blend into each other, all making me who I am and who God made me to be. Why then is it so difficult some days for me to do anything at all? Should it be a daily exercise to determine where I seem to fall that day on a five point spectrum, from mentally healthy (5) to mentally ill (1)? How often do I not have a concrete answer? And whose “mental state” can truly be captured by such a simple scale?
I do not know whether I have ever had a day on which I felt normal or didn’t worry about being normal. Normal compared to whom? Stuck somewhere between protestant work ethic, socialist utility for the community, and gratitude owed to God for being alive, I have serious difficulty relating to modern psychiatry and even conventional medicine. And perhaps the five-point spectrum above exists simultaneously for physical health or even more likely for the same whole. If my body, mind, and soul are all interconnected, it makes sense that my physical health cannot be measured separately from my mental or spiritual health.
I know about self-care and I fear that while I know, I do not always care enough. But when I do look for care, I find it impossible to get help that meets my needs. None of the holistic medicine approaches I encountered were also able to incorporate my religion, unless I was somehow willing to have religion recast as spirituality. And finding any kind of holistic care to begin with has been near impossible.
There will always be a next time for being told that I owe it to my family to medicate my emotions and that I have an obligation to function and be normal. Even doctors who acknowledge what they insist on calling spirituality (but not what I call religion), make me feel like I am trying on the wrong dress size, as if they were trying to make me wear someone else’s clothes. And like with clothes, it’s somehow my fault and not the clothes’ that the fit is wrong...
I am concerned about the lack of holistic care, not only for myself, but for so many friends and colleagues; and for the activists, protesters, and those who want to change the world. The struggles we encounter affect us, affect our health and, at times feel like they are eating us alive.
Perhaps it is time for me to add these concerns to my list of struggles; to the causes I care most deeply about. So in addition to waking up every morning and attempting to assess where I am on my five point-spectrum and how much energy I can expend on seeming normal, perhaps I can begin to ask the following:
Are there gender-just, religion-conscious approaches or ideas for how to care for ourselves holistically? Where can we find or make the spaces we need to stay alive and carry on, without having to wait for the whole system to change?
Juliane Hammer teaches Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching interests include gender and sexuality in contemporary Muslim societies, American Muslim communities, Sufism, and Muslim foodways. Recent books include American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More than a Prayer, and the co-edited Cambridge Companion to American Islam.She is currently working on two book projects, one on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence and one on American Muslim wedding and marriage practices.