On Being of Sound Mind, Body, (&/or) Soul by Juliane Hammer

hammerAs 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. 

Categories: Healing, religion, Women's Voices

Tags: , , ,

18 replies

  1. I live this every day of my life, have encountered the same issues. Luckily I’m not involved in a work environment any longer so do not have to act a role (wear clothes) that’s contradictory to my well being. I’m currently fighting off an invitation to engage in NGO work for exactly these reasons.


  2. I suspect I am equally as difficult to understand and unique in my needs as you are, but I did find therapists who could help me with my depression even if they did not fully understand or sympathize with my spirituality. For me healing involved a combination of the two, and yes for me, healing did occur. I will be keeping my fingers crossed for you too. xxx

    PS I will add that for me talk therapy didn’t do it. My breakthroughs came through gestalt-bioenergetics and then from family systems — in both cases in groups.


    • Thank you, Carol, as always, for reading carefully and for your support. I find that suspicion of “the system” is my greatest challenge after the ones I listed in the post.


  3. Thanks for this clear articulation from your “lived experience.” You ask a couple of great questions: “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?”

    I think your second question holds a key to the dislocation that so many people feel. We live in a terribly harsh world and even though many people do work tirelessly for peace, those efforts can appear to be futile. I know I easily “lose heart.” (Another mass shooting yesterday!) Prophets of old lost heart as well. They could “see” things and their “warnings” went unheeded. They were often killed. It’s hard to find the nurturing and sustenance needed to carry on. I think finding those nurturing spaces is essential, but there is no “one size fits all.” Sometimes the help comes from places you least expect it to–at least it did for me. Wishing you comfort and joy.


  4. Capitalistic societies which provide the best services to the most efficient of their skilled workers are exceedlingly unforgiving of mental illness. Diversity of mental states is rarely tolerated. I read recently something by a schizophrenic who wrote that she wished she had been diagnosed with cancer, at least she would then get sympathy from people.

    People become impatient with mental illness and say, “Isn’t there a pill for that? Isn’t there a therapy for that” and there are, and some of them may work- but they work for some people, not ALL people. You are one of those outliers on the bell curve, a square peg, and that is scary and also very wonderful and unique. Each of us is universe unto ourselves, and your universe just happens to contain a few extra dimensions.

    That being said, please don’t wait for the whole system to change. The system may or may not change, and this may or may not occur in your lifetime. In the present you occupy, you will have to build your own square peg comfort zone. This will require energy, a tremendous amount of creativity, and the resolve to say, “this isn’t working for me, I’m dumping this, time to try something different.”. Along the way you will discover some amazing things, things you would have never found unless you had started this quest of square peg space. If this seems like a ‘selfish’ journey to you, it is not, particularly if you share your quest with others. Once other square pegs recognize that they have options (and they can only do this by hearing your story), then the system will start to change.

    I wish for you courage and Little Red Hen resolve and please dispose of that ‘normal’ definition. Be well.


  5. Excellent and courageous post! I’m editing a book by a psychotherapist who has spent much of his life dealing with his own, personal despair and anxiety, but he has also found hope in his life. I’ve just sent him the link to your post. Blessings to you and to him and to us all!

    BTW, is there anyone who is altogether normal? You’re right–no one really has any idea what “normal” is. I think we mostly just make it up as we go along.


  6. What I think about after reading your post, Juliane, is how everything you do is shaped by who you are at a very deep level. And who you are includes all of you. And bringing all of you to bear on a project is such a gift and will shape the people who read/experience your work. Even if they don’t consciously realize it. You are a gift and you are perfect just the way you are. And keep on keeping on!


  7. I like Ann Marie’s line: “You are a gift and you are perfect just the way you are.” Isn’t it “funny”, I can believe that of everyone, except myself! I know the way co-workers look at one returning from stress leave, battling depression, just not “up to par”. And a medical system that divides people into isolated parts – this pill for that and that pill for this – the side effects are all in your “imagination”.
    You are not alone Juliane. You are full of courage too, able to verbalize your depression and help others do the same.
    Love and courage to you and all who struggle…


  8. Listen to my experience: I have a history of panic-anxiety disorder with situational phobia. During
    2013-2014, worsening anxiety and general ‘blah’ was dismissed by primary health care providers
    as depression and in the realm of psychological maladaption.

    This April, I was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, right hemicolectomy. An incidental
    finding was an adenocarcinoma of the caecum, stage III. No one, is pushing anti-depressants or
    telling me to engage with ‘talk therapy’…..

    If you haven’t already done so, get a colonoscopy. The bias and prejudices of western medical
    models in mental health are a real pain in the arse!

    Meanwhile, I am enjoying the fact that a diagnosis of a physical condition (malignant neoplasm)
    has restored my humanity and visibility. I intend to raise Cain.


    • Thank you, Maggie! You can’t imagine how much I connect with your comment about diagnosis of a physical condition restoring visibility – I have sometimes wished there was such a diagnosis rather than the typical, its all in your head, one.


  9. Been pondering this post since offered, refraining myself from commenting lest it be seen as mansplaining, but would feel wrong if the little I can contribute could have been useful.

    As my grandfather used to say, it is sufficient mental ill-health to feel wrong in one’s own self. And what causes one to feel wrong in one’s own self?
    Unmet aspirations, irreconciliated personalities, unhealed trauma…and unsatisfied spiritual longing.
    Mental health, along with happiness is a system, a strategy where we limit the exposure to negativity while increasing the changes for positivism. One must almost be ruthless about it, the self is under siege and must be protected.
    It is even worse for women today, because woman has been fractured into its various parts, where each, rather than complement the others, conflicts with them.
    What nmr said was incredibly insightful, but I’ll add to the medical perspective Maggie offered.

    All healing starts with proper nourishment, intellectual nourishment, what we watch, what we hear, but more importantly, proper nutrition. Human beings are electrical transformers, they are an electrical system that works best when it is well lubricated and uncorroded. The healthier individual is the one whose physical and emotional signals are least interrupted.
    The biggest disrupter of electrical signals? Dehydration…followed by chemicals. And these chemicals, these thousands of things that are present in our water, air, food, beauty products, medications, health products (lotions, makeup, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, including and especially female hygiene products), the paint on our walls, the clothes we wear…are effectively robbing us of our health.

    When those signals are interrupted, we cannot trust our own mind, for the self fissures and creates clans within itself. There is a disconnect between the brain and the heart, the upper body and the lower one, the right side and the left, we become two extremists within one body, and we fight oneself.

    Together with cleansing one’s environment of toxic elements, one must cleanse the inside of toxic elements that have been building into a sludge we struggle to rid ourselves of. Colon cleansing and juice fasting helps, and then restarting the eating process with some organic meats and lots of fruits and greens, combined with pure water, ditching all medications that are not absolutely necessary.
    Soon enough the fog lifts and we see clearer and clearer…we start sleeping better (which is one of the biggest issues we face, lack of sound sleep).
    Finally, reconnect with nature, which is a (haha) natural healer. Walking barefoot grounds us. Watching birds uplifts us. Smelling flowers heals us.
    And the secret weapons? Essential oils and flower essences, they can change the mood almost instantly.
    And for sufis? zikr! “It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts find peace.”


  10. Holy Anorexia, Batman!


  11. Juliane, thank you for posting this. I know how hard it is to speak about this sort of thing publicly, but it’s so crucial that we do. There will be a time when academics do not look at each other with accusations of weakness when we are honest about what we need and how we should order our life in the most healthy way. I’m sitting here in the library working with a colleague friend and this post made us talk for quite sometime about how inadequate the academy is to making space for people on the neurological spectrum (hate that word, spectrum, it implies a best and worst on either end, which I do not believe in, but everyone uses the term [I prefer web for everything]). I’ve found a healthy equilibrium for myself with approaches that work for me, but even so it has had to include only part time academic work. It’s sad that I cannot do the work I love full time and experience love and happiness in the rest of my life. But the academic system as it stands now–despite being mainly people with mental health struggles–is not made for making space for difference, no matter the type of difference.


  12. Thank you for your candor and for sharing this outloud.

    I know I have struggled with the part of my “well being”that is supposed to go under cover (or veiled.. if you will..) before my public work. I decided to take heart from the feminist mantra: the personal is political

    I find that the space needed to both be a professional in the public or academic arena and the real vicissitudes of life: family, family drama and one’s mental and physical health have NEVER been in balance by the mandates of the career/public stage. For a long time I also thought the solution was to keep it quiet, and I admit I lean towards that still although not as much as I used to.

    Now I simply remind myself, what Laury said, WE ARE the people too.. If the academy cannot accommodate us, at least make it because we did not try to change it and to bring it more in line with the full humanity of us all.

    May it be blessed…


  13. Thank you for your honesty. Laurie and Amina’s comments reminded me of something I went through when I was getting my MA in history with a concentration in women’s studies. While I was trying to write my thesis my husband was in the final stages of alcoholic liver disease. My advisor was a wonderful woman and a feminist, but she believed in pushing her students hard. She could not understand why I couldn’t work on my thesis while my husband was hallucinating and in DTs! After he died it took me years to get back to my thesis and finish it.


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