A THOUSAND MISTAKES 

By Jamal Mehmood
Illustration by Alaa Alsaraji

The first of my thousand mistakes came in the winter of 2008. For some inexplicable reason as I finished praying that evening, something – a voice, an impulse – told me to pray again. I was told by this impulse that I had made a mistake, one that warranted repeating prayer. To those unfamiliar with the Islamic tradition, the concept of a ‘mistake’ in something as devotional and confessional as prayer may seem nonsensical, and in this instance, with hindsight, I would agree but for different reasons.

 

Prayer is an imperfect translation of salah, which refers to the five prescribed daily acts of worship that we refer to as ‘prayers’. In reality, they are a mixture of prayers, worship, submission, meditation and a conversation with God. These acts have certain rules and regulations (ones that I would come to know very well) that constitute a valid act of worship. As an example, one cannot ‘pray’ (I will use this word to mean the salah from now) without being in a state of ritual purity; the prayer is simply invalid.

 

Returning to that January evening, the specificity escapes my memory, but an impulse told me I had made a mistake that necessitated repeating my prayer. Whether or not I did is entirely irrelevant, the crucial point is that I listened and redone the prescribed obligation. The same thing happened in my ‘correction prayer’ until it took 45 minutes to do something which usually takes around 10.

 

I was 16 at the time, fairly new to praying regularly, and completely and utterly confused by what had just happened. I had seemingly no control of the situation and continued giving in to these impulses in some robotic trance until they permeated entire days, coldly hijacking presence and stealing happiness from a heart that was spiritually very young. I couldn’t understand the sudden nature of how I’d changed, how something so demoralising, so totally enveloping could have happened overnight.

 

Each prayer became chore-like — something to fear, to dread, an event I had to anxiously prepare for, void of any spiritual meaning . The daily prayers — these ancient, beautiful rituals — became something to be afraid of. This tragedy was not lost on me, and I knew full well that what I was subjecting myself to couldn’t possibly be what was being asked of me, what is asked of laypeople, yet I continually caved under the pressure. I had no vocabulary to describe what I now understand as a disease of the mind and attempted to carry on privately. It was incessant — my misgivings spread to hygiene until I was spending over an hour in the shower, until the hot water finished, until questions came from others, until I ran out of poor answers. I began consciously eating less (and lying about it), so I’d need the toilet less, would need to wash my hands less, and it continued with no end in sight.

 

The end was something I fantasised about often. I tried imagining what it would be like to be free, if others knew how good they had it. To be in a room with those you love and actually be in the room, to be present in laughter without the backdrop of fear. It is what life became — what started as small physical impulses to repeat a prayer or wash a limb for the eighth time eventually became impulses to correct thoughts, to take back words, to question intentions, to ponder over my actions, as if each one had enough weight to bury me beyond recovery. The thoughts were even more difficult to restrain; at least if I washed my hands enough times, some arbitrary number I had thought was enough, that would scratch the itch. The itches in your head are ones that can really linger and this disease had taken complete control. Both body and mind. I chased myself into a silence not only concerned with the outward, but with an unrelenting obsession with the inward; all my actions stained with a guilt that no amount of water could

wash off.

 

I had what I thought was a trump card however — divine assistance via pilgrimage to Mecca. It just so happened that in the summer of this year, 2008, our family would travel to make the umrah pilgrimage. At this point there had been almost half a year of change in me,impossible to keep from family members, my mother included. She told me that going to the Ka’ba would make it all okay, that the blessing of that place would render all of this obsolete. It took a little convincing, but of course I believed her. As beautiful as the place was, it broke my heart when I returned home to find the anticipated miracle missing. While in the Great Mosque it was easier, there was no denying that, I wanted more — I wanted transformation — the grandeur of clean-cut divine intervention. The words of Naz Khialvi, “He found You in neither the idol house nor in the Ka’ba , but found You in a broken heart”, eventually became so true and so emblematic of my misunderstanding of spirituality. I don’t believe I was at fault for my lack of level headedness — I imagine many of us were searching (and do search) for some righteous way, all in the chaos of advice coming from all angles, in the chaos of the internet, the tumult of identity and in the gulf that can sometimes appear between us and our elders. It just so happened that what fell from my particular maelstrom was this illness – and I was to deal with it the best I could.

 

Shame was ever-present. Imagine a 16-year-old supposed-to-be-half-man-by-now boy, in tears at night, scared of the bathroom, unable to pray without fear, so much so, that at one point his angelic mother began sitting behind him while he prayed, so he wouldn’t try to pray again in secret when he was done. It is difficult to explain the demoralising nature of those days, to be so drained and to deny the extent of it all.

 

There were some days that I broke, where the façade had no choice but to momentarily collapse. I remember all five-foot something of me in my mother’s lap explaining to her the straw that happened to break my back that day.

 

It helped to say my suffering out loud even for a moment, but it was no cure. Knowing this as well as I did, my mother booked a doctor’s appointment for me. That day at the surgery was the first time I had looked at the problem through a medical lens, and I thank God for my mother’s foresight. It was probably the first time I’d said the words Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in reference to myself. It was uncomfortable to associate what I was going through as a mental illness — the public conversation around the issue was far less advanced then, and I felt small telling a stranger about something I had tried to keep so private. The doctor did not need much convincing and referred me to counselling – which I rejected (more on that later).

 

Some time passed, and the news of my strange and worrisome behaviour spread to the mosque. The imam knew as much as he could from afar, occasionally seeing me pray more than I should have been. He taught me a particular duaa, an incantation to recite after each prayer, one that beseeched God to remove worry and depression. He would try without success to tell me not to repeat prayers and answer my incessant questions with patience. Still, deliverance did not come. I had read hadith after hadith, forum after forum – searching for answers. Encouraging Islamic narrations did nothing immediate for me, and the ordeal continued. Until one day, in answering another question of mine, the imam said a few words that I remember to this day.

 

They weren’t particularly profound, and I am still unsure as to why they helped. I also believe my memory of that entire period is marred, so I wonder whether I can rely on these recollections, but they are all I have. He told me this: that mistakes were forgiven, and even if I made a thousand mistakes it didn’t matter. This wasn’t particularly different to what I had read in my research, but something about the way he said it flicked a switch in my head – and to the best of my memory it became much easier after that day to walk away, both literally and figuratively, from my impulse to repeat and correct. This was the mysterious half-healing that came, fortunately for me. Quite possibly an accepted prayer, arriving in its own time. And while the switch did flick, I cannot ignore the determined support of my mother, and some close friends who I shared parts of my pain with, who were so gracious with their time and sympathy. I am forever indebted to them.

 

This must not be seen as an idyllic ending – mostly because it isn’t an ending. I still regret rejecting counselling at a time when it could have reduced the length and impact of this ordeal. Unfortunately, I was a product of my time, and my environment and the idea of counselling made me feel weak. I felt it wasn’t for people like me, that I was no ‘freak’ and so I put the papers away somewhere and never filled out the forms, never going to a single session of counselling thereafter. In hindsight, this was one of the biggest mistakes of them all. Knowing how many years I had lost to that illness, how many moments I still lose to it – I wish I had made a different choice. Essentially, this is my reason for writing this, to encourage others in some small way to seek help and lend a hand of loving solidarity to those still suffering.

 

I was weary of any attempted writing on the matter to become part of the plethora of buzzword-heavy mental health related media that exists, and the only reason I am choosing to share my peculiar account of suffering is that I learned throughout those years that there are other young Muslims who are going through similar pain. Those who may not have the vocabulary to express it. I only want this to serve as an encouragement to them to seek the proper help, and to let them know someone else has been through what they have. That someone else came through the darkest part of it, that someone else who pulled a knife out of the drawer when no one was home, put it back. I do not feel comfortable sharing this level of detail without the usual metaphors of poems or fiction to hide behind – I would rather try to heal privately, but our affair is a communal one. If I am gaining some sense of purpose it is to be of use to those I love, and I pray that those for whom this is intended find some solace in the words I’ve managed to tessellate, and take the step of seeking proper guidance.

 

I once sent an article for editing to a friend of mine, who in her feedback told me I used the words ‘perhaps’, ‘somewhat’, ‘maybe’ and ‘seemingly’ too much. I do. I often come across unsure. I didn’t tell her, but I’d been unsure since I was 16. I chose those words often because I had become used to being afraid of asserting something, in the fear that it was untrue, with lying being a sin. In writing poetry, I had to convince myself of my own metaphors, to try and justify that they did not sit on shaky moral ground. I have been, and to a degree remain, a writer with a lack of confidence in my voice – my creativity both kindled by and stifled by a malady that still sits in my mind. But now, on some nights, when a poem I’ve written falls out of my mouth without quivering, when a sentence reads as cleanly as I wanted it to, when I can pray just once and trust God to do the rest, when I can be almost whole and in Love, I can hear my healing in the sky.

 

 

 

RESOURCES

From Khidr Collective Zine Issue Two: Shifaa

 

Visit your GP for a referral to a therapist. Some therapies may not be available on the NHS, but you can enquire about low-cost or free therapy.

 

The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network www.baatn.org.uk

British Association of Dramatherapists www.badth.org.uk/

Nafsityat Intercultural Therapy Centre www.nafsiyat.org.uk

Islamic Counselling www.islamiccounselling.co.uk/

and www.sakoon.co.uk

 

Confidential Helplines for Muslims

Muslim Youth Helpline www.myh.org.uk

The Muslim Community Helpline http://muslimcommunityhelpline.org.uk/

 

Information and Support for Mental Illness

www.mind.org.uk

https://youngminds.org.uk/