Around My Mother’s Mind: What is Strength for an Anxious Somali?

by sun

“You have to be strong for me, for your brothers, for everyone,” she said.

The house used to shake with our arguments. My mother and I would become enemies over my sleepless nights. I did not rebel against her out of hate. When I looked for answers to the things I was struggling with, she turned her back on me. There was always an ongoing feud about my feelings. She could not understand why I had so much to express.

I met with a therapist for the first time in 2006. My cousin accompanied me but sat next to me with a stern face. I had known her for laughing; a symbol of joy. I felt as if I had done something wrong once I saw her stern demeanor at the therapist’s office. After that experience, I never spoke to anyone about my feelings again. I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and the distance between my mother and I only continued to grow.

When I cried, my mother cried back. Her confusion and disdain for emotion spread over to me. I soon took up her concerns about my priorities. I thought: If I show emotion, which is weakness, it would not only hurt her, but make it harder for her. I had to represent strength despite my insecurities telling me that I am nowhere near as strong as I could be.

I knew I had to accept every aspect of my G.A.D (generalized anxiety disorder). I decided I had to learn how to be a support system for myself. I told those closest to me that I sometimes have moments where I cannot control myself. I informed religious people in my life that I didn’t have a jinn and to stop telling me that this was a lack of imaan issue. In this period, I felt alienated and tried to ignore my anxiety and the warning signals of depression. Years of conditioning told me my feelings were not important and that my mental illness did not exist. Staying in that mindset would have been an injustice to myself.

There was just too much that came with having G.A.D. and everyone around me was as confused as I was. I lost friends and the respect of my family members as a result of my anxiety disorder. I became too scared to show concern for myself for fear that it would be interpreted as me saying “I don’t care about everyone around me,” or “my problems are worse than yours!” It was already rare for me to take a step back and focus on myself, so this only further fueled me to keep quiet. I knew that I had to go back to being my own care system.

I am still attempting to accept myself and improve my mental health. Sometimes I would think about words like shame over and over again until I would pass out in the shower due to anxiety. One time after such an attack, my mother unlocked the door with a spoon and barged in the bathroom. After this experience of her seeing me in such an anxious state, she started to show me a different side of herself. She began to abandon the old conversations around shame and weakness. After that, my mother often held me during involuntary panic attacks and pep talked me into sleeping during times where I had been awake for 72 hours. Although she was confused, she learned with me. It took time, but eventually she was able to see that I was trying my best to make her proud.

People believe a lot of myths about mental illness. Myths like panic attacks aren’t real. Myths like being distraught is a performance. Myths like sensitivity and mentally illness is a white thing.  I was taught at a young age from habiryal that a Somali woman is to be strong so she does not burden those around her. That she is supposed to support and care for others. But I don’t believe that. We need to destigmatize and discuss mental illness. Dismissing pain due to pride is a rotten habit in our community. Young people must be made to feel like they are not alone and can seek help.