When I was in my twenties, I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1. I had endured two years of exhilarating highs and sickening lows. I cried on the toilet after speaking to the psychiatrist, mostly with relief, but also with deep sadness. Admit that you have bipolar, or any other chronic mental illness, and the average person will jump to very wild assumptions, including questioning your moral fibre.
When I look back at what happened during my manias, I can see why people can fear mental illness. In my manias, I had spent ridiculous amounts of money, engaged in risky sexual behaviour, and road raged my way into accidents. I had lost access to the part of my brain that regulated my behaviour, and it felt like a dam had broken loose within my fractured mind. I felt like Aphrodite herself - gorgeous and unstoppable. Until the inevitable, bone-crunching lows. During my depressions, I became Icarus, burned alive by the sun.
What made everything worse - and eventually better - is this: I am a practicing Muslim woman. I am a woman of colour, a woman of faith, and because of my genetic and spiritual inheritance, finding the right therapist was a difficult journey. When I walked into my university counsellor’s office before my diagnosis, I was brimming with shame and confusion because of the stigma around seeing a therapist, and more importantly, because I had lost control of myself.
She had erased my agony, and attributed it to my colour. She could not see past my hijab (headscarf) and made the mistake of making her own assumptions about my very un-Islamic behaviour
I didn’t know why my moods were spinning out of control, and why nothing could stop my highs. When a stressor hit - impending exams, family problems etc - my moods would spiral upwards and my frontal lobe would be euphorically hijacked. I felt like race car with the brakes cut, racing downhill, crashing into those around me, and the only way I could stop was slam into a concrete wall. I felt grandiose, seductive, incapable of making bad decisions. I got aggressive, hypersexual, and completely reckless. A friend could tell I was spiralling up from my rapid fire excitement as I described my latest idea. When my inevitable depressions hit, I could barely get out of bed. I would ruminate for months over the mistakes I had made during my hazy days of mania. Worst of all, I knew that my next manic episode could hit, and I felt powerless to stop it.
Despite being a observant Asian Muslim woman, I couldn’t stop my manic behaviour.
Despite being a observant Asian Muslim woman, I couldn’t stop my manic behaviour. I was too ashamed to speak to my family about my struggles, so when I tried to speak about some of this to my first therapist, she was unable to understand that my behaviour had nothing to do with wanting to rebel against my faith, or potentially even leave it. Her condescending response was along the lines of “you want to do something different to your family’s expectations. It’s okay to explore.” And just like that, she had erased my agony, and attributed it to my colour. She could not see past my hijab (headscarf) and made the mistake of making her own assumptions about my very un-Islamic behaviour.
“I don’t know why bipolar manifests in hypersexuality, but all the Jews, Muslims and Christians get so guilty about it. Don’t beat yourself up over it,” another therapist had told me, with the nonchalance that can only come from privilege, and lack of sensitivity.
It was such a shaming experience that when I eventually did come back to the university counselling centre - after my next terrible and inevitable bout of mania and depression - I didn’t want to see her. I was too ashamed to even tell the receptionist that I wanted to see someone else. I didn’t have the confidence or even the vocabulary to say I didn’t want to see a privileged white woman. I wanted to see someone more like me.
The next therapist I saw was also not a woman of colour. However, she had the compassion and insight to see me as a whole person. She supported me along with her kindness and belief in my intrinsic worthiness, respected my decision to abide by my spiritual values. We both sighed with relief after I finally got diagnosed. I took my medication religiously, and stabilised.
As a Muslim woman in white Australian society, I experience racism even in the supposed safety of my therapist’s office
Eventually, I found a therapist who was also Muslim, and a woman of colour. She was able to offer me an even deeper level of support, by recognising my deep shame and reassuring me that God was still with me. She reminded me what I knew all along - temporary insanity isn’t something I would be held to account for. With her help, I could tap into my faith as a source of healing, instead of crushing shame. This is what nuanced therapy looks like, acknowledging that I am part of a network of ties that can help to heal me, and empowering me to prioritise my self-care.
Every woman of colour who steps into a therapist’s office has a unique story. She is a sum total of her life experiences - the good, the bad, and the ordinary. A good therapist is able to listen to her story and work with her, not make sweeping generalisations based on what she looks like.
As a Muslim woman in white Australian society, I experience racism even in the supposed safety of my therapist’s office. Mental health professionals are not immune from internalising social assumptions and stereotypes about Muslims. It’s critical for them to be more self-aware about their own potential prejudices and position, to reduce the possibility of them inflicting more trauma on people from marginalised groups who have come to them for help.
* Names have been changed.
Mental health support services:
Lifeline - 13 11 14
The new SBS series 'How 'Mad' Are You?' takes a unique look at mental health. It will be broadcast on SBS from October 11 at 8:30pm on SBS.