*The hospital is the great equalizer*
I always say I happened into writing about mental health because of my own story, and then my advocacy ideas came about later. I often gloss over the first part, because to me it's the least interesting chapter of how I got to where I am in my life. But I realized something recently when I was processing some feedback from one of my readers. By not telling the story fully, I've missed details that explain why I'm so passionate about my style of advocacy.
I've mentioned on many occasions that I've been hospitalized in the inpatient unit 7-8 times over the years. That's at least 28 days in the hospital with other mental health patients, many of them Muslim, and from all different countries. For statisticians, no, I wouldn't have an exact number, unfortunately.
2 patients that stand out to me are a disabled sister and a father of 4. I'm unable to give any more details because of privacy laws. But the sister's interaction with me was really touching. When she saw me approach the intake desk, she was standing with another patient. She shouted and walked over to hug me. I didn't know or understand what the commotion was about. It turns out she didn't know we could be covered inside the unit. In years past, women had to remove their scarves for safety reasons.
I had a flashback to my first inpatient stay when a polite but naive nurse asked me if I wanted to wear hospital grade underwear in place of my scarf. That was the only material she could find and she didn't know what else to do. At the time, there was no one else like me to relate to in my area. I felt lost emotionally, spiritually and physically. It was one of the worst nights of my life.
At this hospital, upon seeing me in my scrubs and scarf the sister was completely overcome. She was emotional both at seeing another Muslim and at the fact that we could cover. I understood her elation and teared up with her. She went to the nurse's station and requested her hijab. At least we could have some semblance of dignity while we were there. I've been wearing my hijab since 1996. It's become like a second skin, so I don't even think about it sometimes. But both nights, the one where I was in a public hospital with strangers and had nothing to cover my head, and the one where a sister I didn't know hugged me too tight because she could cover hers, were the most influential nights of my life with the hijab. I've never thought of it like that until just now.
Her story isn't unique. I've met many sisters like her over the years. And brothers who’ve had to take time away from work and their families to address their mental health needs as well. The joy and relief seen on the face of a fellow Muslim are touching; heartbreaking. You're happy to meet a brother/sister, yet crestfallen that they know this life test. The stories are full of hope sadness, and everything in between.
I hope not to have to go back to the hospital anytime soon. It would mean my symptoms have come back and need emergency management. But if they do, I hope to see a friendly face on the inside so I don’t have to be alone. That’s always the best part. Allah has been truly merciful.
This story illustrates why I got into advocacy work. When I got to the hospital for the first time and saw another Muslim woman with a name like mine, I was so moved. People had told me that mental illness didn’t exist for people like me and that it was all in my head. But when I went to inpatient I saw that this simply wasn’t true. On the occasion where the African American sister and I connected over our hijabs, I realized that I had an opportunity to help people like me who needed inpatient psychiatric care. In the hospital, we’re asked if we’d like to be visited by someone from our faith background and I never know what to say. Since people spent so much time denying the reality of mental illness, what would they say to me when I was in the hospital for something like this? I realized I wanted to make a difference and help people who faced the same issues I did. My advocacy has never been about my journey, but it’s definitely been because of it. And that makes me so happy.