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How My Faith as a Muslim Helps Me Cope With My Chronic Illness

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been labeled a "control freak." As a child, the word "bossy" was thrown around quite a bit. Group projects gave me anxiety because I'd rather complete the work solo (there's always someone like that in the group, right?). That way, I know it will get done and I don’t have to worry about depending on someone else. I never saw my need to control things as a negative trait. I preferred to think of myself as being self-sufficient and proactive. I was proud of myself for always having a contingency plan, or 10, as even my back-up plans had back-up plans.

Before, I thought putting all the accountability on God and religion was a way for people to avoid taking any responsibility or accountability for their actions. I felt relying on someone, anyone else, a higher power included, meant I’d be giving up my agency or autonomy. And that was what scared me the most, because no agency meant no control, and if I didn’t have control of the situation, then I was worrying about unknowns. When I began studying Islam, and I learned that wasn’t the case at all. At least not for me.

I started learning to let go—and yes, letting go is something I had to learn—through practicing Islam. Islam means “submission” in Arabic, as in "submission to God." The word "Islam" comes from the Arabic root word sal’m (salaam), which means peace. You may have heard Muslims greeting each other with "asalaamu alaikum" before. We are greeting each other with wishes for peace, as the phrase means "peace be upon you." I wanted peace for myself, and, for me, there was only way to get it—by letting go. Being able to trust in a higher power was a relief and a release for me. I hadn’t realized how utterly exhausting it was to think everything was dependent on me all the time, until I let go of those thoughts.

I felt relying on someone, anyone else, a higher power included, meant I’d be giving up my agency or autonomy.

I fell in love with a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad, "Trust in Allah, but tie your camel." In other words, God will take care of you—but you need to do your part. The Quran also made mention of this, in Surah Ar-Ra’d, 13:11, saying "Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." God actually wanted me to exercise my agency. God wanted me to do the work, which for me, was a profound revelation. As a social worker, I believed deeply in doing the work, and I didn’t want my relationship with an organized religion to absolve me from being the best I could be.

In virtually every religion, there's this concept of God "testing" people. As far as I was concerned, I’d been tested since the time I was born. I have long since realized my reluctance to rely on anyone or anything else was perhaps a response rooted in medical trauma and childhood abandonment. According to psychotherapist Susan Anderson one of the features of post-traumatic stress disorder with regards to abandonment is "excessive need for control, whether it’s about the need to control others’ behavior and thoughts, or about being excessively self-controlled; a need to have everything perfect and done your way." That was pretty much me to a T, and it spiraled, sometimes wildly, to other areas of my life. For example, my need for perfectionism would sometimes act as a catalyst for performance anxiety, which in turn led to procrastination and anxiety. Other times, my perfectionistic tendencies would lead to overthinking to the point of “analysis paralysis.”

As a social worker, I believed deeply in doing the work, and I didn’t want my relationship with an organized religion to absolve me from being the best I could be.

In somewhat of a paradox, those characteristics were positively reinforced sometimes. In 2012, I was able to advocate for myself and get a correct diagnosis while medical professionals gaslighted me regarding my endometriosis symptoms, telling me it was all in my head. I've been through a lot in my life. Handing it all to God was exactly the relief I needed to quiet my mind and ease my soul. Peace. Finally, at long last.

Despite my very active mind and history of endometriosis and thyroid issues, I hadn’t ever given much thought to was becoming seriously ill. That all changed in the summer of 2017, when I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome, hypereosinophilic syndrome, and eosinophilic asthma after having multiple idiopathic anaphylactic attacks, including one where I had to receive two epipens. Shortly following that, the lymph nodes in my chest became so enlarged they had to be surgically removed—the doctors thought I had lymphoma. As it turned out, I had lupus.

For once in my life, I had no back-up plan. There’s nothing like an autoimmune disease—or in my case, a cluster of immune-mediated illnesses—to show you exactly how little control you have over your body and its many functions. Before practicing Islam, this would have sent me into an absolute panic. Yes, I still get anxious over things, especially right now, given the global pandemic makes my diagnosis more high risk than ever. But I know that I’m tying my camel.

Accepting help doesn't make me weak, it makes me human.

I do what I can to help myself, like keeping up on the latest medical research regarding my conditions, taking my medications, resting when I need to, eating a reasonably healthy diet, exercising to the best of my ability, and engaging in self-care. I leave the rest to God. I can’t obsess over the outcome, I’d end up in a bad place mentally. I can't watch my life will pass me by while I’m ruminating. I’ve come too close to not having my life (sepsis and anaphylaxis, be damned) to allow these illnesses to destroy me. I’m a fighter and a survivor, and inshallah (God willing), I will continue to be.

My religion rewards me for remaining patient while I’m a patient. I keep a screenshot of a quote from Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi in my phone. Whenever I’m feeling particularly down, I find comfort in knowing that I don’t have to deal with my challenges alone.

I may not always be able to control how my body reacts at any given time, but I do have better control of my mind and my thoughts now. That doesn’t mean I force myself to engage in toxic positivity. Rather, on the contrary, it means I accept where I’m at, at any given time, and I meet myself there—something I learned from practicing mindfulness, which Islam encourages. And I find God there, too. I do the work. I allow myself to experience the full range of human emotions, even when they don’t feel so good. I sit with the difficult and challenging emotions, but now it’s no longer me against the world. I have support.

My religion rewards me for remaining patient while I’m a patient.

My health has made me more vulnerable. I’ve had no choice but to rely on others, doctors and nurses to administer medications, family members to take me to and from surgery, my husband to take care of me, and the generosity of friends, neighbors, and strangers who have shown up in so many ways. Because of Islam, I’ve learned how to graciously accept that help, and allow others to show up for me. But first, I show up for myself. Accepting help doesn't make me weak, it makes me human.

Now, trying to control everything is too exhausting for me—and it wasn’t really working, anyway. Once my camel is tied, I let it go, and let God. I may have given up control, very different from giving up my agency, but I have gained peace.

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