I have been spending the past few months learning about the long-lasting effects of trauma. Everyone goes through traumas in their lives. I had always thought that I managed myself through my traumas quite well. If each trauma had happened alone, it is possible that I would have been able to get through each individual one without it having too much of an effect on me. But one trauma followed another followed another, and I am now seeing how their cumulative effects have been too much for me, no matter how strong I am and have been, to deal with them without them having a significant impact on my self.
I have suffered for a great many years from bouts of undiagnosed depression and anxiety. I emphasise the word undiagnosed. I use those two words because they are the only words I know to describe my states of being.
In the past month, I have come to realize that I lack the ability to express a range of emotions that would be considered normal in other people. It is almost as if I developed some sort of a protective mechanism against feeling happy, sad, angry, excited, afraid, or even loving or hateful. Instead, I repress these feelings as they start to emerge, with the result of two main feelings taking over: anxiety or depression. Instead of feeling happy or excited, I get anxious. Instead of feeling angry or sad, I get depressed.
This has highlighted to me a concept that is very ingrained within me: the concept of the personal “jihad” or the internal struggle. As Muslims, we are raised to understand that we need to constantly struggle against our “desires”. The assumption is that those desires can lead you down the slippery slope to hell. We have religion in order to provide structure for society and for those desires. There are acceptable outlets for desires and there are other unacceptable ones that we must constantly struggle against. You all know the drill. This isn’t a concept that belongs to Islam alone. It is an inherent one in any organized religion.
Let me tell you a story to demonstrate how I personally view the concept of the internal jihad.
I attended religious lectures during my university years. The lecturer was explaining how important it was for us to have strong characters. Part of having a strong character meant that you needed to always expect death. That expectation of death is the constant reminder one needs in order to protect oneself from wrong-doing. If I have a constant awareness of death, and I know what follows death (heaven or hell), I’ll be constantly aware of my actions in this life. The lecturer described that he reminds himself of death by covering himself in a blanket and lying in a very dark room, preferably inside a box or something semi-enclosed to give the impression of being buried. He does this to make himself aware of what it would mean to be buried so that he creates that constant awareness in his mind of what will inevitably follow this life. This is one of the tools he uses in order to strengthen his character.
I’ve never resorted to this tool. But the story and some of the lessons I surmised from it have always stuck with me.
I have a constant need to strengthen my character. I’m often asked by fellow Arabs, especially women my age, why I engage in some of the activities I do. Sometimes I find myself answering that they help me with my internal jihad/struggle. They help me strengthen my character. I wake up in the morning and my innate desire is to go back to sleep. Instead, I force myself to get up and go out on a run in order to strengthen my character against weakness and laziness. I go hiking and camping, partially in order to strengthen my character against my innate desire for comfort and material things.
Those examples sound very harmless. But I’m not sure they really are. What I am starting to think this has led to is that I am constantly struggling with self. If you’ve followed my blog posts you will have noticed my many internal discussions and the processes I go through as I convince my self with one thing or the other. To make sure my strength of character prevails, I will almost inevitably choose the more difficult route. I will almost inevitably choose the more challenging route.
The things I do are not only for the sake of my internal jihad, of course. I get so much else out of them. The point of this particular internal (yet public) discussion is that I am beginning to realize that I struggle against self too much and it has had many negative impacts on me. That struggle against self has arisen due to many traumas I have faced in my life, but it also comes from an ingrained cultural/religious indoctrination that struggle against self is inherently good and even necessary.
My therapist is teaching me to be kinder to my self. “Give yourself a pat on the back and tell yourself: It is all right to feel angry. Or it is all right to feel sad,” she says. Those words sound almost foreign to my ears even though they make complete sense to my brain. And so, for the past few weeks, I have been trying to be kinder to me and to struggle less against me. I have been trying to accept me and to accept the emotions that begin to well up within me sometimes rather than try to exert control over them.
I am not finding it easy at all. Funnily enough, being in control is easier. I know how to do that. I am almost an expert at it. I’ve worked on it for years. But I can see the results. When I focus and allow myself to feel anger, the anxiety that I can feel starting to well up within me subsides. The feeling of anger takes over for awhile, but then that subsides as well and I suddenly feel peaceful. I still need to figure out how to feel happy or excited. I seem to have protected myself particularly well against those feelings for a very long time. That may also be partially a cultural/religious effect. Egyptians are always afraid of expressing feelings that are too positive, as this may bring on the evil eye from someone else. They are also superstitious. If you feel happy that means that something bad will soon happen.
So not only do I need to deal with the effects of the traumas I have faced in life, but I also need to find a way to work through the cultural and religious indoctrination I have received over the period of a lifetime. And I need to find a way to do this without it turning into yet another internal jihad/struggle.
Awareness is the first step. I’ll get there.