My timetable was off – in fact, my life was off – but I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. Things were good, on the whole. I went to school and did well. I had a few friends and a good relationship with my parents. From the outside, it was all peachy. The problem was that under the surface, out of sight from everyone else, unhappiness had invaded and refused to budge.
I was sitting in the chair by the window, wearing a t-shirt and boxers, legs prickled with goosebumps, staring out at the street. The house around me was silent; my brothers were in a deep slumber that I envied, and it would be a while before they stirred and began rubbing sleep from their eyes. Outside the window, a white cat sauntered out from between two cars and looked up at me before seeking refuge under another beaten-up motor. I’d never met that cat, never run my hand down her knobbly spine and smooth coat, but we had an affinity – we shared the night. Just as she prowled around every night, bright blue eyes against a white face, I sat staring at nothing every night, bright blue eyes against my dark skin.
As I sat thinking about cats, eyes, and how I could get through school later that day without speaking to another human being, my phone vibrated telling me it was time to prepare for prayer. Some days I had no energy for my devotions, but I always did them anyway. Faith is a strange thing; simply believing in something won’t necessarily motivate you to get up at crazy-o-clock in the morning. The word ‘faithfulness’ makes much more sense; I always tried to be faithful to that which I knew was true, even when I’d rather continue staring into space. Self-control made me feel like a warrior, a spiritual soldier stepping into battle with the physical world in order to maintain the spiritual realms. But really, I needed to learn how to be kinder to myself; Allah’s greatest attribute is His mercy after all. Depression had become my safe ground and I was often reluctant to leave it. With a sigh, I pulled my legs out from beneath myself and made my way up the stairs, trying to shake off some heaviness with each step.
Depression makes life complicated: it hides in the background, and fools you into believing it doesn’t exist, that it is you. In the morning a Muslim utters words of praise to Allah for returning their soul, a way of starting the day right. It’s not a big deal, a short line that everyone says – but what about me? What if a person evaded sleep like a thief in the night? What if they ducked and dived behind thoughts and fears and were left to the clutches of exhaustion every single day? My soul hadn’t ascended because I hadn’t slept, but I’d still been granted life. So was this prayer for me? These thoughts often spun around my head, leaving me feeling confused and anxious.
Better safe than sorry, I murmured the words, “Al-hamdu li-l-lâhi l-ladhî ahyânâ ba’ada mâ amâtanâ wa ilayhi n-nushûr,” before stepping into the bathroom. There, I washed and dressed, before slipping back downstairs. I sat in the kitchen and after a short while heard my brothers and father leaving. I nursed a coffee to push off some of the sluggishness and then slipped down the street after then.
Compared to outside, the mosque was warm and the air felt heavy. So many men gathering straight from their beds meant warm breath and sleepy yawns had risen up and spread out across the capacious room, hanging like an invisible smog above everyone’s heads.
My father and brothers were already in a cluster and I joined them with moments to spare as the Salat al-fajr dawn prayers began. The Fajr doesn’t take long to say – it’s quality over quantity – and afterwards, I began my recitation of the Quran while my brothers escaped to eat breakfast. I hoped my father could take some pride in me choosing study over food, but if he did he never let on.
An hour or so later I was back at home and escaped to my bedroom. I don’t know how I had managed to avoid sharing with my brothers, but somehow the tiny box-room was all mine. I threw myself down on the bed and took a few minutes to rest. At night sleep was nowhere to be seen, but as soon as I actually needed to be awake, it ran back towards me, arms open. There was a light knock on the door and my mum popped her head in. She didn’t say anything at first, just smiled her smile. I knew she wanted to tell me to open a window and air the place out, as I watched her clock a few items of washing I had left lingering on the floor for too long. Walking over to my bookcase she picked up some obscure novel I had found at a secondhand bookshop and eyed it suspiciously.
“Mo, come on, are you going to ever read this again?” I smiled. “You haven’t even read it once, have you?” she chuckled.
How was I supposed to tell her that I needed these worlds in which to escape? That it was the only way I could leave behind the ever-settling sadness which collected upon me like a layer of dust on those books.
“Come down for breakfast,” she said, letting me off the hook.
Every morning she was ready to ply her men with warm drinks and cooked food. Since I generally came later, I had my mother all to myself. I enjoyed our quiet time with no siblings clambering over me for butter, jam or whatever else they wanted to smear across their toast. This time, however, it was an ambush.
“I saw you sitting in the window again, Mo.”
Just as I felt an affinity with the white cat with whom I shared the night, my mother had her own feline attributes. She could pass through the house, even the very room one was sitting in, completely unnoticed if she wished; her slight build and graceful movements never betrayed her presence.
“I have spoken to your father and he discussed it further with the Imam. The Imam says you are a good, healthy, normal boy and that your problems indicate a possible medical issue.”
“Medical?” I never liked it when men of religion ventured into the territory of medicine or politics.
“He told Baba that he sees more and more of these issues arising amongst Muslims of all ages and has come to understand the symptoms. He would like us to visit a doctor, a Muslim doctor, who will ask you a few questions.”
“What sort of doctor?” I asked.
“A very special man who wants to help.”
The words my mother spoke, like the pills this doctor would soon have me swallow, were sugar-coated. It never occurred to me to question her, and so the die was cast; my appointment was in one hours’ time, the decision had been made, the conversation a mere formality.