Love + Sex, Love

Muslims have mental health problems – and we date, too

Dating with a mental health illness is hard. Dating within the Muslim community while dealing with a mental health illness is a whole other ball game.

You sit there wondering what the diagnosis really means. You have heard about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety in the news. They are usually mentioned in the media to describe incredible tragedies: terrorist attacks, wars, refugee crises. Not your life.

When my partner passed away, neither his family nor my Muslim community were there for me. They disapproved of several things including the bi-racial/bi-cultural nature of our relationship, the lack of a marriage certificate, my parents’ religion (or rather, lack thereof) and of the fact that in my culture remembrance of the death is extremely important.

For support, I had to search within the margins. I connected with some Muslims who have been rejected, questioned and pushed aside by mainstream Muslim communities. Among them there were LGBTQ Muslims and allies, women of different backgrounds who reject patriarchal practices within mosques, Islamic feminists and feminist Muslims, Muslims who have been accused of being “sinful,” and Muslims who live with mental illness and have either been told to “pray harder” or have been dragged into exorcisms.

This became my Muslim community.

After my partner died, the mental health illness I experienced took a toll on every aspect of my life, especially my personal relationships. It took me a while to even consider dating after my partner died. There are tons of articles out there trying to explain what it is like to live with depression, anxiety or PTSD, and some even talk about the dating situation. Those living with mental illness are not only trying to bring forward meaningful conversations about mental health, but also hoping to raise awareness about mental health and relationships. These conversations are lacking across most social circles, especially in Muslim settings.

Let’s be honest. Mental illness is common among Muslims, but what is not common are the education, awareness and treatment that are needed. In addition, many Muslims, North American or otherwise, date. Whether it is for the purpose of marriage or not, it is happening. We can call it “dating,” “engagement,” or “partnership,” but at the end of the day, we are talking about personal relationships that are often emotionally deep and carry tangible effects in our daily lives. Muslims are also having sex before marriage, even when we really want to ignore it. And both, relationships and sex, are so much more complicated when you are a Muslim living with mental health issues.

Personally speaking, the dating scene proved very challenging for me, not only because dating is hard and meeting the “right” people is almost impossible, but because it triggered a lot of anxiety. My anxiety makes me overthink every step I take. It often makes me feel insecure of my surroundings. While dating, I was always alert, as if I was taking adrenaline shots all day long. People often tell me to “relax,” but I cannot. Anxiety makes my brain overwork all the time, to the point that a guy could be talking about the most interesting topic, and I would just be debating my fight-or-flight instincts in my head. Needless to say, it is exhausting. Some days, after going on a date, I would go back home, lock myself in my room, cry a little (or a lot) and pass out.

Dating entails a lot of triggers. On the one hand you find people who does not think like you, who say the “wrong things,” who are aggressive or abusive, and who are racist, sexist, classist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. On the other, when I went through the process carrying the “baggage” of a mental illness, I often questioned if it was me or if it was that the guys who were just not right. There was a gap between what I felt and what I thought, and such a thing put me in some awkward, and even dangerous, positions where I could not assess risk or danger.

Even little things sparked triggers. For example, my partner passed away in a car accident. Consequently, I could not drive for months, and getting in a car with someone made me just as nervous to the point that I would just walk everywhere, and ask my dates to do the same. Physical closeness was another thing. For the first six months after my partner died, I spent my days in numbness. It is hard to described the feeling, or more appropriately, the lack thereof. It is just a very strange sense of nothingness.

I didn’t want to be touched at all, and even after I started feeling “better” there were days when I was “numb” and others when I had emotional reactivity, and I could not handle people touching me. Thus, the first guy who tried to hold my hand while on a date was shocked when I jumped to the opposite side of the street. I also walked out on a guy who tried to hug me. Sex, an expectation of many people in the dating scene these days, was out of the question.

Dating with mental illness is all about the limits and the trust for me. The problem is how do you bring up with people? And how do you bring it up with Muslims, when you know the negative reactions floating around some Muslim communities? My first experiences doing this were nasty. There were the guys who did not “believe” in mental illness. Some others who wanted to date “someone normal.” There were those who kept telling me to make du’a. Others who would just, flat out, tell me that they could “fix” me.

I wondered if I would ever find someone who would understand how my life works. I also wondered if I would ever “get cured.” These thoughts caused a lot of anger on my end. I was angry at the situation, at my last partner for leaving me behind, at the religious community I was part of and at God for letting me go through this. Nonetheless, when I started putting my story out there in an attempt to make sense of what I was going through and why it had been so hard to establish personal relationships, I started connecting with numerous Muslims who live with mental health issues and are in the same boat. Knowing these people is not a cure or a form of treatment. But it definitely helps to make sense of what it means to be Muslim in this day and age and being diagnosed with a mental illness.

If it is so complicated and if my mental health is not at its “best,” a lot of people might question why I choose to date at all. I have several answers for that. First, there is the pragmatic issue. The world is made for couples, and you may feel this heavily if you are a woman. Legally speaking and tax-wise, one tends to be better off if one is coupled up (one of the many ways in which patriarchy and heteronormativity screws us over). Not to mention, the media, social conventions and religious mainstream discourses of “half the deen.”

Then there is the emotional part of things. I want to get married one day, and for that to happen, I not only need a partner, but also a lot of knowledge about myself. Dating, whether good, bad, or so-so, has the potential of making one very self-aware. We learn about our likes and dislikes, we understand the importance of boundaries and we acknowledge the importance of giving to others (hopefully!).

And finally, there is a political aspect to it. I am tired of hearing that one cannot love others until one loves oneself; or that one needs to have one’s life “together” to be a “successful” partner; or that only “normal” people can have love. These are incredibly disempowering attitudes that basically imply that a large portion of our communities is neither capable nor deserves love, companionship, sex, stability, and the like, because of their illness.

I am sorry, but that is garbage.

People are worthy of all these things regardless of their mental health, and they are entitled to search for it through consensual relationships. Sometimes that means looking for safe nests where you can disclose a mental illness and where you and your partner(s) navigate life and mental health together. No one says it is easy. Most relationships are not. But isn’t that the true meaning of “half the deen”?