In Mi’kmawi’simk (the language spoken by the Miꞌkmaq tribe, the indigenous peoples of Mi’gma’gi, now known as Nova Scotia in Canda), there is no one specific word for “family” as their linguistics are based on what they see and observe. They say, Wula na nikamaq. This is who I am connected to because we are so alike.
These are the words that echoed through me as I lay back on the gurney at a mental hospital last summer.
Laying back, completely still, I stared at my mother and a nurse who handed her over a clipboard with packets of forms, then at the ceiling where the fluorescent light flickered above me until my eyes felt sore from its glare. There were a few other beds on the other side of the hospital room and rickety chairs that made irritating squeaky noises when you sat on them. Tired mothers stared at the small TVbox in the corner playing PBS NewsHour as their children drearily scrolled through their phones. I looked back down and realized the nurse and my mother were staring at me.
“Do you know why you’re here today?” the nurse gently asked. I gazed at her blankly. I could see her mouth moving but I registered what she was saying after a few moments. I tried to reply but no words came out except a small, battered croak. She gave me a sympathetic smile, nodded, and gave a pen to my mother to fill out the neverending forms with technical language neither of us would ever be able to understand and left. I watched my mother’s palms as she started to scribble away.
A flashback shifted my mind to exactly 4 years ago when it was my mother that laid on a hospital bed with tubes plugged into her body as I sat beside her, making the quiet decision to drop out of college to devotee attention to her, completely. I suddenly thought back to 30 years ago, long before I was born, when my father laid in a hospital bed after he experienced “a mental shock,” as my mother calls it, after hearing the news of his mother’s death, whom he hadn’t seen since immigrating to America nearly a decade ago.
I thought of how similar I was to my father. How both of us had felt the weight of the world on us suffocating us until no words were left but just a pathetic wheeze.
I looked back at my mother’s hands that were covered with henna stains from the night before, reminding me that it was Eid al-Adha. Suddenly feeling guilty that we were spending Eid at a hospital, I looked away and shut my eyes. Feeling nauseous and drained, I tried to seek solace in the darkness, shutting off my surroundings as if it would make it less real. My thoughts shifted to someplace else. How the fuck did I get here?
Last summer on Eid, I was admitted to the mental hospital for having a nervous breakdown. Or so it says in my file, “ Patient experienced a nervous breakdown with psychotic symptoms of dissociation, detachment, and suicidal thoughts. Low to medium risk.”
I had heard my mother tell the nurse, “It was completely unexpected. She’s been doing okay…” the first day I was admitted. “I think it has to do with her period…” she added. Neither of us could’ve suspected that I would’ve wound up in the mental hospital when 48 hours earlier, I was drunkenly dancing away with my friends on my first ever summer getaway trip. I looked through the images of myself from that night. I wore a flaming red bodycon dress that clutched onto the curves of my waist, tightly hugging my breasts, sneakily revealing a few inches of my cleavage, and exposing my stomach just for a little for a tease. My friends and I danced for hours until 4am at Level Up Lounge, a Black and Brown gay club, tipping strippers with strap ons flinging at our faces, glowing under the disco ball, flirting with hot butches while screaming how I wished the night would never end. For the first time in my life, I felt sexy. I looked back down, staring at my dreary hospital gown. Oh, how things could drastically change in just 48 hours.
“I don’t think she’s been okay for a while,” the nurse said in response. I was a bit taken aback by her words. In the past month, I did more than I could’ve possibly imagined. I was meeting new people, getting wonderful job opportunities, doing exceptionally well in my classes, and was making great progress on my thesis. I was just out dancing with my friends, having the time of my life. How was I not okay, I thought to myself.
I said my goodbyes to my mom after a long wait for an extra bed at the psych ward where my mother wasn’t allowed to enter. It was nighttime so everyone was on the floor already asleep.
After a nurse showed me to my room, I immediately went to bed, trying to gain comfort in the scratchy bed sheets that felt like they were laid on top of cardboard. I attempted to sleep but the numbing cold blasting from the AC kept me awake, reminding me that I was no longer in the comfort of my own bed. My eyes were wide open, trying to process where I was.
I looked out the glass window behind me, watching the moon leave, welcoming the sun. I stuck my hand out and placed them under the sun’s reflection, craving the sun’s sweet warmth. But I quickly realized that the window trapped the heat, making it feel as though the sun was an illusion. Another reminder that I was confined away from the world. I’m never taking the sun for granted ever again, I thought.
My roommate woke up, said good morning, asked what my name was, then nodded.
I wondered how my roommate was going to be like and secretly wished that we could just ignore each other as all I longed for was silence. Roommate, I repeated to myself. I thought back to a conversation I had two days ago with my friends about our dreams of moving out of our parent’s home, seeking independence, and whether we wanted roommates or not. Didn’t think I would wound up with one so soon, and definitely didn’t imagine one in a psych ward.
“Are you Muslim?”she asked. I felt hesitant. Should I really go on a tangent about how I don’t necessarily aligned with Islam, but that I definitely was not an atheist, I didn’t feel comfortable with the label ‘agnostic,’ but I guess identify as a Muslim culturally?
“Yes,” I said. I figured it was the easiest answer. She smiled and said Assalamualaikum. I suddenly felt a wave of relief knowing my roommate was a fellow Muslim. She was an immigrant from Sudan and was living all by herself after leaving her family a few years ago. I guess the loneliness caught up to her, too.
Over the course of the day, there was quite literally nothing to do except stare at the white walls, the fluorescent lights, the TV box that sat on the corner where the patients routinely argued over the remote. A group of psychiatrists made their rounds, asked me questions, then nod sympathetically before advising the nurses which medication I should take for the remainder of my stay.
For the next 2 days, all I did was sleep like I never slept in my life. It felt like I entered an orbit and my body refused to leave. As if my body had finally given up on me after….after what? I couldn’t find the answer. Or perhaps I already knew and wasn’t ready to confront it.
On the third day of my time in the hospital, my body felt comfortable opening up and I was able to speak. The psychiatrist there asked me some standard questions and asked me how I was feeling.
“I think I’ve been doing okay. I’m not sure why I’m here.” The doctor scribbled notes in her notepad and said,
“I’m glad to hear you’ve been doing okay or have you been feeling okay?” she asked.
I stared at her before replying, “Same thing.”
She smiled before doing that therapist thing. The thing where therapists pose a question instead of saying something directly so you can figure it out yourself. “Is it though?”
“Well, I went on an overnight trip with my friends, doing things out of my comfort zone. I’m meeting new people and having fun. I’m finally living my life. So of course, I’ve been feeling okay. Why wouldn’t I?”
“What do you mean by finally living your life?”
After turning 21 in lockdown back in 2020, I vowed to myself that I would start living life on my own terms. I thought about how hard quarantine was for many of my friends while the isolation felt deeply familiar to me. It was as if I prepared my entire life for it.
From my young teen years to even my early 20’s, I would spend days at home without stepping outside. Mostly because I rarely had any friends, was tormented by my classmates for as long as I can remember, and was still processing the sexual abuse I endured at the hands of a total stranger. I would routinely go to my therapy appointments, grocery shopping with my mom, classes, go back home where I would hide myself under the covers, my laptop screen glowing against me in the dark. I looked at my peers who had already experienced the thrilling euphoric tingly feelings of falling in love and endless stories of sleepless nights in the city while the only stories I had was a list of Gurinder Chadha’s movies I had recently binged watched.
It was when I was reading Jane Eyre in my bed in 2020, once again being trapped at home (this time being because I had to) with nothing to stare but at the white walls, fluorescent lights, and my laptop screen. I came across this quote that tore through my body,
“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitement, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst it’s perils.”
It was that exact moment when I started to reflect and had come to the conclusion that my life was… empty. Hollow.
I began to examine myself and wondered if I had ever made a risk. Had I ever done something absolutely crazy? Had I ever made one selfish decision without constantly thinking of others? Of my family? Who was I outside being the obedient, studious, caring Bengali daughter? Was I anything other than an extension of my family? I tried to seek answers but realized I had none.
Whenever I asked my mother stories of her youth and about her crushes, hoping to hear something scandalous, I always noticed how sad she looked.
“I just had a lot of responsibilities,” she said. “I had older brothers and was too scared to disappoint them. Then my father died and before I knew it, I was married.” Then she would sit quietly, and stare into space before changing the subject. I wasn’t sure if she just couldn’t find any words to express her deepest feelings, or if she wanted to protect her daughter from her true feelings. Or perhaps she didn’t want to confront the possibilities of a life she missed out on.
I wondered if my dad and I also did this. Were we not able to speak as we lay on the gurneys of a hospital because we were worn out, or was the silence a way to protect our loved ones? Were we just protecting ourselves from the horrifying reality?
After I realized that I no longer wanted to live like a hermit, I decided to start going out of my comfort zone. To start saying yes to life more without hesitating. Before I knew it, I was hiding cropped shirts and dresses with deep neck cuts under salwar kameez, dancing shoeless on bar tables, and running manically into the night sky of Manhattan with my friends. I’m doing it, I would think to myself after a night of escapades. I’m finally doing it.
However, I still felt this deep impending vacuum of hollowness inside of me. No matter how much I tried to fight it off or even fill it up, it still remained, like a stubborn stain.
So, if I had started to take ownership of my life, why was I feeling like this? Why did I still feel so empty and hollow despite finding this newfound euphoria? How did I wind up here? I still couldn’t find the answer. I suppose I just kept trying to fill the void with everything and anything until one day… it exploded and my body collapsed.
After playing around with my lunch (mystery meat and a side of soggy mashed potatoes) for nearly 40 minutes, I went back to myself in my hospital room where my roommate was reading a book from the hospital library.
“So how old are you?” she asked.
“I just turned 22.”
Suddenly, she jumped out of her bed and shrieked, “Whaaat?! You’re so….young!”
Young? I certainly didn’t feel young. My body felt heavy and sore all the time. It felt as though I had lived the life of someone that was 100. Soon, I realized that I was the youngest patient on the floor of the psych ward.
“So why are you here?” she asked while crossing her arms.
For some reason, I felt more comfortable opening up to her than the doctors. I suppose it was because it felt easier talking to someone that was admitted for being “crazy” …like me. So I told her everything. From how I had just had the best time in my life in Philly, then to here, after having a dissociative episode in a park. Wounding up an asylum soon after.
“I get it,” she said. “But you have such a long life ahead of you.”
I suddenly felt nauseous. The thought of even facing the rest of the week drained me, and now I felt suffocated by the idea of decades of years waiting for me.
I tried explaining that I wasn’t entirely sure why I had had the episode as nothing specifically traumatizing had happened. She quietly looked at me for a bit after hearing me ramble on and on about how I feel like I had found myself and yet still I felt as though I couldn’t escape this deep endless void. My face burned with embarrassment as the silence in the room started to feel relentless. Have I said too much?
She looked at the glass window and finally spoke, “I remember when I decided to move to this country. I was 25 and just ended an engagement. I told myself the same thing. That I was going to take ownership of my life with my two hands and just run. I haven’t been back to Sudan since then and I just turned 36. But look at me now. I still wind up here every year.”
She got quiet again, but it seemed as though she was negotiating how much of her life she wanted to share with me. Another thing we Muslims have in common. The urge to remain as secretive over your life as possible, say enough that the other person is left thinking they know everything about you, but not entirely.
“I felt so completely guilty every time I was happy. Then when I did feel guilty, I tried running away from that by taking more risks. But I think I was too busy doing things I felt like I should be doing. I thought I was living life, but for what? Was I truly living it for me or was I just doing it out of fear that I wasn’t living?”
She was once again silent, only her words echoing in the air. Fear…fear…fear, the echo mimicked back.
A nurse entered the room, notifying my roommate that the psychiatrist wanted to speak with her. I was left alone in the room, of course with the door always left open for the guards, but still, the echoes stayed taunting me.
All my life, I have been surviving. I had entered complete isolation by hiding away from the world, seeking solace under my covers so that no one could ever hurt me, again. I had convinced myself that I had finally stopped being in survival mode as I left my bed to explore the world. But in reality, I was still surviving and desperately clinging on to the little energy I had left in me. It was just this time, the survival looked different.
Was my roommate right? Was I moving through the world because I was afraid that I wasn’t doing enough with my life? Was fear motivating me and ultimately…guilt? Was I trapped in survival mode? Would I ever get out? The thought itself terrified me.
I thought about the past summer again, and how every time I found myself in the middle of God knows where, past my curfew, phone calls from my parents ringing every few seconds before it inevitably went directly to voicemail, I would be overwhelmed with confounding guilt and frustration. I didn’t want to live like my mother who now felt a fury of regret for not living her own life and yet I felt terrible for leaving my parents at home as I knew they would be missing me, even though I would only be gone for just a few hours. And then a rush of anger waved over me of how this guilt implied I was doing something wrong, when I was just being an average 22 year old. With this toxic mixture of shame and vexation burning up inside me, I would put my phone away, snag another drink, pushing and pushing until there was nothing else to push. That was the cycle.
I was too busy hopelessly trying to prove to myself that I was more than an extension of my family than dissecting what I had endured. But there was more to my existence besides processing my trauma and serving my loved ones. And yet, instead of living on my own terms, I had resorted to living out of spite. I wasn’t living, or at least, intentionally living. I was so focused on making sure that I was living every single moment to its fullest that I forgot to just merely…exist.
My mind shifted to Bronte’s quote, “the real world was wide…” I wanted to desperately touch and discover every inch of the world as it is so wide. To devour its entirety. To live passionately and feverishly.I no longer wanted to live my life out of vengeance or allow guilt and shame to fuel my hunger for the world. I wanted to start living intentionally. But how when all I knew was how to survive?
I was released from the hospital a few days later and reunited with my parents. With this newfound awakening, I rested at home to recover.
Two weeks later, my parents and I decided to go to the beach as we were approaching the end of the summer. The last time we went to the beach was when I was a small child, and we hadn’t been since. We gasped as we left the concrete ground and sank our naked feet into the sand, realizing we couldn’t remember the feeling or even what seagulls sounded like.
We approached the roaring water. We were frightened at first, thinking back to how we spent our days isolated at home, watching hourly news channels recycling horror stories of hurricanes, deaths, tsunamis, shark attacks, and of course, drowning.
The sea retreated back into the wide ocean and then gushed to the shore, nearing our legs as if it was welcoming us like giddy children. My mother stood on my right while my father was on my left. We held each other’s hands and stepped into the cold sea.
We looked into the horizon, the endless sea, then back at each other, giggling. It was one of those magical moments where we felt so insignificant compared to the large ocean, but also so infinite that we could devour the world.
I will start intentionally living, I thought to myself. I’m not sure how to exactly but I exist. I am here. And that is more than enough.