Graduating from secondary school (high school) was one of the happiest moments in my life. I was so excited to finally go to university and study my dream course. And you know, after being in a boarding school, I was excited to finally experience the “outer world”. You know when you cage something in for a long time and then you finally release it? The feeling of absolute freedom was quite thrilling and more than that, knowing that my prayers had been answered by Allah made me more elated. I was going to study abroad. I didn’t have to worry about the strikes and all the stressful admission process back home. I don’t think words can fully explain how happy and relieved I was.
So now, the thing is that I was too excited about going to another country that I forgot about something; I am a Black Muslim who wears the Hijab. In my country it wasn’t really a big deal. I mean literally everyone around me was Black and most of them were Muslims who wore Hijab like me. And even if they didn’t, they were quite familiar with it. But then, I was going to a foreign country, a place with not just a different race but a combination of different races: Arabs, Asians, Africans, and Europeans etc. Never in my life have I ever been to a country with different people from different countries. Mind you, I was only 17 years old then. Crazy right? A 17 year old travelling to a different continent, a place where she barely knew anyone except a few friends from back home (only 4 of them).
When I started schooling, everything was great. I met some good Black Muslims that I could relate with. I was a really confident person. So, I would work up to anyone and introduce myself. I tried to make a few friends and socialize with people around me. I met a lot of people from different countries; Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Palestine, Syria, etc. Many of them were nice and welcoming. I got to learn a lot about these different countries; their languages, foods, cultures and all that. I would even attend events organized to promote these different cultures like the Zimbabwean night, Egyptian night, Palestinian night etc. Everything was as great and amazing as I had imagined. But that lasted for a year only.
In my second year, I faced one of my biggest challenges; religious and racial discrimination. I wouldn’t exactly say it started in my second year though. Right from first year, there had been little signs of it. I guess I just ignored them and grew a tough skin. But in my second year, Subhanallah! I don’t know what happened (I guess my epidermis stopped producing new skin cells). Everything sunk in… it went deep down. I began to feel the effects of the discrimination and one major effect was Social Anxiety Disorder (S.A.D).
Until today, I can’t explain how it all happened, one minute I was a carefree and happy person and the next minute I was sad, gloomy and depressed. The transition between these two phases was as fast as lightning. I began to have this intense, persistent and heightened fear of being judged, scrutinized or rejected in social situations. My self-confidence went from a 100 to 0 real quick. I had a lot of trouble being assertive and my self-esteem became so low.
Never in a million years did I think I would become a person with low self-esteem. I was always the bubbly person with good and positive energy and low self-esteem was never in my dictionary. You know what? Not only did I lack confidence in myself, I was also having negative thoughts about myself. I didn’t feel good about who I was. I was disgusted at myself. It was as if being a Black Muslim was a curse. Subhanllah! I don’t even want to believe that I once had such disgusting thoughts. I became overly sensitive to any form of criticism. The funniest part of this is that at my department, our major course requires lecturers to critique your work twice a week so as to help you improve. On these days, I was always on edge. Sometimes, I would intentionally refuse to work just to avoid being critiqued. I spent a lot of time and mental energy worrying about certain things. My anxiety was quite irrational. I couldn’t understand why I was anxious.
I dreaded meeting strangers, starting a new conversation, speaking on the phone, working, and even shopping became so stressful. I wasn’t able to do a lot of things because of anxiety. Whenever I walked on the street, I would misread people’s behavior. I would always think they were laughing at me or making negative comments about my dress (sometimes it was true though). I was so stressed out because I couldn’t understand their languages. So, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about and my mind would run wild imagining so many things. I can’t count the number of times I would be walking on the street and began to tear up. Sometimes, I would even hide in a corner and cry for a while.
It felt like I was always being watched and judged. I couldn’t eat in public, make eye contact with people or even give a speech (which was unlike me since I used to actively participate in public speaking). I would avoid all kinds of seminars, workshops, or any form of social gathering; any event that I thought would make me the center of attention (Oh yes! I did overthink a lot) I stayed away from events that most people would consider “normal”. I isolated myself and became so depressed. Whenever I was supposed to engage in any event, I would have stomach aches and nausea. I would have trouble catching my breath, my mouth and throat would become so dry that I could barely talk properly. It took a great toll on me and all aspect of my life fell apart.
My Social Anxiety Disorder (S.A.D) was a disaster and it leading to depression was more disastrous; it was like pouring petrol in a burning fire. I would skip classes, stay in bed and worry about going out. I doubted myself and my ability to do anything. I even thought I was becoming a bad Muslim and Allah was somehow punishing me. I forgot about how Merciful and Loving He is. I caged myself and created a shell around myself. Did I forget to mention that I have always been an introverted extrovert? Yes I socialized well with people but I didn’t know how to talk about my feelings except with my pen. And throughout that period, I didn’t feel like using my pen. Everything I loved doing became so difficult and stressful. My academic performance was gradually becoming low and I was afraid of hitting rock bottom.
S.A.D prevented me from reaching my full potential; it was a set back and it lasted for two years. Funnily enough, I didn’t know what was wrong with me till I became better and even if I did know, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it or seek for help. It was such a turbulent experience and I would never wish that upon anyone. Now the mystery is, “How did I get better?” I sincerely wish there was a fairytale ending to this but there isn’t any. I never spoke to anyone about it till now but I got better… way better. I don’t know how (maybe my epidermis started working well and produced tough skin cells). But one thing I know for sure is that I broke my shell, the shell I created to make me invisible. I started engaging in events I would normally avoid. I took chances. Most importantly, I prayed hard. I spoke to Allah. I started reading about mental health and self-care.
Slowly and steadily, I begin to heal. I changed and evolved to a brave and confident Black Muslim. I became proud of my skin colour and my religious values. And then I realized something, we really underestimate how powerful we are. You are a whole system made up of different systems. You are complete and Allah has created you in the best of forms. This alone shows how powerful we are as humans. There is so much power embedded in us. Once I realized my inner power, I began to unleash all the energy. And this is the story of how I went from being confident to being timid and then I evolved; I became striking.
Author: Salimah Bakare
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Medium: Salimah Bakare