Question:

My parents had a turbulent marriage: full-on warfare and not pretty to watch growing up. I grew up highly conflicted about how I felt about them – I know I had to love them, but it took me until my adulthood to finally like them as humans.

I got a lot of flak from my mom because I was her (metaphorical) punching bag.  This didn't exactly help with the conflicted feelings.  I started cutting myself pretty seriously from when I was 18 until the age of 24.  I married and moved out and moved on.  No more cutting. Yay!

I have a brother 3 years younger than me who over the last ten years has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar, etc.  I was never close to him.  I became my mom's punching bag again as she dealt with him.  I wanted to help but I also wanted to escape. And here's how things stand: I help how I can.  I get full-blown depressed off and on.  I have written to a couple of Shuyukh that I've studied from (online) but I guess they aren't therapists.  Given my situation, what can I do? Where can I even start?

Answer:

Bismillah wa salah wa salaam 'ala Rasoolillah.

Assalaamu alaykum,

First of all, I want to acknowledge that what you've experienced both as a witness of your parents' turbulent relationship, as well as being forced to bear the weight of your mother's difficulties, is something that a child should never have to endure.   One thing I noticed in what you said was your statement, “I know I had to love them.”  It is completely normal to experience feelings of anger after the years of struggles you've endured in your relationship with your mother.  What is most important is how you react to these emotions- and it is very admirable that you are striving to help your family despite all of this.  I ask Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to reward you immensely for that.

Secondly, congratulations on abstaining from self-harming!  That is an incredible achievement and you should be so proud of yourself!  Yay for you!  Now that you have begun to reintegrate yourself back into your family and the cycle has restarted in the way you are treated by your mother, please pay very careful attention to any signs you may notice that may lead to the urge to cut again.  You mentioned that these interactions result in feelings of depression so be aware that this may lead to the urge to cut again.

In striving to help your family, you are also pleasing Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).  There is a particular emphasis on good treatment of parents as Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, “And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them, but address them in terms of honour. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: 'My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was small.'” [al-Isra' 17:23-24].  However, also be conscious that if you do not care for yourself in the process, you won't be able to help anyone.  The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” {Sahih Bukhari}  It is not only others that have a right over us, but we ourselves do as well.

With regards to your question about where you can start: it sounds like you already have.  It sounds like you've taken steps to help with your brother and your mother.  It also sounds like despite not knowing your brother too well and having experienced so much difficulty in your relationship with your mother, they both hold a part of you and you love them.  I imagine that must be a very difficult mix of emotions to bear- one part of you feels resentful while the other part cannot stay away because they are your family and you love them.  As I said before, these emotions are very normal but it is what you choose to do with them that characterizes you.  And it sounds like you are someone who is striving to please Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) by maintaining ties with your family masha'Allah.  I would encourage you to take small steps to reintegrate yourself while carefully taking heed of the impact this is having on you.  If you notice yourself getting depressed and struggling to deal with your emotions, take a step back.  I would highly encourage you to seek therapy if you haven't already done so in order to be able to ground yourself at least once per week.  This is particularly important considering your history with cutting and depressive episodes.

You mentioned that you are trying to help your brother- may Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) reward you and grant him ease in his struggle with mental illness.  In maintaining your relationship with him, spending time with him and listening to him, you can provide something incredibly valuable.  Also, helping him to receive treatment as well as maintain consistency in receiving these services would be very beneficial.  Continually seek Allah's help and guidance throughout this and remind yourself of both the worldly reward (helping others and potentially improving familial relationships) as well as the much greater reward of the Hereafter (the pleasure and mercy of Allah).

I ask Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to increase you in peace and goodness and guide you on the path of improving relationships within your family.

If you have a question for our counselors, please submit here.

About The Author

Sarah Sultan is a licensed Mental Health Counselor and has a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, graduating Summa Cum Laude. She has experience in a variety of therapeutic interventions and has worked with several age groups including children with special needs, adolescents with emotional and behavioral issues, families undergoing difficulties and survivors of trauma and domestic violence. Sarah is currently working as a therapist at a residential treatment center for teens in crisis, where she works with adolescents dealing with suicidality, trauma, self-harming behaviors, aggression and a variety of other issues. She is also an instructor with Mishkah University, where she teaches a course about the intersection between Islam, psychology and counseling. She has been actively involved in serving the Muslim community over the course of the past 10 years through providing lectures, halaqas and workshops.

9 Responses

  1. Ummzakariya

    May Allah bless both the questioner and the answerer.

    One side of my family has history of psychiatric illnesses ( mainly unipolar depression). Appears to be the result of repeated cousin-marriages to protect family-wealth.

    And from my observation I say that those who were more religious ( as in prayed more, read quran more, pray tahajjud and tawakkulAllah) have had very long relapse period. MashAllah!

    Also, I notice that innate pessimism and lack of confidence in some of these members , has drawn them closer to Allah (as they feel the need of Allah’s help all the time )

    But , like sister Sarah mentioned, having family support is really important in such cases . ( it takes some serious level of patience from the family to bear with them.)

    Keeping the mind busy helps a great deal.

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  2. Mel

    Thank you for discussing this subject with a non judgmental approach. A lot of our Religious Leaders are not familiar with Self-harm, Eating disorders and many of the issues the Ummah has to deal with. Some of the symptoms of these conditions are similar to what some believe to be internal jinn possession. It would be beneficial if our Religious Leaders would know a little bit about basic disorders and if they do not, not to become defensive. We have so much to learn from each other. We need both Religious Counsel as well as Professional Therapists.

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  3. Fa

    I feel here that the questioner’s mother needs help too. Being trapped in a turbulent marriage with an abusive spouse may have left her very hurt and bitter. I hope she was not abusive with the kids. But when a woman has to singlehandedly strive, struggle and sacrifice her life to provide a good life for her children then she begins to feel very deprived. if the spouse does not care and share the responsibilities then she feels the kids are obligated to see, listen and understand what she is going through. Sometimes this is too much to ask of the young ones specially in the Western culture. But look at the deprived life of orphans living around the world, they will do anything for someone to look at them affectionately. A mother loves her kids unconditionally and sometimes all she needs is moral support and sympathy. I hope the questioner is a parent too as she can better understand the disturbed mother and not repeat the same mistakes with his or her own children. Treating the mother’s anxiety will help stop the cycle of depression in the family InshaAllah.

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  4. Mel

    Thank you for discussing these topics in an intelligent and non-judgmental manner.
    One the things missing from the Masjaad are support groups and counselors Although we can receive religious counseling which we need, very few of our Religious Leaders are familiar with the disorders mentioned in the article even thought they are common..Alot of the symptoms of Mental Disorders mimic what some Muslims believe to be internal jinn possession, imagine being told you or a loved one is possessed by jinn and left to deal with it along with other very real disorders. SubhanAllah, we have a lot to learn. InshAllah, we put our knowledge together and open our hearts it will become easier.

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  5. Mimi

    MashaAllah, this series is so beneficial! May Allah bless all involved in it, including the questioners! It’s always difficult to navigate relationships with semi-abusive parents, so getting a clear response like this is very helpful for the community at large.

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  6. SS

    I really appreciate what muslimmatters is doing by starting this “whats the matter?” section and also in bringing these muslim professionals to our notice.

    Jazak Allah Khair.

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  7. Umm Ali

    A bad childhood stays with the person till the grave. I was emotionally abused by my mother. Whatever was left of me, my husband took care of it.

    These days I am trying real hard not to transfer the abuse to my child. To accept him as he is. It is difficult when the only thing you learned through the years is that you are not good enough for them. I want my child to know me as a pillar of strength in his life and as an affectionate mother.

    It is difficult to forget the pain but we just need to channelize our anger and disappointment. What really helps me is when I help another miserable person out of his anxiety and tel him/ her that I am there. Allah then takes care of me and helps me in wonderful ways.

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    • confusedsoul

      I was also emotionally abused by my mother.I was very much distant from her and also other family members.I knew i have to respect them for the pleasure of allah swt but it was very hard for me so i gave up and ended up marrying a wrong man.I actually cant decide whether he is Mr.wrong or Mr.right but i married him just to escape from my home where i was not in peace. Parents never realize that what damage their constant criticism and negligence towards emotions of their kids causes to their personality.Now i found out that i was having low self esteem and depression that made my life miserable and lead me take the wrong decision of marriage.But now i believe that it was my fate and there must be some good in it for me.
      i request all of you to pray for me please that allah swt makes my life easier and grant me jannah aameen.

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  8. Sarah Sultan, LMHC

    Dear Umm Ali,

    I ask Allah (swt) to give you the strength needed to work through the struggles you experienced during your childhood and to grant you the ability to overcome the difficulties that come with parenthood. Becoming a parent brings up so much from our childhood that otherwise may not have come back up for us. You clearly love your son tremendously and are doing all you can to be the best mother possible to him. And, have no doubt- Allah (swt) chose you to be his mother because He knew you were the best person for the job and capable and strong enough to handle it despite your difficult past.

    You have already taken a great step in admitting that your own childhood issues may have an impact on the way you parent your son. I would encourage you to seek further help in exploring these issues and working through them in order to ensure that they do not negatively impact your mother-son relationship. May Allah (swt) reward you and grant you ease. Ameen.

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