My Mother was a Secret

A hidden diagnosis and a lifetime of pain

By Naureen Ahmed

My parents married each other in the late 70’s in Karachi. They moved to Brooklyn, NY, where my mother gave birth to my two sisters in a span of 13 months. My father, a surgeon, was going through residency at the time.It wasn’t easy being a wife of a busy resident, in a new country, with two small babies to look after. She was soon diagnosed with “baby blues” also known as post-partum depression. My father now shares with us scary stories about her violent fits in their small one-bedroom apartment.

A few years later, they moved to a small town in Arkansas, where I was born. My father says they went through 3-year cycles–first year was good, second-year bad, third-year worse, rinse, repeat. This continued for the 9 years of their marriage. So if I do the math, I guess I was born in a bad year. They were legally separated, then reconciled, but ultimately divorced in 1986.

My mom was stuck in 1986 until the day she died.

My father remarried a few years later, and this triggered my mother’s first psychotic “nervous breakdown”. She was in a psychiatric hospital for a few months. I remember visiting her in the hospital, looking at her vacant stares, forced smiles as she showed us the pottery she had created for us. But we couldn’t tell our father. We were warned that we’d never see our mother again if we did.

So it was a secret. If we told anyone, there would be consequences.

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My sisters and I carried on through life telling people she had “chemical imbalance and depression.” I never heard the word schizophrenia until I was 25.

She came back home. From the moment my mother would wake up, she’d pace the house–bedroom, living room, kitchen, and back….and forth…until she fell asleep again at night. And she wasn’t quiet while she paced. She ranted and raved about all the wrong everyone had done to her in her life.

And then there were the psychotic fits…brandishing knives, threatening to kill herself. She would violently attack my grandparents and sometimes us. The three of us, scared, would either lock ourselves up in our bedroom, or sit on the top steps, peeking and watching her lash out at anyone and anything in her path.

We were neglected. There was no one to calm us down, tell us it would all be alright: “Sojao, go to sleep, everything will be fine in the morning.”

Some nights she would kick all of us out of the house. We would sneak into the backyard and watch her through the curtains as she wailed and cried and screamed for hours on end.

Life went on, and we just dealt with it, learned how to manage her. My grandparents moved out, they were too old to take her physical assaults. They would pick us up and take us to school in the mornings and drop us home in the evenings with food. But mostly, we were left alone with her.

Neglected

Some days, she was happy, blaring Bollywood music on the stereo, singing in her beautiful sing-song voice, with freshly brushed hair and red lipstick. She loved makeup. She loved fashion, wearing beautiful shalwar kameez. At times she would even raid my sisters’ closets. Those were good days. I loved those days. Cherished those days.

But most days were spent pacing, or sitting in bed with wild hair and bloodshot eyes, crying and begging us to tell her everything would be okay. Us, her children….. we were now the parents, and she was the child.

I hated her. “Snap out of it!” “Stop being depressed!’ “Can’t you just be my mother?!?”

She didn’t take care of me. She didn’t cook, didn’t clean, didn’t come to Parent/Teacher conferences, didn’t make my class cupcakes on my birthday, or come to my basketball games. She was a shell. There was no one inside. My sisters taught me about puberty. My sisters cleaned up our room. My sisters packed my lunches until I could do it myself. My sisters and I did our own laundry. I barely learned to read the Quran, and had only memorized 3 surahs by the time I was 17.

We grew up too fast, like animals, just trying to survive.

The school was my outlet. I was popular, loved to laugh and spend time with my friends. But no one could come over. I learned my lesson trying to do that once. Having my friends over meant them asking, “Why is your mom walking back and forth? Why is your mom staring at me?”. I would try to laugh it off as my mom just being an immigrant.

All of us were top of our class, somehow. Through all the madness, we focused on our studies. It was our only way out. Study, go away to college, find a job, get married, get away, whatever it takes.

So we did. We all got married within 9 months of each other. I was the youngest bride at 19 years of age. My sisters stayed in Arkansas, but I moved as far away as possible, to Chicago. I visited my family every year, for a week here and there. I could only handle her in small doses.

I found Islam

I stopped hating her after I found Islam. Especially after my sister read about schizophrenia and confronted our family with her newfound facts. They had no choice but to admit her diagnosis. Then I read everything, and I understood. And I was more compassionate towards her, more patient.

But then she died.

What was the point of her life? All she did was suffer! My grandparents suffered. We suffered. I SUFFERED! But she suffered….. she was so beautiful, innocent, affectionate, artistic…. why God, ya Allah, why?

So we took that pain, and we created SEEMA: Support Embrace Empower Mental health Advocacy. SEEMA was created to support families like ours, who are shamed by the stigma of mental illness, are isolated by their communities, and are suffering alone. Through support groups and workshops, SEEMA will make sure no one suffers alone anymore.

By the way, did I mention my mother’s name was Seema?

To find out more about SEEMA, check us out at seema.muhsen.org or on Facebook @SEEMAdvocacy, or email us at seema@muhsen.org. Join Seema

Six Stories Down: When It’s More Than Just The Baby Blues

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16 responses to “My Mother was a Secret”

  1. Nour says:

    An honest, raw confession that most are incapable of making. May your courage be a means of opening up for others who are suffering in silence.

  2. Hina says:

    SubhanAllah. Your story is an example of survivors taking something terrible and painful and creating something beautiful and hopeful and beneficial out of it instead. May your mother’s soul find peace at last and may you all be rewarded for the sadaqa ja’ariyah you have given the world on her behalf. Aameen.

  3. Umm ismail says:

    Assalamu alaykoum,

    My father suffers from schizophrenia also. Nobody told me. I discovered when I was about 20 years old. He completely destroyed me psychologically. I thank God for that because it leads me to an deep inner search and I discovered Islam Wa alhamdoulillah. I still hope my father one day will ‘wake up’ from this nightmare, because I love him in spite of everything he did, but now he has Alzheimer so things are getting worse and he is loosing completely the contact with the reality. May Allah protect my children from this. May Allah protect you and bless you. A lot of things are happening in silence in our society. Mental illness is a big taboo.

    • Naureen says:

      I can completely resonate with your experience, after a childhood devoid of religion, her illness lead me to find Islam. Subhan Allah, after years of being emotionally and maternally unavailable, in my darkest period of my life, Allah used her to guide me back to Him. She said “Look at my life, look how much I suffer, and I have not sinned. Don’t make wrong choices, problems will come to you, don’t seek them out yourself,” and thus began my journey to seek the Truth. In her final years, she was showing symptoms of early onset dementia, as well. Alhamdulillah she’s at peace now. Just remember, your father is Jannati, he isn’t accountable for his actions, how blessed we were to have people of Jannah in our lives. May Allah forgive us for any shortcomings. You, your father, and your children are in my duas. <3

  4. Ahmedoo says:

    Sister Naureen,

    Your story sounds too familiar to that of my wife’s. She grew up with a mother who has PPD, and has led to a lot of hurt in her life. Until recently, her mom’s condition and mistreatment of her and her siblings was a secret from the rest of the world (family, friends, community members) as well. Even when we shared what her mom has and what it looks like, most people simply didn’t know how to respond or empathize or show support.

    May Allah grant you and your siblings shifa, and create through you guys healing and support in the community.

    • Naureen says:

      Jazakallah khair for sharing your story. Yes, people don’t know how to respond because people aren’t empowered with the knowledge on mental illnesses. My response to my mother as a child was due to lack of knowledge. Even when I did learn, the child inside me just wanted HER, my mother. Unfortunately, her illness defined her. Your wife and her mother are in my duas, may Allah give you all peace, and I pray you find comfort that you are not alone.

  5. Zeba Khan says:

    Thank you for sharing this, it’s so critical that the community supports each other instead of stereotyping and isolating. May SEEMA lead to amazing opportunities and solutions for the whole Ummah.

  6. Anon says:

    Salaam Alaykum Warahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh,

    I do not usually comment on articles that I read here, but this one really hit home. My grandmother used to have schizophrenia, this article brought tears to my eyes. It was so difficult to see her struggle as a young child. I am imagining how my grandfather and my dad and his siblings dealt with her with so much sabr, without even knowing what schizophrenia is (we are also from Pakistan). May Allah (swt) reward the ones who patiently handle people who have mental health issues.

    Years later, our family was able to my grandmother on medication, and by the Mercy of Allah (swt) she is finally at peace. Allah willed for her old age to be easy for her. May He allow for everyone silently suffering to be at ease.

    JazakAllahu khayr for sharing your story. May Allah swt reward you and put barakah in your initiative.

    • Naureen says:

      Jazakallah khair for sharing your story. Indeed, these innocent souls are a test on us, how we deal with them, treat them kindly. I tell myself, she was a person of Jannah! How blessed we truly were to have her with us, and may Allah forgive us if we ever fell short in treating her kindly. May He accept from us any good, and accept SEEMA as a sadaqa jariya in her name. Your grandmother and your family are in our duas. <3

      • Anon says:

        Naureen, thank you for your reply! It definitely is a test for the person going through it and for those around them. As you mentioned in another comment, the effects are really long lasting. I am making dua for your family and for Allah swt to always shower you and your sisters with an immense amount of blessings, fill any voids you may have. For Allah swt to grant your mother with the highest levels of Jannah.
        Stay strong, stay positive, duas and love with you and your family.

  7. Abu farhan says:

    Assalamu alaikum

    My mum suffers from bipolar disorder for the past 30 yrs. It took 15 yrs before we diagonised her with it. She goes thru periods of depression and hyper activity. She has attempted suicides during her depression. She has sent me out of the house during her hyper activity. I have grown to accept her antics. However, some family members and relatives take her behaviour towards them personally and hold grudges when many of the things she does are due to her illnesses. Her illness and behaviour of relatives have led to deep sadness for me as it has torn my family apart and leaves me alone and i had to sacrifice my happiness for sake of others. I just hope that i can serve her during her ageing years.

    • Naureen says:

      Wa’alaikum assalam, thank you for sharing your story. Yes, I totally understand, our family has been been torn apart by her illness, as well, even now, when she’s no longer with us, subhan Allah. The effects are long-lasting. Life is too short, and people need to remember the mercy of Allah, and how He keeps providing for us, despite our behaviors. If we can’t forgive others, how can we expect Him to forgive us? Praying for you and your family, may you find peace and happiness, insha Allah. <3

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