Ladders in the Sky
By Sumayya Ismail
I could feel the panic reverberating through my body: my breathing quick and gasping for air – like I was suffocating, heart racing. But I couldn’t move my limbs. “I can’t move. I’m about to die. Oh, God, please help me. There’s no one else that can save me now”. Tears streamed down my cheeks while I desperately prayed and waited for the worst to come…
I was always aware that “We should support Mental Health” but – like many things – with experience comes true understanding.
Growing up, I never fathomed that I might have to deal with a big test in life. As a child, struggle for me meant having a fight with my friends over Barbies or which Disney movie to watch. As I grew into an angsty teenager, I yearned to express myself through poetry and short stories. Harry Potter and his friends gave me inspiration and aspirations to become a writer. I expected that my life would take a linear trajectory just like everyone else: Education, Work, Family and constant happiness.
College was an exciting and stressful time for me. I enjoyed learning new things, being more independent, and volunteering on and off campus. I took a full course load, worked a part time job, and spent every waking free moment I had volunteering. I was balancing a lot on my plate and struggling with some of my harder college courses. In addition to the stress I was putting on myself, there was also pressure coming from my family to lose weight and graduate quickly. In my third year of college, we had a close death in the family. This was the first time I had ever lost a loved one. It was hard, but I don’t think I processed the grief as much as I tasked myself with taking care of others. Time passed and I moved on to focusing on my degree. I loved the major I had settled on and I had a talent for it too. My work was intellectually challenging and my coworkers were exceptionally nice. And my volunteer activities gave me something fulfilling to look forward to each day.
It’s hard to explain how the shift began. There was no big, spectacular event or long-term environmental change in my life, nothing out of the ordinary. But there was a trigger. Just a small happening out of the blue that set my entire life on a different course.
I was at work, having an everyday conversation with a coworker and I started to feel a sense of worry. My thoughts were racing. Slightly alarmed, but thinking I was just lightheaded or tired, I excused myself and went to my car.
Once I was in my car, everything began spiraling. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was gasping for air. I worried I was having a heart attack. I looked around for help, but it was the middle of the day and my car was parked far away. I was utterly helpless and all I could do was recline my seat to try and calm my body down by lying down. I started to panic. “I’m going to die here in my car,” I thought. That panic morphed into intense regret for time wasted in my life. My panic was traveling up to my throat and that’s when I lost feeling in my limbs and felt paralyzed. The terror that followed was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in my life. I desperately began praying to God every prayer I could think of – over and over and over and waiting for whatever was coming next.
But nothing came. Time passed as I stared up into the sky. The sun sank lower to the west. “Does death take this long?” I was seeing ladders in the sky, they were a blur, but ladders nonetheless. Maybe I wasn’t going to a bad place, I thought to myself. Maybe I was going to Heaven. Euphoria soon washed over me. I waited for glad tidings.
But again, the only thing that came was the passage of time. As darkness fell, so did my paralysis. I was exhausted, hazy, and my thoughts muddled – I was slowly moving my body now but my mind was running on Neutral.
I somehow made it home, swaying between frantic tears and suspended silence.
I spent an entire weekend at home in that state. I was battling my deepest fears surrounding death, and even seeing hallucinations of the devil coming to take me away. I could feel the heat coming to get me. I cried and I prayed and I tried my hardest to make it go away but the visions, the terrors just got worse and worse. Soon, I wanted to die. I wanted it all to be over and I didn’t care what happened to me. These thoughts shook me to my core because my entire life I had never felt so hopeless, so much despair. My family had been witnessing all of it and trying to help me to the best of their ability, but my mental state was out of their hands. I told them that I wanted to kill myself and that I needed help. My family took me to the emergency room immediately.
In the ER, my thoughts, words, and actions swung like a pendulum between terror and euphoria. The strangest fears, insecurities, dreams, and stories came spilling out of my mouth. I think about those things and I feel embarrassed but I have to remember that that isn’t who I am. My body and mind were reacting to trauma and I have to be forgiving and gentle with myself.
The doctors diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder, and the treatment required some time in a Psychiatric Hospital. That experience, though short, felt like prison. When I first arrived, they lacerated the hood off of the abaya I was wearing and ordered that I take off my hijab because it was deemed a hazard. I felt stripped of my security and identity especially in a mixed gender environment. The dull, gray walls reflected the way the days felt while I was there. We were on a strict waking, sleeping, and eating schedule. The food was bland and the planned activities were childishly simple. We could only go outside to get sunlight and fresh air with the doctor’s express permission. Once, I wanted to get out, but the nurses grabbed me and forced me back into line because I was attempting to “escape”. With the medication the doctor prescribed, I was on my way to becoming more mentally stable, so I hated being among all these strangers and forcibly away from my family and home. Still, I was so lucky that my family came to visit me while I was there. They came as often as they could, even when I wasn’t all there, and when they couldn’t come they sent letters that I still have to this day.
I was eventually sent home, where my family ensured that I was in a calming, relaxed atmosphere as I recovered and readjusted to regular life. I was drained mentally. I had been through so much in such a short period of time that I was in a daze. There were good days and bad. Days where I cried, days where I laid in my room and stared at the ceiling, and then came days where I slowly started doing routine things like going out. People who saw me then tell me now that they could tell from my face and behavior that something was wrong.
Regular life for me now includes medication and regular therapist appointments. In the beginning it used to bother me that I was on medication. I didn’t want to be bound or dependent on them to be functional. But that was the stigma talking. The pervasive stigma of psych medications and mental health treatment in general. If I had any other medical condition I wouldn’t think twice about taking the treatment prescribed. That’s not to say that everyone needs medication, of course. Just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it’ll work for another. Everyone is different.
I know now what that experience was – it was a psychotic episode. I was hallucinating, panicking, having anxiety and most importantly I was having extreme swings from very negative feelings and emotions to feelings of grandeur and euphoria. According to psychiatrists, it takes just one psychotic episode in your entire life to be diagnosed as having the disorder for the rest of your life.
Thanks to God that I haven’t had a severe psychotic episode since then. Soon after this incident, I achieved some of my proudest milestones including graduating from college and starting my first corporate job. I have, however, struggled with depression and anxiety in the years since which I want to talk more about in a future post. Besides that, I walk through my life like anyone else and you wouldn’t know that I have Bipolar Disorder.
Writing this piece has been a difficult reliving of the terrors and fears that I’ve spent years of therapy coming to terms with. But I want to tell this story because I know many people are going through similar experiences in secrecy and silence. Even if it’s not you, trust me that someone around you is dealing with some Mental Health issue – whether it be stress, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or something completely different. That’s why it’s important to tell and listen to these stories of people living with Mental Illness. Listening leads to understanding which leads to empathy, and empathy is what we need to help those who need it.
If someone opens up to you about their problems, just listen. Listen, and don’t try to “advise” them if you’re not trained to do so. So much damage can be done by well-meaning loved ones who don’t guide those struggling to the proper medical professionals. My friends and family have been my strength and support system through it all and I’m so grateful. They listen without judgement. They hold my hand when I need it. But they know their limits, thankfully. They took me to the hospital when I needed professional help. Educate yourself and know your limits.
To those who might relate to my story, you are not alone. Mental illness can be extremely isolating, especially if you want to keep your privacy. You might feel “crazy”, maybe even broken, and there may be moments where you feel like you will never get better. But there are people who have been exactly where you are now and I want to tell you there is hope. You’re not cursed, disgraced, ungrateful, or ungodly. Be gentle with yourself and take your self-care seriously. Find the strength to live your life to the best of your ability and be proud of who you are.