Our inspirational Muslim Rep Ayan re- emerges with part 2 of her story after a very challenging year

Since we started discussions as the publishing team for our next publication:

Muslims Emerging Proud through Mental Distress before COVID-19 hit, all of us have experienced big life transitions and it therefore made sense to share some of these shifts at the end of the book.

We love the woman Ayan is becoming, full of wisdom, empathy, compassion, hopes and dreams, but more importantly, so does she…

I continue to suffer, learn, and change. Healing is an ongoing journey.

This is part 2 of my story. It is striking to see how much your life can change in a year or two.

Life itself is a journey that must be travelled despite how unpleasant the road might be. I am learning to trust the journey even though I may not understand it sometimes. The reality is that not everyone will understand your journey, especially if they have never walked a similar path.

My path to spiritual awakening mainly began in my mid 20’s, with my traumatic experience of spiritual abuse by a fake ‘spiritual healer’ in 2012, as mentioned in part 1 of my story. Allow me to explain further how this person abused his position. Not only did he electrocute my hands whilst reciting some verses from the Quran, but he also made me drink something, smell a particular scent. He asked for my full name, my mother’s name. He was verbally abusive, claiming that he was talking to the evil spirit that was inside me. I recall a moment when he would ask me to call upon someone other than Allah, which I remember refusing because it is Shirk. I recollect how I kept repeating the Shahada, which is the Muslim declaration of faith that expresses the belief that “there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. 

Although not diagnosed, I experienced CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms many years after this spiritual abuse. Until today, I often experience flashbacks, dreams, even suddenly smelling the scent he made me smell. A decade later, my knowledge and understanding of mental health and life, in general, is entirely different. During this time, I fell in and out of experiencing depression, anxiety and symptoms that could not have been medically explained.

Looking back, I can now say this significant event in my life was like a re-birth event to my authentic self. I started waking up to connect with my authentic self reasonably late in life, but I guess it is better late than never. My journey to self-growth began when I started to look for reasons for my mental health distress.

I have been on a healing journey, and I was fascinated to find answers to my pain and address it at many different levels. It almost felt like I was on a mission to “cure” myself, or at least live a more fulfilling life full of inner peace and contentment. I went through the internal conflict of understanding the cause of my suffering and how I could be ‘cured’? Which now, looking back on this itself, caused me anxiety. As a Muslim, my family was adamant that the cause of my suffering was black magic or the evil eye, and I understood that it was both mental health distress and some elements of the afflictions of spiritual issues. I always make dua (supplication) to Allah (God) to help me understand his qadr (decree), not just to ‘unterstand’, but for guidance, manifestation and Allah to bless me with Hikmah (wisdom).

As part of my healing journey, I found somewhat of an answer.

I was fortunate to participate in a 12-week course in 2019 run by Dr Sara Betteridge from the BME Access service in East London Foundation Trust, held in the Maryam centre East London mosque. The main course content included the Qalb (Spiritual Heart), the Aql (Ability to reason) & the Nafs (Soul), how they function, how to nurture them and how to protect them. Understanding mental health, the impact it has on the heart, mind, and soul. Psychological approaches to dealing with mental health complement Islamic approaches.

As a person who experienced childhood and adulthood complex trauma, I have not come across any Islamic institute or organisation that brings these two approaches together, providing a holistic approach for Muslims. Throughout the 12 weeks, I felt connected and confident that my life was not just empty rituals.

Even though I had a brief understanding at the time, what struck me on the course was the concept of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), understanding thoughts and emotions and thus our behaviours. How we view ourselves dictates how we see and interpret the world. I recognised that negative self-perception might also dictate a negative cognition perception of Allah.

I recall feeling empty, lonely and hostile about who I was. Looking back now, I believe this was due to the lack of a sense of Self. When I know myself and live aligned to my values and beliefs, I have strong connections to myself and others, and I have passion, drive, purpose, and life feels full and worth living. However, in 2011-2016, I lacked a sense of Self which led to the opposite. When I did not know who I was as an individual, my mood, purpose and goals drastically varied with my changing circumstances.

The course helped me increase my self-confidence, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, knowing my purpose and motivation. It was a profound introductory course that increased a deeper level to my relationship with Allah (God) and my relationship with myself.

It has brought a formula for me to check in with myself consistently and reflect on what is happening with my Qalb (heart), Aql (reasoning), and understanding Shaytaan and how he works and my nafs (soul). Using Allah’s beautiful names and attributes in my duas (supplications), especially when I feel like my qalb (heart) is feeling low or the overwhelming feeling of my emotions, feelings and thoughts.

I gained many insights, and one of them is knowing that Islam as a faith is very much a heart-centred one. As a Muslim, I found the holistic approach in understanding and bringing together western psychology and the Islamic perspective of the ‘Self’ to be a life-changing experience.

Trauma

This section is so dear to my heart, and at times challenging to process. It took me months to write it up. You see, trauma is not about the sinister events that happen to us but rather what happens inside us due to the traumatic events. I would love to go into details of my difficult childhood and adulthood trauma, but I believe the time is not suitable as I am still processing the pain it has caused me and perhaps it is for another book soon.

Trauma lies on a continuum, and it looks different for people because we all have different lived experiences. When it comes to mental, emotional, spiritual and physical distress, we often think, what is wrong with people instead of what has happened to them? What is their story?

Carrying childhood trauma might trigger other adulthood trauma, and throughout my life, this has caused me to disconnect from my true authentic Self. Trauma tends to disconnect us from our feelings, body, and sometimes to the world around us, to the point I went through dissociative experiences. 

When I experienced pain in my childhood, the pain was there, and I had no one to share it with. This was due to many reasons, simply because I was just a child and not knowing what was done to me had been wrong. Also, from the trauma being normalised to be something that is done culturally or even to the point that religion is used to justify it, when now in my adult life having done my research, it is far from what Islam promotes. Another childhood traumatic incident I experienced again involved not understanding what was done to me was abuse. It came with ‘shame’ that I carried throughout my life, thinking it happened because I allowed it to happen. Shame (Ceeb in the Somali language) is a killer for childhood traumas. I carried this experience with me subconsciously and recently kept saying to myself, “if only I’d put up a fight, if only I had run away, if only I have done this/that”.

Reflecting on this, I do not think I got traumatised because I was wronged, but I got traumatised because I was alone with my hurt.

Taking my pain to therapy has been extremely difficult but yet rewarding at the same time. I recognised that there was a strong link between my spiritual abuse and my childhood trauma experiences. It was clear and made total sense why I tended to experience postpartum depression every time I gave birth. When I made these trauma connections, it opened another door to healing. Through self-work and therapy, I realised the importance of re-parenting my inner child alongside parenting my two princesses, having self-kindness and self-compassion.

The awareness of my traumas was essential because once I understood it, especially the complex childhood trauma, it made me more compassionate to myself as I was just a child and did not have the right help or support. When we start the journey of being compassionate with ourselves, not only does it change us, our children, our families, it changes communities and the broader society at large.  

It is not the question of just getting rid of these childhood trauma memories, as my experiences have been invalidated, and many loved ones have told me, “it is in the past; forget about it and move on”. I wish it were that easy. Do you think people choose to keep their traumatic memories and want to suffer in life?

We need to see people beyond their trauma and pain. Yes, sure, our life experiences shape us for who we are today. However, just because I choose to voice myself and help anyone that experiences mental or emotional distress, it certainly does not mean that my trauma and lived experience define who I am.   

I am now fortunate to have gained self-awareness, tools to aid me in being connected to the real me by re-learning my values and beliefs, shaping my identity and the ideal person I want to become.

I do not see myself as a ‘victim’ to my past traumatic experiences anymore.

People who have experienced trauma often represent their life as being single-storied. I was living a life as if I was trapped in a single dimension of my life, one that promoted a sense of shame, despair, depression, emptiness and hopelessness. Through my studies and lived experience, I learned that we do not respond to what happens to us in life, but we react to our perception of what happens. It is with our minds that we create the world.

Yes, I still feel anxious or have low moods here and there, but healing comes with something inside of me that is constantly changing for the good. Part of that could be the ‘shame’ I carried due to my childhood trauma, spiritual abuse, or mental distress itself is slowly dissipating. When we connect to the fact that the source of change is within us, we gain agency and learn that we have self-autonomy and the power to make positive changes in our lives.  

The beauty of healing is that once I started to reframe things, re-author or re-story my life, through this book, through therapy, through meaningful conversations with different people that supported me to reclaim my life from the effects of my trauma experiences. I began to live my preferred way of life.

I have always had this urge to find the courage and be brave enough to step into my past to find some answers. The thing is, stepping into my past without it consuming my present moment helps me in shaping my future. During the days I experience anxiety or low moods, it has an impact on my overall health. Those are the days that I need to step into the neglected parts of my life, stories of hope, skills, significant relationships, and the things I value and hold precious to despite my lived experience of distress.  

I learned and Changed….

Covid-19 – Grief and Loss

2020 has been a year of testing for everyone, as the world shared the experience of the global trauma of the Pandemic. It highlighted for me a verse in the Quran, Surah Baqarah (chapter 2), verse 155, where Allah (God) says, “And certainly, we shall test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give glad tidings to As-Saabiroon (the patient).” I remember I kept thinking what this verse meant for me, and it made me realise that as much as we as human beings do not like the suffering of pain or loss of any kind, it is inevitable. 

Like any life event, the pandemic came with its positives, such as bringing communities and the world together. However, it also came with its not so pleasant experiences, such as the death of loved ones, grief, loss of jobs, domestic violence and the rise of mental and emotional distress.

During these uncertain times, I was fortunate to get a promotion in the NHS as a Senior Peer Support worker. I managed to start a postgraduate/ master’s course in Integrative Counselling and Coaching with the University of East London. Studying during the pandemic had its challenging moments. Still, it has granted me hope and patience as it reminded me to treasure life, loved ones, and my ultimate passion for helping others.

I faced many personal challenges during this period. I was stuck at home, where I wore many hats, such as working part-time from home whilst homeschooling and studying. I was not just experiencing anxiety through distorted cognition, but I also experienced it as bodily sensations daily, which I could not seem to switch off from. What helped me was going for a walk, usually with a friend or alone, whilst listening to personal, self-work or spiritual development podcasts.

Many of the psychological theories I have learnt assisted me in persevering in my studies and becoming a better person. Being on an integrative therapy course has allowed me to explore many different modalities that are unique and useful in their way. I would often reflect on my own lived experience. It was an experiential course for me. The counselling approach looks at the underlying issues a person may present. They may want to explore their experiences, make sense of it by addressing their internal processes, and reflect on the causes of their issues, therefore addressing them. Additionally, people may also want to make tangible behavioural changes. The coaching approach, alongside counselling approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy and solution-focused brief therapy, will enable someone to create and sustain the desired change. I am interested in working with modalities such as person-centred, Existential, Psychodynamic, CBT, and solution-focused therapy. Gestalt therapy also stands out due to my interest in how the body and mind are sometimes linked to trauma. I also have a great interest in Islamic Counselling, so my working model is a work in progress, and my healing, strengths and limitations will undoubtedly evolve with time.

I acknowledged how resilient I was as a person, despite going through anxiety, grief, the loss of close relationships, dealing with feelings of not being good enough as a trainee therapist, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, inadequacies and incompetence.

I used to associate grief with losing someone through death, but I have come to learn that it is more than that. Grief is a natural process that our body goes through after the experience of any loss. Reflecting on the spiritual abuse I encountered, it was a loss of self-identity that I experienced. Unfortunately, I never knew how to grieve, and it just built up. This could be due to the way I have been conditioned growing up. In my culture, I have always been taught to act strong and move on.

I found the grief of the relationship breakdown of some family members and friends at different times during the pandemic very difficult to deal with. I realised that time is too precious to play around with negative people. So, I mustered up the courage to part ways with a few of them. Cutting people out of my life is never easy, but I found I was much better off for having done it. I learned that taking time out from friends, some families, setting boundaries for relationships, and stepping away from drama does not make you a bad person. It is great to be a support system for your friends, but it is equally important that I took care of my mental health and my own needs in the process.

However, it hit me that I was cutting people off left, right, and centre… I started to look within and realised all the people I had to cut off in my life had many things in common. It was an awakening for me to look deeper and go inward by looking at where I contributed and where I was going wrong in repeating similar relationship patterns.

One of the key learnings for me was again my relationship with setting boundaries. Until today I often find it difficult and uncomfortable in setting boundaries. I explored further and recognised that I was suffering from people-pleasing and codependency. Codependency is usually rooted in childhood, and codependent relationships are a response to unaddressed past traumas. I was raised in a home, a culture where emotions were ignored or even punished. When certain older family members felt a feeling, we all shared it. This phenomenon of codependency still blows my mind. With all the things I have been through and conquered, I still have to manage this default behaviour pattern I learned in my childhood. Recovering from codependency is one of the trickiest parts of healing. I constantly find myself adapting to others’ moods, trying to please or not upset anyone, fearing being disliked or abandoned if I set a boundary.  

Moods can be a form of mindset that can impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. Besides, moods are problematic since they last longer. I have been experiencing moods of confusion and disappointment due to the fallout with some family and friends. I felt hurt and taken back by what they did and their use of words. A metaphor to best describe this mood is the image of a cage or the pain of a shooting arrow, which could be due to my fixation with the situation. The more I pushed away from these uncomfortable moods, the more intense it became. Therefore, accepting it for what it is was my first step. The interventions that supported me to shift my mood and made me feel at peace were mindfulness and daily prayers. Making use of daily prayers, which is a form of meditation, helped me look within and accept myself for who I am. After my meditation and making duas (supplications), by talking to Allah (God) about the deep pain of my heart, using his beautiful name Al-Wadud (the most loving), I often felt a sense of peace and contentment. When I am at ease, I tend to have unconditional positive regard for myself, self-compassion, and others whenever I fall short. A metaphor for this mood amended to a more pleasant mental image of a peaceful river. I feel like I am more conscious now in my life than I have ever been. I am a lot less anxious, and I enjoy taking things slowly, taking care of myself mentally, emotionally and spiritually, having self-compassion. Furthermore, I always look forward to doing some deep breathing and mindfulness.

These practices have helped me improve my relationship with Allah and myself. My family and friends’ relationships have allowed me to view this life and the hereafter in a more meaningful and positive way.

Based on losing my close friends, I used self-reflection to reflect on what kind of ‘thinking’ got in my way of reasoning during our arguments. I think it was a bit of both inert and biased thinking. I may have jumped to conclusions by assuming the reasons for their actions. This could be due to similar past experiences. Moreover, biased thinking was based more on my intuition and feeling rather than logical thinking. Biased thinking made me feel like I was right, and therefore they were incorrect, which led me to react in a way I usually do not. Research indicates that reasoning with our intuition can lead to fast and spontaneous reactions, whereas slow, controlled, reflective reasoning is more helpful. With distance and self-reflection, I felt a lot calmer and ready to apologise sincerely on my behalf. I learnt to take time out to take some deep breaths and become conscious of how I was thinking. Distancing helped provide space and give me time to self-reflect and gain a complete picture of a situation. 

You see, new grief experiences trigger older unaddressed, unprocessed grief experiences. I learnt that there is a difference between experiencing grief and processing grief. I think grief hits us inside and is an energy that we may not know what to do with. The part of processing grief I found helpful was allowing the feelings (which were extreme at the moment) to pass through me. When I allowed these feelings, I reflected on what emotions came up for me, and it helped when I named it and accepted it for what it was. My experience of grief made me realise that grief does not come with just a single emotion, but rather it comes with many strong feelings and emotions all at the same time, such as sadness, hurt, despair and rejection.   

Self-awareness allows me to keep an eye on my inner as well as my external world. Although it requires effort and time, it can be powerful and valuable in many ways. I usually find it helpful in having meaningful conversations and expressing myself. Self-disclosure and showing vulnerability have helped enhance self-awareness and genuinely finding my authentic Self. Knowing myself and having self-awareness helps with connecting with my feelings and emotions. Understanding the difference between feelings and emotions gives me more choices and more control of my behaviour.

Emotions are reactions to our feelings. Being aware of my emotions and dealing with them by properly channelling them aids me to be an emotionally healthy person.

I do not think emotions and feelings are negative or positive. Society and cultures make us put them in boxes. I believe this because it is part of human nature to experience these emotions depending on where we are at in our lives and what happens to us. Emotions and feelings are signals. I think of them as messengers that are helping me move through the world in a responsive and integrated manner. I allowed my emotions to flow freely, which became easier to view from an observer’s perspective, which helped me manage my emotions and bounce back to reality.

When we are young or when we go through trauma, we can often get cut off from these messengers and not understand what they are there for, so we can misinterpret sensation or different emotions or thoughts. I have learnt how to relate with everything that comes through my perceptions as messengers trying to give me messages on how to respond in the immediacy of the moment in any given moment.

Moreover, again as we go through life and personal experiences, sometimes family or the culture we grow up in can distort how we receive those messages, so we are not seeing them. We can learn how to relate to our emotions like anger, sadness, grief or pain as things we are trying to get rid of. My approach is first to learn how to welcome and listen to them rather than get rid of them. I found that welcoming means being willing to be with what is until it has delivered its whole message, and I can take action in my life that leads to that deep sense of healing that I am looking for.

I often unconsciously suppress my emotions and wish for them to go away. Still, I have learned that they usually come back more prominent, so I have chosen to approach it differently, welcome it, and be mindful of what is going on for me, mind, body and soul.

The Quran very clearly shows us that feeling our emotions is a foundational step to vulnerability. I believe that in the Muslim community, we need to stop incorrectly correlating complicated feelings with ingratitude. Someone can be feeling intense pain and still be grateful. We see this with the examples of all Prophets. A great example of this is in the story of Yusuf, Chapter 12 in the Quran. Prophet Yusuf’s father, Prophet Yaqub, when he suffered the loss of his son, Yusuf, and his eyesight, Prophet Yacub says, “I complain of my anguish and grief to Allah” (Quran 12:86). The prophets did not hide from their emotional states, so why should you and I?

As mentioned before, I have been focusing on personal development for the past decade, but my therapy training has pushed me to go deeper and do more profound inner work. I have also experienced the benefit of having personal therapy, which has made me reflect on how difficult it has been for me in doing self-work on my own. It helps when you have someone alongside you on your journey who listens, validates and makes you feel heard. This is the work I hope to attain with my future clients by providing a safe space full of non-judgmental, unconditional positive regard, warmth, generally holding space for a person.

I enjoyed learning Gestalt theory and Somatic experiencing, particularly body awareness, staying with feelings, emphasising staying in the present moment (here and now), accepting ‘what is’, and addressing unfinished business.

Other counselling theories such as Transactional Analysis (TA) have helped me improve my personal and professional relationships. I feel like my relationship with my children has improved, and this is due to learning about the PAC model in TA. I seem to be more self-aware of my thoughts when interacting with others. I can now bracket any unrelated thoughts a lot better than I ever did when listening to someone. I used to rush into solution focus, but I have learned that ‘being’ is ‘doing’. Sometimes people want someone to listen to them and for them to feel heard. It is that simple; people yearn for a safe space, where they feel listened to, heard, validated, not judged for their lived experiences. They have their answers and solutions within them.

I learned from studying CBT to identify and modify negative automatic thoughts, core beliefs, and cognitive distortions. For example, going back to my experience of grief, I reflected on my thought patterns, and I noticed that whenever I felt strong emotions or feelings, I had black and white thinking and catastrophising. There are times when I acknowledged that certain feelings were based on assumptions and communicating to others by speaking from an ‘I feel’ perspective being vulnerable and transparent helped me to figure this out. This could be due to my past experiences and being triggered by unprocessed, unconscious feelings and emotions.

I see the benefit of journaling and using a thought record to identify my thoughts in a really logical and planned out way, analyse them and then move through to reframing or thinking differently about them. Journaling helped me to focus on an underlying emotional response rather than my experience. It also serves me to figure out emotions that I likely suppress or forget. There is no sense in just being aware of my inner world and not doing anything about it or knowing the reasons for my actions and behaviours. I found this intervention to be as powerful as self-disclosure in a trusting environment because I was writing from an open, unbiased observation of my feelings and awareness, which led me to figure out the actions I needed to take.

The names and attributes of Allah I have chosen to share in this book that has kept me alive even when I felt like I had no one that understood, heard, listened or validated me are As-Samee ‘The All-Hearing”, Al-Baseer “The All-Seeing” and Al-Aleem “The All-Knowing”.

Allah (God) tells us throughout the Quran that He is As-Samee, Al-Baseer! He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. I opened my heart and let myself be sufficed by Him seeing me and hearing me.

Humans can fail me. But there is such great power in being seen and heard by my creator, who knows me better than I know myself. Regardless of what I am going through, where I am at or how I feel, just knowing that I am always under Allah’s love and His watchful eye gives me Hope. My grief and tears in this world are heard and seen. My story, my past, my struggles from the day I was born until now, my hopes and dreams, the words I do not share with anyone, the heartbreak that feels heavy to carry, my efforts have all been heard and seen by Him.

He is Al-Aleem, “The All-Knowing’. 

I want to share my story hoping that I might return that small place of refuge to someone else. Right now, some people suffer in silence with their mental and emotional distress, trying to figure out how to receive love, and we as a society tell them they are “too much.”

I was fortunate to be one of the nominees for the Women’s Inclusive Team, International Women’s day 2021 wall of fame.

Despite the grief, I was experiencing it at the time of this picture. I am still astonished at how I have managed to show up, represent women, inspire and create HOPE.

My grief experience, mental health distress does not define me.

My resilience to continue serving myself and others even though my struggles exist is what defines me.

I have had the opportunity to get to know myself on a deeper level, and I am forever grateful to Allah for all experiences, for indeed, there is always good in Allah’s Qadr. It may be challenging, bitter and complex while in hardship but there is always ease that comes with it.

I long for a place where we could be more open about the dysfunctional history most of us share and believe we should have an open dialogue that is not drenched in shame of our lived experiences of mental and emotional distress.

My hope for the future is to create safe spaces where mental health distress is normalised, breaking the silence and stigma around mental health issues. My lifelong goal is to set up an organisation to work with the community by counselling individuals and provide coaching sessions.

My journey has taken years, tears, and hours of reflection and mindfulness, and I hope my story can bring freedom to others and the knowledge that they are not alone. I have been granted some of the most gracious companions that life has to offer, who had treated me with the delicacy and love I needed when I was suffering the most.

This is dedicated to them.

About our Rep Ayan 

Being the only child and raised in a single-parent household as a Muslim, Black African British female in London, Ayan faced many challenges growing up. Like any teenager, Ayan spent this part of life experimenting with the world and what it had to offer her. In search of her identity, she often struggled with the question “Who am I, what is the purpose of life?”.

Ayan’s attempt to live a lifestyle more typically associated with western culture was met with rejection and disapproval from her Somali Community. It was not until her lived experience of mental and emotional distress that she embarked on a spiritual journey of self-discovery and personal development, bringing her closer to living her authentic self and rebuilding her faith in Islam. 

Ayan has a fascination with wisdom, insight, being genuine, connecting with others without judgement and having deep thoughts. Ayan has chosen to progress her career and personal development by studying her Postgraduate/Masters in Integrative Counselling and coaching. Today, Ayan is fully confident in being a Muslim, British, Black African, Somali female, and she loves the woman she is becoming, full of empathy, compassion, hopes and dreams.   

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