I am the granddaughter of a southern Methodist minister. I used to love traveling down to Augusta, Georgia with my family in the summer to hear my grandfather preach in his small church when I was younger. My mom used to keep audio files of his sermons in a box on a shelf in our family room at home. We’d listen to his fiery lectures and I’d take in his passion and love for the lord even as a child; noticing how he spoke about God and a connection to personal responsibility and gratitude. I loved my grandfather deeply.
My father had a different relationship with his faith. He had spent time in a Catholic monastery in his young adult life before marrying my mom. I didn’t learn much about that time in his life until after I had accepted Islam. But I remember seeing a picture of him in his monk’s frock on the street in Philadelphia once when I was a teenager. He looked like he was wearing a thobe. He looked like an Imam to be honest. It struck me but I didn’t know why at the time. My family was religious when I was a child. We grew up going to church. But it was my relationship to my grandfather that influenced my decision to take my shahadah. The summer that I was introduced to a Muslim and to Islam, my grandfather had been living with my family. He had been there for several years, as he was living with dementia and could no longer live on his own. Gone was the strong grandfather that I knew, who could deliver a powerful Sunday sermon to inspire his congregation. Now it was the role of my family to take care of his daily needs, as he reverted to a stage where he was dependent on us for everything. Our family was featured in the Washington Post Magazine about adult parents who come home for care. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
I was in the throes of a manic episode during the interview and my behavior was wild, angry. I was intolerant of my grandfather and his needs. I came across in the article as a spoiled, petulant child who was too impatient to care for an elderly grandparent. To this day, I’m humiliated when I read what I said. I seem so callous and heartless. But I now know that was my mania and I was sick. All summer, in 1996, I studied Islam and learned about the Quran. My behavior was loud and wild, but because I was still in college and living with a friend who didn’t know my diagnosis, we didn’t know I needed help. At the end of the summer, on my birthday, my grandfather suddenly passed away. My mom called me in the morning to say that he’d finally succumbed to his illnesses. Emotionally, I wasn’t close to him. But spiritually I felt something of loss and fear when I got the call.
My roommate was a strict Christian and both of us were very taken in by what we considered to be ‘signs’ in the universe. My roommate was sure that this event was a sign that I needed to become a Muslim. Both of us felt as though I was supposed to make a change in my life for the better, and since I had been studying Islam all summer, I needed to convert to the religion as soon as possible. I’m not sure why we felt so strongly on that day. But I’ll always remember that birthday. It’s the beginning of my journey into Islam. It’s the first summer I can remember experiencing mania so profoundly. And it’s the first of many times I’d begin to experience tragedy on my birthday.
Things have come full circle now. That roommate and I are still as close as ever. We happen to share our birthday of August 26, which just passed. A few years ago, on our birthday, I got the call that my mom’s sister died suddenly of an aneurysm. This was the woman who I grew up with as a second mother, and who took care of me after my mom died. Her death had such an impact on my mental health that I ended up at inpatient for almost 2 weeks. So, for me, my birthday is always a big day now. Although the sunnah is to fast on one’s birthday, for me, I must make it a point to remind myself of happy times. With mental illness, milestone days are always challenging. One can slip into a depression or into suicidal ideation very quickly. I remember my shahadah on that day. And I try to remember the good times I’ve had in my life. And sometimes, I let myself have a bit of fun too. Anything to avoid bad memories and feelings on August 26th.
Update: I shared more of my story about how I converted to Islam on a recent podcast with acclaimed author and life coach, Steve Austin. Listen here: http://iamsteveaustin.net/asksteveaustin/2017/9/6/being-muslim (Author of From Pastor to a Psych Ward)