By Umm Zachariyyah
I see a pink flower at four years old; my favourite in my mum’s garden. So many small, tiny pink flowers making up one huge one. I loved it. I used to look at it, touch it, smell it. My mum always let me pick as many as I wanted. Then one day, my aunt came to stay for a while and as we played carefree in the garden, her voice peirced the air, “No, don’t pick them!”
I felt confused. My voice couldn’t tell her that “mummy always let’s me pick them. It’s my garden. My home. My flowers.” My voice was taught to be silent to authority. To always acquiesce. I remember when they cut the pink flower bush down. I felt sad how everything had to end. I didn’t know back then about Jannah. I didn’t know I was supposed to belong in another world.
I’m bad at seven. Some part of me inside separated, and became another small girl, with different thoughts and feelings. She didn’t know herself anymore. She was a lost child, vulnerable, and unprotected. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be loved. On a white floral sofa, a seven year old sat quietly in existential crisis as blurred figures swept past, in and out of the living room. They were meant to be my family: my mother, brother, father, but now they were shadows full of fear and uncertainty. Everyone was mad at me. And maybe that was my fault. Maybe my mum was right. Maybe I did cry too much. And feel too much. And sing too much too loudly. Maybe I did whine too much and hide too much and show off and be too shy. Maybe I deserved to be hit sometimes and ignored. Maybe they are right and there is something wrong with me…?
At fourteen, I feel completely alone. My parents appear too busy to speak to me. I have no one to share my deepest thoughts and feelings. When they do look at me, it is usually to give me orders, to complain about me. I have no close friends around. I deserve to be alone. I am ashamed to exist. I wander to the next town to pick up cigarettes off the floor, asking other rebel kids I barely know for a lighter, just so I can make human contact.
My inner children have been speaking to me for years through emotional flashbacks. I just wasn’t listening. I wasn’t hearing their experiences. I wasn’t comforting them. I wasn’t protecting them from the people that denied their trauma, past and present, including my own self. They just seemed like fragments of memories, some seemingly insignificant. “The past is in the past,” as the saying goes, “You are just over- sensitive”.
My sensitivity used to be my weakness, now it is my strength. It is my ability to empathise with others. It is the drive behind my desire to help, because I know what emotional pain feels like. And my inner children hold the experiences of my past. They tell me why I react to the present the way I do. They tell me why, even though I know how I am supposed to feel and react as a righteous Muslim, my emotions and reactions sometimes say the opposite.
So now, I’m going to protect those inner children. They are key to understanding my internal world, to the flood of emotions that pour out when I am no longer distracting myself, with a phone, or chocolate, or other people. They explain why rage can inexplicably overcome me with my children when they don’t respect my boundaries. Why I feel so hurt over how other people act. Why I would be thrown into dark depressions unexpectedly, and feel frighteningly alone even when I had friends and family.
Often, traumas are related to the relationship we had with our primary caregivers, which are called attachment patterns. Sometimes those traumatic experiences and memories are stored in the subconscious, and dictate, in an unconscious way, our relationship patterns with other people as we grow older, including the relationship to our own selves. These moments of unprocessed pain, that maybe confused or frightened us when we were young, I relate to as my “inner children”. Some are angry, some are grieving, and some are ashamed. And they have expressed themselves rather loudly in my life, when my attachment patterns are triggered, maybe by a cold look, an angry tone, a rejection. I didn’t understand why I reacted the way I did for so long; why I could be thrown into darkness over things other people seemed to cope well with.
It was hard to understand because I wasn’t abused in the horrific way some children are. I wasn’t an orphan. I wasn’t in war or poverty or any of those things that seem to “deserve” the label of trauma. Because to most, apart from a short lived social services referral and some discussions with my teachers, there didn’t seem to be anything greatly wrong: My family looked normal from the outside, and provided me with food, shelter and extra- curricular classes. But at home, our relationships were dysfunctional. My mother was depressed, emotionally unavailable and often felt suicidal, comforting herself with alcohol, while my father was verbally and emotionally abusive. My home life was often hostile, critical, full of shame. I had no emotional language to describe my feelings, because emotions were not accepted or discussed, and my feelings were not even a reality, because I had always been told I imagined things, I over- reacted, I was over- sensitive. I began to believe I was mad. I had low self-esteem and suffered periods of extreme existential depression where everything seemed pointless. I began to self harm, and imagine different ways of dying, of escaping the pain.
My family, unwilling to face how the home environment was impacting me, seemed to encourage the idea that I was emotionally unstable, and as I reached early adulthood, I drank to soothe my difficult feelings which kept appearing. I believed I had a mental disorder and was soon put on strong medication which trapped me in bizarre and frightening dreams that further confused my sense of reality.
These early experiences have lived with me through most of my adult life. Becoming Muslim eased most of the existential pain because I finally found a purpose. Life had meaning, alhamdulillaah! When I felt deeply depressed I thought I just needed more faith. But even when I prayed all my optional and obligatory prayers including tahajjud; even when I read Quran everyday and studied tafseer and listened to lectures and learnt Arabic; even when I wore hijab, and thought about Allah for so much of my day…even when I did all those things I still suffered bouts intense depression and anxiety.
I begged Allah to heal. I thought I must be bad to be experiencing this. I knew I was meant to be patient, I was meant to accept The Decree of Allah and I was meant to be grateful for the good in my life, but my emotional triggers in day to day life were overwhelming my cognitive faculties. There was still an emotional world to be explored. I think now, perhaps Allah wanted me to heal from the inside out, to not depend on other people for approval anymore, to not find my self- worth in the external, and to attach to Him alone.
“Verily, Allah does not change the condition of people until they change what is within themselves.” (Sura ar-Ra`d 13:11).
So finally, late in my life, therapy taught me to grieve. I had to let those inner children speak, and cry, and tell of their sadness, of how no one saw them or accepted them for who they are. Of the longing to be unconditionally loved. Of how they wished for closeness with their mother. And I told them that I was sorry for what they went through, and I listened, and I protected them from anymore invalidation. I taught them that their pain had purpose; that they didn’t know about Allah back then, but that Allah was always with them, watching them, and would love them and guide them, the way their parents could not. And overtime, the emotional triggers lessened. I could start to respond to life the way I wanted to. I began to feel gratitude, and patience, and more compassion for other people than ever before. I had re-parented myself, the lost child.
The raw edge of pain has softened. I no longer need medication by the Grace of Allah. I can make Duaa with hope, not grief. I am increasingly able to let go of controlling my surroundings and other people. My feelings have stopped spiralling into an emotional abyss as my inner children scream for attention and resolution. They sit safely, knowing I’m there, an adult now, ready to defend them, comfort them, and explain why each thing happened exactly when it did in my life, as a path leading me back to Allah, who will never unjustly abandon or hurt me.
Protecting my inner children is a journey, not just any journey, and one not so often traversed. It is one that goes back into the past, to heal my inner self and understand the deeper truths that can only be understood experientially, knowing that they always lead me back to the One I was looking for the whole time.
About the author:
Umm Zachariyyah is a revert and stay at home mum with a special interest in mental health and child development.