I interviewed Melody Moezzi, an Iranian-American bipolar Muslim feminist activist, an attorney, a writer and author of the award-winning books War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life. She blogs for BP Magazine as well as The Huffington Post and Ms. Magazine. We talked about Moezzi’s latest book Haldol and Hyacinths and Muslims and mental health.
AZ: Why did you write Haldol and Hyacinths?
MM: I basically wrote the book I wished existed when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The memoirs I was reading after I was diagnosed were great but most of them were written by white women and I didn’t fully relate to their experiences and I think there are a lot of us who are already living a bipolar existence culturally speaking so the diagnosis isn’t just a clinical one. For me, it was something that just became really obvious that this has been my cultural experience all along.
There’s a very clear distinction…that’s something I have always experienced and there is obviously a huge distinction when it comes to clinical bipolarity. I’m not saying my cultural experience caused my clinical one but I am saying I saw as a writer it as a metaphor that was pretty glaring that I couldn’t ignore and I didn’t want too.
I’ve been very blessed but at the same time I know most people do not have the same experiences that I do and have been lucky enough to have had.
AZ: What was your experience as an Iranian-American in the mental health system?
MM: I was lucky because both my parents were physicians so class also plays into this. I was lucky I had them stand up for me and my family support in general. My best friend growing up is a psychiatrist so I was lucky to have her. I’ve had a lot of advantages that other people don’t have yet, still the experiences I had in the hospital were definitely different. I pray as a Muslim so there was one facility where every time I prayed it was a sign of hyper-religiosity. I was praying three times a day. But they kept considering it hyper-religiosity. Any Christian who is praying is not getting that. There’s data that proves faith can be incredibly helpful in recovery. For me, it wasn’t necessarily seen that way and I don’t think there was an overt discrimination on that end but it definitely colored the perception that I was overly religious because it was a religion that they didn’t understand.
AZ: How was your faith helpful in your recovery?
MM: I found faith incredibly helpful in my recovery. I’m of the belief that people with certain psychiatric conditions have a lot of problems that other people don’t have. But a lot of us are what I interpret as being spiritually gifted. There’s a disconnect between seeing this condition of bipolar disorder type 1 as being a gift but also seeing it as a clinical curse. I treat it and I know it needs medication. I know how to treat my condition. I’ve always been the kind of person that knew where I came from and knew there was something greater than me. I’ve had two mystical experiences one was during a manic episode and the other one was during what probably was a hypomanic episode but it wasn’t diagnosed at the time. I’m really grateful for those experiences. I also see that some people can have trouble reconciling that especially with the Western medical establishment. They have a lot of trouble accepting that something can be both clinical and spiritual. But that’s been my experience. It took me a long time to accept both sides of that because I’m science oriented. I believe in the power of medicine. I know that medication is necessary in my case but I see it as being a kind of spiritual gift as well.
AZ: What was it like writing a memoir and being vulnerable?
MM: What’s hard for me is that my first book was about young Muslim Americans and I did fear that because I had come out as I had tried to break stereotypes around what it meant to be Muslim, particularly Muslim American. I didn’t want people to think she’s Muslim so she’s crazy or she’s crazy because she’s Muslim [when writing Haldol and Hyacinths]. I wasn’t keen on this about myself as someone who has been an activist since I was a kid. I couldn’t really experience what I did in the hospital and see the way the American mental health system works and just be silent and not do anything about it. I think the best way to do something about it is to share your story. That can be scary. For me, it turned out what I needed to do and I’m glad I did it. But I don’t doubt for a second that doors have been closed because I am so public about having a mental health condition. I don’t doubt for a second that there have been doors which have opened because of it.
AZ: What mental health barriers face Muslims today?
MM: I think there is a greater stigma in the Muslim community that even if you have access to care you might not seek it. Within a lot of different faith communities there is this impression that you can pray your way out of mental illness as opposed to any other illnesses that need to be treated. There are also some people who have the perception that not only are they not like other illnesses that it is some sort of punishment or some sort of curse. Like I said, I see it as being the opposite in being a spiritual gift. Look at the mystics of the world… I’m writing a book right now about Rumi. Rumi was reciting poetry and singing out loud in public. I don’t doubt that someone like him would have been thrown in a psychiatric hospital if it were a different time and a different place. I see people who have minds who work differently as people who have access to different levels of consciousness that might not be convenient to the world we live in right now but that doesn’t make those levels of consciousness any less true.
I think part of it is once you belong to any vulnerable group or a group that is often misrepresented it becomes harder to seek help. Data shows that racism and other “isms” affect our mental health. We need it more than ever right now yet we are least likely to seek it because of the fact we don’t want to be further discriminated against. As an Iranian American Muslim woman and a feminist, there are enough reasons for people to discriminate against me and then for me to be public about having a mental health condition gives people another reason. That is why people in the Muslim community are hesitant to seek help and within our faith community surveillance is a problem. It’s easy to say someone is paranoid but then there is the reality that the NYPD was actually infiltrating mosques. That’s a scary reality that has been proven. It’s not paranoia when they are actually out to get you. I think that’s the position that most Muslims find themselves in.
AZ: What would make more Muslims feel comfortable about seeking treatment?
MM: I think what has to happen is first of all it would have to come from our own communities. My hope is that more Muslims go into the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. The one thing I worry about is the white savior…nobody can fix it for us. We have to do it within our own community. Not that there aren’t white Muslims but within different Muslim communities we don’t need people coming in from the outside saying this is what mental health is and this is how you treat it. I think we need to look from within. For example, the past few years I spoke at the Muslim Mental Health conference which I think is a fantastic initiative that has helped enormously in getting mental health conditions more accepted in the Muslim community. Initiatives like that led by Muslim psychiatrists and psychologists then it suddenly makes a difference. You don’t feel so nervous revealing to your community that you have some sort of mental health condition when there are people who are prominent in your community who are saying not only is there nothing to be ashamed of but it’s something that you deserve to get treatment for.
AZ: What mental health issues do refugees face and how can we help them?
MM: The refugee situation and I don’t say refugee crisis because the way that we paint the picture makes a big difference. Certain members of the media have painted the picture about refugees in Europe, that there is a crisis and they’re a problem. I think they are a huge opportunity. I think there are people who are desperate to get out of war torn countries, often war torn countries because Western countries have caused those problems. You can’t divorce the fact that the US and the UK have been so involved in spreading wars in the Middle East and then you have all these refugees. It’s no surprise that this would happen. I think it’s really important in terms of mental health issues to have members of the community leading efforts and others being allies. It’s really important to have members of the community helping who speak the languages of the people who are refugees. I’ve seen people come in and trying to help a situation and making it worse because they don’t understand a certain culture or language.
A lot people fail to understand the trauma that comes with that kind of experience. Whether someone develops PTSD or not, there’s a great deal of trauma associated with it, for even the youngest. I was born in the United States but as I watch the stories of these refugees, I relate to them in a way from a perspective of transgenerational trauma that has nothing to do with the personal experience I remember but everything to do with the personal experience my family has had while I was young. I think of those children being born in refugee camps and I wonder what their experiences will be even if they’re given asylum. They still need support and services and mental health is huge when I talk about support. Suicide is a huge risk.
Interested in learning more and how you can help? Check out the following organizations:
The Institute of Muslim Mental Health http://muslimmentalhealth.com allows one to find culturally sensitive practitioners as well as get information on their annual conference.
The Journal of Muslim Mental Health http://journalofmuslimmentalhealth.org publishes articles on issues related to Muslims and mental health.
For more of Melody, check out the webinar she did with IBPF!