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Lockdown Away From Loved Ones as an International Student 

by in Ramadan on 30th April, 2020

Note: If you find your mental health in a place where you are unable to cope, please search for mental health services being offered in your area at this time – some therapists have moved their services online. If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts, call your national suicide prevention helpline immediately. 

Ramadan at home starts a week earlier when mum says, “rozon ke liye sara sauda bhi lana he”, “we have to get all the groceries for Ramadan”, and the kitchen slowly gets stocked up with all the ingredients for Ramadan food over several days before the first roza. Ramadan at home means the smell of mum’s parathas filling the house at 3 am for Sehri, it’s hearing the loud siren go off from the Masjid to mark the end of Sehri and start of Fajr, it’s taking a hundred naps through the day and eventually getting up to pray when you see mum praying. It’s preparing all the fried Iftar food with mum, while dad prepares the fruit chaat and ten different healthy drinks to encourage us to hydrate properly, it’s praying Isha as mum prays Taraweeh and thinking ‘from tomorrow I will pray Taraweeh too’, and of course it’s staying up all night with my sister snacking on Iftar leftovers, until we do it all over again for next 29 or 30 days. 

Ramadan away from family, and in a non-muslim country, hardly includes any of these things. There is no sound of the Azaan or the Iftar and Sehri sirens from the local Masjid, and I can hardly be motivated to hunt down the closest ethnic grocery store to stock up on ingredients for traditional Pakistani Ramadan food, or to cook it. I offer my prayers and recite the Quran in my room, but it’s hard to feel the spirituality of Ramadan away from home comforts. Since I moved away from home six years ago, there have been a couple of Ramadans that I had to spend apart from my family, but never physically isolated. I would still go to work, hang out with my friends, and have Iftar parties with my Muslim friends. This year however, not only my sister and I are spending Ramadan thousands of miles away from our parents, but also in isolation from the world outside.  

I have suffered from mental health issues since my early teenage years, and have learnt how to cope through the rough patches. However, when I graduated from my masters this year after being in full-time education for 23 years straight with nothing to go on to next, I found myself in a particularly difficult headspace. My job hunting period was not going great, as most graduates, the more applications I submitted, the more rejections filled my inbox. I was just about managing my anxiety by trying to maintain my social life, watching the world go by as normal when my own life seemed to be temporarily on hold, reassured me that soon I’ll start moving again like everyone else. That’s when the Coronavirus hit. Soon we were all in lockdown and the whole world came to a stop, much like my own life, but now I couldn’t even hope of joining the rest of the world again soon. 

I am one of those people who rely on their busy routines to keep their minds going to dark places, and now I had an abundance of time and nowhere to escape from all my anxieties and fears. Not a good combo, to say the least. Two weeks into self-isolation, my anxious thoughts had turned into, what I would describe as, a tornado of dark thoughts and fears in my mind causing chaos all hours of the day. Even in sleep, my mind would replay the same thoughts. Unable to fall into a deep slumber, I would wake up just as tired as I went to bed, sometimes with a racing heart and shortened breath. Nothing made sense or gave me pleasure. I couldn’t focus on reading, praying, watching TV or even having a conversation on the phone.

Being far from my parents only made things worse. If I was at home, I could spend some of my time helping mum around the house, sit and talk to my parents about something, take care of them as they would take care of me. Most of the time, just being around my parents reduced my anxiety as they make me feel loved, appreciated, and safe. All the things your mind tries to convince you against when struggling with anxiety. So, I speak to my parents almost every day, even when there is nothing to talk about, my mum and I just go over what we ate, when we woke up, who rang today, who we rang today, all the chores we did, and what time we will be going to sleep. I started to see how these small, seemingly mundane conversations, had a massive impact on my mental health. I always felt much lighter and calmer after talking to my family, even when we don’t discuss the things consuming my mind. What also helped me was the realisation that I can still help my family and friends through this time, even if I am not physically with them. I could still lend them a listening ear and emotionally support them through their increasing anxiety about the Coronavirus, or provide them with a distraction from life. 

My mind was spiralling out of a few days before I finally decided to reach out to my friends. I had forgotten what it felt like to listen to a positive outside voice of someone you trust when your own mind is constantly putting you down by whispering your failures to you all day. My friends were able to pull me out of the self-sabotaging hole I was stuck in over the course of a few text messages, multiple voice messages and a very therapeutic facetime session. Within the next few days, I could feel myself coming back to the present. I also took their advice and started to do one activity a day that would help me slowly gain back control of my mind. Some of the activities that help me in this regard are praying, journal writing, reading, watching Netflix with my sister, drawing and meditation. Initially it was a struggle to even do one of these things a day, but having people who encouraged me to keep going even when I slipped was extremely helpful. Right now I am able to do any three of these things regularly every day, with praying being a constant. 

With so much free time on my hands, no parents around to check on us, and being stuck in an apartment with my sister who is also mostly on her phone, initially I found myself laying in bed most of the day and obsessively scrolling through Twitter for hours. I consumed more and more information about Covid-19, what it was, and how it was spreading. Soon enough this information turned into thousands of tweets about people falling sick and dying all around the world. This only made my anxiety worse, so I decided to restrict my time on Twitter, and the result has been amazing. My mind is much quieter when I am not bombarding it with devastating, tragic, and triggering news and information for hours on end. I have the unhealthy habit of diving deeper into things that trigger me in the hopes that I will find the answer to my anxiety and it will go away, but it only gets worse, because my mind doesn’t accept rational answers and comes up with ten more questions in place of the original one about whatever thing is bothering me. Now I just leave my phone on one end of the room and immerse myself in a task that I will be too lazy to get up from. 

While I entered this lockdown with mental health challenges, the lockdown has been good for my spiritual health. It has given me more time to pray and reflect on life and my connection to god without rushing to get back to the day. As a Muslim, in this time of crisis, praying is one of the things that is helping me get through the day, and that is probably true for a lot of people of faith. For me, praying makes a huge difference in my day, and helps to shift my focus to the things that matter. However, when battling with mental health issues, praying in itself becomes a struggle. Even though I know praying makes me feel better, on the rough days I struggle to make it out of the thoughts consuming my mind, making me physically weak and unable to move to get up and pray. So, I miss a prayer because I feel sick which in turn makes me feel worse because I missed a prayer. Despite that, I pray, because that is the only way to break this vicious cycle. Even if I miss one prayer, I pray the next. I pour my heart out to God just as I would to a therapist, relieving myself of everything that is occupying my mind, all the anxieties and concerns about life and death. It works, and some days it is the only thing that keeps me going to the next day. 

This is a strange time, made much harder by being in lockdown away from family and struggling with mental health. Nevertheless, I am holding on, like many others around the world, and have found ways to cope, both with my mental health and being away from my family, in the lockdown. Things will change again soon when Ramadan starts. It will not be like Ramadan at home or even Ramadan at University. It will be lonelier, and in some ways I am afraid will not even feel completely like Ramadan for me. However, since the lockdown has helped me spiritually, I am looking forward to spending more time in Ibadat this Ramadan to further strengthen my Imaan. 

Mayeda Tayyab

Mayeda Tayyab

Mayeda Tayyab is a Pakistani international graduate who moved to the UK to pursue higher education. Mayeda has a Bachelors in Law and Criminology and a Masters degree in International Criminology from the University of Sheffield. She has been involved in social justice activism, specifically focusing on tackling gender and racial inequality.