broken, shattered home shack on water deck at sunset

Dear Survivor, Choose Yourself: Healing in Solitude (Day 8)

“Why is it always the ones inflicting the harm that trivialize the extent of the wound?”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

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The “Healing in Solitude” reflections offer a glimpse into the heart of Umm Zakiyyah, as she continues her emotional healing journey during the social distancing lockdown amidst the coronavirus epidemic. Each journal reflection represents a “new day” in her healing journey and/or a new day in the mandatory isolation of social distancing. The following is Day 8:

I know this probably won’t make a lot of sense, but I’m going to put it out there anyway. So I apologize ahead of time if you get lost in the maze of my words. Or if you can’t seem to find your way to my point. It’s just that today, my heart is so heavy that it’s getting lost in the maze of itself.

It’s happening again, that restlessness of the heart. I can feel the untold story flailing about within it, agitating the soft walls of this throbbing piece of flesh. Though my nafs and I have had this conversation over and over again for many years, today, you’d think we’d never spoken about it at all, with the way it—she—is begging for release. She doesn’t understand why she must remain silent when she has every right to speak.

I know what she’s thinking about, because I’m thinking about it too. It’s where our Merciful Creator says what has been translated to mean: “Allah does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged. And ever is Allah Hearing and Knowing” (An-Nisaa, 4:148).

Yes, I know I was wronged, and I know what happened to me was an evil that has every right to be mentioned publicly. I even know that if I ever did speak it aloud—without this exhausting, overly cautious dance of speaking without speaking that I keep doing—so many people would likely benefit, bi’idhnillaah. And Allah knows best.

But that’s not my dilemma. At least not today.

Yes, there was a time that I kept silent because I thought the very expression of my hurt was sin. I thought—as my abusers had craftily taught me—that my Lord would strike me down and throw me in Hell if I even moved my tongue to upset or “disrespect” them. Or to sully the fragile worldly legacy they’d worked so hard to build.

Yes, there was a time that I was so completely under their spell that I genuinely imagined that serving them meant serving God. That pleasing them meant pleasing God. That honoring them meant honoring God. That sacrificing myself for them meant “more important” souls and legacies could live on.

But I’m not in that space anymore.

Nearly losing both my life and soul—and then choosing to live and heal—is what flung me off that self-destructive path and landed me where I am now.

It’s just that, I’m not always sure exactly where I am now.

But You Have the Right To Speak!

Here’s the thing. Today I’ve healed enough to understand that not everything is about right or wrong. Not everything is about what’s allowed or what’s forbidden. Not everything is about what I have the “right” to do.

And not everything can be solved by looking at divine texts and concluding you won’t be in sin if you do it.

This is something that being a wife and mother has taught me so profoundly—over and over again—and today I draw on it on my healing journey.

Because beyond the concepts of right or wrong and allowed or forbidden, there is the deeper concept of hikmah—wisdom.

It’s true that hikmah never requires you to do wrong or delve into sin. But it’s also true that, by its very definition, hikmah demands a closer examination than merely considering what you have the “right” to do.

So many hearts are crushed and relationships destroyed because someone was so fixated on their “rights” that they didn’t consider the other person’s deeper needs—or their own.

I’ve also observed the tragically common pitfall of those who focus only on technical “right” or “wrong” and allowed or forbidden when seeking to fulfill a desire or need of their own: When the divine texts don’t explicitly “command” the result they want, they go and create their own behavior codes to do it on their behalf.

These are people who are so emotionally immature that they can’t take full responsibility for the nuanced complexity of adult life. So they fling that responsibility onto someone else’s soul—and then sometimes claim their conclusion is a direct commandment from God Himself.

These are the parents who are so afraid of their children making a decision that will hurt their feelings—or tarnish their image—that they convince their sons and daughters that it’s a sin to have a life and mind of their own.

These are the men who are so afraid of their wives divorcing them that they convince these women that they’ll never even smell the scent of Paradise if they get a divorce for any reason that the husband feels is invalid.

These are the women who are so afraid of their husbands marrying another wife that they literally reinterpret the entire Qur’an and Sunnah until polygyny is outdated, forbidden, or reprehensible.

These are the community leaders and spiritual teachers who are so fixated on guaranteeing a certain result—or controlling the lives of others—according to their own definition of “the greater good” that they literally declare alternate points of views invalid, unjust, or sinful.

These are men and women who are unable to own their vulnerability, face their fears, or accept that there really is no need to control the lives of others or rewrite the laws of God in order to get what they want in life. Or to work toward the “greater good” they see.

These are men and women who have no real meaningful understanding of tawakkul (trust in Allah), no real healthy understanding of emaan (sincere faith), and no real nourishing relationship with taqwaa (shielding the soul from spiritual harm). And more than anything, they do not truly believe in the ghayb—that unseen reality, wisdom, and spiritual benefit hidden in outcomes and life paths that their hearts dislike, their minds cannot perceive, or their souls don’t understand.

The only meaningful relationship they have in this world is with the fleeting emotions, convictions, and desires of their nafs (inner self).

So in their emotional immaturity and spiritual ignorance (even with years of “study” and droves of certificates behind their name), they actually believe that their every conviction and fixation on a certain outcome—even regarding what someone else’s life should (or must) look like—is their “right” to act upon or (worse) their “obligation” to force upon the world.

If they are challenged on what they are doing—as they suffocate soul after soul in pursuit of their mind’s “greater good” or their heart’s inspiration to rewrite scripture with their own hands—they’ll declare, “This is my right!” or (worse) “This is my obligation!”

And they genuinely have no idea that they are like the hypocrites whom Allah speaks about in the Qur’an when He says what has been translated to mean, “And when it is said to them, ‘Make not mischief on the earth,’ they say, ‘We are only peacemakers.’ Verily, they are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not’” (Al-Baqarah, 2:11).

And I don’t want to be among them.

Don’t Misunderstand

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not for a second think that speaking openly about what happened to me places me in the category of a “mischief maker” on earth. It’s just that if I am to achieve the outcome that I’m pursuing with my truth telling (i.e. deep emotional healing), then I need to do some honest introspective work. This means understanding on a very deep level that this journey I’m on is so much bigger and deeper than what I’m “allowed” to do or what it means to exercise my “rights.”

Everything that is allowed isn’t obligatory, and everything that is a “right” isn’t always wise to exercise at certain points in life.

So today, I’m striving to focus more on my deeper emotional and spiritual needs than on any elusive “allowances” or “rights.”

Dear Soul, Choose Yourself

That said, there are some parts of my story that I feel compelled to share, not only to help others, but to heal myself. These are the lessons that I wish someone had taught me. Or if there was someone along the way who’d tried to teach me, then I wish that the wounds on my heart hadn’t prevented me from listening, understanding, or heeding the urgency of their words.

And at the center of each of these lessons is the profoundly healing message: If you are a survivor of abuse, you must choose yourself and your soul. Every. Single. Time.

Because dear soul, understand this, and understand it well: No one, and I mean absolutely no one, can do your soul-work and emotional healing on your behalf. And certainly not the ones you keep looking to for apologies or love.

So, in no real order of priority, I share with you here some of these profound lessons, which I learned while continuously reaching for love and atonement in places that caused me harm. These are thoughts and epiphanies I’ve penned in my journal (or my heart) from the pain of experience after suffering in naïve ignorance for far too long.

But I apologize in advance if the lessons are not entirely clear. Till today, some lessons I’ve learned on this difficult journey are clearer in my heart than they are on my tongue or pen.

Life By a Thousand Deaths

You know how they say, “death by a thousand cuts”? How survivors of daily racism and micro-aggressions are cut just a bit each day until they “die” on the thousandth cut? Well, when you’re a survivor of trauma or abuse, then you not only suffer “death by a thousand cuts,” but you also suffer “life by a thousand deaths.”

This is because the moment you are abused or deeply traumatized, your life is taken from you. Daily, you are in a lose-lose situation with your heart, particularly if you are tested with being continuously in or near the toxic environment that inflicted the wounding. In that unhealthy space, you either take the blows in silence and risk continued harm, or you speak up and pretty much guarantee even greater harm.

Because in toxic environments, the only crime worse than you existing at all is to “victimize” your abusers or oppressors by speaking up to say, “I hurt.”

Memory Loss

Abusers have selective memory and selective amnesia. When things appear to be going terribly for you, they remember all the bad you (allegedly) did to deserve it. When things are going well for you, they remember all the good they (allegedly) did to make it happen. But never do they attribute your suffering to the work of their hands, or your achievements to your own.

Forgiveness As a Gag Order

Forgiveness is not a pact of silence. You can forgive someone and still speak your truth. Telling your story is about your own emotional healing, not about casting blame or expressing resentment.

For some people, when they advise you to forgive and overlook, what they really mean is: “Keep quiet. Pretend like this never happened. I never want to hear about this again.”

So Much Good

“They’ve done so much good!” some will say. “So why are you focusing on this?”

Dear soul, you cannot heal a wound unless you can point to the wound itself, call it what it is, and acknowledge how it got there. This isn’t about denying the good, it’s about rooting out the bad and protecting ourselves and our children from suffering any more than they need to—and from passing on that suffering to the next generation.

Name It and Be Free

I am a survivor of narcissistic spiritual abuse. Today is the first time I ever said these words aloud. I admit this now only because it is only now that I can confess that my healing was stunted day after day, year after year due to my inability, unwillingness, and/or fear to put a “bad name” on what happened to me.

I was taught to not call names, to not use bad language, and to never think poorly of others—especially those who were infinitely superior to me. And for so long, I saw it as a sin to label my suffering by any word that wasn’t a synonym for my fault.

But there is one word that allowed me to name it without feeling like I’d be thrown in Hellfire for speaking aloud my hurt.

Dhulm.

It’s an Arabic word, so it felt safer. But it’s also a Qur’anic word, so it was more truthful.

And it happens to encapsulate my truth.

Once I could swallow that reality, I realized that words like abuse, oppression and wrongdoing are just translations of that word. That made it easier for me to translate them into the experience of my life.

Then that realization made it easier for me to safely open the books and resources on healing, while understanding that whether or not I’d personally translate the dhulm I suffered into the term “narcissistic abuse” was irrelevant. The bottom line was, even if there was “kinder” or “more appropriate” or even “more Islamic” English term for what I’d experienced, all of my suffering fell in chilling accuracy into the category of what someone else had labeled “narcissistic abuse.”

So I had a choice. I could refuse healing on the grounds that Dr. So-and-so should have used a “less offensive” word to label what had happened to me. Or I could focus on what was more important—my need to heal—and stop stressing over what really boiled down to my fear of enraging my abusers by calling their crime by its name.

Hurting On Their Behalf

How do they live with all that guilt? This is a question that so many survivors ask themselves as they process just how horrible it was what their abusers—and the enablers and supporters—did to them.

But here’s the short answer to that question that took my heart years to come to terms with: They don’t. Abusers don’t live with guilt. They inflict it.

The only exception to this is those rare souls—those very, very rare souls—who recognize their dhulm, regret their dhulm, openly admit their dhulm, seek forgiveness for their dhulm, and then live the rest of their lives in repentance, as they sincerely seek to atone for the immeasurable harm they inflicted on innocent souls.

But don’t hold your breath. You’re likely the only one worried about how they live with themselves. This is because you are genuinely trying to find a way to live with yourself. And an unavoidable “side effect” of any true emotional healing of this nature is empathy.

And here, I mean empathy in the literal sense, not the “that resonates with my heart” sense. So no, I’m not saying that you empathize to the point of agreeing with, condoning, or sympathizing with the crimes they did to you. I mean that your healing makes it virtually impossible for you not to deeply feel what those abusers did to themselves.

And that’s where your hurting and confusion on their behalf comes from.

Gaslighting Is How They Survive

Naturally, as you hurt on their behalf, you still need to heal. So your heart goes round and round in circles of pain and confusion, as you (on the one hand) struggle with trying to recover from your own deep emotional wounding that you suffered at their hands, and then (on the other hand) your heart cycles into an empathic aching for how it would feel to suffer the guilt of having caused all the suffering they caused you.

But, dear soul, they are not suffering any torment on your behalf. Or their own.

They are living their life feeling generally free of emotional pain, except when they feel deeply hurt because they think you wronged them. Because somehow, in the dark recesses of their unhealed heart, any choice you make for yourself is a crime against them.

If you’re like me and so many other “bleeding heart” survivors, you might have even tried to express your pain to them. You might have even told them about your years of suffering in silence.  You might have even expressed how what they did hurt you so much—“Even though I know you didn’t mean to,” you might hurriedly add (because even if just speaking about the obvious truths of what they did, you feel compelled to protect them from their own truths). Then you might have even poured your heart out by over-explaining why you need to pull back and heal so you can become whole and well again.

But then what happens?

Firstly, you’re likely doing all this while genuinely imagining one of two things: They’ll care, or “At least, now they’ll understand.”

Then what happens next is what almost always happens when a survivor confronts abusers or their enablers. The abusers (or enablers) respond in a way that makes you feel sinful, guilty, or even “abusive” for choosing to take care of yourself.

Specifically, their response to you generally falls into one (or more) of four categories: (1) casting doubt on the factual “accuracy” of what you’re recalling and sharing, (2) glorifying or venerating the “intentions” behind the actions that caused your deepest pain, (3) questioning the wisdom or timing of your words or approach, (4) shifting the entire topic to some form of toxic positivity that centers the discussion around some deep emotional or spiritual problem in your own heart (i.e. “Don’t good Muslims forgive and overlook?”).

In other words, they use subtle or blatant gaslighting techniques, thereby sending you into deeper self-doubt, pain, guilt, or confusion. And the reason they themselves don’t feel guilty for this additional dhulm is that they use those same gaslighting techniques on themselves.

Yes, unrepentant abusers and their enablers actually live in perpetual ghuroor (self-deception). This allows them to not only live with the terrible actions they’ve done, but to also further convince themselves that they were either only acting out of genuine love and concern for you, or that you are in fact the one wronging them.

Or both.

The Qur’an Calls Them Out

Okay, I admit this is a heavy topic, so I’m not going to even attempt to properly tackle this here. But I will say this much. Connecting with the Qur’an through daily reading and reflecting on its ayaat has been so deeply healing for me. Not only due to its spiritual benefits, but also due to the emotional healing aspects of the Qur’an as well.

What I didn’t realize until I was on the journey of emotional healing myself, is how so much of the Qur’an describes and calls out the behavior of abusers and oppressors—even their attempts to fool others while they are merely fooling themselves (i.e. gaslighting others while unknowingly gaslighting themselves).

One chillingly accurate description of them is in a section describing those who oppressed themselves with the crime of shirk (paganism, assigning to creation any attributes or rights of the Creator, or denying the Creator His own attributes or rights). Yet even as they stand in front of their own Rabb on the Day of Judgment, they continue their attempts at deception that had worked so well for them in the world.

Allah Himself highlights this amazing audacity when He says of them what has been translated to mean: “Look! How they lie against themselves! But the [lie] which they invented will disappear from them” (Al-An’aam, 6:24).

These sorts of descriptions make it clear to my heart that I can only focus on myself, and that only I can choose my path to healing.  So, I must learn to leave abusers to their own—if they should ever choose healing or want it for themselves (and most won’t).

So, for now, I must accept that part of my healing journey is knowing that my abusers and wrongdoers (and their enablers and supporters) will continuously utter hurtful words to me and about me. And there’s nothing I can do but remove myself from their presence and let their Creator deal with them—in time.

In reflecting on this, my heart finds peace in heeding this deeply validating advice from my Merciful Creator, when He says what has been translated to mean, “And be patient with what they say, and keep away from them in a good way. And leave Me alone to deal with the beliers, and those who are in possession of good things of life. And give them respite for a little while” (Al-Muzzammil, 73:10-11).

In this, I hear what my restless nafs is trying to tell me when she begs me to give our story release: Dear struggling soul, choose yourself. You cannot guide, save, or find emotional safety with those who not only choose to oppress you, but who are also committed to oppressing themselves.

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Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. She recently launched her “Choosing To Love Alone” series via UZuniversity.com to support struggling believers seeking to nourish their emotional and spiritual health.

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