About a personal struggle I had as a teen

beach reflect

Picking up the Wrong Ball
By: Yasmin Mogahed


Everyone has problems. At least that’s what my 7th grade teacher told us. He asked us to imagine rolling up all our problems into a ball and throwing that ball on a pile filled with the problems of all other people. He then argued to us that-given a choice-each and every one of us would choose our own ball over all others.

Although I was too young then to understand his metaphor fully, I knew that everyone had problems. And I was no different.

Growing up, depression became a natural part of my life. Throughout middle school and into high school, I suffered from a low-grade, but persistent gloom. Sometimes it stayed in the background, other times it took center stage. But always it performed.

One day during my sophomore year of high school I started to gasp. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt that my lungs just wouldn’t fill with air. It continued that whole day, and into the next. When for weeks I couldn’t get the gasping to stop, I finally saw a doctor. She checked my lungs and my breathing and finally told me flatly, “I think you’re depressed.”

The gasping stayed with me that whole year. No matter what I did I couldn’t escape it—or the depression that caused it. More than anything I just wanted to live a normal life. Any color was better than gray. And any ball was better than sadness.

I would have given anything to pick up another ball.

In the summer before senior year,  that’s exactly what I did. I stumbled, for the first time, across a different ball—one that someone else had thrown into the pile.

That year, I stumbled across fear.

During the semester, my 11th grade advanced biology teacher nominated me for the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine. I was able to attend—with the help of my sister who used her internship money to pay the hefty tuition.

I was as sure, at that time, about becoming a doctor as I was that this conference was a good idea. I discovered later, of course, that I was deathly wrong about both. Medicine wasn’t for me and the conference didn’t turn out to be such a great idea. In fact, had I known at that time what would happen after the conference, I may have encouraged my sister to instead buy stock—or maybe I would’ve just pretended to take my pulse.

It should’ve been nothing more than a passing comment. But it wasn’t. You see, the mind is a delicate place, and retains a balance so fragile, it’s best left untouched. On that summer day in June, I disturbed that balance and didn’t even know what I’d done.

During a session about how wonderful it is to be a doctor of osteopathic medicine, we were asked to take our pulse. I had trouble counting mine, so the medical student helped me.

“It’s over 100,” the student said. She looked worried. “That’s a little high for a resting pulse.”

It was just a simple comment—simple enough to haunt me for the rest of that year.

When I got home I rushed to take my pulse. It was still high. I began to panic. I wondered what was wrong. What would happen to my heart if it continued this way? How could I expect it to keep going at this rate? “I’m killing myself slowly,” I thought. “And there’s nothing I can do.”

My mind kept going. Would it wear? Would it tire? Would it stop? With each disturbing thought, my pulse got higher. Louder. Stronger.

I had to lie down.

But nothing helped. I remembered the relaxation techniques my high school counselor had taught. I breathed in. Then out. In again. There was no escape.

That night—and each night that year—I went to sleep with my heart pounding. In the mornings I enjoyed a brief moment of freedom. But before I could begin to function, my unconscious mind caught up, and hit me like a freight train. Again I was prisoner.

While other thoughts came and went, this single worry became a permanent resident of my mind. It was like a bad song lyric, or a dull ringing in the ears. No matter what I did, it was with me.

I decided that I would do everything I could to get my “resting” pulse—if one still existed—back to normal. I signed up to take a breathing class to help me relax. When I walked in, I was the only person under 75 who wasn’t on a breathing machine and suffered from emphysema.

I realized quickly that, like many problems, the more I tried to solve it, the worse it got. Ironically, it was my own consciousness of the problem that created it—then wouldn’t let it die.

So I decided to focus on not focusing on my pulse at all. I opened a book of calculus, desperate for something to absorb my obsession. There, I found integrals. And it worked—at least at first. But somewhere in the midst of solving for x, I’d remember my heart. And the horror returned.

I was only 17. And somehow I had become a prisoner of my own making. This irrational, all-consuming dread had overtaken me so suddenly and yet so completely. Until now I still wonder how.

Maybe it was my temperament. Maybe just my genes. Or maybe it was simply a lesson I had to learn. We all struggle with something. But, that summer I picked up someone else’s ball. And I realized-I’d choose sadness any day.

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  • H

    When comparing sadness and fear, I find that, for me personally, sadness can be a companion where fear is always a nagging enemy. I went through a somewhat similar experience. For a time, I couldn’t breathe. It was too hard. I felt that there wasn’t enough air, or that my lungs were getting smaller. Space became suffocating, and the world became a dark room for me. It was the most devastating experience. Something had consumed my heart and mind. That was it. I no longer owned my heart and mind. I was a slave being pulled here and there through a dark tunnel. Sometimes I turned to a corner full of emotion. Sometimes I confronted a wall. Other times I just numbed myself. If I ignored it, it would leave…right?

    It didn’t. I don’t know when the peace came. It was all God. It’s always God isn’t it? But it came. Such a soothing peace and certainty.

    Afterwards, it wasn’t hard to breathe anymore. I relaxed. And the air came and went easily, as it should. I’ve never been as thankful as I was that time after my pain. I think after we enter the darkness, we appreciate the light. We acknowledge it as no one else does. And we are more thankful. We are humbled, yet deep inside, our heart soars. Because the light brings so much peace and joy.

    Yasmin, I think your heart and my heart are very old friends.

    Take care,

    – H

  • S.A

    I can relate to the whole heart pounding and increased heart rate at rest. I’ve experienced it for the past 7 or 8 years; since high-school and into my final year of university.

    Having looked into it, I believe it is related to stress of some form. Although you may feel like you can handle it on the surface, due to over thinking situations, it takes a toll on the body. The more concious you are of it, the more you feel it there. Relaxation techniques only help to an extent. Occupying your mind is the only way to make it go away. It can be very difficult at night sometimes but I’m coping.

    With me its not always present but every now and again I still experience it. Not knowing what was causing it was very difficult to manage but now that I know its stress related it is much easier to deal with.

    I’m really glad you shared this because it helps to know I’m not the only one.


    – S.A

  • I.H

    Salaam Yasmin,

    I am 17 years old, and having read this, I can say that my life is relatively easy alhamdulilah in comparison to how yours was. Sometimes it’s so difficult to convince yourself that you’re not alone, and Islam is the thing that reminds me that no matter what – I will always have Allah.

    I’d appreciate it so much to have a prominent writer like you check out my blog (when you have time) and tell me what you think?

    Peace and love ♥


  • K

    I have been currently struggling with this. I’m 23. I’ve been dealing with anxiety problems. Alhamdulillah Ramadan has been helping me especially when I am home. But as soon as I leave, or meet with my friends the anxiety and heavy chest feeling starts back again.

  • Asma

    Your words are so touching and relatable. Thank you so much sharing. May Allah bless you…

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