Last night, I lay awake in my bed and stared up at the ceiling. Waves of calm soothed my racing heart.
I was taking a break from praying. My OCD and anxiety were at it again.
The day before yesterday, I hadn’t prayed at all. My deen, my prayer, were supposed to be a priority. There was a school assignment I was spending most of the day on, and I kept reasoning with myself not to get up to pray. I was already stressed out enough with this assignment, and I would be even more stressed out if I had to pray.
Funny, isn’t it? The fact that something that is meant to bring me peace, something that’s a blessing, is also an anxiety-inducing burden. But it’s not the prayer itself that’s a burden–it’s the anxiety and OCD that are associated with it.
Being back at home for quarantine during this pandemic, I’ve been having a considerably lesser amount of stress factors regarding praying salah in comparison to being on campus. For example, I knew I’d be guaranteed privacy and that I wouldn’t have to rush to fit prayer in between walking back and forth across classrooms and buildings, or I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about missing it because of the physical convenience that comes with being at home.
If I had a considerable amount of time before classes, I would feel the pressure to take the bus to my apartment and pray if I couldn’t bring anxiety to a manageable enough level to pray on campus. I also know that I can make wudu’ in peace without the anxiety of people’s judgments upon seeing a random girl washing her ears and feet in a public restroom since I have my own private bathroom at home. Also being germphobic via my OCD, I feel much calmer knowing that my private bathroom sink is much cleaner than a public one.
Since January however, I’ve been more often postponing my prayers due to the worsening of my anxiety of doing it. Whereas before for the past years since I’d been praying I would almost always do the prayers on time, even if I was in public, it was hard for me to even do it in private. I figured that because I couldn’t even pray even in the on-campus prayer/meditation room and because thoughts and plans about making sure to pray before and between classes stressed me out immensely, I just decided to wait until I would get home in the evenings.
I know that I shouldn’t be missing prayer and that it’s a sin to delay them, generally speaking, but I also knew that God knew my struggles and that He is the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate, among the rest of his beautiful ninety-nine attributes. I hoped that He would excuse me. But knowing that as a Muslim, I was supposed to work my schedule around the prayers and not work my prayers around my schedule, it still didn’t sit right with me. I relied heavily on God’s mercy.
I thought that perhaps with having social and physical barriers removed from my daily schedule with being at home nearly 24/7, I would be completing my prayers on time more often. But at the same time, I wondered if the removal of these barriers would be enough; I also saw the ways in which my anxiety would make it hard. There have been several days these past few weeks when I had been accumulating my prayers for the end of the night like I did while being away at college.
For those who aren’t familiar, Muslims pray five times a day. This kind of prayer is called “salah.” It is different from praying to God in a less formal way; this kind of prayer is called “du’a.” Du’a is the kind of prayer that can be done in any language and anytime; it’s just basically talking to God in your head or out loud, whenever you want. Unlike du’a, salah has specific positions and steps and specific things we’re supposed to say; these elements include verses of the Qur’an. Salah can be done individually or with multiple people. Salah is the kind of prayer I’ve been mostly struggling with due to my OCD since I was in seventh grade.
At the end of the night, the only salah prayer I would do on time is ‘Isha salah, or the night prayer. Each of the obligatory daily salahs is only supposed to take about five to ten minutes, but for me, the time ranges from twenty minutes to an hour or more when my anxiety is especially bad. Interestingly, I would often complete the first four prayers with considerable ease, only to take extremely long with ‘Isha, starting over and over and over again.
The specific kind of scenario my anxiety has giving me lately is this: I start prayer, I start saying words and verses that I definitely have memorized and have had so for years, and I can’t go further. My stomach clenches, urging my body to double over and break prayer, my breathing gets shallow, and my body shakes as I struggle to maintain my focus and coherence.
It’s a struggle. The pain isn’t just mental– it’s very physical. It hurts.
And it makes me feel so sad– prayer is also a place of peace. Being in front Allah and conversing so intimately with him is such a blessing. On the “good” days for praying, or when I am able to pray salah soundly and peacefully with little to no anxiety, it’s especially amazing.
Peace and fear wage war in my stomach and they shake my whole body as I struggle to pray.
I try to embrace Peace as we fight against my anxiety and confusions. I try to remind myself that God has me, that I’m allowed to move forward with what I’m saying, that I don’t have to wait and analyze my pronunciations and the words I say before moving on to the next sound, to the next word. I try to remind and convince myself that I don’t have to say the Qur’anic verses out loud– that it’s sufficient just to say them in my head, because according to the religious rules, it is.
I try to tell myself that God is there beyond the bubble of anxiety that suffocates me, that despite what Fear is saying, I’ve got this and I am saying what my anxiety is telling me I’m not saying– to clarify, I will say something and my anxiety will often convince me that I did not. Even though I know I did and continue to try and move forward with continuing the next part of a verse, it’s as if Anxiety punishes me for not listening to her.
Sometimes I’m able to let go of my anxiety somehow and I’m not sure how exactly I do it at times. But other times I do. For example, I imagine the burden in my stomach being tangible and weighted and I imagine giving the pains in my stomach to God to hold for me. Or, I visualize that behind the cloud of my anxiety is reality, where there is the truth that I am doing good and that God is there beyond the horrible feelings my body experiences; even if I don’t feel that I am safe, I at least know that I am.
But sometimes, or often, that’s not enough. And I don’t know how or why.
I just don’t understand– why do I tense so much when I pray? Is it because I don’t trust God enough to catch me or forgive me when I mess up, even though He is the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving, and loves to forgive?
Or is it because I’ve been associating anxiety with praying salah for so long, that my mind doesn’t know how to convince my body that everything is all right?
Is it just the way that my brain tries to convince me of things, because of the chemical make-up and imbalances of it?
I. Just. Don’t. Under. Stand.
While it is temporarily relieving for me to skip prayers to avoid the anxious experiences, it definitely isn’t comfortable long-term. And even in the short-terms that I skip my prayers and decide to pray them late, it still doesn’t feel good even if it prolongs the anxious feelings for the time-being.
I feel dirty, I feel a void. I feel like a part of me is missing. If my body is the earth, then prayer is the rain. If I miss a prayer, I experience a drought that becomes heavier the more missed meetings with God I add to it.
Yes, it can hurt to pray. And it often has been hurting. It’s often unpredictable whether I’ll have a “good” pray day or a “bad” pray day, or whether my next salah will be peaceful even if the previous one was, and vice versa.
But it hurts even more not to pray.
It hurts more to starve my soul more than it hurts to face my anxiety.
Once I start working full-time, realistically speaking, I know I won’t be praying at work. And I really hope that God excuses me for that. After all, He understands my pain and struggles more than anyone else, including more than I understand them myself. Perhaps He is more merciful and kind and understanding of me than I am of myself.
But before that, or on days when I stay home once while this quarantine lasts, I will continue to fight against my brain and my body using my soul. But on the days I don’t, I can give my soul a rest and leave it in the gentle, sure hands of my Lord.
Yesterday I was better about praying on time. I wasn’t perfect; I didn’t do each prayer at five different times that I believe I was supposed to do. I follow Sunni schools of thought, but I know that Shi’a schools of thought allow praying Dhuhr and ‘Asr at the same time and Maghrib and ‘Isha at the same time. I had read somewhere that even following Sunni schools of thought, I may be allowed to combine certain prayers if I face hardships. I hope my OCD and anxiety qualify.
So I did that yesterday. I prayed both the Dhuhr (early afternoon) and the ‘Asr (late afternoon) prayers during ‘Asr time. And I prayed both the Maghrib (sunset) prayer and ‘Isha prayer during ‘Isha time. Insha Allah, God accepts all of my prayers as being on time.
I usually pray the Fajr (sunrise) prayer late right before I pray Dhuhr, because honestly speaking, I’m not very good about getting out of bed so early in the morning even though I should for the sake of Allah. But because I’m already up to eat and drink before my fast starts right before sunrise, I’ve been praying Fajr on time like I usually do during Ramadan.
And honestly, I’m proud of myself for being able to do prayer even if imperfectly time-wise considering what I’ve been going through. I’m still trying to figure out how to improve, and insha Allah, things will and are getting better.
Muslim or not Muslim, if you’re reading this and know any advice to help me or go through similar/the same things, please comment or reach out to me! It’s always nice to know I’m not alone in this struggle, and I could really use some tips. And know that you’re not alone. I will make another blog post talking about ways I try to cope with my OCD and anxiety regarding prayer and in other aspects of my life.