At 18 years old, I had a bright future. I was in my final year of high school in Mauritania and was planning to study philosophy in France when I suffered a psychotic break. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital where a psychiatrist put words without appeal on my condition: “angry,” “impulsive,” “schizophrenic,” “bipolar” he told my parents while he pummeled me with medication. He said I was unrecoverable. All of this is false. I got out of it thanks to God and my determination, which gave me the courage to run away when I had the opportunity and to become again what I was, a “normal” young man, and free of drugs.
My initiation began on a Thursday, two weeks before my final exam. It was an exciting time for me, but I was also looking forward to the end of the steady pace I had set for myself in school. Introverted and quiet, I used to withdraw from other people to meditate on myself. It is perhaps because of this trait that I developed a strong sense of morality; in this I shared something in common with all the messengers and all the chosen ones of God. Namely, that the Most High isolates them, educates them according to the circumstances of life to be able to carry the faith — the revelation.
Later that night, I had a sudden craving for God, a thirst for the Most High. After the last evening prayer, I began to pray my chapel on the prophet Muhammed: a practice of the Sufis, the followers of a mystical brotherhood of Islam. As I prayed, I began to live an intimate experience which would upset my life and all I knew: my body literally received electric shocks that twisted my face as if an animal wanted to escape. This almost paranormal phenomenon led me into an unknown world — the world of spirits, the invisible world. I thought that God was preparing me for a mission: I was the Guided One, the Mahdi, the one who was expected at the end of time to bring order and peace to a world that had become corrupted, as the prophetic tradition said.
I was following signs and messages that seemed to control my mind and command my movements. So I decided in the middle of the night to go to my Sheikh, the one who gave me the authorization to practice the wird (an exercise that allows the disciple to purify himself in order to get closer to the Most High). I was convinced that I was expected to be the Guided One. When I arrived at the door, I knocked three times. Although I heard no one answer me, I remained motionless and I saw flashes of images of a character from another world, an unveiling of the invisible world, as well as synchronicities. My heart now unveiled, hearing the call of the Lord, it became a receptacle for the word of God: the Koran. I was troubled by this initiation.
I was found by my parents in front of the door of the Sheikh, sobbing.
Back home, I was still inhabited by the divine breath and I saw around me that of the shade. I became very agitated. Although the images I was seeing had disappeared, there was an eye that I saw constantly and that followed my gaze. While I was in full effervescence, I saw approaching me one of the friends of my mother, who often came to spend the day at our house. A disciple of the brotherhood. He approached me serenely and said: “Is it David?” And I answered him with force and vigor: “No, I am the Imam al-Mahdi.” After a heated argument, the disciple showed me my true face by making appear through his eyes all the light that he carried within him. This extraordinary phenomenon calmed me down because this disciple was my ally — he was able to understand me. The disciple said to me, “Speak to me about God,” and I answered: “He is the apparent and the hidden.” And the disciple finished the verse of the Koran of the Surah al-Hadid by saying: “He is omniscient on all things.”
After this extraordinary episode, I became more and more agitated. My mother and my aunt decided to take me to the psychiatric hospital, accompanied by this strange disciple who knew well the world I was discovering. They took me in the car, and I wanted to open the box that was in front of me. I took out a sheet of paper that I asked the disciple to read, he complied and read the opening sura of the Koran: the Fatiha, which is also called the seven that repeat. I was receiving, being initiated into the noble Qur’an, while still absorbed by my belief that I was the Mahdi and that I was being taken to lead the afternoon prayer.
After a few minutes of driving, I looked up and saw that I was being taken to the mental hospital. I exclaimed that I was not crazy and the disciple reassured me that I was not.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was astonished at the brutality of the doctors. They laid me down and injected me with a shot that completely weakened me and put me to sleep. In spite of all these disturbing events, I absolutely wanted to present myself to the exam for which I had prepared myself so much.
That day I only managed to concentrate for a few tests and I couldn’t do anything for the others: the injection I had taken was starting to take effect by making me sleepy and I was losing my means.
At the end of the exam, my mother and the famous disciple decided to take me to Dakar, to see the doctor who had treated him. We left at night and stopped in several cities, including a city called Kaulak, where a great Sufi master resided. During the trip I was psychologically disturbed, and I had in addition spectacular convulsions at the level of my face, but also electric discharges which literally twisted my body. On the way, the disciple was talking to me while driving, and he was quoting the people who had proclaimed themselves to be the Mahdi in Senegal.
This caused a deep doubt in me: the convictions that I had at the beginning and my ecstatic internal state had evaporated. I now felt an emptiness and a feeling of psychological and emotional ruin, as if God who had suddenly inhabited me had then left me, leaving me in a most miserable state — an obligatory passage according to the mystics. God makes his servant doubt himself so that he no longer doubts God and is convinced that without God he is very little. This passage the prophet himself experienced at the beginning of his mission: at a given moment, God stops the transmission of his word, leaving the prophet to himself. This period was very painful for him, according to his wife Aicha. The prophet of Islam thought that God had abandoned him and that he was no longer worthy of carrying the message, so much so that he was tempted to throw himself over a mountain to end his life; but at each attempt, the angel Gabriel appeared and told him that he was indeed the messenger of God. These words calmed him and he gave up the act.
When I arrived at my destination, I tried to understand what was happening to me, but I still didn’t have the keys to put into words what had changed my life. There was this disciple who tried to guide me but I had to find by myself what I was receiving. My heart was now open to gnosis: the knowledge of the heart.
One day the disciple sat down in front of me, and explained to me that in fact the Mahdi, as such, is not a person but a title that God gives to whomever he wants. And that the light of guidance goes hand in hand with the shadow of deviance or perversity — the one who carries the light in him carries in the same way the shadow that gives him his brightness. It is in duality that God created the universe and it is in the harmony of opposites that beauty is expressed.
In spite of these teachings, I was torn by what my mother had told me: that I was a victim of witchcraft, and that I had to cure myself with all kinds of amulets; a practice totally contrary to the elementary teachings of Islam. But I followed the indications of my mother, even if my whole being was fiercely opposed to these kinds of practices. Unfortunately, the weakness of my psychological state made me vulnerable and powerless.
An Unexpected Encounter
My mother and I had moved into my uncle’s house where I got to know a man to whom I became strongly attached because of the attention and the value he gave me; something my own mother deprived me of. One day this man told me that he knew a woman who had had the same mystical experience as me, and because of this, her own parents called her crazy. While my new friend was praising the qualities of this young woman, as well as the trials she had gone through, I could feel a burning love for this young lady whom I had never met. The following week my new friend decided to take me to see this woman; she lived in a popular area of the city. I was excited to see her, as if I had known her before in another life. When I arrived at her house, I saw her coming out of her room; I looked her straight in the eyes and I started to talk to her as if I had always known her. The woman was a little intimidated. I had this longing to be accompanied, to be loved and listened to. This woman, although she was much older than me, was for me the ideal being: in addition to her beauty and her maturity, she had lived a similar experience.
Shortly after seeing the psychologist who had prescribed me medication to remove the side effects of the injection I had taken, and anxiolytics to calm my anxiety, the trip ended. My family and I had to return home.
After the trip, I was still upset. I was in a state of psychological and emotional ruin, and I had difficulty projecting myself into the future, not knowing in which direction to turn my life. A feeling of powerlessness that would make me understand later that we are living in an illusion if we believe we control the events of our life or our path — everything is already written and God decides everything. It is the acceptance of the divine will or our confusion with the destiny that has been traced for us that makes us reach true freedom. I had always wanted to study theology and philosophy at university, but God decided otherwise. It is through the experience of suffering that God educates us with the knowledge of the heart that He alone holds the key to.
I thus entered the most painful phase of my life. A psychologist would say that I was suffering from a deep depression: in fact I no longer wanted to get up, nor to wash myself, nor to smile; to exist or to see the passing of time was unbearable. An abysmal emptiness inhabited me and I felt like committing suicide, not because I wanted to die but to stop the suffering — to have a moment of respite, a little respite. I took refuge in sleep, in food, and I escaped by watching funny or sometimes erotic television programs. But after these few moments of euphoria my conscience would bring me back to my sad reality.
One day, I had had enough of this morbid life that I was leading. I decided to take advantage of the money that my mother had given me by buying a player in which I could put conferences of a famous Islamologist professor in Oxford, as well as audio of relaxation and hypnosis exercises. I also registered in an association and at a cultural center in which I could read the books of this author. In spite of my courage and determination, I could see the weight of my weaknesses weighing on me, especially my poor ability to concentrate. I was thirsty for knowledge, but my psychological weaknesses had developed in me an intellectual humility because I knew I was limited: a quality that I took as a brake and a defect but which was in fact a condition of the elevation of the spirit. It is when the intelligence becomes humble that it is possible with the grace of God to rise beyond its limits.
Registration at the University
My mother decided to enroll me in a university in Senegal after I graduated from high school, since her attempt to get me a visa to the United States had failed. This trip was a breath of hope for me: I was hoping to finally get back to a normal life and live like others. My psychological weaknesses still weighed on me but I was determined to get out of this state.
Once settled, I was waiting for the university’s answer as to whether it would accept my admission to the Faculty of Arts. During this time I had set myself a program of reading, and I did sports to fight against sleep or the desire to do nothing that my depressive state entailed. I read the texts of Tariq Ramadan, and I listened to his lectures and I tried to put into practice the teachings in my daily life. I prayed and read the Koran at night. One day while I was jogging, I saw a poster for an activity to help children get their school supplies. I decided to offer my help in this activity — it was an opportunity to make my spirituality visible, because it is not enough to pray at night, it is also necessary to serve men during the day: “The best of you is the one who is the most useful to men as the prophetic tradition underlines.”
As I studied, played sports and got involved in solidarity work, I saw my psychological state change. I felt good in my skin and in my spirit, a good feeling that I had never felt before, even before I fell into the deep depression. And gradually, I began to relive the same spiritual state I was in at the beginning of the night when I prayed to the prophet, but this time the disciple who had accompanied me was not by my side and I wanted to join him.
My admission to the university was refused, another hard blow for me. I understood more the meaning of the things that happened to me, but all these wounds that I received were only to edify me. As the Koran underlines: “It may be that you hate something and it is a good for you, and it may be that you love something and it is an evil for you, God knows and you do not know.” I was getting more and more agitated, and my brother, with whom I shared the same room, decided to call my mother to inform her of the situation. She arrived the next day to take me to see a psychologist in Dakar.
Internment in a Psychiatric Hospital
The psychologist decided that I should be committed to a psychiatric hospital. For the first time I was going to be alone and unaccompanied, but I was inhabited by God, which gave me the courage and energy to endure the hostility of the psychiatric hospital — not only the morbid atmosphere that reigned there because of the patients on psychotropic drugs, but the arrogance and the lack of humanity of these doctors who brutalized and humiliated the patients, as if because of their psychological disorders they should no longer be considered as human beings. I was the only one who was active and energetic, which surprised most of the patients who were completely transformed into zombies. I talked with them, gave them everything I had, and for this reason they liked my company.
I met a Christian who was particularly lucid, with whom I discussed religion and philosophy. It was the first time that I sympathized with a person of another faith, as I came from a predominantly Muslim country where people of other faiths are almost stifled. I had the chance to experience a verse from the Koran which calls on Muslims to show kindness and be fair to those who are not hostile towards them. Patients and caregivers alike could see that there was something in me; my spirituality was visible. A value shared by all monotheistic religions as well as Asian spiritual traditions.
Return to my Father’s House
At the end of the hospital stay, my mother wanted me to live with my father. She said that she was applying the psychologist’s advice — that I was hysterical, that I had to get away from my mother — but I knew that in reality I was disturbing her image because of my psychological disorders. She just wanted to get me away from her landscape.
I returned to my father’s house. I was at my worst and completely slumped by the psychotropic drugs I was taking, which would give me a few minutes of euphoria and then plunge me into a deep sadness. As time went by, I began to relive the morbid life I had known in the past, believing that I had overcome this when in fact I was gradually falling back into a deep depression. At my father’s house, my life consisted of watching TV and serving tea. I had become a thing, an object to be used and of no value; no one respected me, not my father, not my aunt and her children or even the maid. I was the clown of the house. Every night I would go to one of the few people who gave me some attention, with whom I could talk and laugh to make me forget my sad condition a little. In this period, I was tempted by all sorts of vices, especially sex and drugs. For the first time the suffering was such that I began to forget my own values. I who was a puritan, I was now facing my own vulnerability.
I lived in this ordeal for two years, a new descent into hell. Towards the end of the last year, I wanted to finish with this life that was destroying me, so I took advantage of the money that my uncle had sent me to disappear. No matter the destination, I wanted to free myself from my torturers.
I decided to leave for the neighboring region. The more I moved away from the city where I was, the more I felt lighter, and master of myself.: I had been suffering the martyrdom in silence at my father’s house. When I arrived in the new city, I didn’t know where to go; everything was blurred in my head. But one thing I was sure of: I had broken a lock and my life was going to change.
I decided to go to a church to find help. I found the head of the church, with whom I had a brief conversation; I wanted to know how I could find work in the city. The priest gave me some advice, but my search was unsuccessful. I went to the mosques, spent the night there, and meditated on how I would direct my life from then on. Two days later, my money was running out and I couldn’t stay in this city anymore, so I decided to go back home. Since I didn’t have enough money for my transportation ticket, I sold the tablet given to me by my aunt who had returned from the United States earlier; after I had the money I needed, I took the bus back home.
A New Life
As soon as I arrived, I decided to go to my uncle’s house — it was out of the question for me to relive the hell I had endured at my father’s. A few days later, my father came to my uncle’s house with the aim of taking me home. I refused categorically, and my father left in a rage since he had spent days looking for me. The next few days I was getting used to the new environment: I felt comfortable psychologically and for the first time I felt valued.
My parents decided that I should spend some time with my mother, believing that the reason I had run away was because I needed my mother’s closeness. I spent a month with her, but in spite of my psychological distress my mother showed me only indifference, disgust and contempt, an icy coldness, and she didn’t hesitate to throw assassinating sentences at me to hurt me.
After a month of hardship, I returned to my uncle’s house. I was now in a serene environment, where no one devalued me and I felt in my place. The conditions were there to allow me to take care of myself, and I decided to educate myself on all levels of my being: I played sports, I read books, I taught classes, and I was rigorous in my religious practice and very helpful at home. All of this gave me value and well-being. For the first time, I felt happy. But my being would really find its spiritual strength during the month of Ramadan, a month of blessing that offers Muslims a wonderful opportunity to rise spiritually. This is exactly what I experienced during this month: I received from the Most High the illumination of a revelation that was a healing to all my psychological imbalances.
When we encounter suffering and illness, we understand the meaning of vulnerability and insignificance. Then the preoccupations of this world disappear, as do the struggles for recognition, power and prestige. What remains is strength and salvation: inner exile, silence and trust in God, which consists in entrusting Him with our wounds and our powerlessness in the face of pain and illness, in order to rely fully on His love and power. Accept our fragility and accept His will.
This text is dedicated to those who have known the psychiatric hell that dehumanizes patients and treats them like guinea pigs by forcing them to ingest drugs that turn them into zombies, and to all those who because of their psychological disorder are treated in an undignified manner; locked up for life or abandoned by their families and left to their own devices. Our negligence towards them is a mirror that reveals our degree of humanity.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
I liked soaring aloft on the seagull wings of your journey, the aerial view of all you went through was a beautiful landscape. At times your all consuming fervour to know God came across to me as balanced.
“One day this man told me that he knew a woman who had had the same mystical experience as me, and because of this, her own parents called her crazy.”
I find it meaningful that all alterered states I’ve read about concern either the all-consuming powers of religion or govenment, both external concerns, not neurotransmitters. Why are some people more suspectible? It would be much better if psychiatry admitted it does not know.
While I don’t share your belief or practices (or that of any religion), I appreciate anyone who shares their story.
I think the power people tap into when having a mystical experience is a universal power that does exist (just not in the ways any religion describes).
I assume that psychiatry never saw your mystical experiences as you do.
Thank you for sharing your story. Our society is keen on labeling everything, which can be harmful in many ways. To label what you experienced as a psychotic break then wraps you in more labels. I’d say you experienced a spiritual emergency (a finer label, if we have to give it a label, coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof). From my own experience it’s a calling to “heal thyself” or to awaken to the mystical beauty and wonders of this world (many people are sleep-walking through life). Unfortunately the medical community medicates an awakening and drowns it in prescription drugs with the point of keeping you asleep. Stay awake, drug free (if an option) and enjoy the ride.