Interview with C.
In this interview, C. and I talk about his spirituality and faith, growing up as a Coptic Orthodox Christian in Egypt. We then talk about his experience of providing care to a friend who used to be Muslim and now identifies as agnostic. His friend began self-injuring following an experience of torture in her home country. We also talk about self-harm being called "anti-suicide" by Karl Menninger.
A: Can you tell me a little about your spirituality growing up? What was your faith tradition?
C: I was born in a Coptic orthodox family. Copts are the original Christians of Egypt. Coptic means Egyptian in the Coptic/original language of Egypt. My family was what I call socially spiritual or socially religious, religious in the sense of going to church every Friday for mass and putting us (myself and my siblings) into Sunday school every week. Being religious is a cultural norm back home. For Christians, Muslims and any other religion if acknowledged. God is part of any and every conversation specially about things that happens “good” or “bad” and future expectations.
I loved going to church, I loved having something to do and many activities to be part of; choir, Coptic language classes, Coptic chants etc. My childhood tradition and practice was Coptic Orthodox Christian
A: Thank your sharing. Can you tell me about your current spirituality?
C: Of course :-) I grew up with a theology of fear and punishment in the Coptic Church. Part of enforcing that theology was creating an unwelcoming space for curiosity and questions. I was a “good Christian” following all the ways and rules fearing God’s punishment. At the age of 9 we moved to Algeria as my dad got a university teaching job, he is a Food Sciences Professor. Algeria is a Muslim county that believed at that time, all Arabs are Muslims, thus the school system had Islamic religious studies as a mandatory class for all. For that reason my family decided to home school us. Also for that reason there were no churches to attend.
I only had my bible and the Coptic prayer book. That was the beginning of a change in my relationship to God. That was the beginning of a personal relationship! I started reading the Bible and praying, using it to understand God and myself without needing a priest to interpret it. Couldn’t understand everything but the feeling it have me was beyond words. I would feel safe reading it. A sense of everything is okay.
At the age of 11, one day, I remember that day very vividly, my dad was trying to find a channel to tune in on the radio and he was playing with short wave to be able to get something from Egypt. He stumbled on a Christian Arabic channel and everyone got excited as there was nothing, literally nothing in Algeria then. The worship was so different than what I’m used to, very joyful and fast beat. Then a sermon followed which was focused on God’s love and, a call to follow that God. It wasn’t about the law or punishment, It was so appealing to me and aligned to what I had started experiencing in the relationship with God since we moved. At the end like a usual evangelical sermon the “pastor” called for those who want to accept Jesus as a personal saviour and chose a life with him to recite after him such a statement. I felt that message was for me and I took that promise. Since that moment my spirituality has been defined by the fellowship, partnership and the close presence of Jesus/God, Emmanuel. Didn’t even know that it was kind of evangelical and, certainly the following years shaped it through knowledge more. Today that certainly didn’t change but morphed. I identify as a born-again Christian. I know that, understandably, rubs some people the wrong way. But that’s how I believe to be; born again through baptism and the unconditional love. It’s not a one-time act for me but an ongoing renewing thing.
A: Thank you for sharing. Now that we have talked about your own spirituality, we are going to talk a little about self-injury. The other day you and I were talking and you mentioned that some of your friends had self-injured in the past. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
C: Sure! I have had an acquaintance and a friend that I could visibly see their scars. My co-worker I wasn’t so close to, they would wear long sleeves. The first time they noticed that I noticed was terrifying for them, and tried to hide it. My friend I witnessed and was there through periods of “self-harm”. For my friend, they were dealing with PTSD as they are a survivor of torture. They were arrested and tortured 2 years ago in their home country after an incident that involved raising a rainbow flag in a concert.
A: Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry to hear that.
C: Thank you Amy
A: Was your friend able to talk with you about their self-harm?
C: No she wasn’t able to but the pain at points was too much that they would cut while I’m with her. She felt that she could be in my presence.
A: It sounds like you were a safe person for her to be around. Can you say anything about how her self-harm may be connected to any aspects of her spirituality?
C: She was a very religious person few years back, that’s what she shared with me, she was a devout Muslim, with extreme ideologies, according to her own account. She started losing that because of the struggle with her sexuality but remained holding the Islam religion and stopped wearing hijab. She became politically radical, openly anti-government and regime around the revolution.
That’s when she started identifying as an agnostic. I personally think the relationship between her spirituality and “self-harm” is rooted in guilt and believe that she deserved/deserves to be punished. Feeling pain is satisfying and a way of coping.
A: Do you know if she had any support from others within her faith community?
C: No she didn’t. When the news came out about her arrest and the reason for her arrest, she was outed and everyone flipped on her. Her family extended family, work etc. After she was released she was hospitalized for a month I think.
A: I’m very sorry to hear that.
C: Thank you Amy.
A: When you were with her, did you talk to her about faith? I mean, any aspects of faith?
I am wondering if there are any scriptures or images you may have talked with her about, during her self-harming episodes.
C: I avoided talking overtly about faith but talked to her about what meant for her and others to be alive. Talked to her about her hopes and dreams before what happened. Where she gains strength from? I am not Muslim so I didn’t use any of the Qur’an. But I talked about Jesus and how standing for justice comes with a price. Also about community and her group of chosen family. I also wasn’t alarmed with the “self-harm” to be honest. I mostly wanted to create safety and normalizing mental health struggles. It was important for me to make sure she understood how the healthcare system works here and how she can be perceived. That was a concern for me as someone who is familiar with the culture, specifically coping through victimizing language.
A: Thank you for sharing about yourself and your friend. Is there anything else that you would like to share regarding any of the areas we have discussed? (Like spirituality or self-injury?)
C: About self-injury I would say that she had tried to commit suicide 2 times. I knew that self-harm was her own way for helping herself not really harming herself. Even using “self-harm” feels inaccurate to me to be honest.
A: Yes, Karl Menninger referred to self-harm as “anti-suicide”, which is how I like to look at it.
A: He called self-harm a victory of “the life instinct over the death instinct”. Instead of ending consciousness with suicide, people are choosing to live with self-harm.
C: Yes yes! I haven’t heard that before! That’s exactly it.
A: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.
C: Thank you for asking me.