One evening in January of 2001, halfway through my second year of university, I woke up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear a dull thrum in my ears, like bass reverberations outside a loud nightclub. There had been no ominous dream, no sudden realisation that I'd forgotten to turn in an essay. I was simply wide awake, my body in fight-or-flight mode.
It would have been an opportune time for a spiritual awakening. Sitting bolt upright in the dead hours of early morning to answer some angelic call: this is the stuff of saints and televangelists. I had spent my young life trying and failing to be an atheist, but had recently reconciled myself to the fact that someone wired the way I was needed a religion. The permutations of space-time, the births and deaths of stars, the self-replicating natural patterns that atheists cite as evidence for a universe without God appeared to me as the perfect evidence for God. Perhaps Dawkins is right and there is a God gene; if so, I have it.
Yet there was nothing spiritual about the puddle of sweat in which I awoke that night. I sat up on the narrow twin mattress of my dorm room and blinked uncomprehendingly at the darkness. What was happening? Surely it would go away. I waited two minutes, then two more minutes. I got up and walked around and drank a glass of water. Nothing helped: my heart was still acting as if I'd been shoved into traffic or threatened with a gun. Truly afraid now, I went downstairs and woke up the resident assistant. She timed my pulse with her wristwatch, looked at me in alarm, and called a taxi to take us to the hospital.
The nurses in the emergency room regarded me with deep suspicion. I must have a panic disorder, they said. The idea seemed ludicrous to me; I had no history of clinical anxiety or depression. The sensations I was feeling were entirely new. Nevertheless, I was given a referral to a psychiatrist and summarily discharged.
I put myself into the care of my dorm-mates. One friend, an Iranian guy we teased with unthinking mercilessness about his strange name, stayed up with me at night, making frequent calls to his mother, a nurse. He took me to the university clinic when my resting heart rate spiked to 120 and I started shaking, delivering me to the night nurse, a soft-spoken woman named Khadija. She sat by my bed and distracted me with questions about my classes and activities. Close to dawn, she took my pulse again.
"It's down to 80, honey," she said with an encouraging smile. She rose to collect some forms for me to fill out. I lay there, blinking back tears and wondering how long I could survive without sleep. Then it struck me: perhaps this mysterious illness was a sign after all. All three of the people who had generously cared for me over those past few days – my friend and his mother, and Khadija the night nurse – were Muslim. Silently, I addressed God for perhaps the first time in my life, and offered Him a bargain: if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim.
Iwas sick for a year and a half. About a week after my all-nighter at the university clinic, I was finally diagnosed with a rare allergic reaction to the contraceptive injection I'd received two days before my trip to the emergency room. The effects would linger long after the drug had cleared my system. Yet though I was so altered, I came to see profound meaning in the fact that the rest of the world was not: the sun rose and set and rose again, people were born and died, and it would all keep moving whether I was sick or well, present or absent. It was not a nihilistic feeling – I did not see my life as worthless or meaningless – rather, it was a kind of dysphoric joy. Pain and happiness issued from the same source, and became, in my eyes, equal in value. I was not being punished. I was not being judged, or singled out for some unique destiny. I was simply ill, and the world was still beautiful.
I became a very particular kind of monotheist: to me, God was at once awe-inspiring and wildly impersonal; God had never walked among us as a human being, and yet human beings were uniquely compelled to reach out for God. As I began to get well, I would, with no small irony, find a home in the very religion I tried to use as a bartering chip in my moment of despair. In the summer of 2003, I did indeed become a Muslim, with much more good humour, humility and thoughtfulness than I would have had I miraculously recovered in three days. My moment of spiritual awakening wasn't a moment at all, but a long and unglamorous journey – one that left me with a deep appreciation for the unexpected.
G Willow Wilson's new novel, 'Alif the Unseen', is published by Corvus Books and is out now in hardback