Five-Minute Memoir: G Willow Wilson on her bargain with God

 

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor