Planning My Dream Wedding Destroyed My Mental Health

Photo Illustration by Aly Lim
Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

Content warning: The following story contains mentions of suicide.

The panic attacks come at night, when it's dark and quiet, and there are no distractions to occupy my brain. Sometimes they bring vivid flashbacks of screaming matches with my parents and stressful phone calls with my in-laws. Other times, they make me feel the pain deep in my chest. The worst is when I feel nothing at all, and I lie wide awake next to the love of my life, wishing I could just stop existing.

All because I dared to dream of a perfect wedding.

When my husband Rahim and I got engaged in December 2022, we navigated pushback from his religious Indian Hindu family. They were not thrilled that he, one, converted to Islam, and two, wanted to marry a Pakistani Muslim girl.

But after countless phone calls between our families and an in-person visit, his family reluctantly came around. I thought the hardest part was over.

I never entertained the thought of marriage until I fell in love with my husband. But once I did, getting married and having my dream wedding was all I could think about. I spent months researching vendors and venues, bookmarking budget-friendly hacks, and saving every Desi wedding TikTok I saw.

When it came time to put the plans into motion, I opted for simplicity. I knew my parents would be paying for the bulk of the expenses, as is tradition in South Asian cultures, so I wanted to ease their burden. I scaled back on the extravagance and took on most of the planning to cut out the cost of a wedding planner.

In my lavender haze, I had forgotten that I was the eldest daughter of strict immigrant parents.

Instead of the Big Fat Desi Wedding that was the norm in my culture, I wanted a simple Nikah, an Islamic marriage ceremony, followed by a slightly larger reception. But in my lavender haze, I had forgotten that I was the eldest daughter of strict immigrant parents. They wasted no time inserting their opinion in every detail, big or small. Every single one of my suggestions was met with verbal scrutiny or outright rejection, and I was expected to make all the fixes.

Though I had wanted a separate Nikah and reception ceremony, I ended up merging them into one to save my parents money. I wanted a certain makeup artist, but I ended up hiring a different one my mom preferred. I designed the invitations, but they went through a dozen revisions because my parents always found something wrong. I wanted to set boundaries with guests, like requiring them to show up on time, but my parents protested in fear of offending our guests. The criticism was endless and the dismissal was blatant.

Rahim helped where he could, but at the time, he was living in another state completing his first year of law school. He was also dealing with his own family, who still felt betrayed by his decisions. I didn't want to burden him more.

The wedding became less about celebrating me and my husband, and more about my parents seeking validation from our community and boosting their reputation. I had screaming matches with them every day, followed by weeks when I didn't talk to them at all. At one point, I threatened to cancel the whole wedding in favor of a halal elopement, a simple Nikah at a mosque with only a few guests. This set my parents off even more because as they said, "What would people think?"

At night, my anxiety kept me up for hours, forcing me to go over everything that still had to get done and everything that could go wrong. I was lucky if I got more than four hours of sleep. I didn't have the glow of someone who was about to marry the love of her life. Every day felt worse than the last. The worst days brought thoughts of taking my own life.

The day of my court wedding in Seattle, I had my first panic attack a half hour before we were supposed to stand in front of a judge and legally bind our union. My mother tagged along to act as a witness and a chaperone. On our way to pick up Rahim to go to the courthouse, running on three hours of sleep and an empty stomach, I snapped. I'm not exactly sure what happened — if we had missed a turn because of our wonky GPS or if my mom had enough of driving aimlessly — but she yelled at me as if it was all my fault.

In that moment, I was not myself. All the bottled up emotions from the last few months came spilling forward. I screamed. I cursed. I kicked the dashboard. I sobbed. I will never forget the look on my mom's face. She looked genuinely frightened, and I don't blame her. All of my anger and frustration in that moment was directed at her.

I no longer wanted to go to our court marriage, looking the way I did. I was hyperventilating, with my mascara running, my white dress stained, my heart hammering, and my stomach still empty.

I managed to compose myself, but in that moment, I just wanted to die. I felt ashamed that I had a panic attack in public. I felt guilty that I cursed at my mom. I felt angry that Rahim didn't take me seriously at first because he was focused on getting to the courthouse on time. I was heartbroken that my parents didn't understand the pain they caused me.

After some gentle conversation, Rahim convinced me to get moving. I cried the whole way to the courthouse while desperately trying to fix my appearance. But the courthouse was gorgeous, and our small, intimate ceremony was beautiful despite the events of the past hour.

My mom and Rahim never spoke of it again. But that day stayed with me. I had never had a panic attack in my life. After that day, I had one almost every night leading up to the wedding. Even now, nearly 10 months into my marriage, they come to me, and the only way to ward them off is anxiety medication.

The week leading up to the wedding was chaotic and stressful. My in-laws were upset that Rahim and I omitted some people from the processional. My parents were having their own breakdowns. I told Rahim that there was still time to ditch the wedding and elope, but he lovingly reminded me that would only make things worse.

Our wedding day came and went, and it was fine, though I try not to think about it too much. I remember feeling beautiful in my wedding dress. I remember Rahim and I laughing through our first look because we were terrorized by a group of geese. I remember crying when I saw the decorated reception hall because it was exactly how I envisioned it.

The guests loved the wedding and would tell us so for months to come, much to my parents' delight. My in-laws were all smiles. My parents glowed with pride. I stuck to Rahim's side the entire night, happy that it was all over.

Most people look back on their wedding day with fondness. When I think about mine, my heart rate speeds up, my chest constricts, and my breathing staggers.

When it was time for the rukhsati, the sendoff at the end of the ceremony that signifies a bride departing from her parents' home to her husband's, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. It's usually an emotional, heartfelt goodbye. Most brides cry during theirs. But I sped through it, my eyes completely dry. I hugged a few family members, got in our rented Audi R8, and told Rahim to f-ing drive.

Most people look back on their wedding day with fondness. When I think about mine, my heart rate speeds up, my chest constricts, and my breathing staggers.

Maybe I sound ungrateful and overdramatic. But I know it should not have been that hard to have a wedding I was happy with. I shouldn't be so traumatized that I can't even look at my professional wedding photos and videos – something my in-laws paid a lot of money for – without triggering a panic attack. And it certainly should never have gotten to the point where I was contemplating taking my own life.

My relationship with my parents is back to normal, which for us means avoiding talking about our feelings and acting like we didn't say the most heinous things to each other. Maybe my parents have moved on, but I'm still feeling the effects of what they put me through. And when I do show quiet resentment, I instantly feel guilty about not being a good daughter. I love them dearly, and I'm working on trying to forgive them. They're human. They wanted my wedding to be their moment, too. I remind myself that forgiving them is the Islamic thing to do.

As far as my in-laws go, a flip switched as soon as the Nikah was performed. Suddenly, I wasn't the Muslim girl who stole their son. I was their daughter. They spoil me endlessly and tell me they love me every chance they get. My father-in-law calls me his butterfly. Though a part of me remains reserved due to their past behavior, I'm eternally grateful for them.

Most importantly, I'm married to the best person I know. I get to spend every single day with Rahim, my best friend, who is the kindest, most gentle soul I know. He is by my side through every step of my healing journey.

Because of him, everything I went through was almost worth it. Almost.

Bareerah Zafar is a Seattle-based journalist who turned her high school reputation of "angry brown girl" into a career in writing. Her work focuses on intersectional stories covering lifestyle, travel, identity, and social justice.