During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast from dawn until sunset for 30 days and 30 nights.
But what if you have an eating disorder (ED)? There are a host of health problems that make it unsafe for an individual to fast during Ramadan, including epilepsy and diabetes, but mental ill-health, and EDs especially, rarely get talked about.
Ramadan is mainly about self-reflection and meditation but it’s also heavily centred around food. And why wouldn’t it be? If you are fasting for over 12 hours then iftar (breaking the fast) plays heavily on everyone’s mind.
However, for someone who is currently suffering or has suffered from an ED, this can be a problematic time.
I struggled with an ED for three years during my late teens and early 20s. Mine reached its crux during the penultimate term of my final year of study at the University of Cambridge when I was hospitalised and forced to take some time out of my studies.
In the midst of my illness, I saw Ramadan as a blessing as I could abstain from eating and not rouse suspicion.
Thankfully, I am pretty much recovered now but my relationship with food is always tested around occasions like Ramadan where food plays a pivotal role.
Before anything else, the feeling of sustained hunger transports me back to a time when that was my norm. This is dangerous for anyone who suffered from an ED as it can lead them into relapsing.
Personally, I deal with this by choosing not to fast, and putting my recovery first.
I struggle to feel connected to my religion when my experience becomes less about internal reflection and more about the mind-game of seeing how long I can resist food.
I used to feel intense guilt that I associated Ramadan with my ED as it’s a holy month designed to engender inner peace. Overcoming that has involved accepting that my illness is not my fault.
EDs are not widely recognised within the Somali Muslim community and I don’t doubt that a lot of people suffer in silence during Ramadan.
In my own community, there is a prevalent idea that EDs are a western construct and something that only young, white women suffer from. Of course, this is not the case and anyone from any demographic can be affected.
When I became unwell, I distinctly remember family members would not address my ED by its name. I was simply ‘sick’ and they prayed for me to return to full-health soon.
I used to feel intense guilt that I associated Ramadan with my ED as it’s a holy month designed to engender inner peace.
The fear stems from a lack of understanding. In Islam, you are not required to fast if you suffer from any health issues but it’s not common knowledge that EDs do, indeed, fall under the umbrella term of ‘health issues’.
I know from personal experience that there is also a feeling of ‘missing out’ when you are a Muslim and unable to fast due to mitigating circumstances but this is not the case.
I never questioned my faith but often felt I wasn’t performing my Islamic duties to the best of my ability.
Not fasting doesn’t make you any less of a Muslim. You can still take part in all of the other activities associated with Ramadan such as attending prayer at your local Mosque, volunteering at iftar sessions, giving zakat (charity) and of course, still looking inwards for inner reflection and prayer.
Now that I am in recovery, I would tell my younger self not to suffer in silence. I didn’t speak out because I was ashamed; I felt as though it made me weak and didn’t even admit my actions to myself.
In the end, because I didn’t have the support I so desperately needed, I thought I was beyond help.
But just because something was previously alien to my loved ones doesn’t mean that it always has to be. I can educate them on how to treat me and in the meantime, I can also educate myself on how to recover.
It would help to have literature in local mosques explaining the dangers of EDs and talks held in community centres that directly target Muslim communities. But starting open and honest dialogues is the first step and this can happen through conversations with ED survivors.
We must do this is in service of future generations. EDs are incredibly dangerous and if left untreated can result in very serious complications.
Young people are particularly vulnerable and no one should be lost to mental ill-health because of deep rooted stigma.
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