Ramadan marks the month of the year during which Muslims around the world abstain from eating, drinking and engaging in sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. The fasting aims to foster feelings of gratitude for what we have, and empathy for those that are less fortunate than ourselves. Fasting is also meant to offer Muslims the space to reflect on their faith and their relationship with God. At sunset, families and friends come together to communally break their fast over a variety of different foods, making this month revolve mainly around food.
But what happens when you’re a Muslim with an eating disorder? Where does one draw the line between fasting for faith and fasting for the demons of an eating disorder?
I have been struggling with an eating disorder for four years now and, since it all started, I have always used Ramadan to disguise my eating disorder and mask its extremity. This is because during Ramadan, I was able to engage fully with my eating disorder without being labelled as sick or weird. Fasting is encouraged and praised and so, in essence, my eating disorder was encouraged and praised. My anorexia was fuelled by this month. My behaviours of restricting were not questioned nor challenged; if anything, they were praised and they were normal. I was normal. But it wasn’t faith that I was fasting for, it was my eating disorder.
When it came to breaking the fast, I would still barely eat anything in fear of putting back on some weight. I would say that I got full really quickly because it’s difficult to stomach a big meal in one sitting when you’ve been fasting for the whole day. I would then fill up my time by going to the gym in the evening. And like that, every year, my eating disorder would plummet and get worse during Ramadan.
I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I couldn’t stop it; I couldn’t change the reasons behind my fasting. I was stuck in this cycle and I couldn’t break it, because that’s how powerful an eating disorder can become. It wasn’t until my weight was dangerously low that I started working with a therapist and a dietician to restore it. And throughout the years of doing that, I was not allowed to fast (a pill that was hard to swallow, because most my family members and friends back home did not understand how serious an eating disorder is). For them, skinny was simply healthy and very attractive. Which, in turn, made me feel guilty for not being allowed to fast.
Now every year, with the start of Ramadan, I find myself debating whether or not I should fast. This year, I am weight-restored and it is the first year that I am physically well enough to have a choice between fasting or not. I have a choice, and that makes things slightly more challenging. However, this year I was able to realise that I am in no way religious, I don’t practice any religion and if I were to fast it would be solely to satisfy the voice of my eating disorder.
This year is the first year since I started my recovery journey that I have decided not to fast: a decision that was very difficult to make and deal with because now that I am weight-restored my family don’t see why I won’t fast and sometimes I still feel guilty for choosing not to. But in those times, I have to remind myself that I need to put my safety and my health first. I need to always choose recovery.
I do miss the social parts of Ramadan that I now miss out on because of my recovery, but I know that it is worth it and if you are going through something very similar during this month of Ramadan, please know that recovery is worth it. Know that your recovery is worth much more than anything in the world. It’s not easy, and you might have to deal with it forever, but it slowly becomes more manageable. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone.
I believe that more people need to talk about this hidden danger of Ramadan and eating disorders because, although Islam exempts sick people from fasting, when that sickness is a mental illness that is stigmatised and hardly even recognised by some families and friends, it can get pretty tough. We need to talk more about this, because people need to know that they are not alone.