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Anorexia & Ramadan: A Muslim Convert’s Recovery Journey

Anorexia & Ramadan: A Muslim Convert’s Recovery Journey

The first time I started fasting for Ramadan, I wasn’t even Muslim yet.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about my anorexia.

So disclaimer: I am not here to speak for everyone with an eating disorder, nor all people with mental health issues. I am not here to extort a plethora of Islamic inspiration and pretend like recovery is so easy if you just strengthen your faith in Allah’s plan.

None of this is simple. None of this is easy. But it’s all deeply human, so let’s talk about it.

As far back as I can remember, my brain was full — full of thought, full of passion, full of creativity, and full of love for everyone around me. But also, my brain was full of worry, fear, obsession, self-loathing, and sadness.

I won’t go into my whole story, but sometimes, when emotions are too confusing and overwhelming to make sense of internally, and these same emotions are societally stigmatized from being dealt with outwardly… the pain needs to go somewhere.

As far back as I can remember, I had no belief in God. I felt no internal inclination to spirituality. So as a staunch atheist with no religious community or faith to seek support from, I used my pain as fuel to power my schoolwork, my artwork, my music, and my desire to help others. As a person who deeply feared rejection and becoming a “burden” on others, I also tried to relieve my pain with a variety of self-harm methods which, for a long time, I tried to keep secret from everyone around me.

It was either die this way, or live another way. I chose the latter.

At least for me, anorexia was the ultimate extension of this desire to self-harm. I used self-harm as a method to feel “in control” of an emotional and social landscape which felt utterly overwhelming to me. But as I learned, anorexia is not some tool I could use to muffle the screaming inside me. Anorexia became a part of the screaming – and it was all consuming.

After over a decade of starving myself, I hit the proverbial rock bottom. I was truly sick and tired of being sick and tired. It was either die this way, or live another way. I chose the latter.

The mortality rate for anorexia is nearly six times higher than that of the average person.

Anorexia is the most fatal psychiatric disorder for a reason. Since it often arises as a method to deal with hidden trauma and mental health issues, anorexia can be very secretive. Not only do people with anorexia tend to try and hide their habits, but they can also be a variety of weights throughout their lives. Therefore, anorexia often goes undetected by friends, family, and even medical professionals until it’s too late. By the time someone is thin enough to “look anorexic,” they are possibly in their final time alive. The mortality rate for anorexia is nearly six times higher than that of the average person. This is dramatically higher than Schizophrenia, which increases death risk over 2.5-fold and Bipolar disorder which increases death risk almost two-fold.

Effective treatments for anorexia are often atrociously expensive and generally not covered by insurance but for a limited duration. More traditionally accessible treatments for anorexia are chronically hyper-focused on only weight gain rather than whole-person wellness which addresses underlying traumas, mental health issues, community support development, and forward thinking goal formation. People with anorexia have high rates of relapse and suicide – even after extensive time in treatment.

I could continue down the path of anorexia and die, or take a turn into the unknown and maybe… live?

But most of all I think, after some time, anorexia becomes something precious to a person with it. At least it did for me. This horrific companion became the only thing I held onto which maintained my illusion of self-control in a chaotic internal and external world. At least, it did… until it didn’t.

When I began my recovery, I was reluctant to give up what I had perceived as control. But by that time, I had truly backed myself into a corner health-wise – I could continue down the path of anorexia and die, or take a turn into the unknown and maybe… live?

It began with open surrender. All those things which I feared, I needed to finally address. All the hidden thoughts and feelings and events needed to be brought into the open, and all the unbalanced internal processes needed to be externally stabilized. It started with therapy and medication in tandem, and I have continued to utilize these methods in varying degrees to this day.

For the first time in my life, after so many years of starving for control, I finally felt a real weight had been lifted from me.

My recovery journey has had its complexities, and I am by no means “cured”, but after 7 years working on my mental health and developing sustainable supports/coping skills, I can say pretty confidently that anorexia no longer runs my life at all.

Not many people with anorexia get to feel this way, and every day I must remember to thank God for this.

Oh yeah, remember how I said I grew up atheist? Well, I’m not an atheist any more.

A little over a year and a half ago, I began another journey – understanding Islam. Being Muslim begins with Shahada, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Like recovery from anorexia, being Muslim is a process that needs to be worked on and enriched daily. When I began my private study, I didn’t realize until 6 months into it that I would arrive at the cusp of my spiritual awakening right at the beginning of Ramadan.

Ramadan is about using a physical process to draw attention to one’s spiritual core.

A month of fasting from sunrise to sunset was not something that would be physically or intellectually hard for me at all. My Ramadan challenge came in another form. The most difficult part of Ramadan for me was all about nourishment.

Ramadan is not really about sacrifice through starvation. Ramadan is not solely about feeling the raw pains of hunger and thirst. Ramadan is about using a physical process to draw attention to one’s spiritual core. For the average Muslim, abstaining from food, drink, argument, sex, etc. empties the body of such fulfillment to make room for one to focus on their spiritual needs. For the average Muslim, giving up such “pleasures” during the day brings a hyper-focus to the fulfillment of other good deeds which serve to enrich their soul and connection to Allah.

This seemingly simple act of self-care in breaking fast during Ramadan is a profound act of worship for me.

But for me, it was not the long days of fasting that caused my awakening. It was after the sun went down and I was permitted to eat that directed my soul to Allah.

As someone with a history of anorexia, the challenge was not getting through each day of fasting, but rather, the challenge was to break my fast each night and truly nourish my body with an awareness of God. My natural inclination when my body feels the pangs of hunger is to continue it… with severity. This seemingly simple act of self-care in breaking fast during Ramadan is a profound act of worship for me. My first Ramadan not only confirmed for me that anorexia no longer controlled my life, but it enriched my mind/body connection and drew my soul to Allah.

Instead of self-harming through starvation, I was self-loving via fasting.

After five days fasting for my first Ramadan, I spoke the Shahada and became Muslim.

It’s now been a full year nearly since then. I have learned much – not only about Islam, but about myself. But like recovery, being Muslim is a kind of journey. It takes time, effort, drive, and intention.

But as I wax poetically about my own experience of relative wellness, there are many Muslims in the deepest throws of their eating disorders still. So while I may be able and willing to fast for Ramadan, there are many more who cannot and should not. The Quran actually forbids Muslims from doing anything to harm themselves unnecessarily, and this includes excessive acts of worship. For those with eating disorders, fasting is self-harm, and therefore, is not Islamically beneficial.

Dear fellow Muslims with eating disorders,

You are not alone.

I know you feel completely isolated in this world, and truly in many ways you are.

But Allah knows your pain, and you are so loved.

You are no less Muslim for having difficulty fasting during Ramadan.

You are no less Muslim for not being able to fast at all during Ramadan.

You are no less Muslim if you fast for “other” reasons during Ramadan.

You are no less Muslim for this struggle, and verily, Allah knows what’s in your heart.

While I wish that you would seek help for your eating disorder, I understand why it is beyond daunting to even consider it.

So this Ramadan, regardless of if you fast with food, use this time to become more spiritually centered in whatever way you can – pray, recite Quran in whatever language you prefer, donate to causes you believe in, volunteer for those in need, read religious materials that inspire you, attend events with fellow Muslims that feel healthy to you. Do what you can, when you can, how you can.

But most of all, know that in whatever way you observe Ramadan, you are Muslim. No one can take that away from you.


Narrated `Aisha: The Prophet (ﷺ) was asked, “What deeds are loved most by Allah?” He said, “The most regular constant deeds even though they may be few.” He added, ‘Don’t take upon yourselves, except the deeds which are within your ability.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6465)


If you or someone you love is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.

(Information below compiled by www.projectknow.com)

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE

Call: (800) 273-TALK (8255)

En Español: 1-888-628-9454

See Also

Chat: Lifeline Crisis Chat Program

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You will be connected to the crisis center nearest you. People call to discuss all types of problems, including eating disorders, relationships, sexual identity, and loneliness.

NATIONAL EATING DISORDERS ASSOCIATION INFORMATION AND REFERRAL HELPLINE

Call: 1-800-931-2237

Chat: NEDA Click-to-Chat

Crisis Text Line: text “NEDA” to 741741

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline is available to provide support Monday–Thursday, 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. EST, and Friday 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. If no one is available when you call, leave a message and your call will be returned as soon as possible. They are closed to observe some holidays.

NEDA’s helpline is a free and confidential service. Volunteers have extensive training and are prepared to help you find information, support, and treatment options.

SAMHSA NATIONAL HELPLINE

Call: (800) 662-HELP (4357)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental health disorders and substance or behavioral addictions.

SAMHSA’s Helpline does not provide counseling and emotional support, but their trained specialists can transfer you to an appropriate intake center in your state or connect you with local assistance and support. They can refer you to therapists, counselors, treatment programs, and support groups in your area.

NATIONAL ALLIANCE ON MENTAL ILLNESS (NAMI) HELPLINE

Call: (800) 950-NAMI (6264)

Email: info@nami.org

The NAMI Helpline is available Monday–Friday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. EST. Helpline staff and volunteers are there to answer your questions about mental health issues, including symptoms of eating disorders and mental health conditions, treatment options, behavioral health issues, programs to help find jobs, legal issues, and how to help a loved one get treatment.

They do not provide counseling and cannot give specific treatment recommendations, but they can answer questions about local support groups and services. In the event of a crisis, your call will be transferred to a national crisis helpline.

ANAD EATING DISORDERS HELPLINE

Call: (630) 577-1330

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders’ (ANAD) helpline is available Monday–Friday 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. CST. Trained ANAD volunteers are available to help you in whatever way they can. If you suspect you might have an eating disorder, are worried about someone you love, need help stopping a binge, or just need help getting through a meal, give them a call.

Crisis Text Line

Text: Text “hello” to 741741

A free, confidential, 24/7 text line for people in crisis. You will receive an automated text asking you what your crisis is, and within minutes you will be connected to a live counselor. The person on the other end will help calm you down and get you into a safe state of mind. People text the crisis line for all types of problems. If you feel you need emotional support, but are nervous about talking on the phone, this is a good place to start.


 

View Comments (3)
  • Mashallah sister. I am grateful for this piece. I have recovered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa Alhamdullilah. I was also vehemently atheist during the time when these disorders ruled my life. I did not receive therapy or medication; however, I was able to heal. This is my first Ramadan fasting inshallah and I have been worried about relapse but inshallah I will prevail and my iman will grow.

    • It’s so important for us to discuss these issues openly and honestly. And really, relapse IS a part of recovery. We try to shame people for it instead of lifting them up and supporting one another’s wellness.

      I really hope that you can find peace in whatever way you are able to fast sister.

      May Allah guide your actions and intentions.

      Also, if you need a fasting buddy, I’m here for you. Feel free to message me on facebook. The link is in my info above ????

  • You’re a lot like I am.

    I used to be the super atheist douche, now I don’t really talk much about it. I still don’t have a faith, but I’m glad I don’t act like I used to. I used to believe a lot of things out side of myself were the problem, like different religions, but they never were.

    I used to cover my problems, distract them, over power them, or really anything I could think of to quiet them down. When I say quiet them down… I mean literally. When I say over power them, it’s literal. I used to install blaring sound systems in my cars to over power the voices in my head. It didn’t work, and the more things I tried, the more it didn’t work. It was a long time before I reached out about my problems, but even at that time I didn’t understand my problems and ended up with a medication that didn’t work. It actually amplified the voices and delusions by 10x (My parents and friends told me my meds weren’t working, I wouldn’t believe them). I’m doing better now thanks mostly to the people around me, and a visit to a psychiatric hospital to get me off the wrong meds and diagnosed. My parents, friends, don’t understand, still, but they care, which is most important. I’m not sure if a single person’s illness could ever be 100% understood and cared for by another person, so it’s all right.

    I have been lighter than I should for my height, but never so bad that I would consider myself anorexic. I just couldn’t eat right. It seemed whatever I ate I would end up throwing up or otherwise expelling, so I just didn’t eat a lot of the time. Those problems are a ways in the past now. I believe most of it was due to just not being able to sleep at night, get up in the morning, or have any normal cycle which was required to go to school every day but going any way. I fell asleep in class almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, throughout most of high school (still passed that shit doe).

    Anorexia is sometimes (often) hard to spot. It’s hard to talk to people afflicted about their problems as well, so I know it’s hard to stop. During the most problematic times in my life I would certainly not listen to anyone else about it. For me, it was because the delusions were so powerful that I wouldn’t believe anything else as truth. For people that are anorexic, I’m not sure. Many times it’s just that someone is commenting on their body and the afflicted can’t see that the other person is just concerned. Some may be like you and not want to give up their feeling of power over their self (the reason I didn’t get medicated for so long).

    I have a cousin that had to be hospitalized for anorexia. Her organs started shutting down, and it probably was a concern for her family before that point, but I had absolutely no idea until I heard about it. When you say schizophrenia increases risk of death by 2.5x, I believe it, because I’ve done some absolutely bat shit crazy, nonsensical, dangerous, perilous, things in my manic states, or drug induced states, or sleep deprived states, and even just in my depressive states. When you say anorexia increases the risk by 6x, I believe you, because it flies under the radar so easily. It’s hard to confront, and if most people just thought of you as an asshole when you were young, I get that. They think the same of me, because illness can look like anger and aggression and coarseness and all sorts of things that it isn’t to someone who doesn’t know.

    If you know the feeling of being hated, or persecuted, whether you were or not, then that feeling can also make it extremely difficult to get help. Personally, I couldn’t imagine anyone helping me. For many reasons, help wasn’t an option, and like a lot of people, I chose to face it all alone for too long.

    So thank you for writing this. Thank you for anyone that hasn’t been able to pull their self out of the seemingly bottomless pit that is illness and self destruction. For anyone that hasn’t found their worth yet. Thank you.

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