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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Call: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
En Español: 1-888-628-9454
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.
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.
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.
Call: (800) 950-NAMI (6264)
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.
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.
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.