Aiysha Younas writes on her experiences as someone navigating the holy month of Ramadan, while battling an eating disorder. Far from being a unique experience, she says, it's one felt by many others too
Editor’s note: This personal essay contains frank discussion of eating disorders, which may be triggering for some readers.
Ramadan comes around every year and in my family home, it is met with excitement, anticipation and contentment. It is seen as a way to get close to Allah and also become a better version of yourself by fasting, giving to charity and looking after other people in your community. Each year, everyone would wake up to eat before sunrise, groggy and with full bellies from the night before, but also grateful and ready to get into the next day.
During Ramadan, my family would spend the entire day eagerly awaiting iftar [post sunset meal] so they could break their fasts, pray and express gratitude to God for even being able to open it. As my mother loved to remind us year after year, some people go hungry every day and they don’t have the luxury of being able to feast after sunset like we do. This was a message that stayed with me throughout my entire life and one of the reasons why fasting during this month is so important to me.
However, Ramadan can have a darker side for some people, including me. I was no stranger to fasting—in fact, fasting was already a daily occurrence for me. Every day I’d wake up to a rumbling tummy which gave me an intense sense of power and satisfaction. Feeling dizzy and faint and not being able to think of anything other than food and calories. Then when I did eventually eat, I couldn’t stop and the next thing I knew, I’d eaten more in one sitting that I had all month.
"I was no stranger to fasting—in fact, it was already a daily occurrence for me"
This took over my life through the majority of my teenage years and every day was a struggle. Constantly moving to burn any and every calorie possible, weighing out my cereal to know the exact number of calories that I would need to burn off. Buying a big stash of food and eating the entire amount, knowing full well I would intentionally bring it back up.
According to the eating disorder charity, Beat, “approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder and anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.” Taking in that fact and understanding the gravity of it is incredibly important, especially whilst fasting as this can bring up a lot of difficulties and create more problems if you’re not aware of how to fast safely.
"Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder"
During Ramadan, my head was full of excitement for all the wrong reasons. I’d be motivated because I knew I’d be able to fast with a valid reason so no one could stop me. I’d tell myself I’m fasting for God and though I truly believed I was, the thought that consumed me on a daily basis was, I’m going to be skinny. I’d avoid eating during sehri [meal at dawn] and my parents would exchange looks across the dinner table whilst I chugged as much water as my stomach could hold, not touching a crumb of food.
Then at iftar, there was always a delicious spread of food lovingly made by my mum. I’d break my fast with water and the smallest nibble of fruit and then excuse myself to pray. Then I’d not come back down until I knew that everyone would have started and had most of the food. They tried to coax me to eat, telling me “this is your favourite, I made it specially for you!”. That would be met with floods of tears, protestations that they were forcing me, and 10 minutes later a trip to the bathroom.
It came to the point where my family no longer allowed me to fast. They made it abundantly clear that if your health isn’t good, Allah doesn’t ask for your fast. My parents said I was to look after myself and that I could participate in Ramadan in different ways such as praying and looking after the body that I was given. My strongest memory of this time is sitting on the stairs due to intense dizziness and my dad pleading with me to eat an orange. He peeled the tiniest tangerine, broke off a piece and said to me, “If you eat this, I will take you for a walk down the street.”
Tearfully, I ate it. I saw the concerned and pleading look in his eyes and to this day, the thought breaks my heart. Panic attack after panic attack, I’d done too much. This wasn’t what Ramadan was about and I’d turned a holy month into a chance to see my bones. I saw it as an opportunity to starve myself instead of enriching my life.
"I'd turned Ramadan, a holy month, into a chance to see my bones"
I didn’t then and I still don’t blame myself for that, but despite no longer being consumed by my eating disorder each day, sometimes it can still be hard. Back then I’d spend hours scrolling websites like Twitter and Tumblr for girls I wanted to look like. I’d set myself goals and then use Ramadan as a way to achieve that, thinking no one would question me. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to live with, especially if you are doing that alone.
Umarah Hussain, 25, is a practicing Muslim who deals with bulimia. She emphasises just how important it is to have support.
Hussain said, “My husband is patient with me when he knows it’s time to break my fast as my eating habits constantly fluctuate. It can be overwhelming looking at a plate full of food. I tend to get this gut-feeling where I'm eager to get up and exercise, or I will look at myself in the mirror and emanate negative thoughts as I also suffer from body dysmorphia. This is where my husband reminds me that the meal is vital and needs to be consumed for nutritional reasons.”
When considering fasting, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Omer Moghraby advised, “it’s really important that if you have an eating disorder and you are under a team to discuss with them early on so that Ramadan can be part of [your recovery] plan. It’s important to plan well ahead of time, and not to just slip in [to your recovery supporters] 'by the way I’m fasting today'. It will be more beneficial to incorporate it as part of your recovery plan, rather than [allow it to become] a route for possible deterioration.”
When dealing with eating disorders, it’s important to put your health first, even in Ramadan. Beat’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn said: “Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and anyone, no matter what their age, gender, background, can develop one. It's important to be kind to yourself and observe Ramadan in a way that's right for you and your health, whether that is to fast, to only fast on days when you feel able, or avoid fasting entirely.”
There are many charities and organisations that are there to help. Reaching out for support can be hard but no matter how alone you feel, no matter how consuming it is, there is always someone available to help you. Visit Beat for eating disorder helplines and emails.
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