Perhaps I’m a bit late with the advice this year but it’s for good reason — I’m still not entirely sure myself how to navigate the holy month of Ramadan without falling back into old habits. It’s somewhat ironic that a month of peace and spirituality can cause so much torment for some. I feel like I should make a disclaimer here — I’m still as ambivalent towards religion and faith as I am to the idea of fasting whilst recovering from an eating disorder, so whilst I hope some of my tips may be helpful, there’s also a very personal side to all of this, both in regards to the extent of your faith, and how far along you are in your own recovery. Whatever your circumstances, however, there are, I believe, a few fundamentals to keep in mind.
So, here’s what I’ve come up with after some introspection:
1. If you don’t feel ready, just don’t do it.
Maybe it sounds obvious, but when religion is intertwined so closely, deciding not to fast can cause even greater distress. Fasting is known as one of the ‘five pillars’ of Islam, a duty of every Muslim who is able to carry it out safely. But the emphasis is on safely. Those who are ill are not expected to fast. This includes those who are mentally ill. It is perhaps a criticism of the wider culture surrounding mental illness in the Muslim community that this fact is not explicitly acknowledged. There’s a strong case for greater education and understanding, but for now it’s just about getting yourself through the month relatively intact. The bottom line is — if you’re in active treatment, fasting shouldn’t be a consideration, and in all cases, be honest and blunt with yourself. Why risk jumping in too soon and setting yourself back, when you could take the time to heal properly? It also goes without saying, ask professionals for advice, but I understand that religion is deeply personal, and the sense of obligation perhaps transcends any rational ‘guidance’. You must reconcile the two.
In a clumsy attempt to link faith to mental ill health, it can sometimes feel like you’re in purgatory …
2. Talk to those around you.
Despite stringent social distancing rules, Ramadan is still very much a time for family and friends, albeit those in your household. Eating disorders, and recovery, are isolating experiences. It can be easy to feel like you’re alone in this scary journey. But whether you decide to fast or not, take those around you along with you. Find someone you trust and voice your fears, thoughts and anything else. There’s also perhaps an opportunity here for your loved ones to gain a deeper understanding of your struggles, but only if you communicate. It’s tempting to retreat into the safety of your own mind, but you have to stay out in the open. I know there’s the added difficulty of not being able to access professional help so easily in these times, but with lots of remote options available, and brilliant charities like Beat, there’s always someone to hear you. I hear you. But, to strike a more assertive tone, I would also say that, if people say things that are unhelpful, point it out, respectfully.
Although Ramadan really isn’t about food, or lack of it, it’s still the topic on everyone’s mind, and comments about weight, starvation and general diet nonsense are rife. Again, it’s about communication. Your feelings are entirely valid, but instead of stewing in negative, damaging thoughts, voice them.
3. There are other ways to feel included.
It’s widely known that those who are unable to fast, for whatever reason, can instead donate to charity for every day they don’t fast. That’s the ‘official’ guidance (as I said, I’m no religious scholar). But, in more general terms, just because you’re not fasting, it doesn’t mean you can’t take part in the spiritual aspect of the festival. I would argue that the self-reflection and mindfulness that is encouraged during Ramadan are of far greater importance than the act of fasting itself. We are encouraged to use this time to practise gratitude, and be more present. Potentially, this can of benefit to your own recovery and peace, but also in offering some grounding during such tumultuous times.
I’m not entirely sure about where the emphasis lies during this time — on thinking of others, or ourselves. I say this because I can understand that telling you to partake in a month of intense self-reflection may not be very helpful, as your mind is not always a great place to be in. In that case, finding another outlet is important, be it through a hobby, or indeed a charitable act, or just having a routine (you don’t have to thrive, or undergo some profound spiritual enlightenment. You’re allowed to just survive.) Equally, perhaps putting yourself first is exactly what you need. The slower pace of Ramadan is a chance to reconnect with your needs, away from all the noise.
I can’t promise heaven, but something a bit better.
4. It’s just another month. It will pass.
I don’t mean this in a dismissive way. It’s the most important month in the Islamic calendar. But I say it to take the pressure off. This is my opinion, but I think it has some relevance. So much of religion is focused on ritual and action, but what gives these actions meaning is the faith and intention behind them. I do believe that faith is the driving force, and whilst faith can be strong enough to stand alone, an action without any belief behind it lacks credibility. So, if you carry out a given action (like fasting) for subversive reasons (driven by your eating disorder), the real purpose is entirely lost; and more importantly, it harms you. If anything, you’re not supposed to emerge from Ramadan in more pain than before. If you want to pretend it’s not happening, do that. Although, if that’s difficult (which I think it is), try and find a happy medium. I can’t be more specific than that because it’s so individual, but what does apply universally is the need to not get swept up in the ‘key features’ of Ramadan — the big meals, the late nights and early mornings. Don’t let it throw you off. All the talk of ‘restraint’ and ‘discipline’ and ‘self-control’ during this time, whilst perhaps well-intentioned, can easily be a trigger for a barrage of negative thoughts, which is why I say try not to let it startle you. If that means putting distance between yourself and the whole concept of Ramadan and fasting, then so be it.
For some, religion and faith can be a guiding light. For others, it can be a hindrance and a constant source of conflict. And there are many who see it as illogical and irrational. Whichever way inclined you are, be wary of anyone or anything that tries to sum up any religion with a list of rules that are to be followed. Religion is not purely instructional, but philosophical and interpretative. If you start feeling fettered, rather than freed (some find religion empowering) maybe reevaluate your relationship.
This is most important in regards to eating disorders, which seek to trap you with endless meandering rules. It’s not that religion is bad, but that maybe the combination of the messy intricacies of religion and your mind cloud your thinking, rather than offer the clarity that religion should. In a clumsy attempt to link faith to mental ill health, it can sometimes feel like you’re in purgatory (yes I know it’s a Catholic notion, not Islamic), and arguably a permanent state of limbo is more torturous than hell. But what is purgatory? It’s a state of suffering whilst you ‘shed’ your sins before going to heaven. Now, you’re most definitely not a sinner (the idea of shaming people into submission is a problem I have with religion), but apply it loosely to your mental suffering now. There will be an end, and there is another side to this. I can’t promise heaven, but something a bit better.
I’m weary of any reductionist proverbs, platitudes or sayings. I see them as passive-aggressive threats rather than ‘truisms’. But if this offers any comfort, these are my ones: ‘Loving yourself is loving God’, and ‘He [God] chose to weave you within his universe. That alone makes you worthy’.
The ability to pick and choose what you take from religion is both a blessing and a curse. It can be interpreted in a way that oppresses and ‘justifies’ the unjustifiable, but it also gives those who are lost a sense of belonging — something to hold on to.