I have never been the most religious person but a practice I tried to participate in with my family was Ramadan. This completely changed when I developed issues with my mental health during my teenage years.
At the age of around 13, I developed depression and anxiety, and around 16 my previously disordered eating had developed into an eating disorder. Ramadan took on a whole new meaning as my brain and body changed. Where previously it was something that didn’t really affect me physically or mentally, it now became a period of debilitating exacerbation of my illnesses. I was surrounded by people who see Ramadan as an opportunity to lose weight, and I was encouraged to do the same, with those around me having no idea how destructive this pattern of thinking was to me.
The focus on food was inescapable – all waking hours were spent by talking about food, thinking about food or preparing food for the short window in which you can eat. And where we often ate at different times normally, there was an expectation that we would eat our meals together during Ramadan as a family. I already experienced feelings of shame and self-disgust when eating in front of others, so these mealtimes were often very uncomfortable, making me question whether each mouthful would make me look greedy or prompt criticism.
The sleep deprivation was probably the most significant reason that Ramadan caused a downward spiral for me. Usually after a bad night’s sleep, I tend to be very emotional and find it difficult to cope with the day so doing this every single day for a whole month had an enormous impact on my mental health – I found it impossible to do anything except lie in bed day. I felt completely dead inside – fatigue had pulled me even further below the surface than I had been before. Despite how miserable I was, the hunger itself that I experienced during the day was a satisfying feeling – I had actually “succeeded” in not eating for a considerable period of time.
Of course, it was not a success to feel this way about food, and by the evening the emptiness triggered a complete loss of control over the food I consumed, as the normal cause of these behaviours, mental pain, was joined by a desire to fill the physical emptiness. It took me a few years to make the connection between Ramadan and the exacerbation of my existing mental health problems; I finally joined the dots one year when I realised that my poor coping mechanisms sky-rocketed during this period.
Day after day, I was breaking my fast early through eating disorder behaviour and the guilt I felt for doing this was immense. My self-criticism was huge; “You’re so greedy that you can’t even go a day without doing this? You’re dramatic and self-indulgent and disgusting, you deserve to starve and die.” After this year, I realised that I couldn’t continue to fast when my mental health was so poor, but I certainly didn’t feel comfortable sharing that with anyone else. So, I decided that I would act as if I was fasting and just eat in secret.
I know now that eating disorders breed in secrecy, so the decision to keep not fasting a secret was just as damaging as fasting when I wasn’t ready to. To keep up the appearance of fasting, I was still waking up early and going to bed late, so getting very little sleep meaning my mental health was still being impacted hugely. And I was still not able to eat regularly since I had to get my food when nobody else could hear me in the kitchen. As time went on, I started to stash food in my room to make this process easier, and the impact was a worsening of my pre-existing eating in secret and an even greater shame associated with food in my brain. It was a few years of doing this that one year, I finally snapped. I broke down to my parents and told them that I had lied and that I hadn’t been fasting because of how hard I was finding things. I don’t think they fully understood this, but they told me if I felt unwell, I shouldn’t fast that year (so I didn’t).
But as time has gone on, and I appear on the outside to have regained control over my mental health and my food, the expectation to fast again has re-emerged. Whilst I have done my best to explain why I don’t think that fasting is compatible with having a persistent mental illness, the ‘encouragement’ remains – “just do a few and see how you feel” … “it won’t be that bad” … “it’ll be good for you”. I can’t help but feel if I had a physical illness that nobody would pressure me to do something that I know puts me in danger.
For people who are healthy in body in mind, it’s true – fasts overall really aren’t too bad and they can even bring some great health benefits. But I know that’s not for me right now, and that doing anything to jeopardise my mental health needs to take a back seat. I know that I must commit to putting my recovery first. And, finally, I’m giving myself permission to do that.