How do you fast when fasting is your default?
How do you break a fast reasonably when you are accustomed to binge eating?
How do you participate in and reap the benefits of a blessed and holy month when it is based around the one thing you have the biggest struggles with?
There aren’t many answers on Google, I’ll say that. A quick search of ‘Ramadan with an eating disorder’ comes up with a plethora of personal accounts from (mostly) sisters who have struggled/are struggling, documenting their own experience, and a few articles are written by charities that aim to help those with eating disorders. All useful, yes, but not much on how to engage with the month and get what you need or are accustomed to getting from it. With it being an unspoken topic in our community, it can be hard to find a safe place where you can air how you feel and get feedback that bears in mind your spiritual needs. It can be isolating, in a month that really isn’t about being alone.
You’d think it would be a breeze. You are accustomed to having controlled behaviour around food, you’ve probably not eaten for much longer times. It isn’t. Fasting while having, or having had an eating disorder is triggering. The empty, hungry feeling (which can feel good to someone with an ED) can catapult you back into negative spirals, sending you right where you do not want to be. Watching the scales every day in the hopes that the fast has the same effect your ED did instead of focusing on the sanctity of what you’ve been tasked with. The purpose of Ramadan is lost. The breaking of the fast, and that period of time before suhoor is often used, even by those with healthy relationships with food, as a bingeing period. We fill up more than usual, to make sure we can make it through the next day. For someone with bulimia eating such a large amount is a short time makes the guilt creep in. You eat for the anxiety you’ve been having all day. And now you feel terrible so you need to get it back out. The full feeling needs to be gone now. So you purge, either by throwing it all up, taking a laxative to clear it (believe me when I tell you, laxatives when you can’t drink water are hellish) or by exercising to failure.
Islam, being a system devised by the All Knowing, of course has an answer. Fasting is not an obligation for those who are ill. Doctors confirm that an eating disorder qualifies as an illness that you should not be fasting with. This answer is clear and simple. However, how does it play out in real life? When you are stuck watching everyone else enjoy a spiritual high that you feel like you cannot attain safely? When you feel less than? Guilty and tarnished because it doesn’t feel like a ‘real’ illness, after all you’re perfectly fine physically?
To admit that you are doing something that you feel ashamed of, even to yourself, is painful. Not to talk of telling others, and having them watch you more closely, trying to make sure you’re not doing it again. Most of us aren’t discussing this with our doctor (please do, they can help), but media has informed us well enough for us to recognise the facts. The diagnosis is useful, but if you have disordered eating, you definitely know it. It can be a personal battle to try and free yourself and be honest about what you’re facing, but you have to sit back and analyse your behaviour and be real.
Your obligation, as a believer, is to fulfil what God asks of you. Yes, God asks us to fast. But there is an exemption for you, a legitimate one. You’re not being dramatic, you’re not failing. You are doing what God has asked of you, which is to take a step back if you are not well. To prioritise your wellbeing. Ramadan for someone with an ED can be about healing. Rectifying our relationship with food, understanding the causes behind your disorder and working to heal the body you were given as best you can. The Creator knows your needs, your shortcomings, your obstacles, better even than you. Taking each day of this month one at a time and supplicating your way through feelings of inadequacy is vital. Remembering you are doing more than enough, you are doing what was asked of you.
It can be embarrassing to speak up, ask for help and let people know what’s up with you. It draws a lot of attention to your day to day behaviours that you’d rather not have. But eating disorders are a constant dishonesty to those around you, and you owe it to yourself to be free from that. You owe it to yourself to not hide. You are not an island. Eating disorders, mental health issues in general, are very isolating. But this isn’t a month for isolation. Talk, get your feelings out. Seek the help you need. For our brothers and sisters this month is about abstaining from food, for us it can be about interacting with food in as healthy a way as we can manage. It can be about journalling through our anxiety instead of bingeing through it, eating at iftar time with everyone (at a pace that we can manage). You are doing enough, as long as your intentions are straight. May God accept it from us.
Useful resources if you are planning to use what is left of this month to tackle your ED
Overcoming Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating by Peter Cooper
Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa by Christopher Freeman
These both contain manuals you can follow to heal yourself, and resources to use if you are finding it hard on your own. If you are in the UK, you can self refer for Talking Therapy (it helps).
Che is just one woman striving to live in alignment with her natural inclination. She hopes to heal herself as best she can and live to tell the story and share the secrets. She posts stuff @frenchsaiai across all socials.