I started fasting when I was 13 years old. My first Ramadan I was so excited and so proud of myself for being able to do so. I would go to school (where I may have been the only Muslim), even go to gym class, all while fasting. Year after year, I fasted religiously (pun intended), making sure never to miss any days (except those from which I was exempt). Growing up Ramadan was always an important part of life for me and my family. Getting up in the morning for seheri (suhoor) with everyone, my mother making us all parathas and eggs, making sure to get our caffeine fix for the day, and finally saying fajr prayer (something I rarely did outside of Ramadan). I grew up in a small, close-knit Muslim community that always made sure to share plenty of iftaar dinners during the month. Growing up, Ramadan was a beautiful community- and family-oriented time for me.
Then I came to grad school. My first year at grad school Ramadan went very well. I was lucky to have a wonderful Pakistani family living a few doors down from me who lovingly expected me to join them for iftaar dinners every day. They were new to the country, and I was new to the city, so we newcomers shared our Ramadan. The next year, they moved away and I moved to a different neighbourhood, on my own. My classes, scheduled class work, and practicum kept me busy and social during Ramadan, making the month go smoothly.
It was my third year in grad school when things began to change. For the first time, Ramadan became a lonely and depressing experience for me. When I fasted, I became depressed. When I didn’t, I was happier. And at first I could not figure out why. In fact, that year my roommate was Muslim, though our different stages in school and life circumstances kept us from spending a great deal of time together. Nonetheless, it confused me. But eventually, I figured it out.
Although I’m an introvert, I need to have a good dose of human interaction in my life. I have very few Muslim friends, so I did not have anyone to share Ramadan with. I also no longer had many classes as most of my work became independent, as it is wont to happen when you’re doing a PhD. This meant that I was not seeing people in my department very much. To balance this out I had gotten into the habit, as so many countless lonely grad students do, of working in cafés. (We do this because we’re lonely and would otherwise never leave our homes. And probably never shower either.) However, working in a café is not feasible during Ramadan. My only source of social human contact was gone. If I was unable to work in cafés, that meant I had to work in my apartment. By myself. In my room. Just me and my computer. Alone. In my apartment. In other words, I would have to isolate myself.
Ramadan was isolating me. It felt like Ramadan was imprisoning me in my home. I had no Muslim friends to share iftaars with. I couldn’t go to cafés. My non-Muslim friends were either busy with school or 2000 kilometers away from me, where my family was as well. And that isolation was depressing me. So for the sake of my mental health, I stopped fasting.
I didn’t fast that year, or the year after that, or the year after that. In fact, I didn’t fast again until six years later. And each year I would dread Ramadan. I wanted to fast, but the thought of it depressed me. The thought of being stuck in my room for the whole month depressed me. Once I even tried having iftaar with the local MSA, but their strict gender segregation and cramped “women’s area” turned me off. It’s hard to eat comfortably when you’re seething with anger. So I never went back there. And I went back to not fasting.
And to be honest, I’m not ashamed of admitting it. I don’t know how spiritual or religious I could have been in my depressed state. Isolation is a powerful force for depression and difficult to overcome as long as one feels isolated. I asked for God’s forgiveness and understanding and decided that I needed to pay attention to my mental health.
And I know I’m not the only one. Not everyone enjoys Ramadan. I’m not the only one who had that feeling of dread in the days leading up to Ramadan. I’m not the only one who hated seeing all those posts on Facebook about how excited people were because “Ramadan is coming!” And I’m not the only one who felt really horrible about feeling that way. Ramadan is, and has always been, important to me. Those years when I was not fasting, I always wanted to fast. I wanted to be home with my family to share Ramadan with them. I wanted to have Muslims friends to break the fast with. I wanted to be privy to the spiritual experiences that people always talked about. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And I couldn’t tell that to anyone, except a few select people who I knew wouldn’t judge me, including my family. I knew the judgement would come my way from others though.
“If you really wanted to, you could. You’re just making excuses.”
“God has commanded us to fast if we’re healthy. You’re perfectly healthy, so you’re just being lazy.”
So I kept it to myself. I didn’t want people to think I was a bad Muslim, or worse, that I didn’t care about God and Islam. I do. I always have. And most people who have these feelings also do. In fact, it’s because we care about and love God that we feel so horrible. If we didn’t care about God or Islam, we wouldn’t care, or even think, about Ramadan. We’d have no cognitive dissonance and mental anguish. We’d have nothing to worry about. But it’s precisely because Islam is dear to us that we feel the dread that we do, the sadness that we do. And we should be able to share that without judgment. We should be able to participate in other aspects of Ramadan without being made to feel like hypocrites. We should be able to have honest conversations about why we don’t fast.
I only started fasting again, and enjoying Ramadan again, when I got married. When I got my regular, daily, human social contact back, I got my Ramadan back too.
For more on MMW’s Ramadan series, and to read the rest of this year’s Ramadan posts, click here.