There is Baraka in Receiving the Gift: On Eating Disorders and Choosing Not to Fast

There is Baraka in Receiving the Gift: On Eating Disorders and Choosing Not to Fast July 16, 2015

Editor’s note: The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.  This piece is a follow-up to one published last year, and contains discussions of disordered eating. 

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about how hard Ramadan was for me last year.

“You know,” she said cautiously, “the exemption from fasting for health reasons applies for emotional and mental health too.”

Her observation was more of a revelation than maybe it should have been.  If someone had asked me, outside of that context, if mental health concerns would be a reason not to fast, I would have said yes without hesitation; in fact, I know of at least one person who doesn’t fast because of the medication that they take to manage a mental health condition, which makes complete sense to me.  And yet I had not considered what that might mean in my own situation.  It was time, perhaps, to acknowledge that things might just be bad enough that I should seriously ask myself whether or not I could fast this year without compromising my health.  (I am not the only one struggling with these questions in the context of disordered eating, as several articles published over the last couple years demonstrate.)

Although I had hoped last Ramadan to use the month to rebuild a healthier relationship with food after several months of disordered eating habits, that goal had turned out to be too ambitious.  I managed to fast the entire month, but it was difficult and painful, leading to a sense of bitterness that ultimately eclipsed most of the spiritual growth that I had hoped to experience.  I had been prepared to stop fasting if I felt like I was not able to sustain myself physically, if I was not able to eat enough at suhoor and iftar to make it through the month. I recognised that fasting was compromising the spiritual dimension of Ramadan, but I still didn’t feel like I could make the decision not to fast when I was still – if only barely – holding it together physically.

To adequately describe the months that followed would take several more blog posts, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say that things got a lot worse.  At the same time, my support system has grown as I’ve connected with therapists and doctors (some better than others), and have worked hard to be more open with friends about what I’m going through.  When this year’s Ramadan was only a few months away, I began to feel increasingly anxious: even with better support and a lot more self-awareness than I had last year, how was I going to be able to get through the month? 

For a while, I watched Ramadan approach with a sense of dread, and something close to shame.  I knew on some level that I would not have to fast if it would be harmful to me, but the idea of not being able to fast still felt like a kind of failure.  Later, as Ramadan drew even closer, I began to wonder if fasting might work after all.  Given how much time I spend throughout the day overthinking questions of whether/when/how much to eat, the idea of blocking off large periods of time when I wouldn’t have to make those decisions was appealing.  I wondered also if I might be able to do a better job of handling food issues if I only had two meals each day to think about.

When Ramadan finally started, I fasted for two days (plus a half-day that was interrupted by my period), and it was indeed nice to have a break from thinking about food during daylight hours.  I even found suhoor and iftar to be easier than they were last year.  But those two days were enough to remind me that fasting is a practice that it would be dangerous to get used to.  Even in the best cases, it inadvertently becomes a way of training my body to go long periods without eating, and training away any instinct I have to eat when hungry – an instinct that has weakened considerably over the last few years anyway.  There were moments where I felt guilty for whatever I had eaten in the evening, and looked forward to fasting as a way of hopefully further restricting my food intake and making up for whatever excess I felt I had consumed (rarely anything beyond a fairly normal amount).  I could tell how enticing the idea of fasting was to the voice in my mind that encourages the eating disorder, which was ultimately one of the main reasons that I decided that I couldn’t fast this year.  (Fighting against that voice remains one of the hardest things that I have done this Ramadan.)

This was a scary decision to make.  Although I knew that my situation was such that I fell into the category of those who didn’t have to fast, and that this was a decision I was permitted to make, I wasn’t sure if it was the best decision.  How could I be sure that I wasn’t simply taking the easy way out?

I expressed these concerns to a friend, linking them to a larger conversation we’d had about how to ensure that the religious decisions we make are rooted in a sense of what is right and not in more superficial personal whims.  She reminded me that Muslims are explicitly told not to fast if fasting will cause harm, and that, in my case, not fasting was a way of following the rules around Ramadan, not of circumventing them.  In fact, she told me, “Maybe it’s fasting that would actually constitute following your whims and desires.”

Oh.  Right.

A few days later, I spoke to another friend, someone who has also played a role as a teacher in my life.  Half-jokingly, she asked if I needed her to give me a fatwa.  She, too, explained that, even according to hard-core old-school jurisprudence, the best way for me to observe Ramadan this year would be not to fast.  This is a gift from God, she reminded me, and “There is baraka (blessing) in receiving the gift.”

An article by Nura Masnavi published earlier this month echoes a similar sentiment.  Writing about the guilt she felt for being so relieved at not having to fast as she breastfeeds her daughter, Masnavi notes that a friend’s response to her guilt was that “You are literally denying God’s mercy.”  Masnavi uses this to remind herself that Ramadan is a month of mercy as much as – maybe more than – it is a month of fasting.  This has been my takeaway from this month as well.  While my initial thoughts that I might not be able to fast came with grief and shame around my inability to take part in Ramadan this year, I am realising as the month draws to a close that this is not really about my own inadequacies.  Not fasting, for some of us, is part of Ramadan too.

The divine compassion and gifts that I am observing and trying to receive this Ramadan remind me of the other blessings that have come to me as I have struggled with eating and food since last Ramadan: the friend who gently pushed me to look into therapy; the friends who have lovingly prepared food for me when I have visited them; the friend who cooked for me when she stayed with me and made sure to leave leftovers; the friends who reached out at the beginning of Ramadan to see how I was doing, including one who invited me to come stay with her so she could support me in person; and the many other friends who have listened and provided advice and love through this time.  As a recovering overachiever who is fiercely independent and deeply averse to feeling like a burden on others, this exercise in accepting help has been humbling, to say the least.  As someone who has so often denied myself something as basic as food, I am well aware that these lessons in receiving blessings have deep implications.

Things are still messy in so many ways. Even when it feels like things might be getting better, I am confronted with reminders about how far I still have to go (I nearly had a full-on meltdown when a dish that I ordered for dinner last week turned out to be very different from what I’d expected).  Holding myself together often feels like a full-time job, and my support network is not always as extensive or as present as I’d like.  I’ve still been feeling a fair amount of grief at how much this year doesn’t feel like Ramadan, even as I remind myself that last year didn’t “feel like Ramadan” either, despite the fact that I was fasting.

But if there is a lesson I can take from Ramadan this year, it is this: There is baraka in receiving the gift.

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