I’ve tried fasting many times since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety. Things always turn out the same way, no matter how I tweak the circumstances. In the beginning, everything is normal, quiet even. It’s as though I don’t have a mental illness at all and I’m just like anyone else trying to fast. For one day or so, I’m fine and I can handle the demands of the spiritual exercise. But on or about the third day of fasting, I notice I’m becoming active. I have much more energy than I should and I find that I don’t want to sleep. This starts a cycle of staying up all night and not eating anything, even when it’s time to break the fast. By this time, I usually feel great though. Physically I don’t have any complaints. Probably because I’m entering a state of hypomania. And it’s important to also note that when I fast, I’m not able to maintain my medication schedule.
Many of my meds need to be taken twice a day, and with food. That becomes very difficult during Ramadan, particularly the last few years. Especially when the time to eat suhoor is at approximately 3:30am and you’re not breaking the fast until about 8:25pm at night. By the time it reaches the 5th or 6th day of fasting, I haven’t eaten or slept in a few days, and I’m usually not taking my medication any more. This is obviously a recipe for disaster for someone with a mental health condition. Unfortunately however, the more unwell I become initially, the better I feel. That’s how hypomania works. And so I continue my routine of staying up and not eating. (In a subsequent article I’ll address my disordered eating issues and the impact this has on my mental health)
To make matters worse, I’ve often thought that this was how fasting was supposed to make me feel: physically light, more focused, and energetic. So in the past I wasn’t able to see that I was in the midst of getting sick, rather than having a spiritual awakening. It can be easy to confuse the two if you’re not careful. Usually I don’t make it past a 7th day of fasting; especially not consecutively. I always go quickly from hypomania to full blown mania, and immediately into psychosis. There’s a very short window of time for this. I become paranoid and agitated, convinced people (and sometimes places or entities) are out to get me. I may fixate on religious ideas and texts without being able to stop. This is probably the most confusing aspect of being unwell with this type of illness during Ramadan. I can go from a normal level of belief and religious observance to hyperreligiousity and obsessive behaviors in a short period of time. However because this is a heightened time of devotion for the community at large, self-assessment of my symptoms becomes particularly challenging.
Each time I’ve tried to fast has been a bit different, but ultimately the outcome is the same. Unfortunately for me, fasting is just not an option. This has been extremely hard for me to accept. When I was a new Muslim, I took fasting for granted. It wasn’t something I thought twice about. Now I miss it in a way that’s difficult to put into words. What helps me not dwell on my feelings of missing out however, is to enjoy other aspects of Ramadan that I can participate in.
I’ve found online lecture series explaining the Quran each year that make me feel connected to the global Muslim community and to my religious roots as a Muslim. I have daily iftars with sisters who live near me, to experience the feeling of solidarity and family. And I go to the masjid as often as I can for taraweeh. As far as focusing on helping others, I try to think of ways to bring happiness into the lives of those around me, even if it’s just calling and checking up on my friends and support system. I spend much of my year needing assistance with my illness. Ramadan is a time that I stop and reflect on those who do so much for me. I try to think of ways in which I can support those who care about me not only now, but throughout the year. That’s what I use this month for. When I think outward in this manner, I don’t have a chance to feel sad about what I’m not able to do anymore. I didn’t imagine as a young Muslim that this is what Ramadan would ever mean to me. But now, this has become my regular practice. I’m grateful to be able to observe the month in a way that suits not only my religious needs but my mental health needs as well.