Gulf Today

The struggles of eating disorders during Ramadan

- Alia Al Hazami

Growing up with anorexia, I had a very rocky relationsh­ip with Ramadan. It was always my favourite month of the year, yet I was ridden with anxiety every time it came around. Surely, I loved it, because for one full month, I got to abstain from food and I was actually celebrated for it. No one nagged and asked me about the last time I ate. No one showed any concerns at my lack of food intake. For a short period of time, I got to starve myself in peace without raising any questions.

Still, despite the fact that I was full of joy because I got to disguise my eating disorder in fasting, I could not help but feel guilty and uneasy. My guilt stemmed from a spiritual level as my reasoning for fasting had nothing to do with Islam. I did not know if I was fasting for my religion, or for my eating disorder. I appreciate­d the month for all its glory and how close I felt to God. Yet, I found my obsession with food overtaking any spiritual advancemen­t I made. Every religious act I underwent felt disingenuo­us because in a sense, I was pushing myself to do beter spirituall­y to hide my less-than-ideal reason for being passionate about fasting.

The uneasiness on the other hand was due to abstinence from food and drink between sunrise and sunset being a core part of Ramadan. While I enjoyed not eating, I could not help but stress over how much people discussed food. A lot of conversati­on was centred around cravings and preparatio­ns of grand banquets. That was extremely triggering for me, especially when I sat at the dining table. I saw my family break their fast with zeal around great quantities of food. The sight alone was morbid and terrifying. I always found myself at the edge of the dining table trying my hardest not to get roped into their eating activities; water was enough for me. For people with eating disorders, being on a dining table alone can be very isolating.

For years on end, I led a very unhealthy lifestyle and my reasons for loving this special month were not great. But I grew older and got the help my body and soul needed. I began to see myself for what I actually was, a living body and not an object to starve. Additional­ly, what has helped me the most was preparing myself mentally for the inevitable; Ramadan was going to come regardless of how much I feared it. So, to reduce my anxiety, I prepared myself months before it came along to give myself the opportunit­y to enjoy it. The anxiety will always be there, but at least now I know how to handle it.

Today, Ramadan remains my favourite month of the year; for spiritual reasons only. Sadly however, I always meet it with high anxiety because it can be very triggering to my old ways. Fasting unfortunat­ely sheds light on a previous life that overtook my existence for over a decade. I sometimes catch myself going back to old habits subconscio­usly which is why it is important to stay on high alert throughout the month. It is very helpful to remind oneself that you are taking part in a spiritual activity, you are not actively participat­ing in what gave you an eating disorder.

This distinctio­n is in finding the balance between your eating history and spiritual duties.

When Ramadan comes knocking, it is important to shield yourself with a support system. There is no shame in having a dietitian and therapist to help you avoid unhealthy paterns and thoughts related to eating. Above all, make sure to confide in people you trust and who have supported you with your struggles. Their presence can alleviate the stress and make them more conscious of how they behave around you and the comments they make to you. Your support system can also help you accept that you are not a villain for eating too much or too litle.

Throughout my recovery journey, I have learnt that the most significan­t thing to have is self-compassion. During all times, especially in Ramadan, be more mindful of how you see yourself and how you speak of yourself. Above all, know what your boundaries are. It is okay for you to get up and leave the dining table. It is okay to have a bad day where your relationsh­ip with food is not ‘ordinary’. The best thing you could do is to remind yourself that you are brave and strong. It is a beautiful spiritual time and you can enjoy it. During this month, you will get to know yourself on another level. Allow yourself to have moments of discomfort and distrust. You are exploring the bounds of your dynamic with food. Regardless of how you feel at the give moment, you should never stop learning how to do beter for your body.

Ramadan and holiday seasons in general can be quite difficult for people with eating disorders. Therefore, it is vital to discuss the topic not only to benefit those struggling, but to raise social awareness on how to act in front of and around people suffering from eating disorders in such seasons. It can be easy to isolate yourself throughout the month but do not let your eating disorder control you. You deserve to enjoy the festivitie­s and rituals just as much as everyone else.

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