To Fast or not to Fast- The Muslim Mental Health Dilemma

Photo Description: Tall trees in a forest with a green forest floor and a small dirt path winding through and disappearing in the distance.  The quote overlaying the photo is "An illness is an illness in the eyes of god regardless of what society things of it. - Ahmad Abojaradeh"

Photo Description: Tall trees in a forest with a green forest floor and a small dirt path winding through and disappearing in the distance.  The quote overlaying the photo is "An illness is an illness in the eyes of god regardless of what society things of it. - Ahmad Abojaradeh"

I remember the first time I fasted for a full day. I was in second grade and despite my parent's objections to fasting a full day I did. I hid it of course. I went to an Islamic School at the time, but no one expected a seven year old to fast, nor should they have. But I wanted to do it. No, I needed to. I needed to prove that I was worthy of everything everyone said you gained by fasting. You were a better Muslim because of it.

Since then, every year I look forward to fasting. Most people look forward to Ramadan, but I try to fast in the other months as well, to remind myself of the feelings I’m overcome with when I fast. Most Muslims fast to be closer to those less fortunate than them, and to be closer to God. The amount of compassion some build during this month through just the act of fasting is truly incredible.

But over the last few years Ramadan has taken a whole new meaning for me. After being on the streets, and nearly starving to death for months I found myself even more incessant of fasting. To remind myself of not only what others are going through all around the world on a daily basis, but what I’ve also gone through. For the last five years I’ve hungrily fasted and looked forward to every minute of it. I challenged myself to do everything I normally did, no matter how physically or mentally exhaustive to see how it’s really like. I could no longer work less or do any less, because everyone else, everyone actually going through this, couldn’t. And I loved it. It was my favorite religious ritual and would like to think that even if I wasn’t religious I’d try it.

But last year things started to change. Last year was the year where all of my Mental Health Illnesses came together, and I knew how to control my life to be well. That control required a specific diet, workout regimen and sleep schedule, and a million other things, but those were the daily practices I needed to pay attention to. All things I couldn’t do in Ramadan. I could sleep, but never at the right time and with the right sleep quality. I could eat of course before dawn and post sunset, but my new eating schedule affected my sleep even more. And I couldn’t workout because that conflicted with my eating schedule which conflicted again with my sleep. Sleep and I have always had an unhealthy relationship, each pushing the other past his limit until there’s only one of us left standing. Sleep pushes with insomnia, and I push with dissociation from reality and delusions. In our happy medium things are great. But when one pushes the other pushes back and I am left sleepless and disoriented unaware of what is real and what is not.

I got through the month last year. But I never recovered. The imbalance affected me for weeks after, mixed with another difficult time and I found myself falling into an abyss again. I took four months to get out of the abyss. I don’t know if this would’ve happened anyways. It was bound to at some point. But it was clear to me that fasting was no longer the healthy beautiful thing it had always been for me. Like most things, fasting was becoming something that could literally kill me.

At the time I had never heard of someone not fasting because of Mental Illness. I was raised in a society that taught me that an illness worthy of not fasting is always a physical one, and despite my work with Mental Health and Stigma reduction I never revisited that point. It wasn’t until after Ramadan that I learned that an illness is an illness in the eyes of God regardless of what society thinks of it.

For the past ten months I’ve been pondering whether or not I will fast again for this Ramadan. I’ve gone back and forth dozens of times. I have tried changing my routine enough that I may survive but… It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Recently though, I found that there’s a lot more that affects me in Ramadan than just the schedule. Ramadan is the month of giving, the month of repentance, of being the best Muslim you can be and so much more. There are so many benefits to it I can’t possibly speak of them all here, but there’s another side to the way many of us practice it. For many being the best Muslim means going to the night time prayers, reading more Quran, volunteering more, and just doing everything more. You’re expected to be more kind and patient. To be more willing to give more of yourself than ever before. To be more grateful and lively. To not allow anger into your life, or selfishness or anything like that.

But I can’t do all those things.

I can’t go to the nighttime prayer because if I’m awake that late then there’s no way I’ll survive the month. Some days the anxiety is so much that there’s no way I can even read. I volunteer as much as I can, and I love giving back, but your way of giving back might not be the same as mine and it’s hurtful when you judge me because of the difference. Some days I can’t stand anyone, and there’s no way I can give any more of myself because there’s barely any me left for me to hold onto in the first place. Suicidality guarantees that I will not be more grateful or lively. My depression does not allow me to control my emotions or even have any some days.

No one really tells me that I should be doing more, but it’s always implied. As if I’m not doing Ramadan right because I’m not doing more. It’s taken me years to get to a place where I can celebrate the sheer act of being alive an extra day. There are days where I don’t expect to open my eyes, or roll out of bed or do anything and I still view it as an accomplishment because I know the alternative. But during Ramadan, because we’re taught to see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to do better it’s easier to let go of the things that are keeping you in place and try to do more. So you do more for a week or two, not realizing just how much those two weeks will affect you in the coming months, and even years.

At this point you’re probably wondering what I’m doing this year. I have decided to fast the days I can and not the days I can’t. It sounds very simple but coming to that conclusion felt like losing a part of myself that I had cherished for years.

To fast as much as I can I have altered my schedule, diet and workouts to make sure I’m still getting the things I need. When I travel I will not fast, and when I deal with jetlag I will go easy on myself and see how things are going.

One of the main things about ramadan is community. Muslims all around the world gather with family, friends and even strangers to break their fast. Usually mosques will have community dinners and everyone gets together almost every evening.

This year though, not from any wrongdoing from the communities part, I will not be a part of any of it. I still see my roommates, and if they have people over I’ll be there for a bit, but I can’t do more than that. I can’t bear going into a mosque and hearing about how this is the time to be the best Muslim you can be by doing more. Because I can’t do more right now, and that’s okay.

I am celebrating every day that I can fast, and every day that I can’t. Some people can give to others before they give themselves and that gives them the strength to go on. I am not one of those people. So this month, if I seem distant and unavailable, it’s because I need the little bit of me that I have so I can come back next month, or the month after.

I’m still working on truly accepting that this is okay, but I could no longer accept my betrayal to myself. None of this is easy, but I know that I am privileged in being able to function without a community and I’m farther away from family who are normally a bit more demanding of us. I can decide these things and most people either wouldn’t notice or are not in any place to try to persuade me otherwise.

For the record I'm not saying people should go above and beyond with whatever they want to do. No, not at all, but just please that your above and beyond might and will most likely not entirely overlap with others above and beyond. My above and beyond is being alive, yours might be different, and that's okay. Let's celebrate our differences and everything that we are.

 

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Ahmad Abojaradeh is the Co-Founder and Director of Mental Health for MCL, An Engineer, a world traveler, a Peer Support Specialist, a Novelist and the founder and editor of Life in My Days. He hopes to spread awareness of living a life of wellness through his writing, workshops and speaker events. Follow Ahmad on twitter or facebook

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