Ramadan is Islam’s holiest month, when Muslims observe a fast of food and drink, among other things, from sunrise to sunset.
Fasting in Ramadan is one of the five pillars in Islam, and it is a time of spiritual renewal, worship, and community for Muslims across the world. I grew up in a traditionally observant Muslim family and started fasting when I was about ten years old. When I was younger, I would always look forward to Ramadan as a time to get right with God and spend some dedicated time on my faith and my personal development. The time was also special because of the evenings I got to spend with my family and the sense of community shared by Muslims gathering for Fitar (breakfast) and prayers.
Now in my early twenties, Ramadan is a different kind of anniversary, and its approach is unfortunately much more foreboding than it used to be. Ramadan for me marks one of the most challenging times in my life; when I was not only struggling to keep my faith but my life against self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder.
For several years, I struggled to acknowledge my condition and seeking professional help for it, although I was probably aware of it and running out of coping mechanisms for most of seven years prior. It was five years ago during the first two weeks of a summer Ramadan when the days were exceptionally long and the fasting hours felt particularly insurmountable.
I was living alone at the time and hadn’t been to work in weeks. I had reached a level of hopelessness that had utterly debilitated me, and I felt that I couldn’t manage anymore.
I no longer wanted to be alive.
Like any other religious community, and, despite all the warnings and teachings against it, Muslims are big on appearances.
Mental health remains a taboo subject amongst the Muslim and particularly immigrant communities of color. To be depressed is to have a weakness of faith. It is seen as an incorrigible lack of gratitude for all the blessings God has given you.
Mental illness is considered self-indulgence that if not treated through prayer and recitation of ‘those four verses’ is surely a mark of the devil himself. A lot of work has been done by young Muslims to combat stigma and raise awareness about the danger of these attitudes but also the allowances and tolerance of the faith under these circumstances. For years, I was told that I was not depressed and that whatever was making me feel the way I did not compare in the grand scheme of global atrocities.
I was told that if I prayed hard enough and turned away from sinful behavior or deeds, I would find the internal peace and the contentment I was longing for. It is utterly cruel to tell a clinically depressed person to do anything other than seek professional help, which is what I eventually did.
It took me about two years to overcome my own internalized stigma against medication.
At first, I was given a low dose of anti-depressants. My dose was slowly increased and although the medication helped get me back to ‘functional capacity,’ it made many things much, much worse. The effect of this type of medication varies for different people, but for me, it was like putting on a pair of noise-canceling headphones that filtered my emotions into various degrees of fatigue.
I was always tired, not sad or happy, just sort of numb and exhausted. As my anxiety got worse, my doses increased and I was given medication for special and desperate circumstances.
People who are traveling, ill and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or menstruating are exempt from fasting. They can either make it up later in the year or perform certain acts of charity to compensate if they’re unable to fast. However, to not fast, without an excuse and without trying is a sin only redeemable by two months of fasting straight for each day of Ramadan missed.
If nothing else, this highlights the importance of fasting in Ramadan.
On medication, I was able to physically make it through the day, but given my limited capacity for most things, it meant that I couldn’t do much else. It exacerbated my mental health conditions to the point where I was finding myself back in that pit of hopelessness and despair where I would want to take my own life.
I couldn’t make it to the Taraweeh prayers, and I didn’t go to any breakfast gatherings.
I didn’t want to be around other Muslims because it made me feel inadequate and resentful of how they could all do it, even children.
I felt like a bad Muslim.
Like I didn’t belong.
All of this stemmed from the emotional stonewall my condition and the medication had created. The sermons and the prayers no longer moved me. I didn’t even feel like I deserved to pray for anything because I hadn’t met one of the basic tenets of my religion.
It didn’t make sense to me that no clause or condition permitted not fasting in my circumstance.
The problem is religion is interpreted by people who experience the world with their own biases. If those handing out the rulings are still unable to understand mental illness as a real thing, then, of course, the precedent would not exist.
One day, I got in touch with a scholar online and described my situation to him very briefly. I was worried that he would say something along the lines of “just pray and God will get you through it,” but he didn’t. So now I don’t fast during Ramadan, I don’t even try to because I know I don’t have to and that it’s okay.
There are many things I used to be able to do that I can’t anymore.
My mental illness is a disability. With regards to Ramadan, I can’t fast, and I can’t manage long periods of worship such as prayer or recitation of the Quran. I’ve had to completely re-imagine my relationship and practice of the faith within my capacity, but that’s okay.
Now, instead of having a list of goals for each month I try to pick a theme of something I’m trying to change in myself or my life and how that ties in with my spiritual development and relationship with God.
I still feel somewhat estranged from the Muslim community and at times even my own family. I never used to speak openly about this because it is a painful and personal struggle of mine. However, over the past year, I have been trying in my way to challenge the stigma and extend a hand to others suffering and striving through something similar.
I want them to know they are not alone.
I know that my struggle is not singular, and if nothing else my empathy towards Muslims and other people of faith who have similar battles has deepened infinitely. I’m not the first person to say this, but for all the visibility that Ramadan has like a month of celebration, worship, and community, little light is shed on the strain it puts on people.
Neuroatypical Muslims, Muslims struggling with eating disorders, LGBTQ Muslims estranged from their families, Muslims enduring abusive family relationships to keep up the pretense for the Iftar parties, Muslims struggling to consolidate their identity and faith in a world violently riddled with racism and Islamophobia, and new Muslims who are struggling to find their place and faith all at once, and so many more.
Ramadan is a beautiful time, but it can also be incredibly difficult.
If I were to choose a theme for this Ramadan, I would hope that it would be one of compassion. I hope we can share our stories and struggles and humanize each other and I suppose this is my contribution to that.