Take care of yourself this Ramadan

Ramadan always brings a mix of emotions for me – relief, excitement, reflection and anxiety that I won’t be good enough to fulfil the requirements that come with the Muslim holy month.

Ramadan is predominantly known as a time for abstaining from food and drink – yes, that means no water – from sunrise to sunset, every day for a month. But it’s so much more than abstaining from food. It’s a time to detox your body and mind; a time to disconnect from the chaos of the world around us and connect with the divine. It’s a time to consider your actions, and make a conscious effort to walk with a kind and hopeful heart. It’s more than abstaining from food: it’s abstaining from bad-mouthing, anger, hatred, impatience and ill-will. 

This sounds great, right? It really is. I want to be clear as I write to you – there are many benefits of Ramadan, especially reflecting upon the state of the world today. Life can make you feel so helpless sometimes. We are connected on a global level, now more than ever before, and while that can be wonderful, it also means you bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Scroll through a social media platform like Twitter for five minutes and you’ll see memes, headlines about war, poverty, death and racism and sexism… oh, and more memes. The internet has opened our eyes to every issue the planet has ever had, and our brains are not wired to be exposed to this volume of traumatic events. Is it any wonder you’re feeling drained right now?

Ramadan provides relief in granting permission to switch off from worldly news and find some peace in the solitary silence of prayer, reflection, and speaking to God. It gives you time to find your footing in a world that sweeps you off your feet with all its obligations and problems. It’s a time to think about charity, the fulfilment of your spiritual needs, and how you can leave a positive footprint on the planet.

What is important to remember is that Ramadan will look different to every individual. 

While Islam makes it explicitly clear that only Allah can judge us, people often commit the offence of judging others anyway. Not everybody can fast, and that is okay. Some of us have health issues that require medication that must be taken at specific times. This means fasting might not be possible. Allah wants you to take care of your body and mind. Sacrificing your well-being should never be part of the deal. Ramadan is about self-sacrifice, sure, but not to your detriment. Remember that Allah loves you first. 

When someone has a heart condition and cannot fast, people tend to understand. When it comes to requiring medication or specific routines for mental health disorders, then that understanding often melts away and morphs into something more judgemental. One Ramadan, I was taking medication for clinical depression. The judgement I felt from those around me deflated me greatly. People insinuated that if I was depressed I must be lost, and that I needed to find my way back to God. In fact, I had an extreme serotonin imbalance that needed to be treated with medication.

While prayer can be the answer to many things, it shouldn’t get in the way of medical advice that maintains your quality of life or which, in extreme cases, could save your life. If I hadn’t maintained a steady routine of medication, exercise and diet during Ramadan – despite the status quo telling me to do otherwise – I don’t know what would have happened to me. Maintaining a familiar routine that maintained my mental health to a standard that kept me safe was vital. Even if people around me didn’t understand, I knew Allah did, and that had to be enough for me.

I know people who have suffered from eating disorders that make fasting very tough. When you have a deep psychological battle with your relationship with food, sudden and extreme abstinence should be approached with care and support. 

It doesn’t mean we can’t still feel able to try. If you fast some days, then that’s excellent. God loves a trier, and what more could be expected from you than that? If you can’t fast, you can still pray. If the guilt from not fasting plagues you, you can increase your charity efforts. Look after the community around you, check up on your neighbours (social distancing permitting). See who and how you can help the world around you, whether it’s contributing to a food bank or volunteering at a charity. But look, maybe that is too much at the moment too. I promise you, my friend, that that’s okay.

Sometimes, getting out of bed is the day’s achievement. My empathy goes out to people who are battling a mental health disorder during this pandemic. I’m there with you. We have to congratulate ourselves for staying alive; we deserve that kindness. So if all you can do is get out of bed and have a shower, that’s okay. If all you can manage is eating and medication, that’s okay. Nobody has the right to judge your actions, and nobody has the right to comment on your resilience. If you’re alive, you are resilience embodied. You are not weak.

I was often made to feel weak by people who should have known that God loves kindness, not judgement. It was their fault, their shortcoming and their sin to judge me for my mental health conditions, which weren’t theirs to comment on. Your needs won’t always be understood by those who surround you. This is a harsh truth that I need you to understand so that the weight of being misunderstood by those you love won’t crush you. We can’t change others, but we decide how others make us feel. Allah understands your heart. The understanding that exists between you and your creator is all that you need to focus your energy on. Ramadan is more than abstinence. It’s about what you can do for others. That journey starts by looking after yourself.

Maz Halima’s Ramadan Diary. A BBC Short film.

Resources and additional reading that might be helpful during Ramadan for those experiencing mental health issues: