What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love, that somehow contains the whole universe. (Jalal ud Din Rumi) By Nadia Shabir
England will be marking May as a National Mental Health Awareness month from 23rd-30th May. This month take action against eating disorders, because an eating disorder is a mental illness. Eating Disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions that have a profound impact on person’s mental and physical health. Eating disorders have a higher death rate than any other psychiatric disorder including depression and schizophrenia. These deaths tend to be due to organ failure or suicide.
Psychologists and other professionals now recognize three distinct eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder as well as eating diorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Some types of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are more profound and more in need for medical treatment than others. Anorexia nervosa is a disorder in which a person will not maintain a normal body weight, is fearful of weight gain, and has a distorted image of his or her body. People with bulimia may be a normal weight or can be overweight and this disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating and recurrent purging (through vomiting, laxative use, or even excessive exercise). Binge eating disorder has been newly classified. It is essentially a disorder in which a person engages in binge eating without compensatory or purging behaviors. 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, 10% of sufferers are anorexic, 40% are bulimic, and the rest fall into the EDNOS category, including those with binge eating disorder. Eating disorders are not uncommon in Muslim culture and Muslim countries across the world are coming to terms with this costly pandemic. However, in Muslim cultures eating disorders are a difficult topic to discuss. Sufferers and their families often experience great shame, making it difficult for the disorder to be treated.
I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in summer of 2010. I was in a process of completing necessary paper work to go to Sierra Leone to work with Ministry of Youth. Instead of getting a medical clearance to leave the country, I was forced to go to local eating disorder unit for treatment. My blood tests revealed failing kidneys and shrinking heart. My body weight was very low and my body mass index was (BMI) 13.5. The background of my illness was a feeling of dissatisfaction with my body and going on a diet to lose few kilos. Little did I know that this simple act will have dire consequences on my overall life? My diagnosis came 14 years later, at a stage where medical intervention under mental health act was necessary to keep me alive. I was emaciated and malnourished. I still remember that winter of 2010, when with dull eyes and tired mind, I looked at my psychiatrist, or perhaps I was staring into empty space, at that moment nothing existed, there was emptiness all around me, “I’ll only give you five weeks to live, you need to start eating.” Perhaps a normal person would have broken down, thinking of their departure from this world, but not me, my anorexia was too busy telling me that this was just a ploy to get me to eat. “Take a stand”, my anorexia told me. The ensuing anorexia is contagious and pure hell. It sneaks up on you and your family like the devil, insidiously destroying the fabric of closed unity and turning everything into a bitter experience.
My disorder reached a stage where though under therapy and supervision I was resistant to gain weight. Each week, I walked out of therapy vowing to myself that I will eat and nothing was going to stand in my way, or so I believed. My thoughts around food became so neurotic and deluded that I would try any method to avoid eating or eating but with an intent of getting rid of my food. It is unbelievable how deceptive, manipulative and wile a person can become to avoid eating. Every ploy is used to satisfy the needs of anorexia, even if the price comes with consequences of failing health and dying organs. A slow, painful and alluring death is subconsciously chosen as a person looses focus of their surroundings. As the days passed with my anorexia nervosa, my eyes became dull, my body began to decay, and even a normal task of holding simple conversation became too much. My vanity and self-centrism lay in having a thin, frail body, despite the fact that my hair had started to fall out and my skin was flaking. There was a little strength left to complete every day chores and I became more ambivalent and discouraged as profound melancholy engulfed my nights and days. If I wasn’t spending hours wallowing in my eating disorder misery and self pity, I was using remainder of time planning unrealistic meals, reading cook books and cooking for others. With anorexia nervosa, time does not matter; you exhibit a form of insanity- where there is a lack of will to look into future, what matters is presence and living in the nightmares of former past. I remember sitting in a therapy and staring at something innocuous like a floor carpet, and suddenly being overwhelmed by the staid conviction that life is meaningless.
It is terrible and mortifying to kill your kindred pride, to let go off your beliefs, and accept that you have an eating disorder and that you need help, not just help but help with refeeding. Letting go of this denial proved a milestone in my recovery and I would not be where I am today, if I was in denial. Recovery from eating disorder is all about experiencing and challenging your beliefs and accepting the positive that comes with restoration of nutrients in the body. It takes courage, determination and 100% support from loved ones to defeat this illness. This is indeed a journey to disillusionment, struggle, grief and everlasting relief. While prevailing misconceptions and different opinions regarding eating disorder are rampant in our society, there is an urgent need for our Muslim communities in Britain to gain understanding and to get equipped with right knowledge to handle this disorder. Don’t forget that Eating Disorders don't discriminate; they affect people of all ages, demographics and gender. Extinguish the fire of eating disorder before it spreads and engulfs you and your loved ones into its flames, and turns you into ashes.