I write this article on the seventh day of Ramadhan to remind myself and others about what this month is about and what its objectives are. I am thirsty and hungry, but I will bear it patiently for the next few weeks in the hope of abundant rewards.
I have been a resident at a mental health rehabilitation unit for three years. Before the spread of Covid-19, we didn’t have many restrictions, and I could freely visit family or receive visitors on the ward.
I have lived with mental health issues for the past decade and have had a number of long admissions on acute mental health wards. Due to the frequency of my admissions, doctors decided that I needed to be at a rehabilitation unit.
The unit is home to 14 male patients with an average stay of about two years. During my stay, I have benefitted from psychological input and learned skills like cooking and budgeting. I have found it to be a safe place where no one will judge you.
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My experience of fasting in an in-patient mental health rehabilitation unit
Over the past week, things have changed drastically for me on the ward due to Ramadhan. My days and nights have reversed; I sleep in the day and stay awake at night. I eat at 3 am and finish my fast at about 8 pm.
Fasting is practised in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. There are more than 1.8 billion Muslims throughout the world who fast in the month of Ramadhan; it is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. From China in the East to Egypt in Africa, Muslims from every country refrain from eating, drinking or smoking between dawn and sunset.
Fasting in Ramadhan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It aims to create self-discipline and piety, but very importantly, it creates empathy for the poor and destitute - for people starving day in and day out with no end in sight to their hunger. The revelation of the Quran also started in the month of Ramadhan, so the Quran is recited copiously by believers.
It is a month where charity is emphasised along with feeding the poor. After going through hunger and thirst for a month, it creates a profound feeling of gratitude. Fasting is not just a question of abstaining from food and drink. It is also a spiritual month in which lying, backbiting and slandering are especially discouraged. It is a month when you learn to control your eyes, ears and tongue. Not to listen to wrong. Not to look at wrong. Not to speak wrong.
There is also a special night in the final ten days of Ramadhan called the Night of Power when Muslims try to worship more than usual as it is exceptionally meritorious. Families typically come together in this month, but due to Covid-19 -like last year- this will not happen this Ramadhan. Thanks to technology such as Skype and Facetime, however, families can still share this precious time together. There is also an emphasis on sharing food with neighbours and the less well off, and it isn’t uncommon to receive different scrumptious dishes from various neighbours during Ramadhan.
I have fasted from a young age; I remember how excited we would be during Ramadhan; we would go to the shop and buy chocolate and drinks hours before Iftar, which is the meal that completes the fast for the day. My siblings and I would compete with each other over who could keep the most fasts. The most exciting time would be a few minutes before Iftar; we would pray and keep an eye on the clock simultaneously; there was no way we would delay opening the fast.
When I was much younger me and my siblings used to have two fasts, one till lunchtime and one till Iftar. We would earn money by doing this twice a day. When the fast finished at sunset, we would have delicious food from chickpeas, samosas and kebabs to chips, burgers and pies. We would have special yoghurt and sweet milk dishes for dessert alongside Bangladeshi sweets. It is customary worldwide to open the fast with a humble date, then to eat to your fill. Even as a child, the experience taught me gratitude and the importance of being thankful for food.
As a diabetic, I am exempt from fasting, I am a client at a rehabilitation unit, so I am exempted twice. However, along with the advice of doctors, I prefer to fast during this special month. I have had numerous Ramadhans where I have fasted as a patient on acute mental health wards. This is my third Ramadhan on this unit.
I thank the doctors, nurses and other staff on the rehabilitation unit for making it possible for me to fast this month. The staff allow me to use the ward kitchen so I can prepare a meal in the early morning. They wake me up for my pre-dawn meal if I fall asleep.
They rigorously monitor my blood for low or high sugar levels.
It does get lonely on the unit, as I am the only one fasting, but I have invited my friend at the unit to join me regularly for the end of fast meal so that I can share the special moment with someone. I will keep connected with my family and have E- meals with them.
But mainly, I will pray for the less well off and give charity abundantly. My family regularly send food to me to open my fast with.
To make life easier, staff do my Iftar and morning meal shopping for me. I also have access to the kitchen whenever I need to use it. Staff and patients alike ask me how fasting is going and give me words of encouragement.
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Ramadhan is a period of contemplation and sacrifice
In a world where enough food is produced to feed every person, nearly a billion people still go to bed at night hungry. This is unacceptable; how can we greedily overeat and waste food when so many people are starving. During this unprecedented time, alongside the victims of Covid-19, we need to empathise with the hundreds of millions who are suffering from hunger and privation and donate to charity and avoid wasting food.
After Ramadhan finishes, it is a time of joy and happiness at completing such a gruelling task, and Muslims celebrate Eid. Children get new clothes and money, and tasty food is shared between family members. Special charity is collected at mosques, and friends and relatives visit each other. It is a day of reflection and success at having fasted for a month. With the easing of the lockdown, I hope to soon meet my friends and family in person.
To read more about Muhammed's experience with mental health visit his blog.