there was I time the obsession with not eating and pushing my body beyond its limits completely took me over. It made me destroy myself, both physically and mentally, until I was reduced to a pile of bones, incapable of anything, and even then I was unable to acknowledge it. But, alhamdulillah, my luck was that this happened in an environment which showed me another way of thinking, enabled me to slowly recover, and additionally also embrace monotheism and eventually Islam. Although it would be a lie to say I’m fully healthy now, I’ve made a lot of progress, and am now doing things I could have never dreamt of doing back then.
Disclaimer: The content in this article may be triggering foursome people. Our website, content, and products are for informational purposes only. War against Eating Disorder does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Please find below an incredible tale of faith, healing and Eating Disorder. This was sent to us by Dries from Belgium.
We post the unedited version below. We thank Dries for this timely contribution, indeed his tale will touch and impact lives of many. Recently we’ve received many stories from Young Muslim Men. We will be sharing them on our website soon. We thank Dries for his hard work and we thank everyone from across the world for supporting our work.
A Journey of a Brave Young Man from Anorexia to
The short summary is this: there was I time the obsession with not eating and pushing my body beyond its limits completely took me over. It made me destroy myself, both physically and mentally, until I was reduced to a pile of bones, incapable of anything, and even then I was unable to acknowledge it. But, alhamdulillah, my luck was that this happened in an environment which showed me another way of thinking, enabled me to slowly recover, and additionally also embrace monotheism and eventually Islam. Although it would be a lie to say I’m fully healthy now, I’ve made a lot of progress, and am now doing things I could have never dreamt of doing back then.
I believe now this was mostly a spiritual problem. As a teenager I was, like many European youth, one of the people calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. I was trusting the itching feeling of transcendence which seemed to be always present, and dwelled all over in search of it. Humbleness seemed to be a constant term in these explorations, but the way I tried to embody it differed greatly through time. Soon, food started to be the center of attention. Ethical considerations merged with self-restriction, and after the first time of not eating for a day I got hooked. It felt like life gained an intensity it never had before, and controlling the desire for food gave me a challenge, uplifting my self-esteem. The feeling of pushing my body way beyond its boundaries became an addiction, and took me over completely. The irony is though, while doing it, I thought I was in complete control over myself. But, looking back now, the eating disorder had taken me over completely, and I had actually lost all control. Every second I was awake I was thinking about food, about eating as less of it as possible, and spending as much energy as I could. I was exercising obsessively, and even when not exercising I was unable to take even a few seconds of rest, never sitting without employing at least one muscle group. When I did eat, it was like hell. The confusion over what I could and could not eat made me so tense, and indecisive, I ended up often stopping after a few bites. Even while sitting with friends, my thoughts would constantly go back to if, when and how I should take a bite, and more often than not I ended up doing nothing.
On the outside, however, I conveyed my illusions of being in full control. I could often be heard speaking about how we really don’t need as much food as we eat, and the effects of overconsumption on the planet. I explained my slow eating as ‘enjoying the food as much as possible’, falling asleep early and waking up at 5am as ‘healthy’ and always being cold as ‘just a problem of adjusting’. I convincingly brushed away all ideas of a problem.
After some time, the exercising really started to take its toll. Muscles were pulling, bones and joints started to hurt too much to continue. For a while, I went from exercising one muscle group to the other, every time avoiding the injured one until an injury came to another one and I went back to the semi-healed group. I started to only be satisfied if my mind went completely blank and my sight red. At one point, every part of my body started giving up on me. Something clicked in my mind. Exercising is superfluous, I thought. It’s a waste of time. I started eating even less, so I could reach the same state from just living through the day.
Another ironic point is I was actually studying applied psychology at the time. It was in this function I got the opportunity to go to India for an internship. The weeks before going, I had no classes, and almost no assignments to do. This is the time my state got worse than it ever was, and my thoughts were anxiously circling around food and using energy. My interest in spirituality only supported this. While engaging in the popular ‘pick and mix’ spirituality, I was selecting only elements from religions which enforced my ideas about transcending the body and removing earthly enjoyment. I built a strong fascination with skin-over-bone ascetics, and read a lot of poetry and other texts which I could relate to my obsessions, whether explicitly or by reading them in distorted ways.
When I went to India, the first weeks improved my status a lot. Although hesitantly and with a lot of trouble, I was able to set aside my obsession with the ingredients of dishes that were served when we ate at peoples homes, and at least ate some bites even when doubting. The compliance of Tamil cuisine with my vegetarianism made it easier, but it was mainly the warm and fascinating culture which eased my thoughts. The exercising came back for a while though, especially at night and in the early morning before starting our busy internship days, until injuries prevented me from continuing again. Food took over my thoughts again, and I limited myself to my own cooked food which contained next to zero energetic value, eating it slowly and often alone, as eating with others became so stressful because of the constant conflict between conversation and taking bites. Every time I took a bite, I felt disgusted by myself, because I thought I ‘betrayed’ my friends for food.
Fast forward some time, and the physical problems worsened: I started fainting regularly, and my limbs stopped supporting my body properly. It became worse and worse, until my body had burned so much of its muscles, as I learned later. This caused me to not have the strength to get up without aid, or to carry a 2liter water bottle for longer than two minutes, even to hold up my own pee. Limbs hurt from just sitting or lying. Strangely, I enjoyed even this, and after some major breakdowns still kept justifying myself. I lost control of myself completely, sometimes even cursing people who tried to make me eat things I didn’t want. I broke contact with everyone at home, only sending a superficial e-mail to my parents every other week and the obligatory internship reports to our teacher. I reduced myself to a miserable heap of bones, spending so much time regretting my behavior, and even then failed to see the real problem. I was always thinking ‘I just need to eat a little fats, or a protein, or salt, or sugar, it’s all because of the hot climate.’ I failed to see what I really became, even when I was forced to spend a large part of the day sleeping, especially in May when temperatures rose to 50 degrees Celsius. I hope Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, can forgive me for all these horrible things I’ve done.
Our friends, neighbors and internship supervisors never gave up on me, even though I became a burden to all of them, and never even pushed me really hard, for which I’m really grateful. This continued support, and my growing love for the Tamil culture and language, must have clicked at some point. In one of the regular feverish dreams I had, it just came to me, and everything people had been telling me started dripping through the barriers I’d build in my mind. In this state, I could never be of any significant help to others. What’s the use in spending all this energy if it only means something to yourself, I thought. And, if you really love this place so much, why do you waste your time here lying around and worrying about eating? I was wasting away all of the things I loved. I couldn’t engage in conversations, read, write, roam around, meet new people, work, I couldn’t do anything properly. There was no strength, no focus, everything just went past me or danced in front of my eyes. More importantly, the thought came, if I learned anything from the people in this village, shouldn’t it be that spirituality is not (only) about some abstract ideas and leaving the world behind, but rather mostly about engaging in this world, in community and reciprocity? I saw the self-centeredness of my spirituality up to then, and that while trying to transcend my desires I was actually feeding them in a perverted way. And most importantly, I finally broke down my unconscious tendency to think I was smarter, and knew better. See, even before leaving to India people told me I was too skinny all the time, and even the doctor who had to check whether I was healthy enough to travel told me I should not loose even a gram, because I was at the bare limit. I listened, and then thought “yeah but I can handle it, I’m used to it, I don’t need all this mass, I can loose some more.” I listened to everyone, but as soon as it concerned my physical health, I thought my own thoughts while silently nodding.
Finally, I was able to admit the problems, during this night of constant fever dreams, rough awakenings, falling when getting out of the bed, getting back in and repeating the cycle. I woke up exhausted but convinced, at last. The dreams felt as if I had died and come back. I was used to exhaustion. It was the only state that ever felt satisfying then, but this morning it felt different. I felt like I had at last surrendered, which felt strangely satisfying. I didn’t know to what I had surrendered, though, so I just started to listen to others’ advice from that morning onwards. When they told me to do something, I tried to do it blindly, but that turned out to be harder than I thought. I was theoretically convinced that this would be better, and had this intense experience to back it emotionally, but anytime I ate something rich in energy or I took too much rest, my mind got taken over again, and I started moving uncontrollably, at times banging my head against walls or floors, swinging my arms with ‘heavy’ objects- I was torn between the desire to get better and the disordered thoughts which had built up so long. I went through the same processes almost daily, going from feeling energy and engaging in something meaningful, like a conversation or joining a ride to a beautiful place or some interesting gathering, and the pure bliss of feeling like I was on the right path again, to being taken over by uncontrollable emotions and thoughts, always ending with giving up and eventually falling asleep, only to repeat it again after waking up. The highs were higher than they have ever been for me, but the lows were also so low I could only silently scream within myself- why, why is this happening to me? I found some meaning in going through hardship to come out better, but this was too much, I just couldn’t handle it, it was way beyond my capacities to deal with this. Slowly but steadily, though, and with the help of neighbors and friends, the good moments began to last longer, and my physical state became good enough to walk around on my own, join people here and there in the village. Probably also because of the exhaustion that came with this, the moments of loosing control remained as frequent and bad, but I was able to accept them more. As long as I could keep benefiting from this beautiful time, these people, interesting culture and language, I could manage.
I think there, as well, the unexpected love I felt for the people, culture and language of Tamil Nadu settled in my heart completely. My interest in spirituality re-emerged again along with it. This village breathed, as I said before, a spirituality that was different of how I had thought of spirituality before. It seemed focused on relationality more than abstract concepts, and an almost self-evident acceptance of the transcendent. There were many rituals, but no one was able to explain what they ‘meant’: they just did them. Their Gods were part of lives and thoughts, but not in a theoretical way, rather in an embodied manner, through service, worship and behavior, without abstract explanations for any of these. Experiencing this all first-hand, and in light of my realization, I thought this approach to be fitting for my transition to a better life. The rituals became an expression and mold for my quest for submission, and the Tamil lifestyle a great way to prioritize relationality over other concerns. Something was still feeling a little off, though, and especially learning about their complex religion turned out to be too overwhelming. The internship mentor took me to many places and people to observe and talk about religious topics, with people of various backgrounds. When talking with a Christian minister, his seemed like a better way to go, combining both worlds, the village spirituality and my need for clear-cut intellectual explanations. He appeared to have the same attitudes, but also some theoretical background for them which seemed acceptable to submit to. I parked these spiritual questions aside, though, and focused on submitting to the lifestyle of the people around me. After a while, I was managing to eat three meals a day, and more or less deal with the mental repercussions afterwards, although these sometimes lasted for hours, constantly fighting the thoughts and urges, releasing some in mildened form, repressing others only to see them come out some time later.
Then the time came to return home, something I was not really capable of physically, looking back on it, but we still managed to get there. I think the moment I saw my parents was when I was really confronted with the size of the problem. The fellow student and friend travelling with me met his parents with great joy, mine just nodded and took me to the car, ordering me to sleep. This was the start of about a year of being confined and put in front of a mirror. The eating disorder worsened with the feeling of loss of an opportunity, and the incapability to recognize that I still had a long way to go. In the village, when I started eating again, no one told me I couldn’t do something or confronted me with my problematic health, except for some rare instances. But now, not a day went by without people reducing me to the eating disorder. We made a deal, that I would be followed closely by a doctor, and if the weight didn’t increase I had to be admitted. During a year I went forward with some hundreds of grams a week, sometimes stagnating, losing weight, going up a little again. I was still unable to read more than a page without losing clear sight, my hair was not growing back, everyone told me I walked so slow while to me it felt like I was rushing. People in our hometown thought I had some severe disease, and in a cynical way, they were right. The amount of chaos in my mind was way worse than it ever had been in India. I am really grateful for how everyone dealt with me, and kept their patience, but it seemed like any qualitative contact with others became almost impossible, and encounters were often humiliating. One instance still appears to me as a flashbulb memory, where my parents took me on a trip in a wheelchair, and some guy passing by in a car gave me his sunglasses in such a kind way, which at the same time gave me great joy to see his kindness, but also humiliated me to the point where I wanted to merge with the floor. As soon as the disordered thinking entered my mind, and there were never more than five minutes where I was getting rest from it, the contact I had with others got spoiled. I felt Isolated, and the three or four times old friends came to visit were just as estranging as their were heart-warming. The days afterwards, the warmth was flooded by blaming myself for not being able to pay attention to the conversation, or the mistakes I made. I remember one of these visits happened during dinner time, so I was put there with my dinner, while my friends took along fast-food and ate with me. The night passed, and I hadn’t taken a single bite, despite touching the food from time to time and playing with it. When they left, the frustration of my parents could only be topped by my own inner conflict between feeling the same frustration and wanting to be left at peace with my friends just for once.
It’s in this period I started to return to religion. I read most of the bible, one page at a time, and started to pray in the moments where I felt most desperate. As summer ended, I had no idea of where life was moving. My parents suggested to pursue another degree, starting with one or two courses which I could self-study at home. I was still unable to take decisions properly, sometimes even going in full crisis when picking pants to wear, and now I had to make a choice defining at least the next couple of years of my life. After talking to some people from religious studies, we went with this choice. I managed to register for the two most basic courses, and devoted all my energy to studying them. This gave me something to put my mind to, and made it easier to make progress in fighting the disorder. I studied myself to exhaustion, limiting the exercise obsession to one hour of walking every day, with some regular relapses. I had longer periods without being overtaken by disordered thought, of at times half an hour to an hour, where I was immersed in studying. In addition, the theology courses became my framework for dealing with life.
After doing good in the two exams, and despite still being physically and mentally not fully capable of doing this, I moved into a student room in the second semester, now taking four of the six courses I was supposed to take in this semester. I limited my life to studying and prayer, and started to go to church for some days a week, where I sought contact with a group of Tamil Christians. The contact with them, and hearing the language, really contributed to feeling some kind of well-being at times.
After a month, one of the friends I had made while volunteering in a refugee centre near our home some years before, sent me a message. He was one of some Muslim friends I had good contacts with back then. Two others had moved to another city, and one of the other volunteers, the mother of a friend, took me there a couple of times, where we had intense conversations about spirituality and my eating disorder, which I still could not call by this name then. These left me filled with mental and spiritual energy to keep searching, but at the same time exhausted me so much physically that I always had to take naps while staying with them.
But back to the other friend who sent me a message, he was the one who once gave me a Qur’an. Of course, at the time my mind was taken over by ideals of fighting desires, not eating and obsessive exercise, that although reading the complete translation in some days with engagement and interest, I read it in a terribly distorted way. We did have some interesting conversations though, but the answers I got to my questions were not satisfying enough. He sent me a message now, more than two years later, asking me how I was doing. Coincidentally, he had moved to the same city where I was staying to study now, and when we met up the reunion was as warm as ever. In our second meet-up he, along with a new friend who taught Arabic as a volunteer, something I tried to pick up again after studying it some years ago, took me to the student mosque. There, some things clicked again. The atmosphere was something I had never witnessed before. It was a night of Ramadan, and people were discussing scripture while breaking their fast in group, cheerfully going between jokes and serious conversation on theology. One thing which always struck me in the Muslim friends at the asylum center was their sincerity, their patience in those trying circumstances and the way life seemed to have a different kind of seriousness to them. Here, I saw all these things again, but now in a group of students. When the time for the ‘isha’ prayer came, one of them invited me to join them, by just listening to the sounds and imitating the movements. It was there, the first or second rak’a, after listening to the mesmerizing recitation, bowing in ruku’ and then eventually planting the forehead on the ground in sujood, it clicked. I can try to give words to this, but they can never capture it: it just felt right, like giving up but in a good way, giving up struggling against God and at last submitting to him, a true surrender, now. After the prayer, a convert brother sat me down and we talked about the basics of Islam and my own spiritual struggles. I stayed and sat, too exhausted to join the taraweeh prayers, but being all the more drawn into what was happening.
The months following this, I started going to the mosque more and more, while still going to the church once a week. Looking back, while at the time I thought the Abrahamic bond allowed me to combine both, it were rather the social contacts and emotional bond I had built up in the church which kept me from fully converting, despite praying the five prayers and spending more time at the mosque than at home. It probably took me another 6 months, but then a friend gave me the small nudge I needed, and I at last said the shahada.
Islam has been one of the biggest blessings in this life. The more I learned about the prophet, sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallim, the more my love for him grew, and the more I read in the Qur’an, the more it settled in my heart. Frequently, some verse will even pass through my mind, as if it’s giving a commentary on the situation happening at the moment, and hearing something about the prophet, sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallim, will melt my heart instantly, especially in form of poetry. But it’s been the prayer which has been the biggest blessing, I think, a daily refuge, something returning my focus when I’m getting lost, a guide, a comforter. This feeling of giving up on my resistance against God still occurs to me regularly when getting into sujood. A friend once said: “I envy you converts. Every time you make wudu’ and pray, you become Muslim again.” I think he’s right.
Despite this, though, Islam has not been a cure for the eating disorder. It for sure offers many ways to deal with it: the limited fasting, the community encouraging eating when breaking the fast, a way to capture the chaotic thoughts as waswas, which makes them seem a little more manageable, the prayer, of course, comforting and confronting at the same time, the example of the prophet, sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallim, to follow. And although, alhamdulilah, I managed to reach a healthy weight and a functioning body, this did not happen in a healthy way at all. The ‘method’ I used to eat without completely creating a crisis in my mind, just created a new problem. While doing other things during meals to take my mind of off it does take away the thoughts while eating at times, it also makes me eat way too much, which then creates way bigger problems after eating. Alhamdulilah, I managed to stop the purging since some weeks now, but still engage in compensating behavior daily. While the exercising is a little more controlled now, I only rarely have days where I don’t skip meals, or compromise on sleep to justify the food I had. I go from barely eating for some days to eating way too much at once, every week, loosing and gaining sometimes up to 5kg. I find myself miserably beating myself every couple of days. It even disturbs my prayer; I’ll end up banging my head on the floor sometimes, crying and lying down before starting the next rak’a. But then, eventually, Allah’s mercy, subhanahu wa ta’ala, will fill my heart again, and I can keep going on. There’s some days eating even becomes the blessing it is, and not a confusing and troubling task. And although fasting is still a big danger, especially alone, I manage to experience it as a spiritual experience without focusing on the physical aspect about half of the time now. In the good moments, it all looses its importance. There’s something bigger now, which is always present, although sometimes barely there, but it’s there. Religion has become the number one priority, something to turn to in positive and negative moments. And Allah is the best of planners, but I have some idea of where I could be headed this life in the dunya as well, which could be useful to others, if I manage to get a grip of myself some more.