“I was admitted at 31kg,” Aneesa begins.
On a display cabinet in her living room is a graduation photograph of Aneesa when she obtained her MBBS medical degree.
The smile in her photograph betrays the eight years that she spent getting her degree, three of them battling anorexia.
Aneesa and her family are neighbours. I remember her as a little girl in the playground when I used to drop my younger sister to primary school.
She went to a local state secondary school where she excelled in her education, gaining a university place at one of London’s top medical schools. She is now in her late 20s.
“My eating disorder began at the end of my second year,” Aneesa continues. “I had everything: a loving family, a fit and healthy body, I came top in my exams…”
I try to find out what triggered Aneesa’s eating disorder so I ask her the stereotypical question that most people ignorant about anorexia ask those who suffer from it: “Were you unhappy with your body and looks?”
“That’s just it, I wasn’t,” she replies. “There are different triggers for eating disorders and one of them is certainly girls and young women who feel that they are fat, or because they want to look like a certain model or actress or celebrity.”
“But in my case it was my perfectionism,” she continues.
“I am a perfectionist and hard-worker in everything I do. So in my case my desire to make my body as perfect as I could was the trigger to my eating disorder.”
I remember what happened to Aneesa. I rang home from prison one day and my dad told me that Aneesa had been admitted into hospital. She was close to death.
“I met her father in the street and he just broke down in tears,” my dad told me. “Things are not looking good, pray for her.”
I spent many hours praying for Aneesa and asking my fellow prisoners to do the same. Her organs had begun to shut down and she was barely a skeleton.
“People think anorexia is a physical disease,” Aneesa continues. “It isn’t. It is a mental disorder. Anorexia is the only disease whose sufferers don’t want to be cured of it.”
I ask her whether Islam played any role in her disorder, either positively or negatively.
“I would spend hours poring through the books of hadith, trying to find any saying of the Prophet (pbuh) to justify to others that it was normal to eat very little.”
“My favourite was the saying of the Prophet (pbuh):
‘No man fills a vessel worse than his stomach. Sufficient it is for the son of Adam to eat one or two morsels to keep his back straight.’
I made it out as if I was trying to justify my condition to others, but in reality I was trying to convince myself that what I was doing was OK.”
Aneesa tells me that it all happened very quickly and before she knew it, she had deteriorated down to 31kg (5 stones, or 68 lbs). It was then that the reality hit her that she would die unless she did something about it immediately.
I ask Aneesa what the most difficult part of her ordeal was?
“Accepting that I had a problem,” she says. “Up to the point I agreed to be admitted into hospital, I was in denial. I refused to think that there was anything wrong with me. I thought that the people advising me to get help were the ones with a problem, not me.”
And her lowest point?
“Seeing my family suffer because of what I was going through,” she replies without hesitation.
But in Aneesa’s case there was a happy ending. After three long years in and out of hospital, she finally recovered.
She returned to medical school and graduated three years later. I ask her what gave her the strength to stay strong.
“Allah, of course, and then my family. I was blessed in that my family was right behind me throughout my ordeal,” she says.
Even though it has been seven years since she recovered, Aneesa is still getting treatment for the after-effects of her eating disorder.
She has difficulties falling, and staying asleep. In her spare time, she counsels other young Muslim girls battling anorexia.
“Anorexia is considered taboo in the Muslim community,” she comments.
“People don’t like to accept that it exists. Parents of anorexic girls think their daughter is being vain, or even possessed by jinn. They don’t think they need to seek help.”
“In many cases, something else is going on at home which triggers the eating disorder. Over-critical parents who destroy the self-confidence of their daughters, parents breaking up, broken marriages…”
I ask her what her advice would be to young girls struggling with an eating disorder.
“Accept that you have a problem, listen to those who love you, and get professional help. Fast.” I was lucky because I took action in time and recovered. Others have not been so lucky. Don’t leave it too late.”
Upon her request, I have not disclosed Aneesa’s real name and details from which she could be identified.
If you, or someone you know, suffered or suffers from an eating disorder, why don’t you share your experiences below?
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