If I Have Disordered Eating, Should I Pick a Non-Food Lenten Penance?

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I just finished cleaning out our bathroom drains.

There’s a Lenten lesson in here, I promise.

When my daughters were little, I kept their hair shoulder-length. Anything longer was way too difficult to brush without all of us ending in tears. As soon as they were old enough to take care of their own hair and choose their own hairstyles, they all went with long hair.

“Long” is an understatement. All three have hair that goes well beyond waist-length.

Pre-long hair, on those rare times our tub drains got slow, I just had to follow the directions on the bottle of commercial drain cleaner, and things would be flowing freely again within minutes.

Then long hair arrived. Before we knew it, our drains were going slow weekly. Commercial drain cleaner wasn’t cutting it. The drains would slow again within another week.

So I discovered these little disposable plastic drain snakes, specifically designed to capture long hair. Now I snake the drains every four to six weeks, and all is well.

I did promise a spiritual lesson. Here it comes.

For your average tub drain owner, commercial drain cleaner works just fine. For those of us with a different dynamic going on in our homes, we need something a little more labor-intensive in order to achieve similar results.

This time, while snaking out the drains, I was struck by the Lenten lesson this has for me as a recovering food addict.

Most Catholics give up something food-related for Lent and grow in self-control from that experience. To those of us seeking recovery from compulsive food behaviors, food penances can make us sicker.

Many of us are trying to recover from obsessive calorie restriction. Fasting may lead to a spiral of anorexic behaviors.

Others, like me, are working on breaking patterns of using fasting, especially faith-based fasting, as justification for the next binge. Still others are trying to stop using fasting to “make up for” the last binge.

Then others find themselves triggered by specific foods. Since they already abstain from every food that brings on spiritual sickness, these people often feel like they’ve run out of things to give up!

Thankfully, Lent is not and never has been about food. It’s about cooperating with God’s grace to grow towards true freedom. Jesus, who had the power to acquire anything He wanted, accepted powerlessness in order to show us the freedom that comes from relying on the Father for all good things.

Yes, He went into the desert and let Himself get hungry. He also let Himself go into the desert to be tempted with things besides food: power over God and power over people.

In order to be more like Christ, we must embrace powerlessness over the people, places, and things we wish we could control. Those things might be food. They also might be relationships, entertainment, spending, rage, our own sickness…you name it and we humans can find a way to turn it into a compulsion.

Those of us recovering from compulsive food behaviors are invited to consider that the Church’s fasting rules are different for “the physically or mentally ill.” If we really accept that we are powerless over the mind-body-soul sickness of addiction, then we do well to humbly accept that our needs are different than the average Catholic’s.

Metaphorically speaking, we are invited to accept that, in order for our spiritual tub drains to function well, we may need different care than the average Catholic who can fast without getting sicker. Our practices of Lent might be a little more labor-intensive than others’, but the end result is the same: the freedom that Christ desires for us.

See? I told you there was a Lenten lesson in the tub drain.

Erin will be one of the speakers at the first-ever Catholic in Recovery Women’s Retreat, April 5-7, 2024, at the beautiful Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. Register today!

Erin McCole Cupp, CTRC, is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. As a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach™, she coaches, writes, and teaches about trauma and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Take her quiz, “Are you spiritually ready for permanent weight loss?” at erinmccolecupp.com.