Losing Control: Navigating Disordered Eating & Lenten Fasting

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I used to treat Lent like yet another diet. My eating disorder is binge-restrict: I didn’t like the size of my body, so I’d restrict. Restricting was painful. Food was my comfort, so I binged. I’d then feel bad about my trashed self-control and poor body image, so I’d restrict. 

Pain. Binge. Restrict. Pain.

In the context of this cycle, I approached Lent as if it were just another way for me to finally get control. I thought that, with the Church putting so much focus on food, it was okay for me to do so as well. I started each Lent with the hope that, surely, this will be the year I get my eating under control, and this year’s Easter dress will be in my smallest size ever.

I think most Lents saw me gain weight.

I was missing the point. I thought the Church was putting the focus of Lent on the food because the only communal and specific rules about Lenten penance happen to be food-related: healthy adults are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to abstain from meat on both of those days plus every Lenten Friday.

My perceptions of the Church’s focus were twisted by my eating-disordered mindset. Recovery has opened my eyes to the Church’s real focus during Lent. Hers is the focus that any good mother desires for her children: freedom.

Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are called to trust that the Church is a good mother. Yes, healthy adults without eating disorders grow in freedom when they submit to the Church’s fasting rules. Those of us with eating disorders, I must humbly admit, are not healthy. I remember well the high I’d get from “following” the fasting rules, and I remember just as well the crash I’d get coming down from that dangerous-to-me high.

The Church doesn’t want us to look good. The Church wants us to become well. This is why the Church invites us to prudence. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the following clear in its Fasting Guidelines for Lent:

Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill, including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. (Emphasis mine.)

When I approached Lenten fasting as an excuse to use my binge-restrict pattern to make myself better, I was really digging myself further into my slavery to the spiritual sickness and mental obsession that I had made the center of my life. I was blaming the Church for my problems.

Recovery, just like Lent, invites me to new life through a new way of living. My addiction is a chronic illness that requires my vigilant cooperation with God’s unique plan for me. This means that my fasting may look very different from that of a person not living with the effects of food addiction.

For me, knowing that Mother Church’s desire is for my freedom, and knowing that I only went to food because going to people hurt too much, I now know that my pathway to freedom is not through anything related to food. Food was how I isolated myself and tried to control everything inside of me and everyone around me. Relationship with persons, human and divine, is where I can drop that control and experience holy freedom.

Father God and Mother Church want my freedom more than my fasting. Because I am made in the image of a triune God, a God who is relationship, that means that I am called not to isolate with food or restriction but to a communion that transcends what is or isn’t on my plate. As a member of the Catholic community, this means I humbly surrender to the guidance of my bishops and reconsider how I would most wisely live out the Church’s fasting requirements.

This also means I must stop relying on myself alone as if I don’t need a savior. Instead, I must reach for help. Yes, reaching for God in prayer counts, but God made me to be in relationship with humans on earth as well. He promises where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there with us. I find this promise in meetings, sponsorship, and daily connections with fellow travelers. Every day, Lent and beyond, I need Jesus here, truly present to save me. Relationship with the Body of Christ is real food.

Without recovery, I made Lent about the food. That made Easter about my dress size. With recovery, Lent is about my need for a savior. Easter is about how He saves me—saves all of us—in love, one day at a time.

Looking for more ways to experience your savior in those places where two or three are gathered in His name? It’s not too late to join the CIR 40 Meetings in 40 Days Challenge. Sign up today!

Erin McCole Cupp is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. She writes and speaks about mental health and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Check out her course “Filled With Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at erinmccolecupp.com.