What Lent Is Like When You Are in Eating Disorder Recovery

Ash Wednesday = no meat and fasting.
Good Friday = no meat and fasting.
40 days and 40 nights with an excuse to give up something.
Every Friday during Lent = no meat.

My eating disorder brain is throwing a party right now. I have so many perfect excuses to restrict whether it be through fasting, not eating meat or by telling myself, “for 40 days I will not eat_____.” I — I mean, my eating disorder — cannot wait until the beginning of Lent.

I’ve gone to church my whole life, every Sunday with my family. We celebrate every Catholic holiday, we attend Holy Days of Obligation, we volunteer at the church, donate blood regularly at the church and for as long as I can remember, followed all of the rules when it comes to Lent. I’ve always understood the meaning of Lent and have thought about that each year as we observe it. Since childhood I have understood this period of 40 days that come before Easter as a period of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Easter. By observing the 40 days of Lent, we as Catholics replicate the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us when he went into the desert for 40 days. Having said this however, for me, Lent in the past few years has become less about what Jesus did for us, and more about how my eating disorder can take advantage of that 40 day period.

For many people working on recovering from an eating disorder, Lent is a slippery slope, potentially a trigger for relapse. The minute you let “ED” slip in for just a second, he can easily begin to take over again. ED is convincing, it only takes one trigger, one slip, one thing for him to be back and taking up the space in your head yet again. I’m not going to let a time that is supposed to be about reflection put me into a complete relapse. So how do you go through Lent without feeling guilty? I’ve made a list of suggestions that may help someone experience Lent without the risk of falling back into their eating disorder.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

1. Don’t beat yourself up.

According to The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “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. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.” Eating disorders are very serious mental illnesses. The stigma surrounding mental illness is not even a factor when it comes to fasting during Lent. You are excused from fasting, so please stop beating yourself up with guilt for not being able to follow the “rules.”

2. Fast from something non-food related.

By fasting from something not food related, you are still choosing to use Lent as a time of reflection, but not focusing that reflection around food. Here are some ideas: Social media, complaining, hiding emotions, certain T.V. shows, staying up late and negative self-talk.

3. Follow your meal plan.

For me, since Lent has always involved food in some way. I can’t imagine not continuing to do so. For that reason, my Lenten Fast will involve food, but in a different way. I can use Lent and stay more dedicated to my health as well as my faith by eating my full meal plan. Starting on Ash Wednesday, my goal will be to eat as much of the food on my meal plan as possible. This includes grains and fats which I struggle with the most. This scares me the most, but I know will ultimately bring me closer to my faith. By being nourished, I can continue to focus on things I cherish and start to bring back in the real reason for Lent.

Going into Lent, deep down these things are scary. My head is screaming at me, and the guilt of not doing Lent “the right way” is still very loud in my brain. I know that in order to make it through Lent, I will need to use my support system, my family, my friends, my treatment team and God for support. Trying to do this alone seems so much easier, yet I know I will be less likely to be successful.
Remember this:

“Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:39

You are loved. You are loved by God, by your support system and that is something you can never hear enough. Nothing you will ever do, including not “fasting” during Lent will break the love that the Lord has for you. Don’t let your mental illness make you feel less than you are because you are so worthy of God’s love.

Getty Images photo via BrianA.Jackson

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