Well Being

Into Temptation: How to Get Through Lent Without An Eating Disorder Relapse

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young woman holding crossCatholicism is getting a lot of attention right now due to the new pope. Yet the month of March is always a big time for Catholics, because it’s the time of the year when they contemplate the life and death of Jesus Christ by observing Lent.  This six-week period leading up to Easter is supposed to be a solemn, spiritual time of reflection and prayer—but for those suffering or recovering from eating disorders, it can also be a triggering time.

Why? Because Lent—which isn’t limited to Catholicism—has a lot to do with food. The period involves days of fasting and/or abstaining from certain foods, along with giving something up for the entire stretch (and that something is usually a food product). For many people, none of this is a big deal. For someone struggling to overcome an eating disorder? The focus on food and restriction can be a minefield.

For Merry, who blogs at The Existential Eater, Lent became as much about anxiety as it was about faith. She has a history with binge eating disorder, and is now in recovery—but this time of year makes it hard, she says. Determining whether to participate in Ash Wednesday fasting began to worry her at least several weeks in advance.

“I want to love God and follow the Church’s teachings,” Merry writes. “And so I do the mental gymnastics of trying to figure out if I’m better enough to participate in the fast or if I’m just trying to weasel out because I’m lazy.”

Fasting can be a trigger for binge eating because it encourages fixation on food.

“It could trigger an intensity of craving,” says author and mental health expert Gregory Janz. “It could also trigger a sense of rebellion, which could lead to a binge.”

That's precisely Merry's issue. “ANY form of food restriction causes a chain reaction in my messed-up brain,” she writes. “If you tell me I can’t have (fill in the blank), it’s all I can think of.”

So what to do? Both Janz and Merry agree: It’s a personal choice to fast, and there are options.

“Maybe just pick one food item that you’re going to fast from, and just use it that way,” Janz suggests. “Or … maybe not even a food fast at all.”

If the goal is sacrifice and reflection, why not a technology fast? Or get creative. If you're a beauty product fanatic, go without makeup; if you're a bookworm, take a fast from reading and try using the time to pray, volunteer or do something else spiritual/charitable instead.

When in doubt, turn to someone who may be able to talk you through temptation—and offer assurances that your illness isn't at odds with God's will.

For Merry, this meant talking to her priest, who reassured her that fasting was only for those who were physically able. “I was simply not able,” she writes. “He was right. Those first years I was actually unable to consider fasting.”

Now, in recovery, she’s taking it one year at a time and trying to keep the real meaning on Lent and the Easter season in mind.

“My best advice for someone with an eating disorder who wants to participate in Lent is to spend time reflecting on how great and vast God’s love is, and to pray for healing,” she writes.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, visit A Place of Hope for help and more information.

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