“What are you giving up for Lent?” is not a question I heard growing up in my atheist home. It’s second nature for most Catholics, though — to give up some favorite thing (like chocolate or ice cream) for Lent. But if you have an addiction to alcohol, a drug or cigarettes, I want you to consider using this Lent as a turning point. If you don’t have a dependence on a physically addictive substance like those, then broaden the definition a bit: How about something nonessential like caffeine or sleeping pills? (I’m not talking about prescribed medicines that balance you.) Consider seeing if you can live without it of the next 40 days. If you want to broaden the term addiction further in the now-trendy way for things like the internet and pornography, that’s OK too.
But understand that something isn’t an addiction just because you use it a lot. For it to be an addiction, it should be that your use interferes with your life, you wish if didn’t, and you can’t stop. If you have an addiction problem, odds are you already have a suspicion, though you may refuse to accept it. Or maybe friends or family have been telling you that you do.
My challenge to you for Lent
Make a commitment to abstain from something you have a problem with — alcohol, smoking, gambling — starting Ash Wednesday and continuing for the duration of Lent. Not the rest of your life. Just about seven weeks.
It might become a turning point. You might discover you like your life better without it and gain a real willingness to let it go. And if you don’t manage to stay stopped, you will have learned an important lesson — that this “habit” is maybe something more; that it has some measure of control over you.
(Someone may be thinking, “you’re not supposed to give up something for Lent for personal gain.” This is true. If you were giving up alcohol out of vanity or to impress people, then perhaps that would apply. But learning you have an addiction and breaking it will bring you closer to God and make you less selfish. It’s directly related to the point of Lenten fasting, which is to heighten your awareness of you attraction to and dependence on things other than God.)
Get help; don’t just try to do it alone. Especially if you are stopping something that’s physically addictive, you may go through a difficult withdrawal period and find cravings difficult to resist. There are plenty of twelve step groups and other support systems out there.
Addictions vary, though, and so do people. The fact that you can abstain for a while does not prove you don’t have a problem. Alternately, you might consider abstaining from excess. This is one of the self-administered tests often suggested to people who think they might be an alcoholic or addict. Trying to control your use without stopping altogether can be more revealing than abstinence for some situations. If and when your efforts at restraint fail — sometimes spectacularly and repeatedly — it can show you clearly your powerlessness against the addiction.
There’s a reason Lent and the Biblical stories it’s built on are 40 days long, literally or figuratively. These are stories of transition, transformation, preparation for a new phase of life. It takes the human brain four to six weeks to learn a new routine. That’s why rehabs are usually at least 28 days long. Call the extra two weeks of Lent insurance. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they encourage newcomers to kick things off with 90 days to change their patterns. That’s even more insurance, cause for them it’s a life and death issue. This is why a seven-day stint in a detox guarantees nothing unless it’s just the beginning of a new pattern.
For more about the spiritual foundations of recovery from addiction and some concrete suggestions, see my earlier column, “Spiritual Recovery.” And share your experience and struggles with giving up addictions during Lent here in comments. I’d love to hear your stories!
This column was published originally on March 9, 2011.