Catholic Lent, Minus the Guilt: How Sobriety Made Me Confront My Depression

Happy Easter! It’s been many months since I’ve written for this blog: between grad school, two jobs, and living in the big city of Chicago, Everyday Religion has been pushed to the back burner.


I am renewing my commitment to keep this blog updated and post regularly. We’ll begin the new season of blogging with a guest piece from a close college friend of mine. In fact, this piece inspired me to dust off the WordPress link and start writing (for fun!) again. So enjoy this piece by Julia Cook, and check back for new content soon!

Catholic Lent, Minus the Guilt: How Sobriety Made Me Confront My Depression | By Julia Cook

Though they may not remember what happened next, everyone remembers the first time they got drunk. For me, it wasn’t sneaking booze from my Dad’s crystal decanters—though that would have been easy enough—but at the end of high school, when the resident bad boy brought Smirnoff apple ice and forties of Hurricaine to my parents’ house for a fourth of July party. My mother’s reaction, upon finding a few dead soldiers in the trash, sums up just how easy drinking should have been for me:

“The next time you have a party, and we’re not home, and there are boys, and there is drinking, you need to tell your friends that we recycle!

You see, coming from a long line of WASPs I also come from a long line of drinkers—not habitual, beer-with-breakfast types that build up a tolerance over time, but reactionary drinkers. Drinkers for whom Lent is a symptom of Catholic guilt pervasive to the lower classes. Hence, at eighteen I was the perfect storm of terrible drinking habits: a Catholic school student encouraged to drink by her parents, yet surrounded by priggish teachers and classmates for whom coloring outside the lines was unacceptable. That bad boy with the Smirnoff? The only other Protestant in my class.

I started observing Lent half in solidarity with my starving friends and half because I wanted to break a habit—not of drinking, but of slashing myself with a razorblade when I was beset with self-loathing. And at a school where, on one occasion, a teacher told me my prayers didn’t “count,” this happened quite a bit. So, in my own silently rebellious way I used Lent to improve myself, to fit in with my classmates even if they didn’t know the existence of my perverse mortification. My religion teacher, for once, was right: it took 40 days to break the habit.

Since then, to the constant befuddlement of my parents, I’ve observed Lent every year, with sacrifices ranging from healthy (Diet Coke, Facebook) to surprisingly difficult (Peanut Butter), to silly (Fall Out Boy). Each time, I’ve been able to kick the habit. Except peanut butter—still working on that.

But why I decided to give up drinking this year is a lot less interesting than what actually happened. I should say I’m not a huge drinker, but definitely a reactionary one, more prone to binge when emotional events pile up. After getting dumped last summer I crashed a wedding, took someone home, reminded him to step over the cat vomit I’d neglected to clean up earlier, and finally burst into tears when it was over. Really, that was when I should have given up drinking. But going cold turkey makes you process these things—really confront them—without the relative social acceptability of “blowing off steam.”

In the past few weeks I’ve become reclusive, intense, and paranoid. My thoughts started to move at a spiraling pace. At work my numbers were down and around my friends I overanalyzed every interaction to the point where I stopped getting invited to things. And finally, I thought about self-mutilating again, something that hadn’t even come up since I’d gone to college. I’d given up drinking because being drunk made me sad, and instead of uncovering the reason I had just sunk further into it. Finally my boss sent me home. “Don’t come back until you’re 100 percent,” she said. “Have a beer, or get some help.”

Every year I get a Good Friday text from one of my high school classmates. It’s because of the time my car broke down, leaving three of us on the side of the road in Ohio during a downpour of biblical proportions. We spent hours in a pizza parlour making futile calls, waiting for someone—anyone—to pick us up. When three people who used to hate each other sing along to Taylor Swift on the radio it makes you realize that breaking a habit is all about forgiving yourself. It’s okay to say that your problem—whatever it is—is part of who you are. But you can’t let it define you, and it certainly doesn’t determine who you become.

So I did get help, which has made me see that drinking and everything that comes with it does not occur in a vacuum. These things are reactionary, unfortunate by-products of unfortunate feelings. Of course I’m still that misfit teen—focusing on what I dislike about myself rather than what I like—but there’s also a clarity that comes from forty-plus days of thinking. You realize what you’re capable of, even as you peel off the old, forgotten band-aids of your past.

Julia Cook lives in Seattle, where she’s working on her first book. She’s been published in Paste Magazine, Seattle Weekly, and JENESIS, and is a recovering peanut butter addict.


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