The Common Good

After Giving up Alcohol, I’m Addicted to Lent

This spring, I gave up alcohol for Lent, the forty days of penitence between Ash Wednesday and Easter. And now almost one week after the Alleluias and Easter baskets, I may be addicted to Lent.

On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent began, my thirteen-year daughter Maya explained alcohol to her seven-year old sister in the backseat of our car: “See, sometimes adults just like having a drink after a long day of work. It helps them relax.” That same week, one of my friends said, “You aren’t a heavy drinker, but you are a consistent drinker.”

It was time to take a break, even if I knew that one glass of red wine at night wasn’t the end of the world. I needed to give it up because I wasn’t sure if I could.

Once my abstinence from alcohol began, I fantasized about the crisp taste of a cold IPA or the warm sip of Cabernet. Every evening when I came home from work, I caught myself thinking about just one drink, the ritual that helped me transition to cooking supper and moving my daughters through their bedtime routines.

So I developed a coping strategy, familiar to anyone with minor or major addictions: I found a replacement behavior. Every time I thought about alcohol, I made a cup of hot tea. “Just a minute!” I’d yell from the kitchen to my youngest daughter, “I’ll get your pajamas after the water boils!”

Twinings’ Pomegranate and Raspberry, Yogi’s Ginger, Bigelow’s Perfect Peach — I was drinking three to five cups a night, as if my kitchen were an open bar with unlimited tea bags.

As my hydration increased, with all the tea, so did my compulsion to talk about Lent, a self-absorption contradictory to a quiet walk through the Lenten wilderness. My sister reminded me that our mother considered Lent a private agreement with God. Talking about a Lenten discipline was tacky, much like chatting up a neighbor about your charitable donations for the year.

But it was too late. At the hair salon, while sipping Spicy Licorice tea, I corralled the stylists into a reflection about their past attempts to give up alcohol. In my defense, it was not hard to get people talking about this subject, but I had to wonder: was I becoming obsessed with abstinence or did I just want the attention and accountability?

Perhaps the answer lies in the past, as I grew up in a household of six, where everyone gave up something for Lent. It was non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth or giving Christmas presents to your siblings. While we children returned to our pre-Lenten ways on Easter morning, often by eating too much chocolate or junk food, my parents integrated their Lenten practices into their lives. With alcohol, for example, they began by giving up hard alcohol one year, followed by beer and wine the next. Soon they were tee-totalers, proclaiming that they felt better without drinking.

When I was in high school, my parents shifted the focus of Lent to the environment around them: one year we gave up trash for Lent as a family. My father cancelled trash pick-up services for 40 days, and we lived for six weeks without generating trash (and this was before the days of recycling). Reducing our consumption to this level took some advance planning, of course, as we bought bulk food, composted, and reused many items, but the discipline influenced our purchasing patterns as a family.

Another year, my father gave up driving and biked the 30 miles from our home in Fairhope to his work in Mobile, Ala., showering in a basement bathroom at his office.  Each evening, he changed from his suit back into his shorts and t-shirt and biked home. (My mother insisted that he ride with her to church, as she didn’t approve of wearing sweaty clothes to services in the Alabama spring humidity.)

As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I recognize that giving up luxuries may seem superfluous to those who are living in true poverty and looking for their next meal. But for those of us living with stability in the land of over-consumption, a spell in the wilderness, a time of consuming less, can draw us closer to sustaining our human spirit and our communities.

What would happen if entire congregations decided to decrease their consumption for 40 days?  In the past two years, more than 10,000 people participated in an Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in the U.S., reducing their carbon footprint through activities such as conducting energy audits in churches, walking to work, and engaging in climate advocacy campaigns.

For people of faith, the Lenten and Easter season is ultimately about hope and resurrection. As Anne Lamott wrote this Easter Day, “The message is that the bulbs pop their comical noses out of dirt and rocks every spring – daffodils, paperwhites, tulips. No one is lost to God.” When environmental loss has become our cultural and ecological norm, an addiction to new practices could bring hope for both people and places.

In my own home, I had anticipated popping the cork of a champagne bottle at midnight to celebrate the resurrection. But instead, I went to bed after the Easter Vigil service. Checking Facebook on Easter morning, I found a message from a friend: “Bloody Mary or Mimosa? Happy Easter!”

For the first time since Lent began, I realized that I hadn’t craved or talked about alcohol during the past week. So to celebrate the return from the wilderness, I walked outside in silence with my cup of Chamomile tea.

Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate and Natural Saints.          

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