Stuck Inside the Seacoast with the Winter Blues Again

If you’re like almost 2.5% percent of the population and almost 10% of New Hampshirites, you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka: SAD. That is, sometime during Winter you go into a depressive period. Whether it’s related to the lack of sunlight, vitamin D deficiency, a lack of exercise, or anything else SAD makes winter much longer and colder.

For compulsive overeaters, SAD episodes can be frightening. Its sufferers may feel a general malaise during winter, but acute periods can be harrowing. Arising from seemingly nothing, they can come suddenly and last for a couple weeks or more. During times such as these, we are especially vulnerable to our stinking thinking. Our disease, progressive, always getting more powerful within us, can use times such as these to reawaken urges we hoped had been put to rest permanently.

In addition to SAD’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, and malaise, we compulsive eaters may experience echoes of the restlessness, irritability, and discontent we associate with the disease of addiction. Some of us, abstinent for long periods of time, report experiencing a sudden increase in food thinking. That is, we find our obsession with food heightened. Some of us also report food dreams and other similarly strange symptoms related to our illness. For those who have experienced abstinence, a ramping up of such thoughts can scare the dickens out of us.

There is, however, good news for us doubly privileged to have SAD and food addiction. We can successfully apply our program to the Winter blues. We look to OA’s spiritual principles as a guide. And we must if we don’t want our mental obsession with food to grow powerful enough to damage us again. [We may, of course, also wish to seek the help of outside professionals. OA takes no position on outside issues, but it does recommend that we get outside help as appropriate.]

First off, we have to admit to ourselves that we are in pain. Strange as it may seem, it can be hard to do so. We want to keep it together and not let others see what’s going on. Don’t worry, they know already. So let’s just be honest that it hurts and that we’re feeling a creeping sense of unmanageability.

We then have to tell our Higher Power that we need help, and that we’re willing to do what’s necessary to stay out of the clutches of our disease. Next, we need to examine our thinking and actions. Is SAD and our response to it causing us to turn toward self? To tell ourselves lies? To act self-centeredly? To be filled with fear? Of course that’s what depression and anxiety do! So we need to be honest.

For example, a chief dishonesty around SAD is the notion that we will never feel better. Our disease LOVES this one. It leads immediately to corrosive fear. What a great excuse to say f*** it and eat! But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know from past experience that these episodes don’t last forever, and that we will feel relief soon.

One of the most important tools we have against SAD and depression in general is telling someone else that we have it. Truly, we find some immediate ease just by admitting to another person that we are in pain and sharing how this pain warps our thinking and behavior. Then we check whether we’ve done anything while in pain that may require an amends and make any that are necessary.

We stay in touch with our Higher Power about all of this, and we pray not merely to have SAD lifted, but rather to have it lifted so that we can be of use to God and to those around us. Finally, we top things off with helping others. We make calls, send texts, chat with someone who is struggling, do sponsorial work, whatever we can to pass this message of recovery to those still suffering.

In addition, the OA Tools of Recovery can be particularly helpful. Picking up the phone, reading literature, writing, and going to meetings buoys us when we need it.

And soon, sooner, perhaps than we think, the period of bleakness will lift. The temperatures will rise, the peepers will start to sing, and we will feel more like ourselves again. And best of all, we didn’t have to eat over the winter blues.

Rites of Renewal

This past week players reported to camp at Fort Myers for Red Sox spring training. It’s an annual rite of passage, and for many northern New Englanders, the first day of spring training is an early sign of the warmer months. Even if we can’t be with the team, we see footage of their workouts, and we can imagine ourselves in the warm Florida sunshine. We feel a little lift, a little relief from the winter blues. The cycle of renewal that leads us out of the post-holiday doldrums has begun again.

OA creates in us a similar cycle of renewal. We are led out of the doldrums of compulsive eating and toward a period of growth that leads not only to our personal rejuvenation but also toward a lifetime of better days. The Big Book tells us that when we do the Steps “we are reborn.” From the point at which our adventure in OA begins, we sense the hope emanating from those in our meetings who have experienced long-term recovery. Like a ballplayer whose previous season was ruined by injury, we realize that the slate can be wiped clean, and we can start over. We let others coach us and guide us so that we can tap new and heretofore hidden resources inside us. We do the legwork, the drills, the stretching because we are ready to go to any length for success.

Steps One, Two, and Three represent something like those thirty spring exhibition games that precede opening day. In them we are building the foundation on which an incredible journey will be taken. We round ourselves into willingness the way a player rounds into midseason form. Where the ballplayer is getting down his timing at bat and his footwork in the field, we are getting used to attending meetings, calling OA friends, taking a sponsor’s suggestions, reading OA literature, and becoming action-oriented instead of passive victims of our disease. Where a baseball player restores his confidence through spring repetition, we gain confidence in a Higher Power through the repetitions of OA actions that separate us from food and draw us closer to the solution.

The fullness of rebirth will come from Steps 4 through 9 where we will fully develop a relationship with a Higher Power that will solve our problem on a permanent one-day-at-a-time basis. This is like the long baseball season. Baseball plays every day, and it rewards those players and teams able to keep their focus on the day ahead, not on what other teams are doing or on where they will travel next week. We stick to the twenty-four hours ahead of us, and we work at the middle steps diligently. Unlike a baseball player who knows when the season is over, we don’t know when our window of willingness will close. Our disease is in the background, cunningly telling us that OA won’t work or that we don’t really need it after all. By working the Steps and continuing to attend meetings and use the OA tools, we keep this voice at bay long enough that God can change us from the inside out.

But unlike baseball, our season never ends. We are reborn, and then every day thereafter, we are renewed. Of course, we work at that daily renewal. We use Steps 10, 11, and 12 to stay in the spiritual game. When we fail to use them, when we allow the clatter and clamor of life to distract us from them, we feel it. So we keep at it. But it’s not such a grind. Ask anyone who has experienced long-time recovery, and they’ll tell you that trading a few minutes of prayer and meditation each day is entirely worth it. They’ll also tell you that working with others is one of the joys of their life.

There’s one other important difference from baseball. In OA there are no winners and losers. We are all winners so long as we keep coming back. No one is the MVP of OA or the world champion. Well, actually, perhaps God is, however we each define God for ourselves. But among the humans in our rooms, we are all just another player on the roster, each trying to recover and help others do the same.

So as reports from Florida drift in, you’ll hear that such-and-such is in “The Best Shape of His Life” or that so-and-so’s fastball looks faster than ever. It’s the hope of Spring. In our rooms, we get to listen instead to the reports of members who are experiencing renewal each day after their harrowing experiences with the ravages of this disease. True reports that give hope rather than project it.

3 Suggestions for Staying Abstinent on Valentine’s Day

For many people in the US, Valentine’s Day is synonymous with one thing: Chocolate. For others, it might also include a romantic dinner date as well. For OA members, especially those whose abstinence hinges on refraining from sugary foods and alcohol, it’s yet another holiday where we have to watch out.

In fact, many OAs will tell you that Valentine’s Day stings in a way that other special days don’t. Go to any meeting, and over time you’ll hear how our disease has caused us vast pain romantically speaking. Things such as:

  • I was too ashamed to pursue romantic relationships or say yes to them
  • My eating became more important than my marriage
  • I didn’t believe anyone could love me
  • I tried to control everything in all of my relationships
  • I hid my eating and my disease from my spouse.

These and many similar sentiments and experiences indicate how negatively compulsive eating and food addiction have impacted our lives. It’s hard to love or be loved when we hate ourselves for the terrible damage we do to our bodies, minds, and spirits through food.

When we do the 12 Steps, we route out the negative patterns associated with this old thinking. We come to discover that our Higher Power (whatever it may be) doesn’t create junk. Through working the Steps, we find a new source of strength and courage, and food ceases to call us in the way it has. We don’t have to fight constantly to maintain abstinence, it just comes.

But what about before we finish that work? While we haven’t yet exposed that negative thinking to the daylight and revealed the awful lies we’ve been telling ourselves for what they really are? How do we, when confronted with happy couples, heart-shaped boxes, and champagne dinners, keep away from the first bite?

First of all, we have to remember that we are always “activated before the first bite is taken.” If we are obsessing about food, it’s because some feeling has gripped us…and we don’t like feelings! We may not be able to identify that feeling, but it’s there, and it is reminding us of every bad feeling we keep inside us, buried under years of overeaten food. (The very ones that Steps 4 through 9 help us get rid of!) And what will activate us more than thoughts about our isolation (within or outside of a relationship)?

So we know we are activated. The obsession is on us. We MUST act fast and decisively to stave off the first bite. Because once the first bite is taken, our bodies resume their physical dependence on food. Here’s three simple things we can do RIGHT NOW:

  1. Pray like our life depends upon it: If we have a conception of a Higher Power, our first order of business is to pray for strength and the willingness to go to any length to avoid the first bite. By the way, our life does depend on it.
  2. Call people in the program: That 1,000 pound phone actually gets lighter once we pick it up. We can start by dialing our sponsor, then trusted friends. If we don’t reach someone, we can keep dialing until we do. It’s worth it. Remember that it’s always better to call before we eat compulsively than after.
  3. Get to a meeting: No meeting in our area at this hour? If we are willing to go to any lengths, then central New Hampshire, southern Maine, and Mass aren’t very far to go. Check their website to see if they have a meeting. We can also go to OA.org and look up a phone meeting. Don’t even have to leave the house for that!

These simple suggestions remind us that until we have completed a thorough run through the Steps and established a working relationship with God as we understand God, we need the support of the fellowship. Without it, we’re just like the mouse under the cat’s paw. Waiting the death blow, but not sure how long our disease will keep batting us around for its fun.

And after all, this is a matter of life and death.

Tradition of the Month: Tradition Two

2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

If you’ve been to an OA meeting, especially a business meeting, you know that while abstinence and experience in the 12 Steps moderates our behaviors, we do have the tendency to run to extremes. For example, there’s the controller who wants to run everything and their polar opposite who wants everything run for them. The legalist who tsk tsks when someone strays just one word from the meeting’s format and the improviser for whom the format is a merely a nice suggestion. The codependent who just just wants everyone to get along and the iconoclast who riles everyone up. The idea man who is brimming with suggestions others should implement and the overly responsible person who takes on every single job “for the good of the group.” There’s the frightened mouse who has no opinion and sneaks out before anyone can greet them and the limelight seeker for whom every meeting is a chance to soak up attention. In fact, many of us embody several of these tendencies!

How in the world, then, can an OA meeting survive when its leadership is drawn from such a motley assortment? The answer is anarchy, with a twist.

That’s right, OA is essentially anarchist in its structure. We have no fixed hierarchy, and we don’t trust anyone to stay in a leadership role too long. At all service levels, we believe in a process of rotation whereby everyone takes service roles on a rotating basis. No one individual, therefore, exerts too much influence. No one person gets to imprint the group or OA with their interpretation of the Steps and Traditions.

Tradition Two tells us that we have “trusted servants.” Consider how they become trusted. Typically trust develops through a process of our getting to know someone, watching them recover from our disease, and seeing them grow into consistent OA service. We know too many instances where service positions are filled by the eager but never fulfilled. That’s the nature of the disease of addiction, and until we see consistency and commitment, we know that we cannot put too much stock in someone’s well intentioned volunteerism.

We also recognize that human beings are flawed, and while we may trust them as humble servants once we see their track record, we cannot put full faith in them. Our disease is too cunning. Many years ago now, the treasure of an entire OA region is said to have “lost” or absconded with the funds they were charged with keeping. In less dramatic instances, normally trustworthy members have simply been unable to perform a service for reasons having to do with their outside life. We are all people, and we are all vulnerable to the inconsistencies and troubles of being human. So we carefully allot our trust, we rotate service, and we maintain a certain flexible anarchy so that no one person or group can cause the downfall of the others.

We mentioned there was a twist to this mostly anarchical setup. The twist is God. The only true hierarchy in OA goes like this:

God > us

For those among us with the inclination toward religion, this may seem natural. For those of agnostic or atheistic temperament, it may feel discomfiting. But if rephrased, it might read like this:

The good of OA > us

From either point of view, our actions as groups and leaders are guided by the group conscience, and the group conscience is arrived at carefully through prayer, meditation, and/or deliberation. The big mouths in the room don’t get to dictate. If a complicated situation arises, we don’t jump into action. We seek clarity and consensus. If a situation seems dire, we don’t despair, we ask that we be shown the way through it so that we can continue to carry the message of recovery through the 12 Steps.

In this way the group conscience guides us where no one person or oligarchy could. The responsibility and pressure are lifted from our shoulders so that we can take the required action without concern for our selves, our own skins. We can, as a group, let go and let God. We practice as a collective, the very precepts the 12 Steps recommend for individuals. Neat, huh?

Human anarchy with Greater purpose. That’s OA, and, strange as it may seem, it really does work.