Giving…and getting…the minimum

OA is not like many other aspects of our lives in many ways, and here’s one. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. In most endeavors in our lives, we make predictable, incremental improvement. Educators will be familiar with Piaget’s learning curve (or J-shaped curve), for example. Or think about learning a musical instrument, where progress evolves over time, roughly proportional to how much we practice and how much tutelage we receive.

OA’s results are predictable, but they are not incremental. Our literature tells us that if we don’t work the entire program we won’t find recovery. But if we do work it, we will be changed and freed form our obsession. The Big Book puts it in stark terms: “Half measures availed us nothing.” If we just do part of the program we won’t gain recovery incrementally. In fact, we won’t gain anything but self-knowledge and possibly weight. Self-knowledge as the Big Book smashes home upon us, does absolutely nothing for us in combination with our self-will. If it did, we wouldn’t need OA!

We can pick apart our psyches, and many of us will discuss during meetings the crooks and bends in our personalities that feed our compulsion to eat. And that information alone has absolutely no use to us in recovery. We’ve tried to leverage these understandings for years, often with the help of psychology professionals, and in many cases rather than help us recover, they’ve keep us mired in our self-pity. We may identify more and more with our problems so that we struggle to see other possible avenues our life might take.

The whole point of the 12 Steps is for us to find a relationship with a Higher Power that works for us, to clear out everything inside our minds and hearts that keeps us from that HP, and to let God change us so that we can then be helpful to others. “Trust God, clean house, and help others.”

  • Trust God: The first three Steps help us establish at least a willingness to seek God.
  • Clean House: The middle five Steps help us identify the crap inside us that’s in the way of recovery, be changed by HP, and clean up our past.
  • Help Others: The last three Steps help us maintain an attitude of humility and helpfulness.

Once we’ve worked the Steps and begun to live in the solution each day, we find real recovery. Before then, we may have found ourselves not eating compulsively for a time, but that’s only part of what recovery means. We are promised that if we don’t grow spiritually, we will eat again. If we don’t do business with God, write inventory, speak it to someone, let God change us, make amends, monitor our behavior, ask God for guidance, and help others, then our disease will creep up when we least expect it and grab us by the throat.

Remember, our illness is always getting stronger. It’s progressive, which means it never gets better, only worse. So we have to keep growing spiritually to stay ahead of it. If we only do the minimum, we will get the minimum: nothing. If all we do is avoid binge foods, we’re only dieting. If we are only going to meetings, we will not recover by osmosis. We must ask for help in working the Steps. If we’re putting off writing inventory, we aren’t making spiritual progress, and we will find the food increasingly tempting. If we stop working the middle Steps, we won’t realize the famous Ninth Step promises read after each meeting. If we slacken off on our latter Steps, we will lose touch God, stop helping others, and drift back toward misery and food.

This isn’t opinion. It’s experiences we can and have observed in ourselves and in others.

Look at those OAs in our area whose recovery we admire. We see that they keep up not only with their food plan and meetings, but with making their amends, praying, doing their daily 10th Step, helping others, and working the tools of the program. They also don’t shout their recovery to their hilltops but share it with humility that others may be helped by it.

Does that seem like a lot of work? Sometimes it does to us. Does it seem like a lot more work to be miserable, bursting out of our clothes, and unable to do anything about those conditions? Yes, and it seems like a death sentence: one where we slowly die physically long after we’ve withered to a husk of ourselves emotionally and spiritually.

If we are going to meetings, we must keep coming back. Nothing can happen for us if we isolate and don’t ask for help. But we also need to know that if all we do is go to meetings, we won’t get better because human aid is not enough. If we are stuck in the first three Steps, we must pocket our pride, swallow our fear, and make time in our lives for the action Steps. Otherwise, we won’t change on the inside at all.

Because this is all or nothing. The lasting result (peace, joy, happiness, serenity, and freedom from compulsive eating) will only be given us once we do all the required work. We don’t get them a little bit at a time. If we do the minimum, then the minimum all we’ll get.

Tradition of the Month: #4 and how food and autonomy

4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or OA as a whole. 

What in the world does this Tradition have to do with our food? What does it have to do with maintaining our abstinence? As it turns out, plenty. Tradition Four has much in common with Steps Three, Six, Seven, and Ten. All these Steps help us address a key aspect of the cycle of addiction.

Let’s be specific. The wheel of addiction turns and turns and runs us over. Every time we eat compulsively, we start out to give ourselves ease and comfort about a feeling we have. The Big Book famously says these feelings are usually restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness. It also tells us that resentment, anger, and fear are root-level issues for us addicts. Once we have a feeling, we start obsessing about dampening that feeling. Then we go about the usual stages of compulsive eating: the first bite, physical cravings, remorse, and a resolution to never do it again, which we forsake as soon as we have another feeling. If we could only deal with the feelings when they arise, we’d have a puncher’s chance!

Now, in Step 3, we decide that we aren’t in control anymore, God is. We’re going to let HP call the shots. After we do inventory, we arrive at Steps 6 and 7, where we decide we are ready to have God remove what’s objectionable, and then ask for its removal. As we begin making amends, we also start the daily practice of Step 10, where we ask God to remove new resentments and to help us maintain the code of kindness, love, and tolerance toward others.

In other words, these Steps help us see that to recover, we must surrender control, ask to have our angry, fearful, and judging natures changed, and ask that we live in harmony with others as best we can. That is how our feelings become less dangerous to us.

Now comes Tradition 4. It’s basically telling us that, in terms of how meetings conduct themselves, our code is “Live and let live.” Which isn’t easy! Why not? Because we are used to doing the opposite of Steps 3, 6, 7, and 10. We try to control situations. We don’t want our defects of character removed because we either aren’t convinced we have any, or we think we can’t live successfully without them. We don’t live by the code of kindness, love, and tolerance because the world is mean and unfair to us, and it can go screw itself while we take from it what we’re owed.

Once we engage with recovery, we no longer have the luxury of sitting back and judging others (and their meetings) then gossiping about them. Even if we disagree with someone(s), we must do so with love and honesty. And not the kind of honesty that’s designed to spit in their eye while we share “our truth” with them.

Instead, we ask God to help us assess the situation. If we believe our meeting is going against Tradition, then we ask HP to give us the words to lovingly question whether the meeting is doing the right thing. If we believe another meeting is going against Tradition, we ask HP to show us whether their actions will harm other meetings or OA as a whole before we take any action. We discuss all of this with a trusted OA friend to make sure we’re not power driving.

If the meeting isn’t harming other meetings or OA as a whole, we have one important to do: nothing. It’s not our business to tell a meeting what to do. Nor is it our business to worry about it. Steps 3, 6, 7, and 10 basically tell us that the problem is with us, not with the other person(s). It’s out of our control, we need to be rid of the defects of character that we are engaging in the situation, and we need to be sure our conduct isn’t causing harm. With Tradition 4, we are putting the principles into action.

Release from worry. From anger. Ask how God will fix it. The answer may be that it doesn’t need fixing, we do. In which case, we’ve learned an ultra valuable lesson about our own natures, and we can ask God how to fix us so that our feelings don’t send us back to the food.

Step of the Month: Step 4

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Perhaps nothing in OA’s program of action inspires more dread than writing a fourth step inventory. We’ve been eating over all the hurts we’ve accumulated, trying to avoid them. Now OA tells us that we have to allow them out of the cage inside that barely keeps them under control.

Well, we’re fooling ourselves, of course. We don’t control our fears, resentments, bad memories, and feelings. They control us! Truth is that until we look at them, all of them, they own us. Every time we feel any kind of feeling, we are driven back to the food because every feeling we have reminds us of the ones we are covering up with food. Yes, even happy feelings, because they remind us of how awful we generally feel.

When we write an honest and thorough inventory of ourselves, however, we discover that we have not been victims of others so much as victims of our own thinking. Our disease has taken control of our thoughts and used them as a weapon against our better judgment. We see through an inventory that we are human beings being human with all the same flaws that everyone else has. That we take personally what is not ours to take. That we have little ability to distinguish feelings from facts. That we have precious little accuracy in our self-reflections…if we’ve bothered to be self-reflective.

In some cases, we learn that we have been victimized by someone at one time, but that, even though it is not our fault, we have to claim what’s ours: we carried around that victim mentality for years; we are the ones replaying the past over and over again and using it as a reason to eat.

Anyone who has done a thorough fourth step will tell you a few things:

  1. It is simple, but not easy
  2. It is life changing
  3. It us utterly necessary for recovery.

The third point is the one that we must all pay attention to in OA. If we don’t do the work, we will not get the results our program promises. It’s like staring at the aspirin bottle in hopes a headache will go away. We’ve got to take our medicine. Hanging around in meetings and waiting for the “right” time to do an inventory just prolongs our agony. It gives our disease time to reassert itself inside our minds. Our window of willingness is only open for so long.

We may be afraid of digging too deep, of reliving past episodes we’d rather forget, and of seeing the worst of ourselves. But we aren’t writing to be published in The New York Times. Our inventory is ours and will only be shared with one other person (in our fifth step). We make it objective. We don’t lard every resentment with the whys and whatfors. We keep our writing concise so that our disease doesn’t have room to turn us toward excuse making. We only want to record those things that our illness uses against us. That way in Steps 6 and 7, we know exactly what it is we are asking God to remove from us.

The Big Book has very specific suggestions for structuring an inventory. They have proven over 80 years to be immensely powerful and helpful. There are other means as well. In the end, however, the most important things are honesty, fearlessness, and thoroughness.

Honesty: We must be wiling to be completely and utterly honest about our part in what we write about. No excuses, no stories, no bullshit.

Fearlessness: We must not shrink at writing about the most difficult aspects of our lives. For example, many, many survivors of physical, sexual, and mental abuse have written fourth steps about them and found the inventory transformative as a result.

Thoroughness: We must get it all out—everything that keeps our true selves at bay and allows our illness to run the show. If we hold onto something we may not recover. Like one rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel.

This is our course then. In Step 3, we’ve told our Higher Power that we’ll go to any length for recovery. Now we put pen to paper to start the process of getting rid of what separates us from God’s love. Then we’ll have it removed so we finally have the slate cleared and into the business of living a useful and productive life.