Memorial Day

Tomorrow we celebrate the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have given their life in service to our country. It’s a day of parades, wreath laying, and, of course, eating.

Many of us will attend picnics and parties where a spread of every salty, fatty, sugary, and floury food will be on display. And lots of it, free for the taking. We will be tempted, lured, attracted, and even admonished to eat things not on our food plans and in quantities no longer appropriate for our life in recovery. In our meetings this coming week, we will celebrate along with those who made it through cleanly, and we will encourage those who didn’t to get back on the horse.

Of course, the answer to how to get through Memorial Day is best talked about with a sponsor, but the same general guidelines apply to any similar occasion.

  • Ask God for help before, during, and after the event
  • Use the tools: have a food plan, use the phone if tempted, get to a meeting afterward if you still feel the compulsion.
  • Don’t go if you will be unsafe around the food.
  • Treat the day just as you would any other, not as an excuse to go off the wagon.
  • One day at a time!

But let’s take the conceit of Memorial Day and think of it in OA terms. We in OA have witnessed many who have died from this disease and its complications. In our own area, we know OA members who have died from heart maladies exacerbated by their physical condition as well as those who have taken their own lives from the desperation this disease causes. Among us now are those who count themselves as absolutely certain that without the benefits of our program, they would no longer be alive. Outside OA examples of the ravages of this disease show in the obituaries each day.

We have a life and death illness. It doesn’t go away, but it responds to the treatment known as OA. We survivors, however, are left with reminders. Those reminders might even help us get through Memorial Day weekend without eating compulsively. In OA our defects are turned into assets for helping us and our fellows recover. Our Higher Power uses these reminders of our disease when we remember how miserable our life as compulsive eaters was. Here’s some examples of those reminders:

  • loose skin
  • stretch marks
  • pitting in our skin from weight-related edema
  • limping caused by damage to our hips, knees, or ankles
  • surgical scars from joint replacements, organ surgeries, and other procedures
  • missing toes due to type 2 diabetes
  • dental work caused by eating too much sugary food or by throwing up
  • chronic acid-reflux or heartburn
  • breathing issues
  • sleeping issues
  • clothes we can no longer fit into—too big or too small
  • photos from the bad old days
  • wedding rings we no longer can wear because our marriage dissolved before the food problem was solved.

For us overeaters, it’s not a question of whether we are scarred by this disease, only where. Even if we can’t see or feel the scars on or inside our bodies, we probably also have many, many emotional scars in our psyches related to this disease. Shame, guilt, a feeling of unworthiness, depression, anxiety, remorse, regret, and loneliness, run rampant among us food addicts. Our disease may try to trigger us with flashbacks to traumatic, embarrassing, or merely difficult events in our lives. Like picking at an infected scab.

Instead of seeing all of this as pain to number with food, we have an opportunity to see them as the reason not to eat. Reminders of how lousy life can be when we eat compulsively and don’t stay in touch with God.

Unlike a war in the conventional, real-world sense, we OA members don’t get leave time, and our war never ends. The good news, however, is that we don’t have to fight the battle. In fact, when we surrender, we win! So on Memorial Day, we can enjoy peace by letting God do the fighting for us and by using what we know about the fellowship, the Steps, and the Tools to keep this disease from turning us into another casualty statistic in the war for our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Fear and self-pity: a deadly combination

Go to any OA meeting, and you’ll hear about fear. We hide out from the world and seek the companionship of food because we are afraid to face what’s out there. If we restrict our eating, it’s often because we are afraid we weigh too much and that people will judge us. No matter the fear or its origin, we have developed eating behaviors as a coping mechanism. And if that weren’t bad enough, fear has a nasty relationship with self-pity that speeds along our demise from this disease.

In the Big Book, we read that “resentment is the number one offender.” When we take inventory of our resentments, we list how it affected us, and, as in the example on page 65, we always list “(fear)” among them. Of course, we don’t stop at what the offending person did. The Big Book instructs us on page 67 to also ask ourselves where we were selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid. As we write all these resentments, we come to see the massive power that fear had over us. We acted selfishly, lied to ourselves, and behaved out of self-concern because of our fears. So, the Big Book then has us inventory our fears, starting with those we analyzed in our resentments and then those unconnected to a resentment. Fear is a big deal.

The thing about fear is that our disease uses our past experience to create fear about our future. If we were told something negative in the past that hurt us, our addict brain tells us that we will suffer the same humiliation or heartache whenever a similar circumstance occurs. It uses our past as a lever to make us eat. This is a big part of why it is that the cycle of addictive behavior always begins with a feeling before we are activated to eat.

If fear is the transferring of past experience to an unknown future, then self-pity is staying stuck in the past and being unwilling to see a different future. Our disease loves to tear down our defenses with self-pity. We feel a strong urge to stop eating compulsively, and then we have an encounter with someone at work that didn’t go well. That encounter reminds us consciously or subconsciously of another time we had a bad encounter with someone. And another. And another and another. Until this small but painful encounter today feels freighted with the emotional weight of our whole inner world. Because we have a disease that warps our perspective, we can only see this tunnel-like vision of bad encounters, forgetting or ignoring all the positive relations we have in the world. And we are activated to eat.

Our disease skillfully plays fear off of self-pity:

  1. We have a painful encounter
  2. It reminds us all our other painful encounters
  3. We feel self-pity
  4. We realize that we’ll have to deal with the person or situation again in the future.
  5. We fear that the next encounter will be as painful as this one…or worse.
  6. If we haven’t already eaten, we’re primed to do so now.

If we are truly addicts, we have lost the power to control ourselves around food in part because our minds act against us in this and many other ways. We cannot change ourselves. We’ve tried! We’ve told ourselves we won’t take ourselves so seriously, or that we’ll go on a diet, or that we’ll let these hurtful things roll off our backs, or that next time we just won’t eat over it. But it never works. We always return to our old ways of thinking and our addictive eating.

The whole point of the 12 Steps is to create inside us the conditions for change. We prepare ourselves to be changed by inventorying all the yucky stuff so that we can then ask God to remove it all and enter into our hearts. The Big Book tells us that we must let go of “old ideas” in order to be changed. These fears and self-pities are some of those ideas. We may have suffered in the past, but now we replace the fear of the future with trusting and relying on God to get us through whatever may come. We may have continually felt sorry for ourselves, but now we see that God is using those old hurts as ways that we can win the confidence of other suffering compulsive eaters and help them find the recovery we’ve been granted.

In other words, God turns these defects of character into assets that help us to be of service to others. Fear and self-pity are an insidious part of the human condition, a killer for people like us, but OA and our HP give us a special power to combat them and help the world be a little better place. And that’s nothing to be afraid of!

Measuring our compassion

An idea that courses through virtually every spiritual tradition is compassion. Dictionary.com provides this definition: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” As we work through the 12 Steps of OA, we begin to feel truly compassionate, perhaps for the first time, as our hearts and minds become aligned with our Higher Power.

Some of us have simply been too self-centered to feel compassion. We may feel a distance from suffering and shut our minds to it, or we may dismiss it because we are not, ourselves, in the moment, experiencing the same suffering as another person is. If we are people pleasers, we may think we brim with compassion, but do we? What motives do we have in helping others? Is it possible that we seek the approval of others? Or that of the person suffering? Do we do help out of guilt or out of sympathy or empathy? Who are we really trying to help—ourselves or the other person?

When we get through the 12 Steps, we do not emerge as saintly peacemakers, and we certainly couldn’t keep it up even if we did. We are human beings, we are prone to the same pratfalls of ego, the same biases and stubbornness that any person has. Just because we are more reasonable than we were doesn’t mean we are entirely reasonable. We are works in progress, and compassion is a very good measuring stick for our spiritual condition.

See, the great thing about OA is that as we get better, we are learning how to help another person get better. We can measure our compassion by our willingness to help another addict. Judgment is the opposite of compassion, and through it we claim to ourselves that we are different than another person. Do we judge an OA member for how they work their program? For their size or the speed of their physical recovery? Do we judge them for talking about The Steps too much during meetings or for talking too much about personal problems? How often have we judged another person’s recovery by what they look like across the room from us—only to learn that they’ve already lost more weight in OA than we have to lose in the first place?

Our twelfth Step tells us that we must help others with our affliction, if we are to live long and happily. To do so, we must develop compassion by countermanding the judgments that appear in our heads. After all, the person we are judging is just like us!

Outside of OA, we have even more opportunity to measure our compassion. We need only look at the front page of the newspaper. Pick a tyrant, a political figure, a drunk driver, a shooter, a serial killer, a child abuser, or an animal abuser, anyone whose actions set your anger ablaze. Then ask yourself what terrible suffering must have led them to their present state. Ask what awful mental illness, cruel experience, or deprivation could lead a person to such hideous actions. Our recoveries do not depend on determining who is right or who is wrong; they depend on our willingness to be helpful to God and others. If the person you picked from the headlines asked you to help them stop eating compulsively would you?

When we close ourselves off from compassion, we judge. When we judge, though, aren’t we really trying to separate ourselves from what we are afraid of and from what we believe are the worst parts of ourselves? Anytime we point the finger at another, aren’t three of our fingers are pointing back at ourselves?

If we are to live and prosper in OA, we must help others. If we must help others, we can’t allow our mindless judgments to get in the way of our spiritual work and attitude. We must flip our judgments back over to compassion. We must remind ourselves that we are works in progress, and that God is turning our defects into assets daily. Otherwise, we’ll spend our time yelling at the radio or TV, complaining about those we love, and sitting in meetings wondering why everyone else seems more at ease than we are. Or else just eating.

Tradition of the month: #5, the Steps, the Steps, the Steps

5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the compulsive overeater who still suffers.

So we know that a meeting has just one thing it must do, and that’s carry the message. Still, as one of our longtime area member says, “We addicts can complicate a two-car funeral.” If we aren’t in top spiritual condition, even a simple, direct statement such as Tradition Five can be overly parsed in the spirit of wanting to do well by our fellow members.

For example, many years ago some members of a certain meeting wanted the group to join hands during the closing serenity prayer. They brought it up at a business meeting. Proponents said holding hands fostered a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. Opponents said it was too intimate and might frighten newcomers. Each group, perhaps each member of the group, had its own interpretation of this simple suggestion. Yet, both appeared to act from the same basis: making the meeting as comfortable for the newcomer as possible.

So we can see the kind of nested-doll thinking this leads to. We wonder whether people will be attracted or repelled by a meeting’s format, and how will we carry the message if they don’t come back? How can we make this thing “better”? There’s thousands of meetings across the world, and every one of them does things differently. Not just things, actually, but many, many things. Whether it’s holding hands, talking about individual binge foods, or having a certain number of days before sharing, meetings have tried every possible adjustment. Yet there’s only one thing that’s known for sure to work well everywhere: sharing our experience with the Steps.

That’s it. OA is a Twelve-Step program held together by the loose webbing of guidelines called the Traditions. As a result, OA World Service includes this language in the OA preamble:

Our primary purpose is to abstain from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors and to carry the message of recovery through the Twelve Steps of OA to those who still suffer.

So the only thing we must do at a meeting is tell others about the Steps and how they help us refrain from compulsive eating. Our job is not to make things more or less comfortable for ourselves, others, or newcomers. Our job is not to “perfect” our meeting. Our job is not to let everyone know how events in our lives went in the past week. Our job is not to “sell” anyone on OA either. It’s simply to talk about how OA’s Steps keep us out of the clutches of this awful disease. Our experiences are enough to attract others; we need not worry over the rest.

Holding hands or having a timer or saying one prayer or another must all be viewed through this single lens: Does it enable our members to speak specifically and honestly about their experience with the Steps? We need not worry about which way of doing the Steps either. Nor whether we ourselves have done them “correctly.” We just share what we’ve done and what the result is. The group’s Higher Power takes care of the rest.

So the next time we face the prospect of a difficult business meeting with controversial agenda items, we can relax and take it easy. We merely ask God for wisdom and ask ourselves and our OA fellows if a proposal is maximally aligned with Tradition 5. Why make it complicated?

 

Step of the Month: #5 No longer eaten alive

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Ever experience this?

You’ve got a paralyzing fear. Maybe of someone’s opinion. That you’re going to be fired for an error you made. Of pain, disease, or death. You’re furthermore afraid to even speak about this fear because you think you’ll be judged.

Finally, when you’re ready to explode, you ask a best friend or family member or counsellor to listen. It starts coming out, in a gush or a trickle, until you’ve said the whole thing. And as you speak it feels incredibly awkward, but as the words hit the air, the reasonable part of you starts to realize how your unreasonable mind turned something very small, perhaps something whose significance you’ve misinterpreted, into personal armageddon.

The fear diminishes simply by being voiced out loud and listened to in the cold light of day. Ahhhh. Relief, as if a pressure valve had been released.

And then it’s onto the next personal crisis!!! 🙂

Turns out that we compulsive eaters have waited a long time, maybe our entire life, to get this relief. We’ve bottled up every little fear, resentment, judgment, self-hatred, you name it. Deep inside, they live, wriggling around in our stomach like a pile of crazed, squirming worms. When we eat compulsively, we want to bury those horrific feelings-worms in a landslide of food, but somehow, quickly, they poke back up to the surface, so we do it again and again. If only we could feel real relief! But there’s so much of those negative feelings inside us that we despair ever feeling better.

Now that we’ve worked the first four Steps, we’ve been able to inventory those nasty secrets that plague us. We know each and every one of them by name, and we know exactly how they affect us. In Step 5, we read that inventory aloud to God and one other person. Difficult as it may be to speak these things, we do it, and as we do, something curious happens. We start to laugh. We cry. We groan at the repetition. No matter what, we are feeling these feelings in a safe way, and the sound of them is evaporating into the air. Finally, our reasonable, abstinent self can process them without the fog of food and its attendant fear.

The inventory we are reading is an objective one. Just the facts. We start understanding that we can let go of these feelings. That we can let go of the idea that we are irreparably broken. We see in full color the futile way that we’ve lived our life up to now. By the time we finish reading it, we have heard a great deal that is objectionable. We have also observed that our listener has not run away in fear or turned their back on us. If they say anything, it is usually “me too.” In the end, we find out that our foibles and flaws are merely human nature, and that we can forgive ourselves if God can.

In fact, as we complete Step 5, we can see the outlines of what life in food-sobriety is like. We see that in Steps 6 and 7, the slate will be wiped clean by our Higher Power, and we are so ready for that to happen! We feel ready to look at the people in our world as equals. We want to cast aside the fear and loathing that keeps us from being helpful to others. We want to be reliable, trustworthy people who think of someone other than themselves. We see that this Step 5 has given us hope that God will turn all these defects we’ve just read into assets that allow us to be uniquely helpful to other compulsive eaters.