Permission to be powerless

Once we walk through the doors of OA, we may think that we have made the big decision.  We have finally given up the ghost with food. Our compulsive eating has left our minds, emotions, and spirit battered and bruised. We tell ourselves we really mean it. After all, why else would we go to meetings?

As we read OA literature, listen at meetings, and talk to our fellows, we begin to understand the idea of powerlessness. We learn that we cannot control our own eating by an act of willpower. We cannot stop once we’ve started, and we cannot stop from starting. We need this program because we grasp the seriousness of the situation. And yet, many of us struggle for a long time with Step 1.

Of course, to some degree, the struggle to gain abstinence arises from the cycle of cravings we initiate any time we pick up that first bite. This physical manifestation of our disease demands more and more food. Yet, many of us will put down the food long enough to be relieved of the physical sensation of craving only to return to our old eating behaviors. We’ve all been in meetings where a member shares that they can’t explain why they threw a month, six months, a year or two of abstinence out the window.

The insidious idea that after some abstinence we can control our food is planted by our disease. It grows slowly over time. We may begin a period of abstinence as desperate as we’ve ever been, yet give it a little while, and we begin to feel and act as if we’ve been doing the trick all along by our lonesomes. We forget so quickly the lessons that our years of compulsive eating have taught us. Our periods of control are temporary as long as we’re running the show.

Why do we do this? Is it possible that we haven’t given ourselves permission to be powerless? That is, permission to admit to ourselves that when it comes to food addiction our best efforts aren’t, and will never be, good enough to beat the rap. We know it to be true intellectually, and we resist and resist and resist it. We refuse to admit that something as simple as eating has us defeated, even in the face of a lifetime of evidence. Perhaps we ultimately fear that if this thing has us beaten, then all our fears about our own worth or inadequacy are also true?

Good news: they aren’t, and we discover this when we do the Steps. But first we have to give ourselves permission to accept some hard truths. Not just intellectually, but all the way deep down inside. Not just between our ears but between our ribs. We need to take OA actions not because our sponsor suggests them but because we desperately feel we want to recover, not because we think we ought to. We give ourselves permission to embrace the outcome of recovery instead of the fear of what happens if we don’t recover. We give ourselves permission to succeed rather than to avoid failing.

The Big Book tells us that with an attitude of courage and faith, we cannot fail. We give ourselves permission to put our faith in the Steps rather than drive ourselves crazy in another vain attempt to white knuckle our way to the false promise of self-controlled eating.

We will never achieve self-control with food. But with OA’s help we can achieve something far better. We can have a life of purpose, contentedness, and gratitude instead of food obsession, anxiety, and shame. All we have to do is admit defeat so that we can begin to reclaim victory.


Is it possible that we don’t know what we think we know?

Virtually anyone who has been in the program for any length of time will have experienced some variation on this situation:

“What are you struggling with?”

“I’m struggling with the God thing.”


“Because I don’t believe in a god that cares about me.”

“But you believe in a Power greater than yourself?”

“Yes, but it’s not a god with a personality, it’s just nature, and nature doesn’t care about individuals.”

Some OAs are, in fact, trained as theologians or philosophers and could perhaps reply to this line of reasoning with a carefully wrought line of thinking. But even that might do no good. Why? Because the person in this situation believes they have God, the universe, and everything figured out. Some of us come into the rooms of OA with this belief because we’ve done a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about this matter. Much of it has been healthy reflection and good research, but nonetheless influenced by our illness, which uses our minds to keep us chained to food.

Let’s think for just a moment about how we who have been down this particular path have been thinking. Are we experts in matters of theology, philosophy, cosmology, psychology, neurology, and the other fields that might help us understand a higher power and the effect it might have on human will power? For that matter, even if we know the evidence, are we effective reasoners? Is our logical faculty sound, especially if we are in the food?

The fields in question are so vast that most of their experts spend a lifetime specializing in a single subdomain within them (or a subsubdomain). To believe that we can know all there is to know about any of them, let alone all of them is, perhaps, a form of either arrogance or ignorance. To further believe that as laypeople we are smart enough not to need a lifetime of training and expertise to figure out something so complex as the universe and the human mind is just as illogical as having blind faith in someone else’s definition of a higher power.

So faced with someone like our example above, we can ask them a single question: Is it possible that you don’t know what you think you know? Any reasonable person will answer that, of course, this is possible…that in fact it’s rather unlikely that any one of us knows all this. But we become unreasonable in the course of our illness. So be patient with the person you’ve asked this. Give them a moment to consider, or even a few days. Ask them again another time. Sometimes the power of a question like this needs a great deal of time to sink in.

Perhaps the reality for this type of thinker is that they are afraid the program won’t work for them. They may fear being forced to adopt something they do not believe in. They may fear failing because they don’t have a belief that can work for them. It may feel safer for them to be stuck where they are than to seek something that seems impossible to reach.

It is possible that this person needs only to know two things.

  1. They need only be open to the possibility that something out there might help them.
  2. That more will be revealed, if they do the Steps thoroughly.

We can’t say what will be revealed. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of the sort they didn’t think they could believe in. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of exactly the sort they did believe in but there perception of Whose power their diseased mind had limited. It could be something else altogether that they hadn’t imagined but that ultimately works for them.

Christopher Columbus believed the world was round and that by sailing westward, he’d eventually hit the East Indies. His opponents thought the world was flat. He discovered that he was partially right, but that there was land between Spain and the East Indies. But he couldn’t get any answer without first setting sail.

Tradition of the Month: Contributing to Our Own Recovery

7. Every OA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

We all know that Tradition 7 is why we pass the hat. But what’s in it for us as individual OA members? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

In order to be free from the monstrous  and insidious influence of fiduciary affairs, we are self-funding, and we only keep what we need to meet expenses. The rest goes onto service organizations that carry the message to the many out there who still suffer. We do our part as individuals to fund the rent and the literature. We are under absolutely no obligation to contribute, but we are strongly encouraged to do so. We are all responsible for OA’s health.

Yet for many of us, a lingering sense of unease comes with the Seventh Tradition. Simply put, many of us have a fear of financial insecurity. Virtually all of us have experienced this feeling. We may be on a fixed income and worried that the money will run out. We may be out of work and on unemployment. We may be over our heads in debt. Or we may simply have grown up impoverished and have trouble letting go of a buck or three. Perhaps several of these conditions and many others apply to us. Or none. Nonetheless, fear of falling of a financial cliff afflicts so many of us that it’s listed in The Book Book as an affect in the third column of our inventory of resentments!

As individual OA members, we can use Tradition 7 as a safe means to feel, heal, and deal with the fear of financial insecurity.

  • FEEL: When the hat gets passed, we can notice whether our fear arises, even a little bit.
  • HEAL: We then can say the fear prayer found in The Big Book on page 68: “We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be.”
  • DEAL: Finally, we chip in.

For those who feel scared to put in anything, any amount will do. For those who put in less than they could, adding a little more than usual can help. No matter what we put in, what we are really doing is expressing faith that our Higher Power will both change us by helping us with this fear and work through us and OA to help others.

What do we get out of it? A low-risk opportunity for instant spiritual growth. A healthier OA. Freedom from the bondage of self that the Third Step prayer talks about. One dollar buys about 0.4 gallons of gasoline: We might walk somewhere during the week when we usually would drive. One dollar buys a bottle of premium seltzer water: We might have tap water one day a week instead of the bubbly. One dollar buys half a cup of coffee: Is there a cup we could do without once a week? Heck, we used to use that dollar on penny candy or cheap snack cakes, and we would gladly trade that for relief from compulsive eating!

As often is the case in OA, when we take courage from our Higher Power and do the thing we don’t want to, we receive a reward much greater than what we hesitatingly put it. Each time we do so, we take another step toward serenity and another step away from a life of anxiety and worry.

Step of the Month: Step 7, Surrendering

7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

We make a lot of surrenders in OA. In Step 1, we finally surrender to the facts—we can’t get over compulsive eating by ourselves. In Steps 2 and 3, we surrender to the idea that there’s something more powerful than our own wills, and that we need spiritual direction to get better. In Steps 4 and 5, we surrender any notion that we were blameless in the mess we’ve made of our lives. In Step 6, we took one last look at the truth of our lives and said, yes, we are ready to have removed those defects of character that got us into this compulsive-eating mess in the first place.

So now comes Step 7, the actual removal.

The action of Step 7 isn’t just in the asking, however. Yes, must ask God, Take this, please. But we also have to take the action of letting go of whatever we’re holding onto. Sometimes we balk at doing so. We’re concerned that without those flaws in our makeup we won’t be ourselves any longer. We’ll just be automatons. “I’d rather be depressed, angry, miserable, and eating my face off,” says some voice in our heads, “than the puppet of some Higher Power I can’t even see.” If our minds, diseased as they are, rebel at Step 7, at the notion of surrendering our defects of character to HP, we might think of some analogies. If our trash smelled putrid on a hot summer day, would we stand at our garbage can, holding the stinking bag over it and wondering whether we should drop it in? If we’re holding a full baby diaper, do we weigh the pros and cons of tossing it in the trash? Don’t we always flush?

We can ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Do the people I know in OA who’ve gone through Step 7 act like Godbots? Or are they choosing to exercise free will in a spiritual way?
  2. Do I really want life to suck, to die young, and to be in mental, spiritual, and physical agony for however many days I have left?

When we put it squarely like that, it’s not much of a choice. We have to let go of, to surrender, our defects if we want to lead a sane and happy life. If we hold onto them for fear of losing control, then our disease has won out, and we will continue to suffer until we are ready to surrender.

But why not simply try it God’s way? Whatever that means to us. If our conception of God remains such that we don’t trust him/her/it/they with our defects of character, then we may need to reconsider that conception and find a God idea that will allow us to transfer this burden.

No matter what, though, anything is likely better than where we’ve been. Anyway, this is a very low-risk proposition. If letting got remove our defects doesn’t ultimately work out, we’ve lost nothing except maybe a few pounds. We can always go back to being miserable if that’s what we want.