Why can’t I stop eating? It’s a question that probably every Overeaters Anonymous member asked themselves every day before they joined. We also asked ourselves similar questions such as:
- Why can’t I eat like other people?
- Why can’t I stop after just one bite?
- What’s wrong with me?
While every OA member is different, we all share some basic understandings about the disease of compulsive overeating. Our own experiences, the experiences of other members in our area, countless recordings and podcasts, and our program’s literature give us a reasonable set of explanations for our behavior.
Compulsive eating is an illness
First of all, we believe that compulsive eating is an illness or a disease. Just like Alcoholics Anonymous believes that alcoholism is a disease. No healthy person would go to the lengths we go to with food. Who but a compulsive eater would dig into the trash for food? Or eat frozen, burnt, spoiled, stale, or damaged food? Or hide their stash of food? Go out in a horrible storm or the wee hours of the night just to get something sweet or crunchy? What healthy person would allow themselves to gain as much weight as we have despite the well-documented risks, the physical pain, the shame, and the inevitable medications and surgeries? Who would eat themselves to death if they didn’t have an illness?
Major symptoms of compulsive eating
We recognize our illness as having three universal components. Every OA member has experienced these, and they explain a great deal of the why behind our illness. Sometimes we don’t realize it until well after we join OA, but these three symptoms have always been there. These symptoms differentiate us from normal eaters.
1. Physical cravings
Radio and TV ads often tell us that a restaurant or product can satisfy a food craving. They are talking to normal eaters, not to us. There is no amount of food that can satisfy us physically. That’s part of why we keep eating. For many OAs, certain foods are like allergens. When they eat these foods, the allergy triggers a physical need that only more food can meet. Over time, our bodies develop a tolerance, so we need more and more food to address the craving, and the relief from the craving lasts a terrifyingly shorter time. Although the craving may be related to any food, our members often find it manifests often with added sugars, flours, salt, and/or fats. As with any substance-centered addiction, the elimination of physical cravings may require a few days to a few weeks once someone begins to abstain from their trigger foods.
2. Mental obsession
Physical dependence on food is relatively simple. Remove the substance, and the cravings go away. So then why do people fall off the wagon? It’s because our minds are sickened as well. The expression of this sickness is our obsessive thinking about food. Immediately after we’ve eaten a meal, our mind is asking us What’s next? We might be doing something very important at home or at work, but suddenly the thought of a favorite food comes to us unbidden. We can’t be in a room with food without thinking about eating it. And getting seconds. Or thirds. The mental obsession is so powerful that it overwhelms rational thought. When we try to talk ourselves out of that next bite, the mental obsession shouts us down. Even when we diet, we invariably regain weight because we haven’t righted our mind.
3. Spiritual demoralization
If we could have changed our thinking about food we would have done so years ago. But the fact that we can’t stop shows us that we are powerless to stop eating compulsively. We can’t do the job. So we’ve turned to dietitians, weight loss groups, best friends, family members, celebrity gurus, and everyone else we could think of. None of them could help either. Eventually, no matter what successes we had with them, we always returned at some point to compulsive eating. We may have tried religion and found it only so helpful. What we need is someone more powerful than we are to help us. A Higher Power as the saying goes. But our illness also affects us spiritually. Our spiritual health has been as deeply damaged as our minds and bodies. We’ve been denying our problem for a very, very long time, and so we’ve forgotten how refreshing the truth is. We’ve been believing our situation hopeless for so long that we’ve forgotten what real hope feels like. We’ve been soothing our cravings and immediate crisis-triggered feelings but not our hearts, so we can only feel dullness instead of lightness. We’ve forgotten what it feels like to engage strongly with our spiritual selves. We may have been angrily denying that we have a spiritual self or that any spiritual power can help us. That’s a very common theme in many OAs’ stories.
It turns out that spiritual demoralization is at the root of our troubles. When we re-energize our spirits, we can overcome the mental and physical aspects of our malady. That’s precisely what OA and the Twelve Steps help us do.
Why can’t we stop eating? It’s not because we don’t want to. It’s because our disease has a stranglehold on us. But a key to unlocking its grip is to realize that we are not “terminally unique.” We are not so different from everyone else in the world that there’s no help for us. When we attend our first OA meetings, we learn that in our own communities, there are many people who think just like we do. Oh, the particulars might differ, but the pattern of their thinking is just like ours. If we can suspend, just for a little while, our mind’s chatter and go hear what others say about their experiences with compulsive eating and recovery, we are giving ourselves the most valuable gift imaginable: hope.