The jigsaw puzzle of addiction

Said one OA member to another this week, “life is jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it?” It sure seems like one. Indeed, this is a wonderful metaphor for recovery.

While we’re eating compulsively, it’s as though we’re working on several different puzzles at once. We’re trying to figure out our food. We’re trying to manage our relationships. We’re trying to manage our fear. We’re trying to get life to go our way. We’re trying to change as we simultaneously try to keep everything around us the same.

None of these are going well. We suspect that someone (perhaps even us) has lost some of the pieces. Or that the pieces are miscut. We wonder if maybe the images on the pieces don’t actually match the box. Pieces from the other puzzles somehow snuck into one another’s puzzle’s boxes. Worst of all, the number of pieces in the puzzle keeps getting bigger and bigger; what once was a 100-piece puzzle with big pieces is now a 10,000 piece puzzle with pieces that practically require tweezers to handle.

For each of the different puzzles, we can’t seem to find one single strategy that works for each of them. We try assembling the border first. Or grouping pieces by color or the sector in the puzzle we suspect they belong to. We put all the same shaped pieces in a pile. We keep them all in their box, or we scatter them face up on the puzzle table. But we just can’t seem to make any headway. Oh, we might get a little block of the final image complete, but then the image changes!

As we engage in OA’s program of recovery, we start to get somewhere. As we use the Tools of Recovery to get our food in order, we find all of the straight-edged border pieces and define the scope of the problem. We finally have some boundaries around food, and we feel relief. Once we accept that our lives are unmanageable, we also start to see that all of those puzzles were really just one all along. Phew!

But until we do the Steps, the solution eludes us. If we haven’t done the Steps, we still only have the border of the puzzle. But the whole image remains mostly blank inside, and it will stay that way without further spiritual action on our part. So we do the unthinkable: We turn our will and lives over to the care of a Higher Power.

We may not have realized it, but we’ve been afraid that the image the puzzle ultimately produces will be horrifying to us. But once we’ve taken Step Three, we’ve committed to doing the moral inventory in Step Four. As we do so, we increasingly feel as though our Higher Power is guiding our hands across the puzzle pieces. Things fit together that somehow seemed impossible before. Finally, in Step Five, we see the completed image of our lives before us. It is, indeed, ugly in some places. We see all of our warts, our defects of character and how they have kept us away from happiness. But we also see that our self-pity and anger arises despite the many good things we have around us.

We may feel despondent at this point. We may want to tear up the finished puzzle. Instead, Step Six tells us to be willing to let God figure out what to do with it. Then in Step Seven we ask him to so, and we begin living life of God’s terms, not ours.

As we live our new way of life and to make amends, something utterly amazing happens. We discover to our delight that what we thought was the border of the puzzle is, in fact, just an image within an image! The puzzle extends infinitely outward in all directions. Previously, we defined what we thought our lives were. Now our HP is showing us a wider truth. God has turned our defects into assets that help others find recovery and happiness.

New puzzle pieces suddenly appear, and they attach themselves to the puzzle we completed without our having to figure out where they go. As the new picture radiates outward, we see how small the old life we led was. Our new life dwarfs it in size and in beauty. That tiny little box of painful memories will always be there, but we need never focus on that misery again. We see it now as way to help other suffering food addicts. And those straight-edged boundary pieces that comprised our food plan? They turn into a wall that helps keep the pain of our old life boxed in.

So life can be seen as a jigsaw puzzle. The question for compulsive eaters like is who is doing the solving? Are we relying on our own wits to arrest a disease that outwits us at every turn? Or are we going to let our Higher Power guide us to the solution? Are we going to keep seeing an image of pain in our old way of life? Or are we going to start seeing the bigger picture and live sanely and safely in this world?

Defining our abstinence with OA’s wisdom

It’s all too easy to get tangled up in perfectionism when it comes to our abstinence. Am I abstinent, or aren’t I? Was that a slip, or was my body truly signaling me through hunger to eat? If I change my food during the day, am I not being honest?

Each OA member is different, and, therefore, abstinence differs for each of us. One person’s pastries may be another’s Brussels sprouts. We must each define our own abstinence. Only we know what foods and eating behaviors trigger us.

But we also know that when it comes to food, we are born liars. Denial of our problem was a lie. All the fibs we told others to cover for our compulsive eating were lies. Stuffing bags, boxes, or containers in the bottom of the trash so no one else could see them was a lie. So how do we define abstinence meaningfully and honestly?

OA defines abstinence very simply and broadly so that all members have common ground no matter what food plan or approach they use:

Abstinence in Overeaters Anonymous is defined as the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight. Spiritual, emotional, and physical recovery is the result of living the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve-Step program.

OA provides four important criteria for abstinence:

  • refraining from compulsive eating
  • refraining from compulsive food behaviors
  • working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight
  • doing all of these things simultaneously (indicated by the words and and while in the first sentence).

This is the most basic definition of abstinence available to us OA members. It does not say that anyone must abstain from any specific foods or food behaviors. Instead, the responsibility for that level of specificity is on us. We must be serious and honest about what foods are an issue and what behaviors are an issue. Then we avoid them.

At the same time, we must also be diligent on the matter of physical recovery. It’s not just about specific binge foods. Eating larger quantities of food than is required to maintain healthy body function is another problem most OAs have in common. That’s why a big reason why we’re fat, after all. Still, within that third bullet point are two traps we must be wary of.

First, we must not use the definition of abstinence as a reason to make physical recovery our Higher Power. The point of OA is not to recover from being fat but to recover our lives and stay recovered. Our physical recovery is but one facet of our program, which the second sentence in the definition of abstinence tells us. We must work the Twelve Steps to find lasting physical recovery.

Second, we must be honest and rigorous about our journey toward physical recovery. Are we eating the right amount to lose weight? Or are we continuing to eat more than necessary and telling ourselves that losing a pound a year fits the spirit of OA’s definition of abstinence? Are we “getting around” to losing the weight or doing it? Do we know objectively or medically what a healthy body weight is for us, or are we letting our diseased minds tell us that a weight above a realistically healthy weight is just fine. Do we even know what the right amount is to eat for weight loss? Or are we just guessing? Are we committed to the idea that being at a healthy body weight is a way to show newcomers that the program works?

OA has no opinion on the details of diet, calories, and similar matters. The specifics of these are outside issues that every member is encouraged to explore with a medical and/or nutritional expert. OA’s only opinions of matter of diet are to avoid compulsive eating, avoid compulsive food behaviors, and return our bodies to a normal size.

There are sometimes reasons why some OA members may not be able to reach a conventionally healthy body weight for their age, body type, and activity level. For example, some members take medications for serious medical conditions with side effects of weight gain, water retention, general bloating, or other metabolic responses. Other members who have lost hundreds of pounds may have extra skin that causes them to weigh more than they otherwise would. (The choice to have this skin surgically removed is a personal matter and for OA’s purposes an outside issue.) For these members, maintaining a healthy body weight may mean something different than it does for members without these complexities.

Our abstinence begins to take shape as we examine what OA’s definition of abstinence looks like for us. Does our compulsive eating increase when we consume certain things? Fats, sugars, salts, flours, alcohol, or any other “red light” foods that always get us in trouble? Are there “green light” foods that have never played a role in our compulsive eating? Are there “yellow light” foods that we’re not quite sure about? How honest are we able to be with ourselves about these foods? Are we willing to let go of those that fall into the “red light” group?

How about compulsive food behaviors? Are certain times of day perilous for us? Certain rooms in our house? Can we dine out safely? Is watching TV or reading while eating an invitation to mindless binging? There are at least as many compulsive food behaviors as there are OA members.

Once we have awareness of these parameters, we can get to work using the OA Tool of Food Plan. There is no one food plan in OA. Everyone gets to create their own, which is best done under the guidance of a sponsor and with help from our Higher Power. Food plans are a tool to gain abstinence, and we may choose to define our abstinence through them as strictly or loosely as benefits our recovery. OA has no opinion on any food plan nor on what within that food plan denotes abstinent food or behavior. That’s up to us.

That said, we may want to avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Are we seeking progress or perfection? Do we constantly worry whether we are abstinent, or are we keeping our mind on how we can be helpful today? Are we placing the power for abstinence in God’s hands, or are we trying to control our food? Are we working with someone else to be accountable for what we eat, or are we using another human being as a Higher Power-like judge of our abstinence?

Ultimately, we can’t have the perfect abstinence. But if we’re staying open to taking action, trusting our Higher Power to guide our food rather than merely doing another diet, and being completely honest about what we eat, we will have the perfect abstinence for us.

Tradition of the Month: Let’s keep this thing simple

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

Dr. Bob’s last words to his AA confounder Bill W. were an admonition:

“Remember Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, page 343.)

Bill had been in the world of high finance. In the high towers on Wall Street making a mint’s worth of paper proceeds, only to see them all dissolve in the market meltdown that kicked off The Great Depression. In fact, what brought Bill to Akron where he met Dr. Bob was an investment scissor fight. He involved himself in a vicious proxy battle with a tire manufacturer’s board of directors. Complicated, political, protracted dueling among the lords of that particular realm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bob practiced proctology.

The pull and drag dynamic of their relationship served AA amazingly well. Bob could provide a realistic assessment of Bill’s more grandiose ideas. Bill could spur the more conservative Bob toward practices that would give AA the ability to reach a regional then national audience. By the time of Dr. Bob’s death in 1950, AA had blossomed across America and well beyond, so his last words to Bill were important. They had been big fish in a little pond. Now they could choose to see themselves as big fish in a vast ocean if they wished.

Bob wisely counseled against it. Addicts have enough problems with grandiosity and ego that they don’t need to see themselves as kahunas of some burgeoning world power. Stay small in your own mind, he seemed to be telling Bill. AA’s Twelve & Twelve published just a year or three after this famous encounter. In it, Bill frequently warns against big-shotism and repeatedly reminds us of the importance of humility and humbleness.

All of this relates in profound ways to Tradition Seven. The AA 12×12 analogizes Tradition Seven to a vow of poverty. As a former financier, Bill knew quite well the ups and downs of markets as well as of the accumulation and management of wealth. He understood how complex the issues around it are. If you’ve ever visited a retirement planner, run your own company, or been in accounting, you probably have some idea how complicated money can be. By taking a metaphorical vow of poverty, AA ensured that the money intake itself would be modest, posing less risk of profiteering motives. Just as important, placing that vow of poverty in the context of Tradition 5 (our primary purpose) and Tradition 8 (AA should remain forever nonprofessional…) created a bulwark against the corporatizing of AA’s message of hope. The fellowship was to use the money for one purpose (helping drunks) and not paying guys like Bill to do it.

Experience taught AA the necessity of its vow of poverty. Arguments about money divert  from the primary purpose. The endless decision making around money and the finger pointing that occurs when investments don’t pan out create disunity in a fellowship whose first Tradition stresses its importance.

So what’s this history lesson got to do with our food and OA’s fellowship? Everything. We hear in many rooms the phrase “Keep it simple.” Why? Simply because we addicts can complicate an egg timer. That adage is often used to describe our food planning, but it’s also true of the fellowship in its entirety. If we don’t keep things simple, we simply won’t be able to keep OA healthy.

Food plans are a lot more complicated than sobriety from alcohol. We have to let the tiger  out of the cage three times a day, and our deal is on every street corner. We do not have the time to deal with the complications that arise from handling money, attracting donations or capital, and making big plans for how to use it. We have just two things we need to do: stay abstinent and help others. Anytime our focus drifts away from those tasks, we are vulnerable to this vicious disease.

We take our vow of poverty so that we can find the richness of recovery from compulsive eating.

 

Step of the Month: Humbly asked

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Because in Step 7 so much of importance occurs inside of us, we typically focus on the the removal of our shortcomings. We didn’t just write all that moral inventory and share it with our sponsor so that the bad stuff stays stuck inside us! This is a big deal. It’s where God makes good on the third step prayer. We said we’d try it God’s way, and in exchange God removes our troubles. It’s a miracle.

But we might be wise to pause for a moment on the leading adverb of the sentence: Humbly. Why did Bill W. and the gang slip that small but important word there? Those folks knew a thing or two about how us addicts work. They know that a lack of humility is an issue for us. Self-centeredness is self-centeredness whether we think we are better than everyone else or worse than everyone else. Whether we have delusions of superiority or delusions of inferiority. Either way, we are not able to assess ourselves humbly.

People like us are stubborn. Or perhaps it’s that our disease place stubborn ideas in our heads. For example, the idea that we have to be able to do the job ourselves. Whatever the job is. Or that we don’t need fixing, but everyone else does. Or that we know what actually needs to removed from us. In fact, we may know, but we may not have much perspective about the relative importance of each item that requires extraction. Finally, we may have the idea that we aren’t worth saving. That old saw has killed a lot of addicts. It’s another bit of old thinking that is self-centered in nature and has to go. It’s not humble to think that we are uniquely awful in our HP’s eyes.

If we have done the first six Steps well and learned to trust and rely on God by working them, then it is very likely that we are well and ready to ask for the removal of our shortcomings in the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge asked to be saved from the torment of understanding the terrible effect of his words and deeds on others. In the Big Book, on page 75, the authors ask us to consider whether we’ve done the work of the first five Steps well, whether we are truly ready to be changed by our Higher Power. Why would they ask this? Aren’t we all ready to have the scourge of addiction lifted from us?

Maybe we are in some ways and not others.

Are we hoping to have our obsession lifted but hang onto the worst of our defects? Are we hoping to have our obsession lifted merely to improve our life circumstances with little care for living in the solution thereafter? Are we we hoping to have the obsession lifted and then go on our merry way without returning again to help others like us? Perhaps most important: Do we still want to run the show? Or think we aren’t worth saving?

Of course, we all want to run the show. That’s how we are as addicts. We want freedom from discomfort and feelings more than anything. But if that freedom has to come via mechanisms we control, then we have not absorbed the solution. Our freedom comes from dependence on God, not merely with independence from food. So this simple little word, humbly, keys us into the idea that we still have more to learn. Humble is related to humility, a word that describes being teachable. Are we asking God to remove these objectionable items so we can learn more about our nascent spirituality? Or only for selfish reasons.

We here from long-time members and members with strong recovery that we must always stay on guard against our disease. It’s getting worse inside of us even as we’re getting better. We are never immune to its attacks on our thinking, even if we’ve got 10,000 days of abstinence. “Lurking notions” likely linger inside all of us. Step 7 is the archway we walk through into a new life of sobriety and freedom. But it does have conditions, the most important being the willingness to standing on a humble spiritual footing and to continue to maintain and expand it one day at a time. Even if it doesn’t come easily or naturally to folks like us.