Discipline

For many of us addicts, the word discipline conjures up nightmares of boot camps, childhood spankings, and a general sense of punishment that flies in the face of our willfulness. Indeed, the first definition for discipline in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary reads ominously, in all caps, and in red:

PUNISHMENT

On the other hand, we often find ourselves wishing we had the discipline to stop eating compulsively! The same source’s fifth definition surfaces what we’re looking for:

5 c: SELF-CONTROL

When put through the filter of our diseased thinking, we may regard controlling of our food as both a punishing restriction and as a sign of good moral character. Our illness wins out every time, and as we watch normal eaters take or leave food and lament that we can’t be like them, we feel burnt up. Which makes want to eat even more.

But maybe we’ve got it backwards? What if we thought about compulsive eating as punishing ourselves? What if we recognize that because of the disease of addiction, we can’t control our eating? What if no amount of thinking, no surge of willpower, and no diet regimen will save us because we are different than normal folks?

That’s exactly what Bill W. and Dr. Bob realized. When they tell us in the Big Book, “never talk down to an alcoholic,” they recognized that we addicts struggle with authority as well as self-control. We don’t respond to the carrot-and-stick approach. But as we get into the program, we see that those members with strong recovery have some semblance of that discipline we always wanted. It may manifest in “squeaky clean abstinence,” or in a general demeanor that demonstrates a level of self-control that we don’t possess, but we see it. How did they get it?

Now we are ready for another of the definitions of discipline:

5 b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior

We may think of “military discipline” or monk-like behavior, but don’t we see this in everyday people in our lives? That person we know who works out three times a week no matter what. Or the one who always has wonderful gardens because they weed regularly. A music student who practices frequently and without prodding because they want to improve. And in our case, the OA member who uses the Steps, Traditions, and Tools to gain abstinence and see a turnaround in their lives.

So how did those folks get that self-control, the orderly behavior? We’re desperate to know when we first join OA. The answer is, not surprisingly, one more definition of discipline:

4: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character

That’s exactly what we are after in OA. We go about it a little differently than most of courses of study. Typically, when people follow a discipline, they practice the thing they want until they become proficient at it. Well, we do some of that. But the thing we really want, the change in our spirits and our mentalities isn’t of our own making. We do our step work and learn some wonderful insights and coping tools for life, but we have no more ability to change ourselves than we did before OA. Our Higher Power changes us. The disciplines we attend to are designed to get us ready to be changed and to maintain the change, but we never arrive at proficiency at controlling our food and having a spiritual awakening. Instead, we are granted another chance at the life we always wanted.

“We alcoholics are undisciplined,” the Big Book tells us, “so we let God discipline us.” And we remember that this discipline isn’t about punishing but about forgiving and healing.

3 Questions for Finding a Higher Power

OA makes no bones about it. You’re gonna need a Higher Power if you want to recover from compulsive eating. Why? Simple, because if we can’t do it ourselves, and if no human being can do it for us, then by process of elimination, we need something more powerful than we are to do the heavy lifting for us.

Notice, we didn’t say God in that last paragraph? That’s because we needn’t define a Higher Power in those terms if we don’t want to. For some of us, it’s best if we don’t because that word rankles us.

On the other hand, for those used to religious worship, the term Higher Power may feel unspecific. Folks with a current conception of a God figure might well want to stick with it.

In OA we don’t have a horse in the gods race. Or lack of gods race. It’s about getting us through the 12 Steps so that we can enjoy a happy, joyous, freedom filled life. That’s why we encourage every member to define their idea of a Higher Power on their own. This is a program of action, and when you boil it down, a Higher Power must have just two attributes:

a. A willingness to free us from our obsession with food.
b. The ability to do so.

Of course, for us to get better and stay that way, the program instructs us to trust and rely on our HP for everything, not just food. So in reality, we need to add another trait to the mix:

c. Trustworthiness and reliability.

But we probably also need to add another ingredient. None of us wants to count on a crumb-bum Higher Power of dubious merit. We don’t want to get in with a HP that’s just doing tit for tat and wants us for its own creepy gains. Just because It can help us and does, doesn’t mean that Higher Power is worth following. So a fourth attribute would be

d. Worthiness of following.

After that, our concept is up to us. What do we want “a God personal to us” to be like? Here’s a few questions that can help us track down the answers.

1.) Do I already have a Higher Power in my life that I’m comfortable with?

We might have spiritual practices in place that can help us. If so, great! We will soon find that we can access this HP more than ever, once we have unblocked ourselves via abstinence and the 12 Steps. If not, we move on. We don’t want to get stuck in this spot. Feeling shame or guilt because we think we should believe in a certain Higher Power that isn’t comfortable for us will retard our progress. We have to keep asking questions.

2.) Am I OK with an anthropomorphized Higher Power?

In other words, do we want to picture God in our lives as having a human-like presence, or appearance? If so, we might ask ourselves additional questions such as

  • Do I need to know exactly what this Higher Power looks like to relate to it?
  • Does it need to be gendered for me to accept It?

If we aren’t interested in a human-like Higher Power, we can ask ourselves this: Am I OK with the idea of any kind of Being as a Higher Power? If so, we might ask ourselves the same two questions we just mentioned.

But if neither of these concepts works for us, then we need to get to the bottom of things. It’s not prohibitive for recovery if our HP isn’t a Being or even isn’t precisely sentient. Here are examples of Higher Powers we’ve heard about in meetings that had a decidedly non-standard flavor:

  • The fellowship of OA: When we choose the fellowship as a Higher Power, we may be able to relate when members use the G-word by in our minds hearing an acronym such as Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Discipline.
  • An ideal such as truth or love: We may believe that universals like these or others are shared by us all and can lift us from our misery if we can tap the energy behind them through the Steps.
  • Nature or the universe: Thinking of the amazing vastness of our universe or the incredible living diversity, many of us can’t help but feel awe, wonder, and a sense of power that can help us.
  • “The Force”: While we don’t necessarily adopt this Star Wars idea for our HP, many of our members do use a similar idea, namely that we are bound to one another and the world and the cosmos through a positive, animative energy source that may not have intelligence but does possess great helping strength. We can then use the OA program to focus its healing power on our illness.

This question of what a Higher Power is or isn’t can also be a trap, if our stinking thinking gets wrapped around its axle. So some members have simply thrown up their arms and said, “I don’t know! But I believe!” They’ve considered what the minimum attributes for their Higher Power are and then let that simply be enough. The so-called “God of my not-understanding” can be an effective way out of analysis paralysis.

3.) What other traits do I want in a Higher Power?

Once we have an idea of what sort of Higher Power we will work with, we can consider the characteristics we want in our God. This is when we imagine ourselves looking through the God Catalog.

A plan for every single thing that is happening in the world? We can have that in our Higher Power. Or we can have a Higher Power that keeps its hands out of things.

Logical, rational, and consistent? Those are all available. So are sympathetic, cheerleaderly, and parent-like.

Talkative or intuitive? Leading or nudging? Whispering or shouting? If we’re going to listen to our Higher Power, how do we want to do so?

And just like how the typical American changes jobs seven times and careers three times during their working lifetime, we OAs are likely to amend, update, revise, or overhaul our concept of a Higher Power during our journey through recovery. The important thing is that we develop a conception that works for us. Because after all, if we can’t work with our Higher Power, how will our Higher Power work on us?

Tradition of the Month: Paid Support

8. Overeaters Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

Tradition 8 probably seems obvious to us in retrospect. We understand that the power of OA’s fellowship emanates from one addict identifying with another because we experience it all the time. We know that the power of a sponsor-sponsee relationship comes from one addict sharing their experience in recovery with another.

That may not always have been so obvious. Early in AA’s history, medical doctors and psychologists played an important role in the fellowship’s development. “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book and Bill’s own story show us how Dr. Silkworth’s support of Bill’s wild idea of one alcoholic sharing with another enabled the fellowship to get off the ground and gain credibility in the medical community. Other members of the medical community were helpful in its development as well, including Dr. Harry Tiebout, one of the earliest psychologists to describe alcoholism as a disease and recognize the importance of ego-deflation in recovery.

With so much psychology involved in our desperate attempts to change our moods or feelings, push down our memories, and escape our minds, many groups in AA’s early days may have been tempted to bring in a psychology professional to support members’ recoveries. We can easily imagine such a person leading a meeting, because recovery counselors do just that in addiction treatment centers nationwide. We can easily imagine such a highly trained individual administering careful, thoughtful advice to an individual member going through the Steps. Who better to help us uncover the “hidden springs” of the mind that Bill writes about?

These genuinely helpful professionals could be difference makers to many members of OA. So, too, could dietary professionals. We might have meetings organized around developing a food plan that include these highly skilled people.

But we don’t. And the reason why is obvious when we step back and look at our own pasts.

How many of us went to see a counselor for help with our emotional issues or our food? How well did we listen? Did we really want to take the recommended actions? How about a nutritionist? Did we give them a fair hearing? Did we listen closely to our family doctor when they said that we should watch our eating because we were showing signs of Type 2 Diabetes?

We don’t listen to anyone but our disease when we are in the throes of addiction. Oh, we might take the advice for a week or three, but inevitably, we’re back into our stinking thinking and our unhealthy food behaviors. We certainly weren’t going to listen to someone we couldn’t relate to. Or who we thought was probably dispensing the same advice to us terminally unique addicts as they did to everyone else.

Yet, when we walk through the doors of OA, our ears open up because we hear our story told to us again and again. We see people in normal-sized bodies, people who are on the journey to a healthy body weight, and others who are just getting going. We hear in each of them an aspect of what we want, and in their experiences we hear echoes of our crazy food thinking and our general unmanageability. And these people are dishing out the straight dope without any expectation of payment. We see that they are so grateful for the gift they’ve received that they want to pass it on so others may share in it.

All of that hits us in our first few meetings. But would it if professionals ran the meeting instead? If OA groups set up a professional as their leader, we would learn to trust and rely on the pro rather than to lean, at first, on the fellowship and, later, to trust and rely on God. The Big Book tells us that “no human power could relieve our” addiction. But bringing in professionals would interpose them between us and the Power we come to know.

Wouldn’t we be likely to resent that professional too? What do they know about my life? My mind? Have they ever experienced cravings and mental obsession? Even if that professional were an addict, we would still see the profit motive at work. Do they give more time to one member versus another when we’re all chipping in for it? OA would never have gotten off the ground if it included professionals.

So we don’t include them. They are welcome to attend any open OA meeting, especially if they are, themselves, an addict. But for us psychology is an outside issue. Many members support their recoveries by seeking these talented and helpful individuals outside of their OA program, but OA recovery resides in the 12 Steps.

Step of the Month: Willingness

How’s your willingness today? It’s a question we might ask ourselves each morning. The word willingness is all over the first 164 pages of the Big Book as a well in the AA 12&12. For example, in his own story, Bill, referring to the recovery he saw in his sponsor, writes, “Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend.”

This willingness stuff is pretty important to recovery. Requisite, actually. “Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the essentials of recovery, but they are indispensable,” the Big Book tells us in the Appendix titled “The Spiritual Experience.” Willingness, in fact, can lead to open mindedness and honesty. For normal folks, any of these three might be an entry point to the rest, but for us addicts, willingness is probably the most important.

We are a stubborn people, us addicts. We’re trying to control and enjoy everything. We think we know what’s best. But we can’t enjoy what we can control nor enjoy what we can’t. We’re trying to take the edge off with food without the consequences. We’re trying to rely on ourselves instead of a Higher Power. We are not open-minded people, at least not on this matter.

Nor are we especially honest. Not merely about what we’re eating but about how our lives are going. About whether we’ll ever get control of our food (we won’t). About whether we’re hurting others besides ourselves (we are). About whether we even know what we feel (mostly, we don’t). But we tell ourselves lies about all of these and thousands of other things each and every day, from the moment we awaken to the moment we go to sleep (sometimes even in our dreams).

How can the solution offered by OA to our compulsive eating possibly break through our stubbornness and our dishonesty? That’s why willingness is so important.

The Big Book says that “alcohol beat us into a state of reasonableness,” and this is true for compulsive eaters and their substance. Willingness is a synonymous with “the gift of desperation.” When we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, we suddenly get a little burst of willingness. Or maybe a big burst. We hurt so much, that we would try anything to get better. And we’ve done so in the past. Grapefruit diets, fad diets supposedly from other countries, Dr. So-and-So’s diet, supposedly holistic diet programs where we purchase unhealthily salty food branded by the company, lifestyle changes comprising unsustainable calorie restriction and extreme exercise regimens. You name it. We’ve had the willingness before, but we’re cynical after so many past failures.

So willingness comes first and leads open-mindedness and honesty by the ears as we march through the Steps. In fact, the theme of willingness appears in several of the steps even if it is only directly expressed in Step 8:

2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The chapter “We Agnostics,” is all about becoming willing to believe in a Higher Power of our own conception. Bill writes, “… As soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results…”. Relief from compulsive eating begins with willingness (and requires more action to stick).

The theme of willingness in a step often indicates that an important action will required of us in the next step. So it is that Step 2 bridges to Step 3.

3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

The Chapter in the AA 12&12 is absolutely littered with references to willingness, and with good reason. “There is only key,” writes Bill, “and it is called willingness.” Elsewhere in the chapter he writes, “Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more.” And willingness is huge in Step 3 because we are making a contract with God: You save me from addiction, and I’ll do what you ask and help others. We are saying, in effect, that we’ll do the rest of the steps, and Step 3 comes before Step 4 for a reason. We’ll need willingness to conduct a thorough and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

6)  Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Here’s the really big one. In Step 7, we are going to ask God to change us from the inside out. We’ll be given a second shot at life. So we need to get willing, utterly willing, to let God take away from us all of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, our compulsive eating. All of it. Are we willing to give up these things that we’ve worn like an old sweater all these years? A sweater that everyone can see is stained, fraying, putrid-smelling, time-faded, hole-riddled garment that was ugly even when it was new. If we’re not ready to let go, then we won’t be changed. If we are not changed, we will not get the gift of neutrality toward food. We’ll be stuck. This is where we truly “abandon ourselves to God” as the famous “How It Works” passage admonishes us. Which brings us, finally, to Step 8.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Why do we need to become willing to make amends? Why don’t we simply make the list and get to it? Simply put, because we need honesty, open-mindedness, and only willingness will get us there. First off, making amends isn’t a fun-times activity. It’s serious, and it requires some serious pride-swallowing. At that simplest of levels, we need to check in our willingness.

But as we progress into Step 9, we’re going to need to do some rigorous examination of what we are making amends for, to whom we are making them, how to make them, and most importantly, whether direct amends may create further wreckage in that person’s life.

Any amends that can be made directly should be, and our minds will rebel at the idea of facing those hurt face to face. We need God to help us get willing. Some amends should never be made directly, and we need God’s help to understand which. In fact, we may need God to stay our hand in this matter if we are zealous! Some amends shouldn’t be amends at all. Our disease is still alive inside us, and it uses our ego against us. Just as it may tell us, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to make amends for that little thing,” it may also tell us that something we did rises to the definition of harm, even though it isn’t. This is a form of self-centered thinking. So we need HP’s help to show us what to do, or who to ask about it so we gain clarity. We’ve already done damage to others, and we must take great care that in repairing that damage we don’t create more wreckage, even with the best intentions.

So willingness is massively important to our recoveries. There’s much to be done so that we can be changed. God will do the changing as we do the footwork that prepares us for it. So we must be willing to go to any length. But we are rewarded with a happy life, the joy we haven’t felt in so so long, and freedom from food obsession. Willingness is worth it!