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:


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:


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.