Talking about pain to avoid mental suffering

“No pain, no gain” say the gym rats. But we compulsive eaters mean it differently…in our minds. “If only they wouldn’t hurt me, I wouldn’t have to eat, and I wouldn’t be fat.” But the world keeps turning round, and we aren’t allowed to stop it just because we hurt.

The problem with emotional pain is that we addicts tend to carry it around with us, and our society often tells us to suffer in silence. Pain doesn’t become suffering, however, until we give it the opportunity. When we stew in self-pity, pain becomes suffering. When we turn over the same conversation or situation in our mind trying to figure out how to change it, even though we can’t, pain becomes suffering. Until the moment we accept what’s happened, we will suffer.

In OA, we learn several actions to take when we have mental agony that’s about to tip into prolonged suffering. But all of them depend on two factors:

  1. acknowledging that we are in pain
  2. recognizing that our addictive minds want to seek relief as quickly as possible.

The second of these two factors is, in some way, the easy part. Once we acknowledge our pain and discomfort, we have a fighting chance. For us OA members, relief comes from honesty. OA’s Steps and Tools help us cope with the searing or dull mental pain of our lives. When we use the 10th, 11th, and 12th Steps to work through pain, we are taking spiritual actions designed to get us through the tough stuff. When we go to a meeting or pick up the phone, we lean on the fellowship for support. Others can identify, have had the same kinds of feelings and situations in their lives. All of the Tools, by definition, support the 12 Steps and the recovery we find in them. They ultimately lead us back to the Higher Power we connect with in the Steps.

The actions we can take are well documented and have proved out over decades of OA experience and that of other fellowships as well. So let us examine for a moment the idea of acknowledging our pain.

Admitting to ourselves that we are in the grips of emotional pain is very, very difficult sometimes. We may feel overwhelmed so much that we can’t think straight. We may have such singular focus on an issue in our lives that we completely lose the ability to see ourselves perseverating over it. The depression, anger, disappointment may be so pervasive that it descends like a black cloud over everything else in our lives. Our relationships, our work, and our program seem like distant joys.

Even so, many of us have been taught, conditioned by society, to just bear it up. When we ate compulsively, we used denial as a tool to get through each day, and we have years of practice in this bleak art. For males, especially, the popular notion of the strong, silent man brings with it doubts about the appropriateness of even admitting there’s something wrong.

But as one of our local members has experienced, intense relief often arrives quickly after saying out loud that we are in pain. Sitting alone, speaking frankly to our Higher Power, telling HP that we hurt creates an amazing opening in our minds. We will have more work to, which we’ve discussed above, but suddenly our willingness to do that work increases because we receive a moment of hope.

To multiply the power of that conversation with God, we can ask for HP’s will for us, the willingness to carry it out, and guidance in how to do it. We often find that a word or phrase leaps to mind, and that we soon after encounter obvious pathways through our lives that seemed blocked earlier. “God makes simple terms with those who seek Him,” the Big Book tells us.

When we admit to God, and, others, that we hurt, we get honest about our state of mind. We also get honest about who’s in charge, because our perseveration is but another form of control. So when we ask for our Higher Power’s will, we admit, too, that we can’t manage our life. We are as sick as our secrets, especially the ones we keep from ourselves.

You cannot fail in OA

Nearly every person in the world worries about failure. We addicts especially worry about what our errors say about us. How will we look to other people? Will our outsides finally reflect all the negativity we feel about ourselves on the inside?

We’ve spent an entire life masking this fear to the outside world (usually not very well) and trying our best to stanch the fear with the magical numbing properties of compulsive eating. Now that we’ve joined OA, these old feelings may well creep into how we think about our program.

We may become discouraged by what we perceive as our inability to “get” the program, to lose weight or lose it quickly enough, to get or stay abstinent, to find the “perfect” sponsor. The list can go on and on because our diseased thinking doesn’t want us to succeed in OA. It wants us to continue eating compulsively, and it will manipulate our thinking until it gets what it wants.

That’s why we so often hear OAers say “Keep coming back!” It is courageous to merely attend meetings and acknowledge that we have a problem. It is a great act of self care to ask someone for help with understanding and practicing the program. But our disease will tell us that these things aren’t so great, so why bother.

“Stay until the miracle happens,” many members will say. Amazing amounts of truth there. If we leave OA because we are struggling with abstinence, we throw away our last lifeline, and we set ourselves adrift to sea, alone, with no hope of rescue. But as long as our butt stays in an OA seat, and we continue to hear the message, we remain connected to the source of the solution for compulsive eating. We may struggle with others, but we fail alone.

Now, here’s the great hope for us with the fear of failure. It’s on page 55 of the Big Book:

If our testimony helps sweep away prejudice, enables you to think honestly, encourages you to search diligently within yourself, then, if you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway. With this attitude you cannot fail. The consciousness of your belief is sure to come to you.

[Emphasis ours.]

The founders of AA here share one of the greatest of all promises in the Big Book: That if we continue down the 12-Step path, as long as we move toward the solution, we will not fail and are not failures.

Let’s break down this paragraph for just a moment into its components to see exactly what they mean.

  • “Our testimony”: We are in receipt of the experience of the first 100 AA members who first discovered the healing power of the 12-Step approach.
  • “Sweep away prejudice”: Why not suspend our judgment, even of things spiritual that we might have that of as woo woo or superstition? Nothing else is working for us.
  • “Search diligently within yourself”: No human being or group of them will give us a miraculous pill or balm to eradicate our addiction. This is an inside job, and a job that must be done well and carefully to have its promised effect. We can’t half-ass this thing and expect to win out. We must be ready to face all of demons to feel, heal, and deal.
  • “If you wish”: This is a program for those who want it, not those who need it. If we don’t really want it, we should probably keep coming until we do.
  • “Join us on the Broad Highway”: Recovery is open to anyone, regardless of gender, age, color, ethnicity, religion, ability, or any other demographic marker. Our fellowship requires unity because the spiritual power that works through it is amplified by our combined presence. And, hey, it’s a good time.
  • “This attitude”: Here’s the key, right? We must adopt an attitude of honesty (we don’t know everything), open-mindedness (this can work for us, too), and willingness (a commitment to doing the work of recovery), if we want to succeed. If we make these simple ideas a part of our OA practice, then we will never fail at recovery.

Oh, we may hit a rumble strip on the road to recovery. We might slip off the tarmac here and there. But if we, nonetheless, keep this simple attitude, we will continue moving forward. This is the long game. Even if we must take one step backward for every two we take forward, we will find the freedom from food obsession that OA promises us. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, no doubt. But it’s always there for us, if we work for it.

3 OA ways to avoid the big blow-up

Here’s a classic couples argument.

You’re in the car with your spouse. You realize that you got off at the wrong exit and you mention it. Your spouse asks, “Did you look at a map before you left?” You spit back that you don’t need a front seat driver, and why didn’t they speak up earlier?

Or maybe it’s an argument with a coworker about why a project went pear-shaped. Or with a sibling about what to do about Mom and Dad’s estate. Or, or, or….

There’s millions of opportunities each day for a spat or even a big blow-up with loved ones, colleagues, and, even, complete strangers. So how do we use OA principles to lead with kindness instead of anger? Here’s three ways.

1. Pray!

OK, that’s pretty obvious. OA is a spiritual program for people who haven’t done much spiritual business in their lives. We need guidance in difficult situations, so prayer should probably be our number one move when we need stillness of tongue or pen/keyboard/device. In fact, Step 10 suggests we pause when agitated or doubtful and ask for the right thought or action. ***SPOILER: An emotional fireworks display doesn’t promote love and kindness.*** “God, please help me” is enough. We don’t need to go into a lengthy monologue with our HP, especially in the heat of an emotional moment.

2. Use OA’s tools

Program literature tells us that the OA Tools exist to support living and working the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. In our driving example, it can be hard to break away from an argument in the cabin of a moving vehicle. But in many instances, we may be arguing over the phone, over email or text, or in an online discussion thread. In each of these instances, we have opportunities to put down the conversation (“Let me call you back” or to literally step away from a computer or device). That’s when we pick up the Tools. If we need to deescalate immediately, the Tool of Telephone (or text) probably works best. If we have some time, the Tool of Meetings or Service can help shift our minds onto others and away from the source of our conflict. That pause from the fight is often enough to help us regain perspective.

3. Ask ourselves what our intentions are

Truth-telling is hard, but often super rewarding, especially in a situation like this. Is fear driving our side of the argument? Does pride demand we avoid losing face? Is there something we badly want or need that the other person is getting in the way of? Are we just trying to control our little world or avoid losing control of it to the other person? We often find once we ask these questions that we lose to the urge to counter or to even reply because we recognize the self-centeredness rearing up in our mind.

Let’s go back to the navigational argument we started with and apply each of these 3 techniques.

1. Pray!

As the driver, we’ve stated that we goofed up. Even if our spouse is being as snarky as can be in their response, why should we take the bait? We can ask God to remove our anger and to show us how we can be helpful to our spouse. Maybe there’s something going on inside them that needs to come out but hasn’t yet found its way. At the very least, the rest of the car ride needn’t be spent on razor’s edge.

2. Use OA’s Tools

If we are the non-driving spouse, instead of asking about the map, we might pull out our phone and text a program friend about our frustration. If we happen to have a For Today in the car, we might grab it and open to a favorite passage. Even as the driver, we might choose to remember a favorite passage such as the Acceptance Page. In situations such as  online interactions, we have time to step away and do whatever is necessary to restore us to civility.

3. Ask ourselves what our intentions are

The questions we provided above, and others, lead us back to our selfish instincts. All humans have them! Ours just happen to be more intense as a symptom of our affliction. Here’s the amazing part, though. Often when we stop the flow of the angry conversation and talk about our intentions openly and honestly, we get to the most intimate, productive, and/or satisfying results. We might have been assuming that our spouse was responding in sarcasm, when, in fact, their response might have been a genuine question because they thought we’d read a map before leaving! If we’re afraid of losing face, and we respond by describing how we are afraid of letting them down or looking weak to them, we might end up learning that we needn’t ever have that fear again because their love isn’t conditional. The possibilities are many here, but when we dig a little deeper and reply with the truth about ourselves, we open new opportunities for love, kindness, and tolerance, not to mention service to others.

OA is a flexible program that really works in rough going. In a car, in the boss’ office, at the family dinner table, at a party, at a funeral, while buying a car or a house, during an audit, a court case, or dental visit. It works when we work it.

 

Tradition of the Month: A House Divided

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon OA unity.

One hundred sixty years ago this June 16th, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his best known speeches. It included this famous line:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In distilling the experience of thousands of groups across the world into twelve pithy traditions, Bill Wilson recognized that any organization that included human beings as members would find itself factionalized. That’s just how people are, and it’s especially true of addicts. In the chapter of the Big Book titled “How It Works,” we are told exactly this about ourselves. We are reminded that we seem to constantly try to wrest happiness and satisfaction from people, places, and things regardless and generally don’t care all that much about their welfare as long as we get ours. Why would a 12-Step group be different?

So the founders went to great lengths to create something new that didn’t look like most other human endeavors. For one thing, they called it a fellowship. Not an organization. The trouble with organizations is that they need leaders, officers, board members, all the usual trappings of authority. Leadership roles convey status, power intoxicates us and can divert us from our primary purpose. More important, our Higher Powers are the leaders of OA, not limited individuals like us.

At every step, AA’s and OA’s founders sought ways to block the way toward infighting. Make it a fellowship. Let it be anarchic in nature. Place authority in God’s hands, not people’s hands. Let every member choose their own conception of God so that there can be no fighting about which is the “right” Higher Power. Invert the service structure so that local meetings are served by World Service rather than vise versa. Make the primary purpose altruistic and disallow outside enterprises and influences. Give every member the right to adopt whatever plan of eating works for them so that we avoid food-plan factionalism. All geared toward the combination of ego deflation and dependence on spirituality so that we don’t let our pesky opinions of how things should be run get in the way of others’ recovery.

It’s amazing sometimes that 12-Step groups have enough organization to even have a meeting each week, and yet that’s precisely how unity works in OA. The more rules there are, the more interpretations of the rules there are. The more interpretations there are, the more we argue, parse words, and find ourselves in opposition with our fellow sufferers. How does that help a newcomer?

In an important way, Tradition One parallels Step One. We might say that, “A mind divided against itself cannot stand itself.” Self-recriminiation seems to haunt all us compulsive eaters, and it easily overcomes our weak resistance to self-flagellation. Our best selves, unsupported by other sufferers and not yet connected to a Higher Power, can’t stand up to the onslaught of negativity that comes from the part of our brain controlled by our disease. So we eat to quiet the arguing inside, and we slowly slip further and further into the grip of addiction.

The more our addition overtakes our personality, the more unmanageable life becomes. Problems feel bigger and more intractable. We despair of ever returning to a life of normalcy let alone happiness. Friendships feel like obligations. As we observe these phenomena of unmanageability happening to us, we feel worse and worse. Eventually our metaphorical house can no longer stand, all because this disease leads us to think that we can’t stand ourselves.

Just as Tradition One helps us to bring a recovered sense of kindness, love, and tolerance to OA affairs, the Steps help us find compassion and redemption in our personal affairs. Just as Tradition One implores us to consider the welfare of the group instead of just our small selves, the Steps help us see that we’ve always been out for number one, even when we did things with good intentions. Then the program changes us so that we can practice selflessness and self-care.

Together we get better. If there is no fellowship, we will suffer and die alone and without hope. But when we seek OA unity, avoid petty infighting, resist gossiping about others’ recoveries, and find ways to bring our members together, we all have a chance at serenity, happiness, and a life second to none.

 

Step of the Month: Abstinence is not the solution

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 

Abstinence, abstinence, abstinence. We all talk about abstinence all the time. And with good reason! We don’t need Overeaters Anonymous because we have control over our food. We arrive as people broken by their baffling inability to let go of compulsive eating despite its harmful effects. We want abstinence more than anything when we sit down at our first meeting. We recognize that abstinence is hard to get and easy to lose, and we admire and are astonished by those who have it for the long-term.

It’s only natural that we see abstinence as the number one most important feature of our recovery. As soon as we take that first compulsive bite, we place ourselves in life-threatening, mind-threatening, and spirit-threatening jeopardy. So, yeah, on a day to day basis abstinence is A Number One for us OA members.

But absence, no matter how long we have it, does not equate to recovery. Abstinence is not the solution to compulsive eating.

If it were true that abstinence is the solution to compulsive eating, none of us would need OA in the first place. We’d only need a diet and some will power! But none of us has the necessary will power. Instead, we can diet all we want, but what makes us different from the merely obese is the mental obsession with food. We plot and plan what, how, when, and with (or without) whom we will eat. Food occupies our mind. We can’t get away from it. We see it all around us. We feel the need for it almost constantly—even in our dreams. We can feel it in our mouths and imagine its soothing properties long before we take that first bite. Worse, we are always disappointed that the ease and comfort it brings lasts just moments.

In “The Doctor’s Opinion,” the Big Book tells us about the cycle of addiction. It always starts in our mind. It is the presence of a thought or a feeling that activates our obsession with food. We obsess about relief before we take that first bite. That’s why the Big Book tells us that “the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” Which means that food addiction is a mental issue that affects us physically, not a physical issue that affects us mentallyAnd that’s why abstinence is not the solution, only part of the treatment.

We will never escape compulsive eating if we only treat the symptom of consumption. With this self-diagnosed disease, we must treat the whole patient: mental, spiritual, and physical. The solution that OA provides is the 12 Steps, and abstinence only falls under Step 1.

The 12 Steps are there to change us from the inside out. As compulsive eaters, we have been using food as medication. We constantly feel restless, irritable, discontented, resentful, and fearful. We eat to make those feelings go away. But they always come back, and then we need more food to make them disappear again. We must find a way to gain peace, serenity, ease, and comfort from something inside ourselves rather than something we put into ourselves. That’s what the 12 Steps do. They help us locate a power that will change us rapidly and profoundly so that we don’t need to use food to find our place in this crazy world.

But what about those with long-term abstinence who don’t do the steps? Hey, our hats are off to them! But the length and quality of one’s food-sobriety are not mutually inclusive by themselves. Although we wish to make blanket judgment about anyone, just because a person has ceased compulsively eating doesn’t mean that their mental and spiritual selves have healed at all. Indeed, when we put together some time in abstinence, it becomes easier and easier to think to ourselves “I got this” and coast. That’s a sure path to eating compulsively once again. If we have not experienced the psychic change the Big Book describes, then we are not experiencing recovery. We are dieting, and we know how that has ended for us in the past. If we continue to behave toward others as we always have. If we continue to be paralyzed by our fear of others’ opinions. If we remain tangled in webs of codependence and people-pleasing. If we’re just the same old person we were, then we really need to do the 12 Steps before we experience the horror of relapse and so we can enjoy our abstinence fully.

But the good news is that abstinence, if only a beginning, is a great beginning! From there we embark on the most amazing journey imaginable, a trip to the center of our hearts where we will discover that we are good, imperfect, and wonderful people who deserve love and respect just like everyone around us. The change we are given will enable us to remain abstinent through thick and thin with an ease that we have never otherwise in our lives experienced. Peace with our selves and freedom from compulsive eating: Who wouldn’t want that?!