- 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 mentally. And 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?!