Member Experience #7: Food: As Vivid, yet as Elusive, as My Dreams

This morning, after eating my fabulously satisfying, abstinent, and now “usual” breakfast, I found myself looking back at some of my relapses and how they happened. I wondered, almost aloud, “Why this is now so easy?”

Abstinence hasn’t always been like this? So how is it that I am feeling at peace with my relationship with food almost as though by accident? What is different this time?

I’ve long known that my four trouble foods are sugar, starch, salt, and grease…preferably in combination! I would announce this at meetings, laughing at myself, and people who could identify chuckled with me. But I knew it wasn’t funny because even after surgery those foods called my name as clearly as the voice of my mom when I was a child. Come to think of it, my Mom’s voice and my memories of her seem permanently blended into my relationship with food. I couldn’t remove them any more than I can remove the caffeine from a fresh pot of coffee. Anyone with food memories knows that they evoke feelings, seemingly out of nowhere, and they need not make sense.

With OA’s help, though, we don’t have to eat over them anymore.

Someone who knows me and at least part of my history might read this and say “but she had weight loss surgery, shouldn’t her relationship with food been changed by it?” A valid question. I had sleeve surgery where ¾ of my stomach was removed, I can no longer eat a lot of food at once. My surgery was in 2013, and I lost a great deal of weight. Yet by 2016 I had regained all but a few pounds. For me, food addiction and compulsive eating are about more, next, and else. My surgery removed the MORE component of any particular meal…and yet I found I could eat compulsively in smaller quantities. The NEXT and ELSE aspects of my lifelong relationship with food were still alive and thriving inside my mind. If I waited 20 minutes or so after eating my small meal, I was hungry again, and hungry or not, I would find myself grazing again.  And, sadly, gaining weight AGAIN.

I hated being 280 pounds. I hated being 250 pounds. Nonetheless I found myself having weight loss surgery at nearly 70 years old, going from 280 pounds to 139 then back up to 246. I suffered with daily pain in my knees, hips, and feet. I had shattered my right ankle in a fall in 2008, and still have screws and a plate in it. As I gained and gained, the pain in that ankle grew and grew. All this after bariatric surgery! Was I hopeless?

I was hopeless without OA, but I returned and found the hope I’d lost.

I’ve shed 92 pounds since the summer of 2016, this time in program. It seems impossible that I was once 279.75 pounds—that I was once bulging out of size 3X clothing but now wearing clothing in single-digit sizes. I know I don’t want to relapse again, but I didn’t want to relapse in the year 2000 either. So as I reflected after my abstinent breakfast, it seemed like a good idea to look for the common denominator, the thing that seems to block me from understanding of the concept that my choices have consequences.

It turns out that I have been the personification of the Jaywalker in the Big Book. I have repeatedly tried the same, desperate, fatal action of compulsive eating, hoping that this time it would work and solve all my problems. Now, after relapse, surgery, and a lifetime of experience with compulsive eating, I know that I must replace compulsive eating with a relationship with a Higher Power if I’m going to be happy, joyous, and free in OA.

5 OA disciplines that make us free

Discipline is one of those words that folks love or hate. Sometime the same person can bristle at the very sound of the word yet enjoy the fruits of a focused, structured application of will that seems an awful lot like discipline.

In fact, we all find ourselves wandering in and out of disciplined thinking and behavior throughout the day. Arriving to work on time is a discipline, and so is the way in which we carefully, even laboriously go about the detailed practice of hobby or favorite area of study.

In other words discipline can get a bad rap. It’s often associated with the phrase military discipline. The military has a very high level of discipline, and many people thrive under it. But that’s a fairly extreme degree of discipline, and there’s a very broad continuum of degrees of discipline between being able to bounce a quarter off your newly made bed and never getting out of bed in the first place.

In OA, we are encouraged to adopt some daily disciplines. We can also think of them as structures or supports that focus our attention on recovery from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors. Here are five areas of discipline in OA that make a big difference in our recoveries:

1. Taking care of our food

The most obvious area of discipline for us is how we deal with food. Everyone walks in the door wanting to know what they can/can’t eat. That’s just part of managing our food. We may also need to measure or weigh our food. Many also favor sharing our daily intake with an accountability partner or sponsor. These disciplines are somewhat mechanical in nature, and they help us to develop a sense of rhythm and safety around food as we change and sustain a new, often unfamiliar way of eating.

2. Taking care of our minds and spirits

Since our brains are the source of many of our problems, we have to manage our thinking and feelings very closely, not to mention the actions that follow. So OA encourages us in Steps 10 and 11 to adopt three disciplines:

  1. Self-reflection: That’s Step 10 where we watch out for self-centered thoughts and actions and clean up our messes quickly
  2. Prayer: Here we let God know our intentions and our needs
  3. Meditation: Now we listen up for our HP’s response and his/her/its/their will for our day.

Needless to say, these are revolutionary ideas for us. We rarely engaged in self-reflection before OA. Self-recrimination, self-judgment, self-loathing, self-shaming, and self-blaming are not the same as the balanced and objective notion of self-reflection suggested in Step 10.

Similarly, since we wanted to control everything, we didn’t pray, or at least not effectively. Nor did we listen if we every meditated. We were doing it our way, after all.

3. Helping, not taking care of, others

Prior to OA, we tended to manage relationships in two opposite and unhealthy ways. Either we took care of others out of unhealthy codependence, or we did nothing for others without an expectation of receiving something in return. No wonder we ate: When we did something for others they either resented it or didn’t do for us what we’d wanted!

Now in OA, we help others instead of “taking care” of them or ignoring them. This kind of helping is a discipline. It requires us to actively consider what we can do for someone else. It could as simple as putting the toilet seat down or letting someone merge into traffic in front of us. It could be another step up such as bringing our spouse home an unexpected cup of coffee or flowers. It could be a big thing such as volunteering our time and donating money. Or it could be helping our fellow sufferers find recovery through sponsorship.

But it’s disciplined action of anticipating how we can be helpful and following through on it that makes the difference.

4. Communicating with others

You know, OA’s tools include the telephone for a reason. When we’re suffering, we tell ourselves we don’t want to bother them even though we need their help and support desperately. But when we’re cruising, we’re on to other things and forget to think about those in OA who might benefit from a text or a call or an email.

But there’s more to it than that. OA teaches us that respect for others is crucial to our long-term survival in this world. Our HP is changing us to be of service to those around us, and communicating respectfully and effectively is part of that.

That means we must learn the disciplined restraint of pen and tongue. In short, we gotta listen more, talk less, and talk less about us. In conversation we often assumed a defensive posture immediately upon detection of anything that might be a criticism. Instead of listening to the other person, we picked apart everything they said, ready to spit it back at them in our own defense. Or we readied our list of resentments to throw in their face. Or maybe we instead called up our deep reservoir of self-pity as a soft defense to turn the tide of conversation and turn a supposed tongue lashing into a warm bath of “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize…”.

Now we take the bit, and we express ourselves wholly, honestly, and appropriately, but not until we’ve listened well to the other person and truly considered, objectively, what they say. We don’t start from a place of personalization anymore, we start from a place of wanting to understand. We also eschew throwing advice at others, and instead we give suggestions when asked. We stay calm, even in the face of negativity, and we let our HP work through us. We’re the only Big Book someone might read.

5. Actively engaging in fellowship

Last but not at all least, is fellowship. We desperately need one another to survive this disease. Addiction is a past master at divide-and-conquer techniques. It hammers a wedge in between us and the rest of mankind. Without fellowship, we have a lot of trouble remembering who we are, what we are like, and where the solution is. We also can’t help others find that solution without meeting some addicts.

So we must engage actively in the fellowship of OA. That can take on many forms, but the two most important are the OA Tools of Meetings and Service. We must go to meetings if we are to find others who want recovery from food addiction, no two ways about it. Without their warmth and support, we’ve got no shot. We must also take care to bring the message not the mess, to talk about the solution not the problem. We don’t attend meetings to check in about the events of the week. We don’t attend meetings to dump our psychological stuff on others. We don’t attend meetings as psycho therapy. We must bring the solution as best we are able.

But in order for meetings to survive, we must also perform OA service! That may mean simply being your home group’s treasurer, raising a hand to sponsor, or speaking when asked. Better yet, we volunteer to provide support for our intergroup by being a group rep or taking part in its initiatives on an informal basis.

Like with other things, we must make a discipline of regularly attending meetings and of  performing regular service at some OA level.

With these five disciplines our recovery can make leaps to a level of serenity and usefulness we didn’t think possible. We need always remember, it’s not about getting disciplined, it’s about acting in a disciplined way.