Tradition of the Month: Is Abstinence an Outside Issue?

10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on out- side issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

Previously, we’ve explored whether God is an outside issue in OA. Indeed, much about God and faith lies outside of the bounds of OA. We only know what a Higher Power does for us, not who or what the Higher Power might be. But here’s an even trickier one: Abstinence.

Overeaters Anonymous exists because folks like us need to abstain from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors. We need a solution to our problem with food. In the sense that our primary purpose is to carry the message of hope to those who still suffer, abstinence is very much an inside issue. We go to any length we must for relief from compulsive eating, and we go to great lengths to help others find it too.

At the same time, abstinence is a slippery topic. Whose abstinence is the right one? Do you have to be squeaky clean in every facet of abstinence? What about the differences between food substances and food behaviors? How about anorexia, bulimia, and other disordered eating? Fortunately, OA has a definition of abstinence that helps us all find common language:

Abstinence is the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight. Spiritual, emotional and physical recovery is the result of living the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve-Step program.

Regardless of the kind of eating or food issues we have, this definition includes us. We are all part of the OA tribe.

Beyond this, however, OA has no position on food and abstinence. We have no official food plan because it’s an outside issue. How can that be true when abstinence itself is central to recovery? Simply because OA isn’t the food police. If we spent our time hunting down food-plan heretics, we would not be spending time helping others get better. Instead, we encourage every person to have their own food plan and to seek medical and nutritional advice for creating one. We support their efforts to follow it as best we can and share helpful experiences as appropriate.

But more important than that is the fact that food plans aren’t just a tool. They are spiritual. When we commit to a food plan, we direct our willful selves away from our selfish impulses and toward something healthier and, ultimately, more spiritual. A food plan may be the first spiritually oriented move we make in OA…whether we know it or not. Initially or later in our journey, we may begin to ask our Higher Power, the universe, whathaveyou for willingness to follow our plan and relief from the obsession with food. From these small starts comes the willingness for more recovery, the willingness to surrender to the idea that we are no in charge. Never have been, if we’re honest.

If food plans and abstinence are, in fact, spiritual in nature, then they are our Higher Powers’ business. Each of us must find our plan on our own, just as each of us must do the Steps on our own. The Steps provide a framework for recovery, just like the OA definition of abstinence provides one for the food-based part of our journey. Although the pamphlets “Dignity of Choice” and “A Plan of Eating” give us helpful suggestions, they are not codes of food conduct. We cannot legislate the direction of someone’s first steps toward God. We can only share how we did it and help them to find the honesty, willingness, and spiritual connection to get going and keep going.

The jigsaw puzzle of addiction

Said one OA member to another this week, “life is jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it?” It sure seems like one. Indeed, this is a wonderful metaphor for recovery.

While we’re eating compulsively, it’s as though we’re working on several different puzzles at once. We’re trying to figure out our food. We’re trying to manage our relationships. We’re trying to manage our fear. We’re trying to get life to go our way. We’re trying to change as we simultaneously try to keep everything around us the same.

None of these are going well. We suspect that someone (perhaps even us) has lost some of the pieces. Or that the pieces are miscut. We wonder if maybe the images on the pieces don’t actually match the box. Pieces from the other puzzles somehow snuck into one another’s puzzle’s boxes. Worst of all, the number of pieces in the puzzle keeps getting bigger and bigger; what once was a 100-piece puzzle with big pieces is now a 10,000 piece puzzle with pieces that practically require tweezers to handle.

For each of the different puzzles, we can’t seem to find one single strategy that works for each of them. We try assembling the border first. Or grouping pieces by color or the sector in the puzzle we suspect they belong to. We put all the same shaped pieces in a pile. We keep them all in their box, or we scatter them face up on the puzzle table. But we just can’t seem to make any headway. Oh, we might get a little block of the final image complete, but then the image changes!

As we engage in OA’s program of recovery, we start to get somewhere. As we use the Tools of Recovery to get our food in order, we find all of the straight-edged border pieces and define the scope of the problem. We finally have some boundaries around food, and we feel relief. Once we accept that our lives are unmanageable, we also start to see that all of those puzzles were really just one all along. Phew!

But until we do the Steps, the solution eludes us. If we haven’t done the Steps, we still only have the border of the puzzle. But the whole image remains mostly blank inside, and it will stay that way without further spiritual action on our part. So we do the unthinkable: We turn our will and lives over to the care of a Higher Power.

We may not have realized it, but we’ve been afraid that the image the puzzle ultimately produces will be horrifying to us. But once we’ve taken Step Three, we’ve committed to doing the moral inventory in Step Four. As we do so, we increasingly feel as though our Higher Power is guiding our hands across the puzzle pieces. Things fit together that somehow seemed impossible before. Finally, in Step Five, we see the completed image of our lives before us. It is, indeed, ugly in some places. We see all of our warts, our defects of character and how they have kept us away from happiness. But we also see that our self-pity and anger arises despite the many good things we have around us.

We may feel despondent at this point. We may want to tear up the finished puzzle. Instead, Step Six tells us to be willing to let God figure out what to do with it. Then in Step Seven we ask him to so, and we begin living life of God’s terms, not ours.

As we live our new way of life and to make amends, something utterly amazing happens. We discover to our delight that what we thought was the border of the puzzle is, in fact, just an image within an image! The puzzle extends infinitely outward in all directions. Previously, we defined what we thought our lives were. Now our HP is showing us a wider truth. God has turned our defects into assets that help others find recovery and happiness.

New puzzle pieces suddenly appear, and they attach themselves to the puzzle we completed without our having to figure out where they go. As the new picture radiates outward, we see how small the old life we led was. Our new life dwarfs it in size and in beauty. That tiny little box of painful memories will always be there, but we need never focus on that misery again. We see it now as way to help other suffering food addicts. And those straight-edged boundary pieces that comprised our food plan? They turn into a wall that helps keep the pain of our old life boxed in.

So life can be seen as a jigsaw puzzle. The question for compulsive eaters like is who is doing the solving? Are we relying on our own wits to arrest a disease that outwits us at every turn? Or are we going to let our Higher Power guide us to the solution? Are we going to keep seeing an image of pain in our old way of life? Or are we going to start seeing the bigger picture and live sanely and safely in this world?

Defining our abstinence with OA’s wisdom

It’s all too easy to get tangled up in perfectionism when it comes to our abstinence. Am I abstinent, or aren’t I? Was that a slip, or was my body truly signaling me through hunger to eat? If I change my food during the day, am I not being honest?

Each OA member is different, and, therefore, abstinence differs for each of us. One person’s pastries may be another’s Brussels sprouts. We must each define our own abstinence. Only we know what foods and eating behaviors trigger us.

But we also know that when it comes to food, we are born liars. Denial of our problem was a lie. All the fibs we told others to cover for our compulsive eating were lies. Stuffing bags, boxes, or containers in the bottom of the trash so no one else could see them was a lie. So how do we define abstinence meaningfully and honestly?

OA defines abstinence very simply and broadly so that all members have common ground no matter what food plan or approach they use:

Abstinence in Overeaters Anonymous is defined as the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight. Spiritual, emotional, and physical recovery is the result of living the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve-Step program.

OA provides four important criteria for abstinence:

  • refraining from compulsive eating
  • refraining from compulsive food behaviors
  • working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight
  • doing all of these things simultaneously (indicated by the words and and while in the first sentence).

This is the most basic definition of abstinence available to us OA members. It does not say that anyone must abstain from any specific foods or food behaviors. Instead, the responsibility for that level of specificity is on us. We must be serious and honest about what foods are an issue and what behaviors are an issue. Then we avoid them.

At the same time, we must also be diligent on the matter of physical recovery. It’s not just about specific binge foods. Eating larger quantities of food than is required to maintain healthy body function is another problem most OAs have in common. That’s why a big reason why we’re fat, after all. Still, within that third bullet point are two traps we must be wary of.

First, we must not use the definition of abstinence as a reason to make physical recovery our Higher Power. The point of OA is not to recover from being fat but to recover our lives and stay recovered. Our physical recovery is but one facet of our program, which the second sentence in the definition of abstinence tells us. We must work the Twelve Steps to find lasting physical recovery.

Second, we must be honest and rigorous about our journey toward physical recovery. Are we eating the right amount to lose weight? Or are we continuing to eat more than necessary and telling ourselves that losing a pound a year fits the spirit of OA’s definition of abstinence? Are we “getting around” to losing the weight or doing it? Do we know objectively or medically what a healthy body weight is for us, or are we letting our diseased minds tell us that a weight above a realistically healthy weight is just fine. Do we even know what the right amount is to eat for weight loss? Or are we just guessing? Are we committed to the idea that being at a healthy body weight is a way to show newcomers that the program works?

OA has no opinion on the details of diet, calories, and similar matters. The specifics of these are outside issues that every member is encouraged to explore with a medical and/or nutritional expert. OA’s only opinions of matter of diet are to avoid compulsive eating, avoid compulsive food behaviors, and return our bodies to a normal size.

There are sometimes reasons why some OA members may not be able to reach a conventionally healthy body weight for their age, body type, and activity level. For example, some members take medications for serious medical conditions with side effects of weight gain, water retention, general bloating, or other metabolic responses. Other members who have lost hundreds of pounds may have extra skin that causes them to weigh more than they otherwise would. (The choice to have this skin surgically removed is a personal matter and for OA’s purposes an outside issue.) For these members, maintaining a healthy body weight may mean something different than it does for members without these complexities.

Our abstinence begins to take shape as we examine what OA’s definition of abstinence looks like for us. Does our compulsive eating increase when we consume certain things? Fats, sugars, salts, flours, alcohol, or any other “red light” foods that always get us in trouble? Are there “green light” foods that have never played a role in our compulsive eating? Are there “yellow light” foods that we’re not quite sure about? How honest are we able to be with ourselves about these foods? Are we willing to let go of those that fall into the “red light” group?

How about compulsive food behaviors? Are certain times of day perilous for us? Certain rooms in our house? Can we dine out safely? Is watching TV or reading while eating an invitation to mindless binging? There are at least as many compulsive food behaviors as there are OA members.

Once we have awareness of these parameters, we can get to work using the OA Tool of Food Plan. There is no one food plan in OA. Everyone gets to create their own, which is best done under the guidance of a sponsor and with help from our Higher Power. Food plans are a tool to gain abstinence, and we may choose to define our abstinence through them as strictly or loosely as benefits our recovery. OA has no opinion on any food plan nor on what within that food plan denotes abstinent food or behavior. That’s up to us.

That said, we may want to avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Are we seeking progress or perfection? Do we constantly worry whether we are abstinent, or are we keeping our mind on how we can be helpful today? Are we placing the power for abstinence in God’s hands, or are we trying to control our food? Are we working with someone else to be accountable for what we eat, or are we using another human being as a Higher Power-like judge of our abstinence?

Ultimately, we can’t have the perfect abstinence. But if we’re staying open to taking action, trusting our Higher Power to guide our food rather than merely doing another diet, and being completely honest about what we eat, we will have the perfect abstinence for us.

It works better if you don’t eat

There’s an AA story that goes like this:

An AA member had attended meetings for six months or more. He shared that he was miserable and couldn’t figure out why the program wasn’t working for him. Afterward, a couple old-timers took him aside. They kindly said to him, “It works better if you don’t drink.”

In OA, we can relate. When we’re eating, we’re miserable. We feel shame, guilt, anger, disappointment, and helplessness. There’s little worse than a head full of OA and a belly full of compulsively eaten food. OA works better when we aren’t eating compulsively.

Of course, that’s a pretty obvious statement. Who would dispute that putting down our binge foods and ceasing our compulsive behaviors is good for our OA program? Well, actually, our own brains would. We may be highly logical or intuitively insightful in every other aspect of our lives, but when it comes to food, we can’t tell truth from the lies our food-addled minds foist on us.

The little voice inside our head may tell us that we’re making too big a deal of all this. That it’s OK to have a bite here and there, because we can control it in small amounts. That we can’t possibly give up a favorite food. That tomorrow will be different, but food will take the edge off now. These are all big, fat lies. We in OA have watched both newcomers and old-timers return to misery because they clung to some bright, shining lie about food. We’re all susceptible to it, no matter how many years of abstinence we have because our disease is chronic. It gets worse while we get better.

When the old-timer loses abstinence and bounces along the rocky path of a couple days on the wagon, a couple days off, they are baffled that abstinence that was once so easy to get previously is ridiculously hard to find again. The newbie, on the other hand, may also end up in that difficult up-and-down place, hearing about others’ joyful success and wondering how the heck they did it.

In either case, the 12 Steps of OA are the common solution to our troubles with compulsive eating. Refraining from compulsive eating is not about willpower. It’s not about a diet or food plan. It’s not about our moral character. It’s not even about us. Lasting abstinence occurs when we trust God to take care of our food needs. The 12 Steps allow us to build a relationship with a Higher Power that will guide us throughout our lives, if we allow it.

When the old-timer fell off the wagon, they did so by taking control of their food back from their HP. “Don’t worry, God, I got this.” In this case, something spiritually essential may have been either misplaced, forgotten, or ignored. Remember, our disease is progressive and always seeks to lure us back to compulsive eating. The newbie, by contrast, may not yet have a relationship with their Higher Power. They are not without spiritual resources, however. Part of OA’s spiritual aspect is attending meetings, tapping into the power of the fellowship, and developing relationships with other members whom we trust to help us on our journey. As newcomers, these may be the first spiritual tools we’ve ever used, and likely the first time we’ve applied spiritual principles toward our food problem.

No matter what the case may be, we must trust God in every situation, or we will eat. Whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or a broken shoelace, it’s God or food. So, we feel our feelings, reach out to other OAs for support, and give the outcome over to our Higher Power. Of course food is trustworthy too. We can trust that once we take that first bite, food, with its three-second high, its spiraling need for more and more, and its enslavement of our minds and bodies, will once again dominate our lives.

So it works better if we don’t eat compulsively. We learn to trust God and not food by…trusting God. We just have to do it. That means not eating compulsively no matter what. We put the plug in the jug, the lid on the jar, the top on the box, the cap on the container. We accept that we will face a detox period with some aches and pains and intense cravings. We trust that a week or two from now we’ll feel better. That we will then turn our attention to our spiritual growth so that we may never have to be on the bumpy road to abstinence again.

 

10 questions to ask while developing a food plan

Overeaters Anonymous has no official food plan. This baffles some newcomers because they have experienced dieting programs that supply paying members with plans of eating and sometimes offer foods to purchase for those plans.

In OA, every member is encouraged to develop their own food plan. But just because there’s no single food plan doesn’t mean there aren’t a few tried-and-true guidelines. Many of these can be found in the pamphlets “A Plan of Eating” and “Dignity of Choice” (both of which are included in the OA newcomers packet and are available individually at OA. org), and some local member experience adds some ideas as well. Here are 10 questions we often ask ourselves when coming up with a food plan.

  1. Am I working with a sponsor?
    We start here because if we aren’t working with a sponsor, we’re just trying to control our food on our own. That’s never worked for us before, so involving our sponsor is an important, new difference between OA and our best efforts.
  2. Do I need to consult a medical or dietary professional?
    Before we think specifically about our food plan, we need to know whether there are any foods our doctor asks us to avoid eating due to physiological (allergies), medical (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, diverticulitis) or medication-interaction issues. Similarly, our doctor may ask us to add certain foods to promote better overall health. A dietary professional may also recommend foods to rebalance our nutrition.
  3. What are my red, yellow, and green foods?
    This simple metaphor comes in handy. Red foods are specific foods or food groups that we obsess about. We can’t stop eating them once we start, and we can’t stop from starting to eat them. Yellow foods are ones we should watch because they creep up on us. They may also be foods that prime the pump for red foods. Green foods are the ones we can eat in safety.
  4. What about alcohol?
    Many people find sugar- and flour-based foods go in the red category. Sugar and flour are simply highly-refined grain-based foods. There’s something about the process of refining foods that many members’ bodies cannot resist. Alcohol is a liquid form of highly refined grains that are fermented in the presence of sugar. Are we clinging to alcohol? If so, it may be wise to eliminate it.
  5. How much food do I need to eat?
    OA’s statement on abstinence includes not only avoiding individual binge foods but also “working toward or maintaining a healthy body weight.” In OA it’s not enough to simply stop eating our binge foods if we are replacing their high with another kind of high that comes with high-volume eating. It is wise to ask a doctor or dietary professional to recommend the amount of food to eat to lose weight safely and effectively.
  6. How often do I need to eat?
    While a good rule of thumb to get started is simply eating three square meals a day, every member’s metabolism is different. Some of us may need to eat smaller meals more often during the day. It’s OK to eat at whatever cadence works for our own bodies so long as we are not eating more than our body needs as a result.
  7. Do I need to avoid any specific eating behaviors?
    Our bulimic and anorexic friends recognize that this question addresses binge-and-purge symptoms and starving. In addition, we might ask ourselves about more subtle symptoms. Some of the behaviors that members in our meetings discuss are eating directly from packaging or containers, eating anywhere other than a table, and eating standing up. We need to identify any such behaviors to avoid, and they are different for everyone.
  8. Do I need to avoid any specific eating situations?
    Here we need to suss out whether we need to keep away from scenarios that trigger compulsive eating. For example, eating at restaurants, parties, or in the car on long trips. Do we need to avoid eating in front of the TV, in bed, or when we are reading? What about at night when we are alone in the house? In a certain room of the house? With certain people? Or at the grocery store? When we are mad, sad, or glad? The list is as long as there are OA members because we each have our own triggering events or situations.
  9. Does this plan fit my life circumstances?
    There’s not much point to to committing to a food plan that involves preparing five-course, preparation-intensive meals if we are a single mom of three working two jobs. It’s setting us up for failure. We need to be sure that our food plan matches the time and energy we have available instead of trying to live up to some lofty ideal and drowning in a sea of chopping, shopping, and sobbing.
  10. How honest am I willing to be?
    This is the toughest question of them all. We’ve spent a lifetime denying our problem, minimizing it, or ignoring it. So how’s this food plan thing going to work if we’ve been inherently dishonest about our eating since forever? It starts with willingness. Are we willing to trust another person to be an accountability partner each day? Are we willing to trust the folks at my meetings when I need to talk about how my food is going? Are we willing to endure the initial turbulence as our body and minds detox? Are we willing to work the 12 Steps in order to insure against relapse? Lastly, are we willing to begin leading a new life that’s really worth living in all the ways our life isn’t when we walk through the doors of OA? Take it from those who have experienced the miracle of healing. It’s all worth it, and so are we.

The action of living one day at a time…today!

“One day at a time.”

It might be the most widely known and used slogan in any 12 Step program. It’s easy to understand, and it shines a hope-filled light on our difficulties. I don’t have to stop eating compulsively forever, just for this day. 

In the past we have been overwhelmed by the idea of permanently changing. We lose weight only to gain it all back. We try a healthy new diet on Monday, only to be cheating by Tuesday. Our new exercise program becomes a $35-dollar-a-month financial sinkhole after our diligent first week. We just don’t have it in us to change our lives. That’s why we need a spiritual solution to our problem with food.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a part to play. We, not our Higher Power, are doing the eating, so we draw strength from our God to take the action of abstaining from compulsive eating. We might think of it as a formula:

Our decision not to eat compulsively
+ Our will power
+ God’s strength and guidance
= A day of abstinence

We’ve always used the first two parts of the equation only, which has landed us back in the food, cursing ourselves as weak-willed or broken. Turns out that for people like us, we can exert all the will power we want to, but without God’s help it is not enough. As one member in our area says, “I’m a 40-watt bulb in a 60-watt fixture, so I need God to supply the other 20 watts.” We don’t have enough power to overcome both the physical craving and the mental obsession with food.

What does adding God’s strength and guidance mean when we are obsessing about food? It could mean any or all of these things:

  • Praying to have the obsession with food removed, for ease and comfort, and for guidance…then listening for a response
  • Making a phone call or texting someone in OA because spirituality flows through us when two addicts talk about their common solution
  • Dropping everything and get to a meeting, whether in person, on the phone, or online
  • Pausing to read a piece of OA literature whether a favorite pamphlet or a longer work.

Of course, that’s just the moment of crisis. To live one day at a time, we need to prepare each day to meet our challenge. The Big Book gives explicit suggestions for morning prayer and mediation (pages 85-87) that help us live in ways that are less self-centered. Thinking of others helps keep the obsession at bay because we aren’t focusing on ourselves and our own life problems.

Speaking of our life problems, they too can be addressed one day at a time. In fact, they have to be. Like the sports adage goes, when you’re behind by dozen runs, you can’t hit a 12-run homer. So, if we are in heavy debt, for example, we can’t pay back after a single paycheck. We work each day, cash our checks, and send payment to our creditors on a schedule. Similarly, if we have a looming deadline, we must do what we can each day to meet it, not try to get the whole darned thing done right now. If our family is in crisis, we will not solve the issue by perseverating all day on it. In every case, we must simply do the next right thing that our Higher Power suggests and move toward resolution of the situation.

A funny thing happens when we take this one-day-at-a-time attitude toward our personal problems. They often resolve themselves without our having to do very much! All the dreaded heavy lifting we thought we’d have to do ends up done by another. Or we suddenly realize it is unnecessary or less burdensome than we expected. Sometimes it is done by us with courage we didn’t know we had. OA members have walked through the most difficult circumstances with dignity, grace, and courage by taking it one day at a time and asking for their HP’s help and guidance.

We just can’t wrestle our problems with food or life to the ground by ourselves. We’ve tried and it doesn’t work. So have to add our Higher Power to the equation so we can lead happy, healthy lives. And after all, it’s just one day.

Step of the Month: Obstinance or Abstinence?

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

Are we going to be happy or are we going to be right? Perhaps there’s no situation where this question comes into sharper focus than in Step Two. On the happy hand, we are desperate to relieve the misery of compulsive eating. On the “right” hand…there’s all the rest of our thinking.

On the happy side of things, we see others in OA whose lives do not revolve around food, who seem well-adjusted to living a food-sober life. We like what we see in them. They seem to enjoy their lives and have found contentedness. They have the ability to say what they mean and mean what they say. They don’t shirk from responsibilities, and they don’t need to self-medicate with food to meet what life throws at them. They have very little internal drama about food, people, and life.

The rest of our thinking, it turns out, is dishonest. Our minds are diseased and bear down on us. Those people are not really that nice. I could never do what they’ve done. I couldn’t live without my foods. And here’s the big two lies our brains tell us:

  • God, if there even is one, won’t help me anyway.
  • I should be able to do this myself.

We can obstinately keep on believing these untruths if we want to, but if we are food addicts, we won’t be able to abstain from food if we do. So let’s pick apart these two falsehoods for a moment.

God, if there even is one, won’t help me anyway.

If we believe in a Higher Power and believe it won’t help us, then what’s the point of that belief in the first place? We might as well believe in no god because it’s really the same difference. And in OA we don’t have to believe in a godhead. We can define our Higher Power as “Gift of Desperation,” “Good Orderly Discipline,” or “Group of (food) Drunks.” In any of those, we lean on the power of the fellowship of OA to help us change, recognizing that there is something special, spiritual, and powerful about two or more compulsive eaters working together to solve their common problem.

 

Also, if we believe there is a god who helps others but won’t help us, then we need a big reality check. Are we really so uniquely broken that we don’t deserve what other OAs have gotten? Are we really so uniquely broken that a powerful God won’t help us…and just not us? Seriously? We need to remind our brains of how unhinged our thinking has become and stop putting ourselves in the company of the worst monsters of history. We’re not that special and not even one-thousandth as bad as our disease tells us we are.

I should be able to do this myself.

If we coulda, we woulda. But we’ve been programmed from birth to avoid seeking help. We don’t want to trouble anyone else with our problem. We just need to soldier on and keep at it, suffering in silence, and maybe someday figuring it out. Getting help means admitting weakness and showing vulnerability, and that’s a fate possibly worse than any other.

There’s just two words for that: GET REAL!

We’ve never, ever been able to do anything about our eating. Some of us have spent forty, fifty, sixty years in a constant war with food obsession. Why will tomorrow be any different? Is admitting our failure and our problem so painful to us that we’d rather endure the misery of our disease until we die?

And this is what’s so hard about food addiction. We don’t even know that our minds have been turned against us by this disease! We have disordered thinking, an insanity around food. Our brains are actively trying to kill us. It is this illness that tells us that our pride is more important than our recovery. That we’d rather be “right” than happy…when in reality we are wrong anyway. Dead wrong.

The reality is that our obstinate thinking is all a symptom of our illness. Another reality is that OA and the Higher Power we find there will allow us to lead a normal, abstinent, and happy life. But we must set aside our pride, our terminal uniqueness, and our doubt. Once we know we are compulsive eaters, we must drop our carefully crafted facade and let ourselves appear weak and vulnerable to ourselves. Because we are the only ones we’re fooling.

(Un)justified anger

No fair!!! That’s one of childhood’s classic refrains. As kids we do recognize right from wrong, and we call it out when we see it. But as we age, we learn that, in fact, life and the world are not fair. But on the inside we’re still six-year-olds turning red in the face.

As adults we have words for various kinds of unfairness: nepotism, favoritism, corruption, taxation without representation, illegality, disparity, classism, racism, sexism, ethno-centrisism, bigotry.

Our disease loves all flavors of unfairness.

The disease of addiction can’t wait to get hold of something that we perceive as unfair and turn it into justified anger. That’s the best kind of anger, right? It’s the motivator of all the raging arguments, debates, fisticuffs, revenge plans, courtroom scenes, and showdown fantasies that play in our heads. On repeat. Until we interrupt the thought with food.

As usual, we want to take the edge off, and why wouldn’t we with all the exhausting fights going on behind our eyes. The thing about justified anger is that it lingers much longer than the flashing anger we feel when we get cut off in traffic. Justified anger spins up and up, becoming increasingly complex as we tease out its nuances, assemble evidence for our prosecution, and revisit the subject ad nauseum. It starts to spill out in bad, then hostile moods as well as depression. But most of all, we just can’t get it out of our minds. So we think the only thing we can do is bury it alive with food.

As human beings, justified anger is going to happen. We are afraid of our own anger, and we know that we must do something to avoid letting our spiraling rage take over us like the Incredible Hulk. So we eat because we don’t know better. Once we have joined OA and worked on the Steps, however, we discover a third way. We learn to use spiritual principles to defuse our red-hot emotions.

To start with, we can go to meetings and talk about the situation with others. We need to reach out to the fellowship because justified anger is a great way for terminal uniqueness to spring up. No one can understand my anger because they don’t know my [family member, friend, boss, coworker, opponent] and what they’ve done. That kind of thinking is just our brain trying to kill us. It’s been waiting for something to come up so it can steer us back to the misery of compulsive eating.

We can pick up the 1,000-pound phone and talk to others. We can lean on our sponsor. We can read OA literature. We might write a letter to God about the situation. Because this is a spiritual program, we can trust and rely on our Higher Power by praying like crazy for removal of our anger. The Serenity Prayer and the Angry Man’s Prayer from page 68 in the Big Book are helpful here. The latter goes like this:

This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.

If we must confront the subject of our anger, we should do so only after prayer, meditation, and quiet deliberation. When we talk to this person or persons, we should do so carefully. It may be helpful to remember a bit of wisdom from a book of wisdom:

The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, and the lips of a fool swallow him up.

We are here to do good on this earth, not to pick fights. If we feel we have been treated unfairly, we may take action or we may choose to accept the situation. In either event, however, we must use spiritual principles and action so that we don’t sow seeds of anger in others. We don’t have the luxury to go off half-cocked because if we do, our disease might put us back in its full nelson.

Any excuse is a trivial excuse to eat

There’s no good excuse for wittingly taking the first bite. Not when we know what kind of pain and misery this disease brings us. Not when we know the terrible, fatal consequences of our decision to eat.

But when our disease gets hold of us, we do it anyway. We think out complex levels of justification. The broken shoelace led to not being able to wear the right shoes. That led to a blister. Which led to an embarrassing limp. Which led others to look askance and judge. Which led to negative self-talk. Which led to feelings of uselessness and worthlessness. Which led to taking off a loved one’s head at a slight provocation. Which led to a big fight. Which led to feelings of isolation. Which led to the first bite. All because of the broken shoelace!

We tell ourselves that any one of these things by itself isn’t so bad, but taken all together, it’s simply too much for us to handle.

In the Big Book’s chapter “More About Alcoholism” (page 37), it says, “There was always the curious mental phenomenon that parallel with our sound reasoning there inevitably ran an insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink.” Or bite in our case.

In fact, given what happens whenever we take the first bite, any excuse is trivial. We understand the torture of food addiction. It is dehumanizing and utterly painful. Any time we try to take the edge off with food, we are making things worse, not better. First of all, we are engaging our addiction, which has terrifying consequences. Second, we aren’t even getting rid of the feeling. We burying it alive temporarily, knowing fully well that it will come back after us later. It always does.

Actually the broken shoelace that started this example off is in fact too much for us to handle. So are all of those other things in the scenario. We’ve proven again and again to ourselves that we can’t handle feelings of any sort. Otherwise, why do we continually eat to take the edge off? So we need a Higher Power to get us through these spots that we can’t navigate ourselves without food.

But what about truly awful circumstances? What about abuse, past or present? Instances of rape, the death of a loved one? A diagnosis of late-stage cancer? A crippling accident? Or some horrendous combination of them all? That big hairy monster that makes us unique and broken and unfixable?

The answer to that question is in the halls of OA, looking right back at us. Among OA’s membership are thousands of people who have been physically, sexual, or emotionally abused, and who are not eating. OA members have been through the worst diseases without the first bite. Live or die, they don’t pick up. Thousands of OAs have lost parents, siblings, children, friends, pets, you name it and still not taken that first sucker bite. They all have their own hairy monster of damage, and they don’t eat over it.

These people know today that there is absolutely no excuse that can justify a return to compulsive eating. If they do, they not only inflict misery on themselves, but they, in turn, inflict misery on those around them by the inevitable falling apart and negative personality changes that compulsive eating brings. These people know that in each of the dire situations just mentioned eating will make them less able to cope, less able to heal, and less able to help those who desperately need it.

One other thing they know: That they didn’t avoid picking up on their own willpower. If only! Instead, they were given courage, strength, and purpose by their Higher Power…however they understand their HP…and found additional strength through the Steps, Traditions, Tools, and fellowship of OA.

So next time the wheel of addictive thinking presents us with the choice to eat over our problems or not, let’s choose to not. Because otherwise, we’re just making excuses.

 

The 1 question to ask before that first compulsive bite

Are we asking the wrong question about taking that first compulsive bite? We often have second thoughts when faced with that fateful decision, questions such as:

  • Am I going to do this to myself again?
  • Will this lead to another binge?
  • Why do I want to eat this?

These are all helpful responses, and yet, they don’t get at the most basic part of what every addict faces, including us compulsive eaters.

One of the most important paragraphs in the Big Book is in the Doctor’s Opinion (pp xxvii–xxix). Dr. Silkwood tells us that when we put the substance into our bodies we have a reaction that creates physical cravings. But before we do so, however, we are activated mentally and obsess about eating. And why are we activated to obsess? Because of a thought or feeling.

The doctor tells us “Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol.… They are restless, irritable, and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks….” Or to put it another way, we eat because we want to take the edge off.

That edge is the emotional discomfort or pain we feel in any given moment. It is both the triggering event itself (job stress, a fight with a loved one, a broken shoelace) and the accumulation of every hurt, disappointment, and fear that we’ve buried alive inside us by eating. Every new pain reminds of all the previous ones, so we do what we did before: eat compulsively.

We never just sit with emotional discomfort. It’s too much for us. We may appear stoic on the outside, but by always taking the edge off, we are admitting that our discomfort is stronger than we are.

In OA, however, we discover that our Higher Power is more powerful than our feelings. Even our roughest emotions are no match for the god of our understanding. So the question we ask ourselves now is:

Are we willing to trust and rely on God to get us through discomfort instead of turning to food?

After all, why would we ever turn to the food that makes us miserable instead of the God that makes us feel better?

Of course, there’s an important condition to trusting God instead of food. We need a conception of God that we can actually put trust in. If we are unable to achieve abstinence despite asking our HP for help, our understanding of God may be too limited. Or it may simply be the wrong conception for us.

In the former case, we may believe a Higher Power is out there, but we don’t really believe it cares about us. Or we may believe we are so terminally unique that not even God can help us. These are both instances where we can choose to let an HP show us its power rather than assume it isn’t available to us. The way we do that is by not taking the first bite, finally asking God for help, and observing what happens when we let go and let God.

In the case of having the wrong conception for us, we may have long-held religious beliefs that are hindering our spiritual understanding. If we are not actively religious, we may find it useful to finally admit that our religious heritage isn’t helping us and seek a God concept that does. If we are engaged in religion, we might consult with our religious teacher or leader to see if we something about our concept of God is holding us back.

Of course, we may be atheistic or agnostic. This is no barrier to trusting and relying on God. We might define it as Good Orderly Discipline or as Group of (Food) Drunks. Others among us with the atheistic/agnostic line of thinking have seen other OAs recover with the help of a Higher Power and simply decided their conception is a Great Friend or the God of My Not Understanding. If it helps, we don’t have to use the capital G.

The most important thing is that we have a useful, effective conception of a Higher Power.

Why is it so important? Because we need to believe that whatever it is we trust will get us through the rough patches we ate over in the past. We need to believe that we can sit with discomfort thanks to the help of something bigger than we are. We need something that we can pray to, paraphrasing the Doctor’s Opinion, asking: Higher Power please bring me ease and comfort.

Trust God, clean house, and help others is the formula Dr. Bob passed down. Not picking up the first bite is putting trust in our HP, demonstrating our willingness, and starting down the road to happy destiny.