War with food is not the answer

Today is Memorial Day when we remember those who lost their lives in battle. Military personnel are taught to never run from a fight. In the midst of the chaos of battle, they press toward the enemy’s position, pursuing their mission objective. They fight; they don’t run.

For compulsive eaters, it’s nearly the opposite. Our battle rages day and night inside our minds and our bodies. There is no place to run. But the more we fight, the worse it gets. No matter how close we get to our mission’s objective, it remains out of reach. As it turns out, we’re on the wrong battleground, and we’re using the wrong weaponry.

As food addicts, many of us spend much of our life wondering why the weapon of self-will isn’t effective against this intractable enemy. No matter how much will we summon, we can’t defeat the food. So we call in our air support: books, diet plans, nutrition classes, anything outside ourselves that we thought might soften up the enemy’s will to fight another day. Instead, it is we who lose morale as we see the food continuing to advance on us, seemingly unstoppable despite all we throw at it.

Next we call in the heavy guns: People such as our physician, celebrity doctors, counselors, hypnotists, psychologists, diet mavens, knowledgable friends and family, even charlatans and mountebanks if they promise us results. We recognize that we can’t win out by ourselves, so we must get reinforcements. We’d seen others get better with the help of people, but our hearts sink when we see that our experts’ heavy weaponry did little more good than our own.

Desperate, we dig a trench around our position. We’d throw away our favorite foods, swear off, and isolate from the outside world. But that doesn’t stop the food either. The fortunate may finally recognized at this point that they are about to be overwhelmed by the enemy.

Some fall to the food forever, but a few lucky ones—bloodied, wounded, out of ammo—stumble into OA. That’s where we discover that the enemy wasn’t ever the food. The enemy was inside of the lines all along.

We fought, fought, and fought on the physical, and maybe emotional, plane. But OA shows us that recovery occurs on the spiritual plane. As the Big Book tells us, “When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”

We might decide to keep fighting the losing battle, but if we accept that compulsive eating has a spiritual solution, then the truth comes to us. At first it seems to us that we have gone to this food-war with slingshots instead of guns. But eventually we realize that war, itself, is not the answer. Surrender is.

The battle over our spirits cannot by won through opposition and combat. It can only be won by giving up the idea that we can win at all. Once we do so, we realize that our generalship has led us from one humiliating defeat to another. We need a better leader, which is our Higher Power, however we choose to define a Higher Power.

Once we give control over to God and let go of the idea that we must fix our problem alone, we suddenly find that our enemy has begun a retreat. But we have a cunning opponent, and we cannot let it lure us into complacency. As we do each of the Twelve Steps, the enemy’s retreat continues, and as we attempt to expand our spiritual selves over time, it remains at bay.

But it is always lurking over the next rise, sending scouts out to probe the weakness in our defenses. So long as our defense is our HP, we’ll be OK.

If we keep fighting the way we have been, then we’re heading to a food addict’s Memorial Day. But if we work toward the spiritual solution, we’ll instead be around to celebrate Veterans Day.

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.

The other fourteen hours of our day

According to the AA Big Book, the point of the 12 Steps is “to fit us to be of maximum service to God and to the people about us.” That’s interesting! Many of us thought the point of the Steps was to ensure our abstinence from food and food behaviors.

Turns out that the real goal of the 12 Steps is to establish a connection to a Higher Power. Once we have a relationship with the God of our understanding, the Big Book tells us, we can realize the 10th Step promises, which include the removal of the compulsion to eat:

We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it…. Instead, the problem has been removed. (p 85)

However, we are also guaranteed that we will drift back into our addiction if we don’t remain in “fit spiritual condition.” To do that, we have to live the principles of the program. If we want to be free from food, we cannot “take what you want and leave the rest” when it comes to living in the solution. We must be of maximum service and keep the spiritual lifeline to God open, lest we become a spiritual punchline.

To put it another way, our food plan isn’t enough to get us through the day without taking that first compulsive bite. In fact, it mostly only helps us during mealtimes. If the average OA sleeps eight hours and eats their planned meals for two hours, that means we have  fourteen hours a day when we need a spiritual plan, not a food plan.

Of course, committing to and eating a food plan can be a spiritual activity. But it’s those fourteen other hours that are killing us. The feelings and thoughts that arise out of the natural flow of human behavior, the little disappointments or big, fiery rages. Our binging, grazing, and mindlessly eating between meals or after the kitchen has closed for the night are merely symptoms of what’s going on in our minds and spirits, of our reactions to life.

In Step One, we told ourselves that our life (aka: those other fourteen hours) is unmanageable. Our only coping skill is eating. Well, we might have two or three: eating, drinking, smoking, for example. We don’t do life, life does us, and we try to manage our emotions by burying them in substances and behaviors.

Those emotions don’t really go away, they stay with us, often for years and years. We bring them with us into every encounter with another human being and into every conversation we have with ourselves. Until we dump those free-radical emotions through the first nine Steps, we are vulnerable.

Removing those objectionable feelings gets us pretty far, but we still can’t sit idly while our disease continues to progress, even in the absence of compulsive eating behaviors. We must continue the process of ego-reduction, of becoming right-sized, that the Big Book talks about. Otherwise, our non-eating/sleeping moments will once again fill up with thoughts about ourselves and our little plans, designs, emotional booboos, and harmful judgments.

Being of service to others provides us with a means to get through the tough stuff. By turning our attention outward, we avoid obsessing about what’s inward. In addition, having made our connection with a Higher Power, we now possess a source of wisdom and support. When we name a problem to God and ask for its removal or attenuation or for the right words or actions to cope safely, we find a new way to live: “To act on life rather than react to it,” as our OA literature describes it. We pay attention to our spiritual intuition, and we let go of the control we want over our situations.

“How’s God going to fix this one?” That’s a question we might ask when we find ourselves in an emotionally challenging moment. “God, what you have me do in this situation?” is another. But ultimately, we must follow up on the answers we get. Guess what? Following up on our spiritual intuition sometimes leads we do one of the most intensely spiritual things we can do: To take an action we’re afraid of or avoid an action we desperately want to take thanks to the courage that comes from the faith we’ve learned in the 12 Steps.

And that is how we live in the other fourteen hours of the day.

 

4 ways to know we might not be right-sized

OA and AA literature tell us time and again how important humbleness and humility are to our recovery. The Big Book illustrates this idea with the extended metaphor of an actor who wants not only to play his own part but to run the whole show.

Addicts are well known for their strong denial mechanisms, their stubbornness, and their you-ain’t-the-boss-of-me attitudes. All of these things occur in the average eater as well, but among compulsive eaters, we see them play out to sometimes outrageous degrees.

  • Who else but a compulsive eater would berate themselves for their inability to eat like a normal person but deny to anyone and themselves that they can’t control their food?
  • Who else but a compulsive eater would gain and lose hundreds of pounds yet still resist asking for help from OAs with sound recovery?
  • Who else but a compulsive eater would finally ask for help but refuse to take the simple suggestions of other people in recovery?

These scenarios, play out in OA groups and between OA members every day. They indicate the lack of humbleness and humility that plagues us. The possibility and quality of our recovery are inversely proportional to the degree that we indulge these character defects.

OA’s Steps and Traditions provide a safe, structured, supportive means for hitting the reset button on our attitudes. They help us toss aside these blockages that shut out God and other people. They help us get right-sized.

What exactly does right-sized mean? It means that we stop believing that everything in our lives revolves around us and our needs. It means that we allow ourselves to make mistakes and admit it freely and easily when we do—and that we don’t beat ourselves up for simply being humans. It means that we admit that we either don’t know everything or that we know as much as the next person. It means we view ourselves as having the same worth as anyone else, not more and not less.

With this attitude, we are assured that our Higher Power can help us recover from food addiction, give us a source of wisdom and courage, and show us how to be happy, joyous, and free despite our chronic illness.

Of course, we will, as humans do, fall short in this area. We may default back to some of the attitudes we’d hoped we’d left behind. When we do, it’s crucial that we identify them as soon as possible. Our members can share chapter and verse about how when we get wrong-sized, our disease will seize the opening and try to run our lives again. So here’s 4 ways to know you might not be right-sized.

  1. Righteous anger: When feel completely justified in anger because we have the truth on our side or we know that what’s right is backing our feelings, we’re in trouble. In reality, people like us have a lot of trouble distinguishing right from wrong and true from false. The rush of anger can take us by storm. We often feel it rising inside us from our gut to our chest to our minds. Being red with anger is a red-alert that we may need to step back, sit quietly, talk with others, and check whether we’re making too much of something.
  2. Perseveration: If we can’t stop thinking about a situation, we’d better watch out. The more we replay it over and over, try to think our way out of it, or figure all the angles, the more danger we’re in. When we perseverate, we lose the willingness to accept what’s happened, to view it with reasonable perspective, and to trust that God will see us through it. Worrying is not a tool of recovery, but it is a tool that our disease will use to break into our minds.
  3. Nonchalance around food: Whether consciously or subconsciously we have a feeling of “I got this” with food, we’re practically begging for relapse. That’s because we have ceased giving our Higher Power the credit for our abstinence and started thinking that we have, ourselves, regained control of our eating. We have a lifetime of proving we can’t, but our sickened minds will take every opportunity to tell us we can. If we think we got this, we’re about to lose it.
  4. Unwillingness: We are told in our literature that “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.” When it comes to willingness, we need it desperately in order to do what we need to remain free from food. If we find ourselves unwilling to go to a meeting, eat our food plan, ask for help, give help, give service, share, pray, do our Step work, whatever, something’s going on. That unwillingness has arisen from somewhere inside us. What, we suddenly don’t need to do our OA Tools, Steps, and disciplines to stay safe from food?

When we sense these, or when people we trust indicate they see these things occurring, we need to heed the alert. WAKE UP! We’ve had or are working toward a spiritual awakening that will save our lives. But we can’t afford to go back to sleep. WAKE UP! We need to take actions and really listen to our Higher Power. Otherwise, we risk returning to food and losing our lives. WAKE UP!

Starting again in OA—rebooting from relapse

When our computer or device gets hung up, the first piece of advice we get usually goes, Did you try restarting? Rebooting causes programming to refresh itself, which typically relieves whatever bugginess has cropped up.

In relapse, we can feel as though we have gotten hung up too. We are frozen in a pattern of compulsive eating, and we can’t get to the next screen. But unlike an insensate device, we have to reboot ourselves to get our OA program back online.

We can’t rely on anyone else to hit the power button for us. OA is a program for people who want it, not people who need it. We’ve got years of experience at resenting others for telling us what to do. You aren’t the boss of me has rattled around our inner monologue more than a few times. Even if another person told us they’d drive us to meetings and help us do the work, we’d say no or get no benefit. As the ABCs on page 60 of the Big Book remind us, “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”

It’s up to us to take the actions required to gain or regain food sobriety. The recovery is ours, not the next person’s.

If we are ready to get back into the swing of OA, we might ask ourselves, What have I learned from this experience with compulsive eating? Could be we’ve learned some hard lessons about things such as:

  • I can’t stop eating compulsively once I start, and I can’t stop from starting.
  • My food plan wasn’t enough by itself to prevent me from eating compulsively.
  • My disease is worse now than when I first arrived at OA.
  • I can’t work this program without a sponsor.
  • I need to take my sponsor’s suggestions.
  • This disease uses my own thoughts to kill me.
  • I can’t do this halfway.
  • I need to do the Steps.
  • I’m totally screwed without OA.

These are just a few things we may have learned, there are so many others. We can take what we’ve learned and use it as a stepping stone toward recovery. We know that eating in isolation is likely to kill us with a heavy dose of misery before we lose our life. we need the fellowship of OA.

  • Luckily, OA’s nine Tools are designed to help us make maximal use of the fellowship. Meetings, Telephone, and Sponsorship place us in direct contact with other local compulsive eaters who can help us.
  • Literature gives us insight from OAs around the world.
  • Writing helps us get those lessons mentioned above onto paper so we can remember them and talk about them with other OAs.
  • Food plan helps us restore boundaries to our eating and provides an opportunity for accountability.
  • Service helps us stay connected to OA.
  • Anonymity frees us from shame with the knowledge that the public isn’t invited to know our story.
  • Action Plan gives us a framework for understanding how each element of our program supports our abstinence and recovery.

Of course, we’re going to need more than fellowship with people as the ABCs we referenced above tell us. We need a Higher Power. That’s a big lump in some of our throats, but less difficult to swallow than we imagine. All it takes is a willingness to believe something might be out there and a decision to work with that Something for the Steps to work for us.

Here’s a few things we don’t need to restart our program:

  • Guilt, shame, and remorse: These feelings often pull us back down into the quicksand of self-pity and compulsive eating
  • Stubbornness: We know we’re in trouble with food and that others have recovered, so why do we insist on doing it our, failed, way?
  • Denial: If we still think we’re in control or that we’re not like our OA fellows or that we are unique, we’re in for a bumpy ride
  • People-pleasing: We must toss aside our need to be “good” or please others because we have to get better for ourselves
  • Waffling: If we want recovery, we must commit to actions that result in recovery and avoid saying we’ll do something then bailing on it

Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the keys to successful recovery. If we practice their opposites, we’ll get the opposite of recovery.

Finally, the journey to recovery can seem long and difficult when we try to imagine how getting back on track will play out. Yeah, there’s work ahead of us, but we’ve been committed to our substance one day at a time for a long time. Now we can commit to freedom from food obsession one day at a time. In the long run, a little work now will save us a lot of pain and an early death later—or for the really unlucky, sooner.

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?!

 

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.