Talking about pain to avoid mental suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot fail in OA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Emphasis ours.]

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

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

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

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

3 OA ways to avoid the big blow-up

Here’s a classic couples argument.

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

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

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

1. Pray!

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

2. Use OA’s tools

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

3. Ask ourselves what our intentions are

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

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

1. Pray!

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

2. Use OA’s Tools

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

3. Ask ourselves what our intentions are

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

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

 

The emotional, the analytical, and the spiritual

Like all addicts, we overeaters suffer a great deal mentally. OA’s 12 Steps help save us from our own minds, which use two primary weapons against us.

Emotions

We call them feelings because, physically, we feel our emotions. We feel the fatiguing sensations of dread or depression, like we are walking through life in a lead suit and can barely put one foot in front of the other. Our stomachs flutter anxiously, and we feel hungry at nearly any news—happy, mad, sad, or glad. We feel tense all the time awaiting the next disaster or trying to keep our emotions stuffed down.

Our lives consist of constant attempts to suppress our feelings until we just can’t anymore. We use food to bury our emotions, to not feel our feelings. But even food isn’t powerful enough, and at some point, things come thrashing out of us, affecting those around us.

Thinking

The Big Book describes our thinking as “soft and mushy.” Often our thinking and emotions dance together. Either our emotions lead us to justifications that make logical sense only in the context of our diseased minds, or our “analysis” leads us to ready-to-burst emotional states. We tend not to think through problems but rather to either think ourselves into problems, or get ourselves stuck in the problem we’re thinking about. The logical capacity of our brains is misused by our disease to keep us chained to our feelings, because our feelings always win out. So we base our decisions on our fears, our immediate wants, and of what we perceive as others’ opinions.

Our best thinking got us addicted to food because our addict mind tells us there’s little difference between what we feel and what we think. And that, anyway, what we feel trumps what we think if our thoughts and our feelings differ. We have no good tools for reasoning our way through life and making sensible decisions about food, relationships, money, or anything. Our perspective can be reduced to the simple question: Will it give me uncomfortable feelings?

A Third Way

Amazingly, despite knowing that our feelings are powerful and uncontrollable, we follow them blindly. Take eating, itself. Our anxious selves want soothing with food. Our minds at first say, bad idea. We might even step away from the fridge. But then our brain, addled by our compulsion, works on it a while. Whether it’s a moment, an hour, a day, a week, a year, or a decade later, our thinking will eventually churn out a justification for eating. That justification might be “screw it,” might be “it hurts,” or might be “it won’t hurt me this time,” or something far more complicated. But it’ll come. Eventually, we blindly follow our feelings into oblivion.

We need a new way. We can’t trust our feelings or our thinking because they serve the same master: food addiction, in whatever form we have it. So what can we trust? Or more accurately, Who can we trust? The answer is that we can trust our Higher Power to give us the intuitive thought or decision we need. When we let go and let God, then our emotions about and our analysis of a situation can be put to good use. Divorced from the drive for satisfying our compulsion, we can use our minds to examine our internal and external circumstances and draw well reasoned conclusions. We can also use our emotions and intuition as guides to ensure that what we’re considering feels right.

We don’t just one day arrive at this arrangement. We have to develop a relationship with God so that we can align our will and our thoughts with our HP’s. To do this, we need the 12 Steps of OA. They teach us through a practical means to identify how our feelings get out of control and how our thinking has been compromised. They then show us how to bring God into our daily life to help us make decisions and live happy, useful lives of service to others. Gradually, we learn the ropes and start to see the branching points in our life differently. We practice and “fake it ’til we make it.” We see our choices with increased perspective, and we trust that God will show us the way.

If we haven’t yet completed the Steps, we carefully watch and listen to those who have experience with them. How do they conduct themselves? What’s different between their thinking and feelings and our own? Could we try to move through the world more like they do? What would it mean if we did? Then we try out what we see in them. We practice it and find it feels more serene than we’ve felt in a long time.

Depending on a Higher Power for guidance in our live doesn’t make us weaker. It strengthens us. Where we’ve been making a lot of lousy decisions based on our narrow self-infected view of the world, now we can make thoughtful choices that propel us, and perhaps those around us, toward a better, more stable, and more satisfying life. And we no longer have to suffer as slaves to our emotions.

In a Word: Miracles

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the founders of AA used the miracle frequently. Why wouldn’t they? They saw many of the most hopeless drinkers recover, and quickly, through the application of spiritual principles. Even those who didn’t believe in a religious God, or necessarily any God, received this miracle.

Miracle has several related definitions, some of which don’t include divine operation. Here are three from a simple Google search for “definition miracle”:

  • A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.
  • A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.
  • An amazing product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something.

These three usages encompass a lot of possible Higher Powers. If we bring a particular religious sentiment to our OA program, the first definition has application for us. The latter two definitions allow other members to interpret the word in a way that works in the system of belief they have arrived at during the Steps.

Miracle has its roots in Latin from the word for wonder. And wonder we do at the good fortune that OA brings us. As we work our way through the journey of recovery, we come face to face with the miraculous each time we look in the mirror. We may see the difference in our eyes first, as the food fog lifts and our minds clear, the sharpness returning to our gaze. Soon we see the physical change in our faces and shape that has allowed us to live in a normal sized body. Eventually, we see the spiritual change reflected not in mirror glass, but in the eyes of others as we live a more peaceful and loving life.

At each of these stages, we sense that something “highly improbable” has happened within us, and that its occurrence is, indeed, “very welcome.” If we take a moment to pause and make a quick count of the behaviors we’ve been relieved of, we can see rapidly just how amazing the change in us is. We never thought we’d be able to shed our compulsive food behaviors and the cravings that accompany them. Nor our hair-trigger eating response to even our least potent feelings. But they no longer dominate us as they once did.

It is important for us to remember, however, that we have been given this miracle, by whatever spiritual mechanism we understand. Yes, in the Steps we make some decisions, write some inventory, speak it out, make some amends, but we remain unable to actually change ourselves. After all, if we could have done so all along, we wouldn’t need OA. Whatever our Higher Power is, we asked for recovery, did a little work, and then the miracle just happened to us. It is not of our making, but it does require our participation and acceptance.

We are walking miracles, but let’s not get cocky. We’re still human beings, and we still have this chronic disease. It continues to worsen while we continue to grow in OA. To keep this miracle alive, we must stay in touch with the program and continue to cultivate a deeper relationship with the our HP. If we do so, then we will stand as examples for those who need help with compulsive eating. By helping them, our recovery will be further strengthened!

So we needn’t every worry whether we will receive the “welcome consequences” of OA. Each one of us is a miracle. Each one of us, no matter where we are in recovery, represents one more person whose life is not claimed by compulsive eating while in ignorance of its solution.

Discipline

For many of us addicts, the word discipline conjures up nightmares of boot camps, childhood spankings, and a general sense of punishment that flies in the face of our willfulness. Indeed, the first definition for discipline in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary reads ominously, in all caps, and in red:

PUNISHMENT

On the other hand, we often find ourselves wishing we had the discipline to stop eating compulsively! The same source’s fifth definition surfaces what we’re looking for:

5 c: SELF-CONTROL

When put through the filter of our diseased thinking, we may regard controlling of our food as both a punishing restriction and as a sign of good moral character. Our illness wins out every time, and as we watch normal eaters take or leave food and lament that we can’t be like them, we feel burnt up. Which makes want to eat even more.

But maybe we’ve got it backwards? What if we thought about compulsive eating as punishing ourselves? What if we recognize that because of the disease of addiction, we can’t control our eating? What if no amount of thinking, no surge of willpower, and no diet regimen will save us because we are different than normal folks?

That’s exactly what Bill W. and Dr. Bob realized. When they tell us in the Big Book, “never talk down to an alcoholic,” they recognized that we addicts struggle with authority as well as self-control. We don’t respond to the carrot-and-stick approach. But as we get into the program, we see that those members with strong recovery have some semblance of that discipline we always wanted. It may manifest in “squeaky clean abstinence,” or in a general demeanor that demonstrates a level of self-control that we don’t possess, but we see it. How did they get it?

Now we are ready for another of the definitions of discipline:

5 b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior

We may think of “military discipline” or monk-like behavior, but don’t we see this in everyday people in our lives? That person we know who works out three times a week no matter what. Or the one who always has wonderful gardens because they weed regularly. A music student who practices frequently and without prodding because they want to improve. And in our case, the OA member who uses the Steps, Traditions, and Tools to gain abstinence and see a turnaround in their lives.

So how did those folks get that self-control, the orderly behavior? We’re desperate to know when we first join OA. The answer is, not surprisingly, one more definition of discipline:

4: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character

That’s exactly what we are after in OA. We go about it a little differently than most of courses of study. Typically, when people follow a discipline, they practice the thing they want until they become proficient at it. Well, we do some of that. But the thing we really want, the change in our spirits and our mentalities isn’t of our own making. We do our step work and learn some wonderful insights and coping tools for life, but we have no more ability to change ourselves than we did before OA. Our Higher Power changes us. The disciplines we attend to are designed to get us ready to be changed and to maintain the change, but we never arrive at proficiency at controlling our food and having a spiritual awakening. Instead, we are granted another chance at the life we always wanted.

“We alcoholics are undisciplined,” the Big Book tells us, “so we let God discipline us.” And we remember that this discipline isn’t about punishing but about forgiving and healing.

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, the US remembers the sacrifice of lives that freedom requires. In order to be free of tyranny, slavery, and oppression, men and women have fought and died.

As OA members, we go to the front lines and fight for freedom each day. We don’t use guns and bombs, but we fight a pitched battle nonetheless. We seek freedom from the tyranny of our illness, the slavery to the obsession with compulsive eating, and the oppression of our very souls by the ravages of food addiction.

Those of us still actively engaged with OA and the spiritual solution are the lucky ones. Even if we struggle with our food, we know that the war is winnable. We know it because we see other OA members in normal sized or shrinking bodies day after day, week after week, year after year. We hear in their stories that OA is not just some crash diet nor that they suddenly developed will power. We know that spirituality is real and it does for them what they could never do for themselves.

But we also see that many, many members come and go. We wonder what happened to them. Are they still alive? Or has our disease destroyed them fully. We can let every day be Memorial Day in OA, and turn our reflection into action. When someone has disappeared from our midst, we can call them. We can email them. We can text them. They need our loving support, and we need them just as badly. Helping others is what keeps us on the spiritual straight and narrow.

People leave OA for numerous reasons. If they return, they often find in retrospect that the reasons for their departure were trivial excuses that their illness used to keep them away from getting better. When people stay away from OA one day at a time, they suffer. If they’ve been to just a couple meetings, they may know that a solution is out there but resent the idea that they need a Higher Power to recover. If they’ve done a lot of work in OA, they may feel guilt or shame about returning after a long absence. They may also have experienced the terrible sensation of having a belly full of food and a head full of OA.

Sometimes an OA may leave the program and die. Our disease claims lives every day (whether the sufferer was an OA member or not). If we go back to compulsively eating, we can be in grave danger. Type 2 diabetes is a killing disease that is triggered by obesity and excessive weight gain. It’s end stages are not pretty: Losing toes or legs, exploding blood vessels in the eyes and potential blindness, dependence on insulin, and the frustration of a food addicted mind grappling with the need for careful dietary management. Heart disease isn’t sexy either. Difficulty breathing, inability to conduct basic activities without shortness of breath or dizzy spells, the fear that at any minute the big one could hit. Obesity increases the risk of stroke, which often results in loss of speech, movement, sight, or brain function. COPD and emphysema can also be caused by obesity, and a life of irreversible constant coughing and shortness of breath won’t make anyone’s top-ten list.

Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, COPD/emphysema, and those are just the tip of the deathblow iceberg. People with our disease die in the trenches all the time. They are fighting the food and are losing or already lost. Yet, we know that fighting the food isn’t the same as abstaining. We know a spiritual solution that works and the power of fellowship to help.

If our battle is fought on the emotional and spiritual planes, then we have the ability to bring people back from that kind of death. We do it by reaching out to those who have left OA and whose emotions and spirit have often flatlined. We let them know that they are still loved and that the solution is still out there for them. We let our Higher Power act through us so that others may have their lives saved as ours have been so saved.

What to do as a sponsee

The Big Book devotes a chapter to working with others. OA has a pamphlet just about how to sponsor. Many meetings ask for active sponsors to identify themselves. Members speaking at a meeting or generally sharing often talk about how they work with others. But when it comes to being a sponsee, we hardly hear more than “I did what my sponsor suggested.” That’s great advice, but what exactly does it entail?

Once we’ve gotten up the courage to ask someone to guide us through the program, the real work begins. We often talk about HOW in our meetings: Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness. These form a strong foundation for getting the most from our sponsor/sponsee relationship.

Honesty is obviously the most important attribute we can bring to our work with a sponsor. We are used to being dishonest. We minimize, overdramatize, fantasize, and downright lie about our food, our feelings, our relationships, and our life circumstances. With our sponsor, we have an opportunity to finally be absolutely honest about ourselves. We can tell them exactly what’s happening outside and inside us, and particularly about how the illness of compulsive eating is affecting us. There’s no point in bs’ing our sponsor. They’ve encountered people just like us so many times, and they see right through us. We don’t worry about what they might think of us, we just tell the truth. All of it. We can’t get better without it.

Open-mindedness buds from the branch of honesty. When our sponsor suggests an action to take, do we instinctively react negatively? Do we immediately shut down the possibility of taking that action? When our sponsor suggests considering the idea of a Higher Power, do we put it in our mental shredder because we know there is no god? Do we insist to ourselves that even if a god exists, it won’t help us? Or do we belay the orders our mind wants to give us and pause to examine the fact that a spiritual solution has worked in our sponsor’s life? We have for years and years been closed-minded. We have thought we had all the answers. We have thought that we must take the edge off of life with food because our feelings were too much for us. We have thought that we were broken and unfixable, unloveable, and unredeemable. By being honest with someone for the first time, we see that our thinking is unreliable. By being openminded, we become able to receive truths we had denied and apply some of those new truths to our lives.

Once we are openminded enough to actually listen to our sponsor, we can get willing to take action. OA is all about taking action. We can’t think and feel ourselves out of this disease. if we could, we would have done it already! So it’s time for action. If we have open-mindedly heard our sponsor’s suggestion to attend a meeting, we use our willingness to get our butt into a seat. If our sponsor tells us that they see a food becoming problematic for us, we can try going without it and observe how our mind and body respond. Willingness is indispensable, because it is a decision maker. We have long responded to invitations with “I’ll think about it” or “maybe I’ll try that.” We’re only lying to ourselves because everyone on the green Earth knows that’s code for “I’m too scared to use the word no.” When we adopt willingness, we can say yes or no. If we are willing, we say yes. If not, we say no thank you. With our sponsors, we probably need to be extra willing. If they recommend an action, it’s likely because it works.

Taking the HOW framework further, we might also consider making a commitment to thorough action in OA. We’ve many times made decisions and been willing to do something about our food then failed to take action, follow through, or do the job completely. In OA, our sponsors remind us that the program is only effective, if we finish the job. This means doing the Steps, observing the Traditions, and using OA’s tools. It means doing something even if we don’t want to or are scared to. If we commit to an action, we need to stay honest about it. We addicts are often unreliable, so when we agree to do something or be somewhere, we do it. We have to walk the talk of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness if we’re going to get anywhere, and when we’re in the food, blowing things off or canceling at the last minute is one of our favorite moves. We are developing integrity, something we may have elsewhere in our lives, but not around our food and personal well-being.

Being a sponsee is kind of simple. We need to adopt a teachable attitude that’s encapsulated by HOW. Then we follow that up by doing what we say we’ll do and saying to our sponsor what we do. It’s we, ourselves, who make things complicated.

Pathways to a finding a Higher Power

The reality of Overeaters Anonymous is simple: It’s a spiritual program for people who are medicating their spiritual sickness with food. That means we turn to a Higher Power that we can trust and rely upon to live one day at a time without abusing food.

Bing, bang, boom, we’re done!

Well, if it were that easy, we’d have fixed the problem long ago. In practice, finding an HP we can count on is one of the most difficult trials we face in recovery, and most people fall into one of a few basic categories:

  1. The religious: We may belong to a religious organization already and have accepted its god figure as our own. Even so, religious knowledge isn’t enough, obviously, or those members wouldn’t need OA.
  2. The formerly religious: Lapsed church members have trouble because even though they want to be free of dogma, they seem unable to shake their religious upbringing.
  3. Atheists and agnostics: Those who believe there is no God or who are awaiting more evidence are immediately irritated by the necessity of a god in their life. As many others of us in OA can tell you, atheism and agnosticism are active stances in the same way that religiosity is.
  4. Those with no spiritual experience or inclination: In some ways these folks have it easiest since they may have no prior experiences or thinking to block their path, but they may also be the most dogmatic do-it-yourselfers in the room.

No matter which person we identify with the most, we have to find a way into spirituality…or else. We have to choose between dying miserably of our disease or trying out the spiritual solution.

As we noted earlier, every person finds their own way to a Higher Power. The one common truth we hear about each person’s journey, however, echoes what the Big Book explains in the chapter title “To Agnostics”: We cannot know a Power greater than ourselves, we can only experience It. The human mind is limited. Were we able to comprehend powers greater than our own, we would already be a Higher Power. And, believe us, we learn in OA that we are not.

So how do we get onto the spiritual path? Here’s a few common reflections we’ve heard over the years that might be helpful. Most members find their experience relates to more than one of these.

Actively searching for God

Some members begin their journey by using activities such as writing, discussion, reading OA (and non-OA) literature to seek a Higher Power. As they work, they gain insight about what they want and need from an HP and can then come to a conception that works for them.

Passively searching for God

Those of us who aren’t verbal processors might ask others in the program to talk about finding God, listening carefully for spiritual experiences that resonate with us. We attentively tune in during meetings to hear others’ perspectives. As we listen, we take what we need to develop a spiritual path and leave the rest.

Get willing, then wait and see

The Second Step only says that “we became willing” to believe in a Higher Power. The Third Step only says we make a decision about trusting and relying on God, but it doesn’t say we are required to have nailed down our concept of an HP. So, some pragmatic members decide to adopt a stance of willingness, go through the Steps honestly and carefully, and see what happens to them spiritually as they go along. We have yet to hear about a person who assiduously went through with the Steps and did not have a spiritual experience.

If it worked for them…

Closely related to the path above. In this model, we trust the spiritual experience of those whose stories of spiritual recovery we’ve heard. We forge ahead through the Steps, knowing that if those people got a spiritual awakening out of it, then we will too.

The God catalog

If we already know what we want from a Higher Power, but we don’t know of One in common circulation that fits the bill, then we can “order” One up. If we know that we want warmth, unconditional love, and support from an HP, we start right there. Those initial ideas may be enough. We might consider other properties of a god we could trust, and also of a god we would not trust, taking the former, declining the latter. We needn’t add a beard, a robe, earrings, a gender, hair color, anything if it doesn’t suit our purpose. And that purpose must always remain firmly in our mind. We are constructing a concept of a god that we will want to trust and rely on.

Prayer and meditation

Not surprisingly, these well-worn paths to a Higher Power feel least intuitive to many of us. We’re used to eschewing prayer, and we may only see meditation as a means of relaxation. These might feel to us like new-age mumbo jumbo or the long-rusted tools from a less scientific age. But after all, prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening. We’re trying to find a God we can work with, so we might as well just go right to the source. “A little spiritual help here? Can you give me some clues?” Or why not just relax, close our eyes, connect with the quiet inside of ourselves, and see if any spiritual insights arise. The worst that might happen is that we have a quiet few minutes or fall asleep.

Try any of these or all of them. Adopt a stance of honest curiosity, and experience shows us that nothing can stand in our way. It’s been proven time and again among the ranks of Twelve-Step groups everywhere that we cannot fail to find a spiritual solution if we have honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. We don’t have to be perfect in all of this. We’re just looking for a spiritual light to lead us out of the darkness and toward the life we’ve always wanted to lead.

Patience is gratitude

Why do we eat compulsively? One reason is that we are impatient to take the edge off of our feelings. We can’t sit still with discomfort. Whether it arrives with words or by an urge, inside we feel that I’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.

In “The Doctor’s Opinion,” Dr. Silkworth explains that when we don’t have our substance, we feel “restless, irritable, and discontented.” Even before a triggering feeling or event occurs, we’re emotionally primed for self-sabotaging action because of the general uncomfortableness of our disease. It’s like prickly heat of the mind. So when we can’t stand it anymore, we eat, or we yell at our loved ones, or we blast out of the room we’re in, or we slam the phone into the cradle.

One thing that people routinely discuss in meetings is how much more patient they feel in recovery. We might hear that “those things my husband does don’t bother the way they used to.” Or someone might say that “I don’t have to go to every fight I’m invited to.” A great old saying that gets bandied about: “Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be happy?” Much of this increase in patience comes about by the simple action of abstaining from our trigger foods. When these substances are no longer in our bodies, physical cravings cease, removing one of the factors in our general impatience. But the feelings of restlessness, irritability, and discontent only clear up once we have experienced the Twelve Steps.

The Steps remove many mental and emotional barriers to abstinence and spirituality. Every trigger we encounter reminds us of some past bruisings of our ego. Just another piece of evidence against us in the court of mental law. But once we do the Steps, these feelings either disappear entirely or they ease so far back that we can gain perspective on them and deal with them in an adult manner. What a relief! The restlessness, irritability, and discontent are not permanent features of our mentality.

We also, however, gain through the Steps the ability to draw upon the support of a Higher Power, however we might define our HP. Infused with spiritual energy, our hearts and spirits soften and we become more open minded. We find that our need for immediate relief has slackened. We can make an appropriate decision or ask God for help. And that pause is beautiful.

When we take a moment before acting, we can reflect, even if just for a moment, on our situation. Are we amped up emotionally? Has anger risen up to our eyeballs? Has a gaping pit of despair opened in our stomach? Have we become so excited that we’re hyper? Pausing to recognize these conditions helps us come down from our emotional high.

Its turns out that applying patience to a situation is also an act of gratitude. We are so thankful for a new lease on life. We may find ourselves reminded that as people in recovery we can demonstrate our gratitude by turning to love and tolerance. We committed in the Third Step to building a better world by helping others:

God, I offer myself to Thee

To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt

Relieve me of the bondage of self

That I may better do Thy will

and take away my difficulties

that victory over them

may bear witness to those I would help

of Thy power, Thy love, and Thy way of life.

May I do Thy will always.

The bolded areas indicate that our HP wants us to engage in constructive action and help others. It’s the contract we made with God: Save me, and I’ll help You and others. If we react to our emotions (especially the negative ones) instead of pausing, then we risk destroying rather than building. We risk alienating others whom we might help.

So pausing is an opportunity to demonstrate gratitude. We’ve been saved from the doom of compulsive eating, and we return the favor by not going off half-cocked for selfish reasons. We wait as long as is necessary, perhaps a lifetime, perhaps a second. But we wait, sometimes gritting our teeth in gratitude, so that we we can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.