3 ways out of dangerously sentimental food thoughts

“We will not regret the past,” says the Promises that many meetings close with each week. Usually we think of this as referring to the stuff in our backgrounds that we’d rather not remember. But we also need to keep careful watch for sentimentalism, a gateway to self-pity.

Of course there’s nothing wrong for reflecting gladly on bygone days of glee. We rightly and naturally cherish the memories of our loved ones, special moments, successes, happy surprises, challenges overcome. But the disease of addiction is cunning and baffling, and so we must be on guard and monitor our thinking. Instead of keeping it in the day, our illness can turn our thoughts toward matters of food, weight, and body image quickly and almost imperceptibly.

What begins as a pleasant trip down memory lane can turn into lingering thoughts about certain foods or meals. Once our minds reach a place such as this, we can easily slip into self-pity over the foods we can no longer eat. Our disease can begin to tell us that those meals of yore were worth more than our abstinence. The cycle of addiction always beings with a thought or feeling.

So how do we recognize when we’re in danger of romancing the foods of yesterday? And what do we do if we enter that mindspace?

These are some warning signs heard from OA members that signal when we’ve crossed over from sentimental remembrance into self-pity:

  1. “I wish I could eat that again.”
  2. “Ooh, I remember that [holiday or special event]. The [food] was soooooo good.”
  3. “Wow, I can taste that right now.”
  4. “I wonder if that would taste as good to me now as it did back then?”
  5. “Maybe I could have a bite of that? It’s been so long.”
  6. “That food reminds me of my parent/sibling/friend who I miss so much.”

If thoughts such as these rattle through our mind, we’ve got to act quickly and decisively. The longer we polish this turd, the more it looks to us like a jewel. How do we get ourselves out of this tight spot?

  1. Pick up OA’s Tools: The Tools which will turn our thinking back toward our solution quickly.
    1. A plan of eating: Review our food plan to help remember why we don’t eat what we’ve been thinking about
    2. Sponsorship: Call our sponsor to talk about this slide into food-romance or call a sponsee to see how they’re doing to move our thoughts in a more productive direction
    3. Meetings: Get to a meeting quickly to hear about the solution and to be reminded of the hellishness of being in the problem
    4. Telephone: Talking to someone right away about the dishonesty our illness is trying to perpetrate on us is a sure way to be reminded of the solution
    5. Literature: Read any piece of program literature to remind us of the importance of maintaining our abstinence
    6. Writing: Journaling about our thoughts drifting foodward, writing a letter to our Higher Power asking for help, or continuing our 4th Step inventory will support sanity around food
    7. Service: What’s better for redirecting our thoughts than seeing how we can be of service to OA or any group that needs a helping hand?
    8. Plan of Action: Any other action that we regularly take as part of our program can help us keep our OA foundation strong.
  2. Do a 10th Step: Page 84 of the Big Book tells us to watch for selfishness, dishonest, resentment, and fear then gives us specific actions to take when these crop us:
    1. Ask our HP to remove the issue: Go straight to the spiritual source of our recovery!
    2. Discuss the issue with someone immediately: A sponsor or trusted OA friend is the ideal someone who understands how food addiction plays tricks our minds
    3. Make amends if necessary: Especially if our thinking is causing us to neglect other important responsibilities
    4. Turn our thoughts to someone we can help: Getting out of our own heads requires us to put ourselves second
  3. Remind ourselves of the nature of our illness: Our addiction always lies to us, and it even uses truths to deceive us. For example, it reminds us of the fleeting pleasure of food, but blocks out recollections of the daily torture of compulsive eating.

Additionally, we must remember that whatever direction our life in recovery takes, it’s an unfolding adventure that we get to live fully one day at a time. Rather than worry that tomorrow won’t be like yesteryear, we can instead rejoice that today isn’t as painful as our old way of living was. Rather than pining for the “good” old days, we can be grateful for this moment in recovery.


Step of the Month: Forgiveness around food

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Even in recovery, many of us are still touchy around food. We aren’t defensive, so much as ready to blame ourselves. If we are one spoonful off or we’ve eaten something that might contain a food that’s not on our plan, we double over with guilt, shame, and remorse. The question is whether we’ll let those feelings overrun us, or whether we will simply resume our food plan. It can make all the difference.

With a slip or break in our abstinence, it’s natural to feel disappointment or anger. We feel that old sense of powerlessness, and because we have years of experience with shaming ourselves, our disease guides us into that old groove: I feel bad about eating, so now I want to eat again to dull the pain of having eaten in the first place. Depending on what and how we’ve eaten, we’ve reactivated the physical craving and mental obsession that has lain dormant for some time. How do we return them to slumber?

Of course, we must cease eating compulsively and return immediately to our food plan. But we also have to deal with the mental and spiritual parts of our disease. What’s going to turn off the obsession? What’s going to prevent it from turning back on again? How do we get back on the spiritual track? Fortunately Step 10 holds a practical answer to all these questions.

We know that the cycle of addictive behavior begins in our minds with some kind of activating thought. Usually a negative one. “I wish it had gone my way.” “I wish my husband/wife were different.” “I’m tired of this.” Step 10 rolls together Steps 4 through 9, so we first look back at what kind of thoughts could have triggered our eating, and then we inventory them just as we did in Step 4. We are looking for any chinks in our spiritual armor that allowed our disease to attack us. These are places where we may have held onto fear or resentment and not given them away to our HP. As we seek these weak spots, we must be ruthless in our inspection, but we must also take care not to pound on ourselves. It’s as much a lie to harshly judge ourselves as it is to harshly judge others. So, just the facts.

Once we’ve inventoried what’s been eating us, Step 10 tells us to do as we did in Steps 5 through 7. We ask our sponsor or a confidant to listen to us as we read off whatever inventory we have written. We then ask God to remove the objectionable thinking, and in so doing, we also let go of the negative judgments about ourselves. Remove means remove. God takes it, so we don’t hold onto it. We start putting one foot in front of the other just as we know how to do. That’s the essence of spiritual action, moving forward with trust that our Higher Power is keeping us safe so long as we continue to take spiritual action.

As we resume our walk down the spiritual highway, we may find it helpful to remind ourselves of what spiritual work may we have pushed aside during busy times, resisted all along, or simply forgotten? We ask God to help us add such actions to our OA Plan of Action so that we might avoid a food slip or relapse in the future.

Here’s some things we don’t do. We don’t walk around fretting that we’re going to eat again. Instead we just get back on our feet and keep walking. We don’t blame ourselves. Instead we use the experience as a learning moment, remembering that humility is another way of saying we are teachable. We don’t blame anyone else. Instead we remember that we are responsible for our own spiritual condition and take action to restore its solidity. We don’t say screw it and go off and eat again. Instead we remember that the program kept us food-sober for some time when we ourselves couldn’t, and we embrace OA principles more firmly.

In short, Step 10 is like our spiritual GPS. When we make a wrong turn with our food, we return to Step 10 for a course correction. It helps us recalibrate our route on the road to happy destiny so that we can enjoy our life again and keep a right-sized perspective on those moments when we temporarily lose our way.

Tradition of the Month: #4 and how food and autonomy

4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or OA as a whole. 

What in the world does this Tradition have to do with our food? What does it have to do with maintaining our abstinence? As it turns out, plenty. Tradition Four has much in common with Steps Three, Six, Seven, and Ten. All these Steps help us address a key aspect of the cycle of addiction.

Let’s be specific. The wheel of addiction turns and turns and runs us over. Every time we eat compulsively, we start out to give ourselves ease and comfort about a feeling we have. The Big Book famously says these feelings are usually restlessness, irritability, and discontentedness. It also tells us that resentment, anger, and fear are root-level issues for us addicts. Once we have a feeling, we start obsessing about dampening that feeling. Then we go about the usual stages of compulsive eating: the first bite, physical cravings, remorse, and a resolution to never do it again, which we forsake as soon as we have another feeling. If we could only deal with the feelings when they arise, we’d have a puncher’s chance!

Now, in Step 3, we decide that we aren’t in control anymore, God is. We’re going to let HP call the shots. After we do inventory, we arrive at Steps 6 and 7, where we decide we are ready to have God remove what’s objectionable, and then ask for its removal. As we begin making amends, we also start the daily practice of Step 10, where we ask God to remove new resentments and to help us maintain the code of kindness, love, and tolerance toward others.

In other words, these Steps help us see that to recover, we must surrender control, ask to have our angry, fearful, and judging natures changed, and ask that we live in harmony with others as best we can. That is how our feelings become less dangerous to us.

Now comes Tradition 4. It’s basically telling us that, in terms of how meetings conduct themselves, our code is “Live and let live.” Which isn’t easy! Why not? Because we are used to doing the opposite of Steps 3, 6, 7, and 10. We try to control situations. We don’t want our defects of character removed because we either aren’t convinced we have any, or we think we can’t live successfully without them. We don’t live by the code of kindness, love, and tolerance because the world is mean and unfair to us, and it can go screw itself while we take from it what we’re owed.

Once we engage with recovery, we no longer have the luxury of sitting back and judging others (and their meetings) then gossiping about them. Even if we disagree with someone(s), we must do so with love and honesty. And not the kind of honesty that’s designed to spit in their eye while we share “our truth” with them.

Instead, we ask God to help us assess the situation. If we believe our meeting is going against Tradition, then we ask HP to give us the words to lovingly question whether the meeting is doing the right thing. If we believe another meeting is going against Tradition, we ask HP to show us whether their actions will harm other meetings or OA as a whole before we take any action. We discuss all of this with a trusted OA friend to make sure we’re not power driving.

If the meeting isn’t harming other meetings or OA as a whole, we have one important to do: nothing. It’s not our business to tell a meeting what to do. Nor is it our business to worry about it. Steps 3, 6, 7, and 10 basically tell us that the problem is with us, not with the other person(s). It’s out of our control, we need to be rid of the defects of character that we are engaging in the situation, and we need to be sure our conduct isn’t causing harm. With Tradition 4, we are putting the principles into action.

Release from worry. From anger. Ask how God will fix it. The answer may be that it doesn’t need fixing, we do. In which case, we’ve learned an ultra valuable lesson about our own natures, and we can ask God how to fix us so that our feelings don’t send us back to the food.

Love and Tolerance Is Our Code

“Live and let live.” If everyone in the world applied this 12-step slogan throughout their daily lives, we’d all be a lot better off, addicts or not. But we addicts use this slogan for a reason. We find it helps us to avoid eating compulsively.

We OA members seek comfort in food or food behaviors. We want to avoid the painful feelings of our day. Sometimes what we see in a situation is real. Sometimes it’s a product of our thinking. In either event, our diseased minds use these situations to kill us by eating compulsively.

In the “Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book we are told that the cycle of addiction begins with feelings of restlessness, irritability, or discontent. In other words, with a thought or a feeling. This activates the obsession of the mind before we take the first bite. This means that our thinking and emotions are the trigger for our compulsive behaviors.

Enter “live and let live.” It is telling us that we should abandon our attachment to the people and events (current, previous, or future) who are triggering us. No matter what they’ve done to us, we’re the ones eating the poison we intended for them. If we simply let go of the situation, we have a shot at not taking that next compulsive bite, and at maintaining our abstinence because we have interrupted the cycle of obsession and craving.

This is true even when it is ourselves that we are angry at. We have to let ourselves off the hook as well. Are we not also people, deeply flawed in the way that all people are?

In its description of the tenth step, the Big Book has some very interesting things to say about this. First it tells us that when faced with the kinds of thoughts and feelings that lead to compulsive fooding, we should turn our thoughts to others and how we can be helpful to them. By doing so, we give our minds a break from whatever loop of anger, pride, fear, or self-pity it’s running, while putting a little spiritual deposit in the bank by doing right action. Right action, estimable acts, lead to self-esteem and connection with God, both of which are important to our recovery.

“Love and tolerance of others is our code,” the book also tells us. If we live and let live, if we love people despite their flaws, tolerate the same kind of utterly human behaviors that we commit, and seek compassion for them, we will be the ones who get the benefit. We will gain some softness in our heart, some insight into how we can help others, and some more bankable spiritual moments.

We often eat because we haven’t developed yet the capacity for tolerance, compassion, and love. It’s been said that while alcoholics stop growing emotionally in their teens, food addicts stop growing around age five. Our substance is freely available at an early age. That means that we may need the emotional growth suggested by the Big Book in a deeper way than even it had considered. Many faith traditions place heavy emphasis on either or both of good works and compassion. Doing for others and trying to walk a mile in their shoes makes us better, deeper people. We can feel for others instead of always making it about ourselves inside our heads. We can grow emotionally as we were meant to do.

What an idea! But also what a journey.

We won’t get there overnight. This is a lifelong process of prayer, meditation, spiritual action, listening to others, helping others, and having our own limitations in mind at all times so that we can avoid repeating the patterns that got us here. Love and tolerance will make us feel better and eat better. It will calm the pounding urge inside to eat, and it will give us a pause in which we can ask our Higher Power to help us before we do our usual, death-wish thing.

After all, we find in our inventory that God has loved and tolerated us. If God can do that for us with our flaws, why shouldn’t do the same for others?

Step of the Month: Step 10

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Steps 10, 11, and 12 are often thought of as maintenance steps or walking-around steps. With them we live the OA program on a daily basis and keep away from food. They give us structure for our days and guidelines for our conduct. In particular, step 10 keeps us out of trouble and from worsening the sorts of self-made predicaments we addicts put ourselves into.

There’s no sugarcoating it. Even after doing steps 1 through 9, we will still be prone to behaving selfishly, dishonestly, and fearfully with self-seeking tendencies. That’s be because we are flawed, imperfect human beings. Our inventories showed us that. So it’s good to be reminded in step 10 that we have to be vigilant. We have to watch out for our old ways of thinking and acting. They will pop up again, and they can still cause harm to ourselves, our relationships with other people, and to our relationship with God.

So we watch for them carefully. The Big Book is very specific about what we should do when we see them recur:

When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code. (84)

In other words, step 10 is steps 4 through 9 all rolled into one. We are recognizing and admitting our shortcomings, asking to have them removed, and making amends for their results.


Here’s what we don’t do. We don’t stew on our shortcomings and tell ourselves that we’re bad people…or that the other person involved is. We don’t endlessly ask ourselves how this could happen to us as recovered people. We don’t worry what another person will think of us. Those are old ways of thinking that got us sick and kept us that way. Step 10 shows us a new way to be: mindful of our own behavior, willing to take action on it, and quick to remedy it.

There’s this part of step 10 that might seem foreign to us. The part that begins “when we were wrong.” Many of us have one or both of a deadly pair of long and tightly held beliefs: one, that we were never wrong, and/or, two, that if we were wrong, we should never let it be known lest we lose face! This is, of course, pridefulness. Many of us have enjoyed running others down for these very faults, yet we ourselves did the same things.

Step 10 tells us to put an end to it.

We saw in step 4 that resentments often affected our pride. We got puffed up with it when angry, or another’s actions or words would shoot it full of holes. It often connected with harsh judgments of self and others, with mistreatment of others, and with a rigidity that perversely robbed us of our joy and dignity. But as we worked steps four through nine, we found ourselves gently humbled. God showed us right-sizedness, and we realized that our lack of humility and self-centeredness was killing us. God also showed us that being wrong wasn’t so bad—after all we did it a lot! In fact, it was utterly human to be wrong. The problem was actually with us and our fears about what it meant to be wrong, the story we told ourselves about it.

So now, in step 10, we allow ourselves to be wrong and be human. We find it hurts much less to admit our wrongness than to hide it. Even with little things and especially with big things. As our relationships improve, we find that people like us better for admitting when we’ve been wrong. The admittance actually strengthens our relationships. By being wrong and admitting it, we gain the credibility with others that we had so long feared losing. It isn’t always easy and doesn’t always feel natural. Sometimes the admittance comes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes late. But never too late. It’s never too late for the tenth step…but we should try to be prompt about it.

So as we walk around, being human and trying to be better humans, we have step 10 in our pocket. It’s ready to pull out at any moment, the ultimate Swiss Army knife for spiritual living.