7 ways that compulsive eaters are not like normal people

The Big Book is filled with all sorts of lists, language, description, and stories whose purpose is to smash the idea that we are normal with respect to our food behaviors. Bill W, Dr. Bob, and the other early AAs knew full well that the illness of addiction was no respecter of facts. It lies, deceives, warps, obscures, and bends whatever information and memories it needs to so that it can perpetuate our compulsion. Our brains are trying to kill us.

So an important aspect of the Big Book’s message is to get our head out of the metaphorical sand. Dr. Silkworth writes in “The Doctor’s Opinion” that alcoholics think “their life is the only normal one,” which frustrates and boggles them because they see others drinking without harrowing consequences. They think they are normal so they should be able to drink like everyone else. But they can’t.

Swap food for drink, and it fits compulsive eaters to a tee. We OAs who have thought that maybe we were “making too big a deal” of compulsive eating have compared ourselves to normal eaters. Even once we hear the truth in OA about our compulsion, our mind continues to deny that we are materially different than anyone else. We “should” be able to eat normally and exercise willpower. We “should” be able to lose the weight. We “should” be able to live happy, healthy lives. Our disease is so tricky that many people leave OA because the idea that we have control is so persistently trotted out by our stinking thinker that it seems like truth.

This fallacy of normalcy will kill us if left unchecked. So we’ve got to examine our behaviors carefully. Not just at a surface level either. Nearly all of us in OA can admit to doing warped things with food: eating from the garbage, eating burnt/freezerburnt food, binging in vast quantities, hiding food, stealing food, excessively exercising or dieting out of shame, purging or starving out of desperation. You name it.

But those are the outward manifestations of our disease. They explode out of our motivations, our attitudes, our beliefs about ourselves and others. Not surprisingly, in meetings we hear a great deal of commonality about those underlying thoughts. The following are a few that we hear most often. If we struggle with the question of whether or not we really are compulsive eaters, these might remind us, because they are thoughts that normal eaters don’t have about food.

  1. Getting my food is more important than the needs of the people around me.
    Do we have to have something in our mouths before we can see to the needs of our children? Do we become irritated or angry if our spouse asks us to do something before we get can get at our food?
  2. Once one meal has ended, the countdown begins to the next.
    Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. After we finish breakfast, do we start looking at our phone, our computer, our car’s clock well before we are due to eat lunch? If it’s 11:55, are we capable of waiting patiently for the next five minutes? Or do we typically say “close enough,” grab it, and wolf it down.
  3. If I don’t have access to food, I am not OK.
    Does our sense of moment-to-moment security rely on our proximity to food? Do we feel edgy until we nail down where we can get our next bite from? Must we have our food fix to simply get through the day?
  4. I’d rather die than be without my favorite foods!
    Would we rather eat compulsively or stop so that we can see our children or grandchildren graduate, get married, or have children? We may say “of course, the latter,” but do our actions suggest we’d rather eat? Do we heed our doctors’ advice and lay off our binge foods if we get a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease? Can we imagine a life worth living without our favorite binge foods?
  5. Is food fuel?
    Can we differentiate between food as fuel and food as fun? Is food a material object that we need to live? Or do we imbue it with magic, mystique, and fond memories despite what it always does to us?
  6. Being alone with my thoughts is too difficult without food.
    Can we sit by ourselves without eating? Can we reflect on the happy or sad aspects of our day or our lives without resorting to food. Are there repetitive flashbulb moments, deeply disturbing memories, or thought loops that we can’t bear without the effect food has on us?
  7. I’m not worth saving anyway, so what difference does it make how much I eat?
    Do we believe that no one will care much if we’re gone? Do we feel as though our own lives are worth less than the brief feeling of relief that comes from eating compulsively?

What makes us different than normal people isn’t only that we think like this, it’s that we think like this all the time! Food is the axis our lives spin on, and our addictive thinking propels us around and around that axis until we find the solution or die from our disease.

Fortunately, there is an answer. With OA we can arrest our illness one day at a time. With the help of our fellow OAs and our program of recovery from food addiction, we not only can put down the food, but we can undergo a metamorphosis into the kind of person we’d always hoped we could be. A person whose thoughts don’t constantly consist of food and whose underlying motives don’t resemble a death wish. It’s a much better way to live than we have ever had before.

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.

Step of the Month: The 1-2-3 Waltz

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

Music fans, know the waltz tempo well: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. It’s characteristic of “The Blue Danube Waltz,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Norwegian Wood” among numerous favorites. Many folks in OA know that tempo too. They get a food plan for Step ONE, think earnestly about Step Two, get stuck at Step Three. Then they eat compulsively and repeat the whole thing over again and again. ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three….

Why does this 1-2-3 Waltz happen? Of course, every OA member is different, but there are some guiding principles that might help us if we find ourselves dancing these Steps.

The whole concept of Step Three is surrender. We’ve reached a point where it’s do or die. If we go on the way we’ve been living our lives we will die from the inside out. We’re mostly dead spiritually already, our emotions feel lethally out of control, and if our bodies haven’t already begun falling apart they soon will.

In nearly every culture, men and women are taught to be self-sufficient, to solve their own problems, and to stubbornly resist help lest we show weakness, lose face, or put someone out. We are not naturals at accepting help. But man oh man do we need it. In this terrible predicament, Step Three asks us whether we’re willing to make a decision to let our Higher Power not merely lend a hand but to run the whole show.

This is not a decision where we are saying, “I, for one, welcome my new spiritual Overlord.” Instead we are saying, “If I bang my head against this wall anymore I’ll spill my brains. I’ll give try this last-ditch Higher Power thing my best shot because it’s my last hope.” In other words, Step Three is a practical, hard-headed decision. We don’t make it because we think it’s a good idea, we make it because we know there’s no better alternative, and we’re going to die from compulsive eating.

In that light, the do-or-die, it’s not so complicated. We don’t even have to become sudden supplicants. All we must do is decide to let our Higher Power show us a better way by actively doing the remaining Steps. Even if we are doing the Steps to prove Bill W. or the Fellowship wrong (as has been heard at meetings from time to time), if we do them thoroughly and honestly, we will be shown a better way of life.

Still, it’s not a snap decision, and we may not be as ready as we think we are. If we’re in the midst of the 1-2-3 shuffle, something’s amiss. As one of our local members has noted, when someone gets stuck on a particular Step, it’s often because they haven’t quite wholeheartedly completed the previous Step, or some Step along the way. In the case of Step Three, there’s relatively few things we’ve been asked to do or accept before hand:

  1. We are powerless over compulsive eating.
  2. Our lives have become unmanageable.
  3. We are insane around food.
  4. There is Something more powerful than we are.
  5. That this Something is powerful enough to restore our sanity around food.
  6. That this Something would restore us to sanity if we reached out for help.

That’s pretty much it. We could go deeper and find nuances, but that’s the big picture in Steps One and Two. So if we struggle with Step 3, we can turn those six things into questions to answer from as deep in our hearts as we can:

  1. Am I powerless over compulsive eating? Or is there still some part of me that thinks I can control my food?
  2. Is my life unmanageable? Is my life a chaotic mess? Or must I control everything and everyone because I’m afraid of chaos?
  3. Am I insane around food? Am I obsessed with food? Do I do things that normal eaters don’t do?
  4. Is there anything out there more powerful than I am? Do I think that my mind is the most powerful thing out there? Or that because I can’t conceive of a Higher Power, one must not exist?
  5. Is there Something powerful enough to restore my sanity around food? Or am I terminally unique, such that other OAs’ Higher Powers can help them, but I’m beyond help?
  6. Would this Something restore me to sanity if I reached out for help? Let’s meditate on this last one a little longer….

It’s easy on that sixth question to confuse our self-worth with our actual worth. We may believe we aren’t worth saving. That we’re far too flawed, bad, ugly, stupid, fat, or whatever to be worth a reclamation project. But this negative self-talk is just our diseased brain trying to deceive us out of getting better so that it can continue to dominate us. But take a step back and ask this: If a friend in the same predicament asked whether a Higher Power would save them from compulsive eating, would we say, “Yes! You’re worth saving no matter what your mind might tell you!” Of course, and the same is true for us. We are worth no more and no less than our fellows, and we deserve to be freed from our illness as much as the next person.

If we are still listening to the 1-2-3 Waltz, it’s time to turn off the music. Whether we finally decide to make that Step Three decision or whether we go back to review Steps One and Two to make sure we’re solid, we’ve got to get off the dance floor and get better. Because we don’t want this song to be our funeral dirge.

Step of the Month: Obstinance or Abstinence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I should be able to do this myself.

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

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

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

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

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

Any excuse is a trivial excuse to eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 1 question to ask before that first compulsive bite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it possible that we don’t know what we think we know?

Virtually anyone who has been in the program for any length of time will have experienced some variation on this situation:

“What are you struggling with?”

“I’m struggling with the God thing.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t believe in a god that cares about me.”

“But you believe in a Power greater than yourself?”

“Yes, but it’s not a god with a personality, it’s just nature, and nature doesn’t care about individuals.”

Some OAs are, in fact, trained as theologians or philosophers and could perhaps reply to this line of reasoning with a carefully wrought line of thinking. But even that might do no good. Why? Because the person in this situation believes they have God, the universe, and everything figured out. Some of us come into the rooms of OA with this belief because we’ve done a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about this matter. Much of it has been healthy reflection and good research, but nonetheless influenced by our illness, which uses our minds to keep us chained to food.

Let’s think for just a moment about how we who have been down this particular path have been thinking. Are we experts in matters of theology, philosophy, cosmology, psychology, neurology, and the other fields that might help us understand a higher power and the effect it might have on human will power? For that matter, even if we know the evidence, are we effective reasoners? Is our logical faculty sound, especially if we are in the food?

The fields in question are so vast that most of their experts spend a lifetime specializing in a single subdomain within them (or a subsubdomain). To believe that we can know all there is to know about any of them, let alone all of them is, perhaps, a form of either arrogance or ignorance. To further believe that as laypeople we are smart enough not to need a lifetime of training and expertise to figure out something so complex as the universe and the human mind is just as illogical as having blind faith in someone else’s definition of a higher power.

So faced with someone like our example above, we can ask them a single question: Is it possible that you don’t know what you think you know? Any reasonable person will answer that, of course, this is possible…that in fact it’s rather unlikely that any one of us knows all this. But we become unreasonable in the course of our illness. So be patient with the person you’ve asked this. Give them a moment to consider, or even a few days. Ask them again another time. Sometimes the power of a question like this needs a great deal of time to sink in.

Perhaps the reality for this type of thinker is that they are afraid the program won’t work for them. They may fear being forced to adopt something they do not believe in. They may fear failing because they don’t have a belief that can work for them. It may feel safer for them to be stuck where they are than to seek something that seems impossible to reach.

It is possible that this person needs only to know two things.

  1. They need only be open to the possibility that something out there might help them.
  2. That more will be revealed, if they do the Steps thoroughly.

We can’t say what will be revealed. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of the sort they didn’t think they could believe in. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of exactly the sort they did believe in but there perception of Whose power their diseased mind had limited. It could be something else altogether that they hadn’t imagined but that ultimately works for them.

Christopher Columbus believed the world was round and that by sailing westward, he’d eventually hit the East Indies. His opponents thought the world was flat. He discovered that he was partially right, but that there was land between Spain and the East Indies. But he couldn’t get any answer without first setting sail.

Why the resistance?

Bad guys in bad movies often say to the hero, “Resistance is futile.” Whereupon the hero promptly escapes whatever torture is in store, vanquishes the villain, and lives happily ever after.

It’s kinda different in OA. Our illness is the bad guy, and it uses our brain to tell us that resistance is vital. That we must maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency as long as we possibly can. Most of us will maintain that desperate idea until the very moment that the pain of our addiction becomes more unbearable than the insult to our pride that we suppose the 12 Steps must be. We cling and cling to the long-held notion that we can eat like other people and lead normal lives…if only we tried harder.

In OA, resistance is, indeed, futile. The longer we deny the truth of our situation, the longer we will be in pain. The sooner we acknowledge the truth and the sooner we take OA’s suggested actions, the sooner will find freedom from our disease. Even while we resist the program, we know we’re staying stuck in the problem. We sure do have a lot of excuses. “Work’s too busy.” “The kids.” “I’m buying a house/car.” “My child/spouse/parent/friend is sick and needs my help.” “We’re renovating our home.” There’s truth in all of them, of course. These things do keep us busy, but if we don’t make time for OA, we may no longer have a family, a job, a home, or even our life.

  • If we resist abstinence, we can ask ourselves why. Is it only that we have tremendous cravings? Maybe. But other people in OA have gotten past them. What fear lurks behind this resistance to giving up our misery-inducing way of eating?
  • If we resist Steps two and three, we can ask ourselves why we find it so difficult to identify a Higher Power then ask It for help. Atheists, agnostics, and unrepentant religious iconoclasts do very well in OA by defining an HP on their terms. What fear keeps us from unlocking the door to a source of power that helps us get better?
  • If we resist writing our fourth-step inventory, we can ask ourselves why it seems so long and daunting. Many others of all walks of life have completed it by writing a little bit at a time each day. What truth do we fear God will show us in this inventory?

These are just a few examples of common points of resistance that all of us have felt, said, or heard during a meeting. We are all human beings with flaws and with our own ideas of what the good life ought to look like. Each of us encounters many junctures in our OA journey where we just don’t want to take that next action. But we must, and we must remember that the longer we resist, the longer we’ll hurt and the closer compulsive eating may bring us to our death. Because in OA resistance is futile, but it may also be fatal.

Step of the Month: Step Two…the God of Our Own Understandings

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

We have a disease that’s going to kill us. We might die young of a heart or circulatory disease. It might rob of us of our mobility joint by joint before the hammer comes down. Inevitably, we will first die an emotional and spiritual death. Whether or not family and friends surround us, we will die alone, isolated by this disease.

The trick is that the disease uses our own minds against us.

We slog along in this life thinking that one day we’ll crack the code and find a skinny, happy way of life. But we will never again be able to both control and enjoy our food. When we try to control food, we cannot enjoy it. When we try to enjoy our food, we eat uncontrollably. Eventually we can do neither, yet our mind keeps up its illusion that someday we’ll figure it out. This despite a lifetime of evidence that once we can’t stop once we start, and we cannot stop from starting.

So we are faced with a decision. Are we going to treat this disease with seriousness of mind and purpose, or are we going to keep playing at the control-and-enjoy game? If we are serious, then we must take an objective look at the situation and ask ourselves a simple question:

How will my food be brought under control if I can’t do it?

Here we have only two answers:

A) Another person will control our food.

B) A Power greater than ourselves will control it.

But A isn’t really a reasonable answer, is it? No other person can enter our minds and hearts and pull the strings for us. We wouldn’t allow it, for one thing, and for another, we’ve often tried to approximate such conditions to no effect. We’ve tried Dr. So-and-So’s diet. Or gone to a counsellor or a psychiatrist. These don’t work because we’re still in control. So the answer must be B…or else.

This isn’t an easy answer to come to. It means that we have exhausted all other avenues. The Big Book tells us that a so-called “heavy eater” can stop on the influence of others or when drastic action is required. We are beyond that. We no longer have the luxury to dabble in other kinds of human aid. A Higher Power is our last chance.

At the same time, we do have some choice in the matter. Two actually. First, we get to decide that we will believe that this Power can help us. We are always at liberty to decide an HP won’t help us and be on our miserable way. But what good comes of that? It brings on only more pain, more suffering, more despair. The question here is Why not try the HP idea? Second we get to decide what this Power means to us. No one in OA is asked to take up anyone else’s idea of a Higher Power. The only requirement for a Higher Power is that it be effective. There’s no point in believing in something that won’t do us any good!

Let’s say for a moment that we have decided we’ll try the God idea. If we are already members of an organized religion, we might then choose Jesus, Y____, Allah, Buddha, or any other powerful figure known to us. We may wonder why these figures haven’t helped us yet, and that’s a reasonable question. We will find out shortly as we move through the Steps.

What if we are former members of a religion but are embittered by our experience? Here we may ask ourselves whether we might work with the God of that religion, absent of any dogma or religious intermediaries. If not, then we may ask ourselves this powerful question: What do I want in a Higher Power? Once we answer that question, we have arrived at an effective God concept.

How about those who have never had religious instruction but aren’t atheists or agnostics? They too can ask What do I want in a Higher Power? We need only be as specific as is required for recovery. If the gender of our HP is important to us, then we ascribe a gender. If not, we needn’t. If the form and appearance of our HP is important to us, then we give It features and characteristics. If not, we don’t. Many members choose traits such as unconditional love, steadfastness, caring, and nearness. The important matter is whether we define God in a way that enables us to work toward recovery. We may ask program friends what their HPs are like and how they came to believe in them.

Agnostics, by definition, have no opinion on the God question. They await information that will help them make a decision. They may wish to consider the idea that the fellowship, itself, has power greater than our individual selves. Beginning from this point of view, they may look at others and listen to their stories. How does a 400 pound food addict recover? How can all of these people, who were as hopeless as the agnostic him/herself, have recovered if their minds were poisoned against them? Is randomness or the placebo effect a reasonable answer? The aggregates of these recoveries are data that may help the agnostic move toward belief.

Finally, what about the atheist? The true non-believer? Plenty of them in our ranks. Here are two ways that atheists have arrived at means to do Step 2. First, one longtime member defines a Higher Power as “Love, truth, justice, and beauty.” Another defines a Higher Power as “The God of My Not Understanding.” In the first instance, the longtime member believes that these four ideals have great power in the world. The member has experienced these powers in their feelings toward a loved one or in the face of injustice, so they know that these forces are capable of doing for a person what their mind alone cannot do. Our second atheist at some point decided that it was possible, if unlikely, that they may not have the complete picture of the universe. Could they have been arrogant to believe they knew everything? So our second friend’s compromise worked splendidly because they needn’t define a God in anyone else’s terms nor have to fight internally about the logical inconsistencies of a human-defined deity. Most important, it worked.

Twelve Step programs take a great deal of flack in some quarters because God is the engine of recovery rather than people. It is difficult for an outsider who hasn’t experienced our level of degradation to understand just what addiction does to our hearts in addition to our minds. They don’t understand that we truly have lost the power of choice in our eating. We are willing to try the God idea because everything else that we’ve done has failed, and maybe, just maybe, this God thing will work. After all, the only thing we have to lose is weight. And misery. And despair. And hopelessness. And fear. And innumerable other sufferings.

Thanksgiving; Thanks for giving; Thanks, giving

Now that we’ve dispensed with the eating part of Thanksgiving—amateur day for the non-compulsive eaters—let’s have a closer look at the idea behind it.

While the circumstances of the first celebration of Thanksgiving Day in America are a matter of historical debate, we do know that the holiday has its roots in England and Europe as a day of prayer and celebration for an abundant harvest. An annual feast that shared the bounty of the year’s labor in a degree and manner that was otherwise special in the hardscrabble colonial world. Today, we can have a Thanksgiving dinner whenever we want, and as food addicts, we often do….

But that notion of giving thanks for abundance is powerful because it is really about giving thanks for life and the means to sustain it. As addicts, our life is as day-to-day as the colonists’ was. While a crop failure, a vicious summer or winter storm, or simple pestilence could destroy their lives on any given day, we need only take one bite or one swig of a trigger item and we’re on the road to perdition. Research recently written about in the New York Times suggests that adopting an attitude of gratitude, even when we’re not sure we mean it, leads us to a higher quality of mind and life. We addicts know this. Fake it til you make it! When we become full of thanks, of gratitude, we don’t need to eat because we now see abundance all around us: family, friends, jobs, material well being, physical well being, we can increase the list ad infinitum. We are filled with spiritual things instead of self-pity, self-recrimination, resentment, and any of a dozen other negative feelings in which we can only see ourselves. We forget everything good in our lives and seek relief in the one thing we know to do…eat. Giving thanks isn’t merely a good idea, it’s an essential way of life for people who are constitutionally predisposed to the centrality of their suffering.

But how about another way of looking at it? What if we insert a certain preposition in the word Thanksgiving? Thanks for giving. Here we can choose to observe our Higher Power at work in our life. We aren’t only grateful for something, we are grateful to Something. We can celebrate our relationship with the God of our understanding with thanks for being able to receive our blessings. What this means is that we have opened ourselves to help. We have torn down the walls between us and our Higher Power, however we may conceive of an HP. Without this turn of thought, we cannot see the abundance in front of our faces. Before program we not could truly receive from God; we thought we were providing our own blessings. In recovery our eyes are opened to the truth. Indeed, in many cases the family, friends, and circumstances that used to drive us to the fridge now delight us. Did they change? No, we changed by letting God into our lives.

Finally, what about thanks, giving. Here we might think about these two words sequentially. That is, in the way that step 12 guides us. If we are thankful, we must demonstrate it. To keep our attitude of gratitude, we must give it away. Good words signal a grateful mind, good deeds a grateful heart. If we are thankful for family and friends, are we telling them we love them and being of help and service to them? If we are thankful for OA, are we providing service? Or do we just attend meetings and let others do the work for us? Most important, if we are thankful for recovery, no matter where we are at in that journey, are we giving it away by helping newcomers? Do we greet them warmly? Do we call them? Do we tell them about our experiences so that they can identify with us and find a home in OA? We are told that if we do not carry this message, we will return to our old ways. We have to give it away if we want to keep it. And to return to our old ways means to die. First spiritually, then emotionally, and then physically.

We are never cured of the disease of compulsive eating. We have a daily reprieve. When we remember to tell God how grateful we are, we pave the road to ongoing recovery. When we tell other people how grateful we are, even those not in program and perhaps even strangers, we bring a little peace into someone else’s day. Thanksgiving is a day when “normals” take a moment to count their blessings and then feast. Just as we are significantly more experienced at feasting than they are, becoming similarly expert at counting our blessings will make our blessings count more and lives saner and happier.