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.

Tradition of the Month: Keeping OA Homey

9. OA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

As OA members, the organization of our lives comes from the actions that are suggested we take each day to stay on the beam:

  • Pray and meditate in the morning, and keep in touch with our Higher Power throughout the day (Step 11)
  • Review our conduct in the moment and at night and be ready to set right any wrongs (Step 10)
  • Do our best to keep in mind how we can be helpful to others, and then actually help them
  • Help others, carry the message to those who still suffer from compulsive eating, and live the principles of the 12 Steps as fully as we can
  • And of course, not eat compulsively.

But beyond these overarching ideas, OA doesn’t get specific. We addicts with our controlling ways love to make rules, get angry when others break them, and then break other people’s rules to boot. There’s no need for all that fuss. After all, our HP will gently show us how to live, provided we relax our grip on the world and our life.

Like its individual members, for OA to stay on the beam it too needs some little bit of organization, but not too much. Who has time for niggling rules when the important business of helping others is afoot? We can’t be waylaid on this mission by protracted discussions of who does what and when. And why. And how. And by whose authority. And how many votes it takes to make that authorization. And how to remove people from authority whose actions we don’t like.

In this way, organizations are somewhat like houses. Perhaps we start with a comfy, cozy little home. We decide to add onto it to just a little more space. But we need permits to do that. We need to be careful of the easements for our property, and also where the sewer, water, and gas lines are buried. Oh, and we’ll need to ascertain whether our circuit breaker can handle enough of the additional load or whether we need a bigger box. We’ll need to figure out the plumbing if we want a bathroom, and code may demand one if we increase to a certain square footage. Of course, our taxes will go up what with the additional room in the house and all making its assessment go up. Things get complicated fast. Now imagine taking care of a mansion. All seventeen rooms need upkeep. Just cleaning them all would exhaust a person. The gardens need tending. Make it big enough and a home turns into a house.

OA is our home. The more we put additions on it, the more we’re going to be dealing with the management of organizational structures. We’ll spend time worrying about how to keep nonessential things going to the detriment of our one primary purpose: Carrying the message to compulsive eaters.

We can look to our current or former workplaces for further examples. Most people at some time complain about the bureaucracy of their workplace. It takes so long to hire someone due to the layers of approval. It takes so long to get product to market because of design-by-committee. There’s too many managers and not enough people to do the actual work. Everything has a required form. Can’t just go across the hall to ask a colleague to help with something without first asking their boss who then has to ask their boss….

So OA as a fellowship needs to keep it in the day just as we members do in our daily lives. We have no choice. If OA were to fall apart, so would we. We need the support of the fellowship, and we need to support the fellowship in order to stay alive. We’re just a bunch of food-drunks trying to stay free from compulsive eating, we’re not organizational geniuses. It’s like Dr. Bob’s said the last time he saw AA cofounder Bill Wilson: “Remember Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple.”

Step the Month: Everyday Amends

9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

We are often inspired to hear the stories of difficult amends made with the courage that comes from our Higher Powers. Families reunited, large sums repaid, hatchets as big as a house buried, friendships resumed, feuds resolved. We hear about these from our fellow OA members, and we hope to do as well by those we have harmed as they have.

But like so many things in recovery, size doesn’t always matter. Quality matters as much as quantity and consistency matters as much as that one big moment.

We cannot undo the past, but in making amends, we commit to taking responsibility for the messes we’ve made. Maybe we haven’t done something as “glamorous” as getting arrested or maiming our selves or others. Maybe, instead, we’ve slowly eroded relationships with others through the million paper cuts we’ve given them in our addiction. And the gallons of lemon juice and tons of salt we’ve added to those wounds.

So instead of comparing our recoveries to others’ experiences with amends, we can compare our own befores to our own afters. What was our home life like before we began making amends to our loved ones? What is it like now? What was our work life like before we began making amends? What is it like now? Same goes for any relationship we are in, even our relationship with the world at large.

But notice the phrasing there: “before we began making amends.” In many respects, we are never done making amends. To amend something is to change it. When we make amends, we don’t merely say I’m sorry. We tell the other person that we’re changing our behavior. And then we trust and rely on our HP to help us live in a changed manner and to become the changed person we commit to.

That means that each and every day, we are making amends simply in how we conduct ourselves. If we used to passively watch as our spouse did everything around the house, we pick up a sponge and start doing the dishes. If we gossiped and schemed our way through the work day, we cease self-serving conversations and ask how we can help a coworker. If we used to ignore our far-flung family, we pick up the phone. These are everyday amends. The little things we do.

Those around us may or may not be impressed that we’ve lost weight and stopped filling our faces. But they know us, and they know that if we don’t change as people, our compulsive eating will return, just as it always has. These folks have been on the receiving end of a lot of our anger, isolation, depression, and/or volatility. Skinny or fat, they know the score with us. They know we’ve never been able to change. We can’t prove them wrong. Only our Higher Power can. Like the Third Step Prayer says, “Relieve me of the bondage of self/that I may better do They will/Take away my difficulties/That victory of them may bear witness to those I would help…”.

But just because we ask our Higher Power to work through us doesn’t mean we just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. We do things for others, we help where we didn’t used to, and we fake it it until we make it with HP’s help. Because while the big things make great stories and are very important to our healing, it’s the little everyday amends that, moment to moment, help us stay on the broad highway of recovery.

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.

3 Questions for Finding a Higher Power

OA makes no bones about it. You’re gonna need a Higher Power if you want to recover from compulsive eating. Why? Simple, because if we can’t do it ourselves, and if no human being can do it for us, then by process of elimination, we need something more powerful than we are to do the heavy lifting for us.

Notice, we didn’t say God in that last paragraph? That’s because we needn’t define a Higher Power in those terms if we don’t want to. For some of us, it’s best if we don’t because that word rankles us.

On the other hand, for those used to religious worship, the term Higher Power may feel unspecific. Folks with a current conception of a God figure might well want to stick with it.

In OA we don’t have a horse in the gods race. Or lack of gods race. It’s about getting us through the 12 Steps so that we can enjoy a happy, joyous, freedom filled life. That’s why we encourage every member to define their idea of a Higher Power on their own. This is a program of action, and when you boil it down, a Higher Power must have just two attributes:

a. A willingness to free us from our obsession with food.
b. The ability to do so.

Of course, for us to get better and stay that way, the program instructs us to trust and rely on our HP for everything, not just food. So in reality, we need to add another trait to the mix:

c. Trustworthiness and reliability.

But we probably also need to add another ingredient. None of us wants to count on a crumb-bum Higher Power of dubious merit. We don’t want to get in with a HP that’s just doing tit for tat and wants us for its own creepy gains. Just because It can help us and does, doesn’t mean that Higher Power is worth following. So a fourth attribute would be

d. Worthiness of following.

After that, our concept is up to us. What do we want “a God personal to us” to be like? Here’s a few questions that can help us track down the answers.

1.) Do I already have a Higher Power in my life that I’m comfortable with?

We might have spiritual practices in place that can help us. If so, great! We will soon find that we can access this HP more than ever, once we have unblocked ourselves via abstinence and the 12 Steps. If not, we move on. We don’t want to get stuck in this spot. Feeling shame or guilt because we think we should believe in a certain Higher Power that isn’t comfortable for us will retard our progress. We have to keep asking questions.

2.) Am I OK with an anthropomorphized Higher Power?

In other words, do we want to picture God in our lives as having a human-like presence, or appearance? If so, we might ask ourselves additional questions such as

  • Do I need to know exactly what this Higher Power looks like to relate to it?
  • Does it need to be gendered for me to accept It?

If we aren’t interested in a human-like Higher Power, we can ask ourselves this: Am I OK with the idea of any kind of Being as a Higher Power? If so, we might ask ourselves the same two questions we just mentioned.

But if neither of these concepts works for us, then we need to get to the bottom of things. It’s not prohibitive for recovery if our HP isn’t a Being or even isn’t precisely sentient. Here are examples of Higher Powers we’ve heard about in meetings that had a decidedly non-standard flavor:

  • The fellowship of OA: When we choose the fellowship as a Higher Power, we may be able to relate when members use the G-word by in our minds hearing an acronym such as Group Of Drunks or Good Orderly Discipline.
  • An ideal such as truth or love: We may believe that universals like these or others are shared by us all and can lift us from our misery if we can tap the energy behind them through the Steps.
  • Nature or the universe: Thinking of the amazing vastness of our universe or the incredible living diversity, many of us can’t help but feel awe, wonder, and a sense of power that can help us.
  • “The Force”: While we don’t necessarily adopt this Star Wars idea for our HP, many of our members do use a similar idea, namely that we are bound to one another and the world and the cosmos through a positive, animative energy source that may not have intelligence but does possess great helping strength. We can then use the OA program to focus its healing power on our illness.

This question of what a Higher Power is or isn’t can also be a trap, if our stinking thinking gets wrapped around its axle. So some members have simply thrown up their arms and said, “I don’t know! But I believe!” They’ve considered what the minimum attributes for their Higher Power are and then let that simply be enough. The so-called “God of my not-understanding” can be an effective way out of analysis paralysis.

3.) What other traits do I want in a Higher Power?

Once we have an idea of what sort of Higher Power we will work with, we can consider the characteristics we want in our God. This is when we imagine ourselves looking through the God Catalog.

A plan for every single thing that is happening in the world? We can have that in our Higher Power. Or we can have a Higher Power that keeps its hands out of things.

Logical, rational, and consistent? Those are all available. So are sympathetic, cheerleaderly, and parent-like.

Talkative or intuitive? Leading or nudging? Whispering or shouting? If we’re going to listen to our Higher Power, how do we want to do so?

And just like how the typical American changes jobs seven times and careers three times during their working lifetime, we OAs are likely to amend, update, revise, or overhaul our concept of a Higher Power during our journey through recovery. The important thing is that we develop a conception that works for us. Because after all, if we can’t work with our Higher Power, how will our Higher Power work on us?

Tradition of the Month: Paid Support

8. Overeaters Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

Tradition 8 probably seems obvious to us in retrospect. We understand that the power of OA’s fellowship emanates from one addict identifying with another because we experience it all the time. We know that the power of a sponsor-sponsee relationship comes from one addict sharing their experience in recovery with another.

That may not always have been so obvious. Early in AA’s history, medical doctors and psychologists played an important role in the fellowship’s development. “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book and Bill’s own story show us how Dr. Silkworth’s support of Bill’s wild idea of one alcoholic sharing with another enabled the fellowship to get off the ground and gain credibility in the medical community. Other members of the medical community were helpful in its development as well, including Dr. Harry Tiebout, one of the earliest psychologists to describe alcoholism as a disease and recognize the importance of ego-deflation in recovery.

With so much psychology involved in our desperate attempts to change our moods or feelings, push down our memories, and escape our minds, many groups in AA’s early days may have been tempted to bring in a psychology professional to support members’ recoveries. We can easily imagine such a person leading a meeting, because recovery counselors do just that in addiction treatment centers nationwide. We can easily imagine such a highly trained individual administering careful, thoughtful advice to an individual member going through the Steps. Who better to help us uncover the “hidden springs” of the mind that Bill writes about?

These genuinely helpful professionals could be difference makers to many members of OA. So, too, could dietary professionals. We might have meetings organized around developing a food plan that include these highly skilled people.

But we don’t. And the reason why is obvious when we step back and look at our own pasts.

How many of us went to see a counselor for help with our emotional issues or our food? How well did we listen? Did we really want to take the recommended actions? How about a nutritionist? Did we give them a fair hearing? Did we listen closely to our family doctor when they said that we should watch our eating because we were showing signs of Type 2 Diabetes?

We don’t listen to anyone but our disease when we are in the throes of addiction. Oh, we might take the advice for a week or three, but inevitably, we’re back into our stinking thinking and our unhealthy food behaviors. We certainly weren’t going to listen to someone we couldn’t relate to. Or who we thought was probably dispensing the same advice to us terminally unique addicts as they did to everyone else.

Yet, when we walk through the doors of OA, our ears open up because we hear our story told to us again and again. We see people in normal-sized bodies, people who are on the journey to a healthy body weight, and others who are just getting going. We hear in each of them an aspect of what we want, and in their experiences we hear echoes of our crazy food thinking and our general unmanageability. And these people are dishing out the straight dope without any expectation of payment. We see that they are so grateful for the gift they’ve received that they want to pass it on so others may share in it.

All of that hits us in our first few meetings. But would it if professionals ran the meeting instead? If OA groups set up a professional as their leader, we would learn to trust and rely on the pro rather than to lean, at first, on the fellowship and, later, to trust and rely on God. The Big Book tells us that “no human power could relieve our” addiction. But bringing in professionals would interpose them between us and the Power we come to know.

Wouldn’t we be likely to resent that professional too? What do they know about my life? My mind? Have they ever experienced cravings and mental obsession? Even if that professional were an addict, we would still see the profit motive at work. Do they give more time to one member versus another when we’re all chipping in for it? OA would never have gotten off the ground if it included professionals.

So we don’t include them. They are welcome to attend any open OA meeting, especially if they are, themselves, an addict. But for us psychology is an outside issue. Many members support their recoveries by seeking these talented and helpful individuals outside of their OA program, but OA recovery resides in the 12 Steps.

Step of the Month: Willingness

How’s your willingness today? It’s a question we might ask ourselves each morning. The word willingness is all over the first 164 pages of the Big Book as a well in the AA 12&12. For example, in his own story, Bill, referring to the recovery he saw in his sponsor, writes, “Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend.”

This willingness stuff is pretty important to recovery. Requisite, actually. “Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the essentials of recovery, but they are indispensable,” the Big Book tells us in the Appendix titled “The Spiritual Experience.” Willingness, in fact, can lead to open mindedness and honesty. For normal folks, any of these three might be an entry point to the rest, but for us addicts, willingness is probably the most important.

We are a stubborn people, us addicts. We’re trying to control and enjoy everything. We think we know what’s best. But we can’t enjoy what we can control nor enjoy what we can’t. We’re trying to take the edge off with food without the consequences. We’re trying to rely on ourselves instead of a Higher Power. We are not open-minded people, at least not on this matter.

Nor are we especially honest. Not merely about what we’re eating but about how our lives are going. About whether we’ll ever get control of our food (we won’t). About whether we’re hurting others besides ourselves (we are). About whether we even know what we feel (mostly, we don’t). But we tell ourselves lies about all of these and thousands of other things each and every day, from the moment we awaken to the moment we go to sleep (sometimes even in our dreams).

How can the solution offered by OA to our compulsive eating possibly break through our stubbornness and our dishonesty? That’s why willingness is so important.

The Big Book says that “alcohol beat us into a state of reasonableness,” and this is true for compulsive eaters and their substance. Willingness is a synonymous with “the gift of desperation.” When we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, we suddenly get a little burst of willingness. Or maybe a big burst. We hurt so much, that we would try anything to get better. And we’ve done so in the past. Grapefruit diets, fad diets supposedly from other countries, Dr. So-and-So’s diet, supposedly holistic diet programs where we purchase unhealthily salty food branded by the company, lifestyle changes comprising unsustainable calorie restriction and extreme exercise regimens. You name it. We’ve had the willingness before, but we’re cynical after so many past failures.

So willingness comes first and leads open-mindedness and honesty by the ears as we march through the Steps. In fact, the theme of willingness appears in several of the steps even if it is only directly expressed in Step 8:

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

The chapter “We Agnostics,” is all about becoming willing to believe in a Higher Power of our own conception. Bill writes, “… As soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results…”. Relief from compulsive eating begins with willingness (and requires more action to stick).

The theme of willingness in a step often indicates that an important action will required of us in the next step. So it is that Step 2 bridges to Step 3.

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

The Chapter in the AA 12&12 is absolutely littered with references to willingness, and with good reason. “There is only key,” writes Bill, “and it is called willingness.” Elsewhere in the chapter he writes, “Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more.” And willingness is huge in Step 3 because we are making a contract with God: You save me from addiction, and I’ll do what you ask and help others. We are saying, in effect, that we’ll do the rest of the steps, and Step 3 comes before Step 4 for a reason. We’ll need willingness to conduct a thorough and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

6)  Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Here’s the really big one. In Step 7, we are going to ask God to change us from the inside out. We’ll be given a second shot at life. So we need to get willing, utterly willing, to let God take away from us all of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, our compulsive eating. All of it. Are we willing to give up these things that we’ve worn like an old sweater all these years? A sweater that everyone can see is stained, fraying, putrid-smelling, time-faded, hole-riddled garment that was ugly even when it was new. If we’re not ready to let go, then we won’t be changed. If we are not changed, we will not get the gift of neutrality toward food. We’ll be stuck. This is where we truly “abandon ourselves to God” as the famous “How It Works” passage admonishes us. Which brings us, finally, to Step 8.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Why do we need to become willing to make amends? Why don’t we simply make the list and get to it? Simply put, because we need honesty, open-mindedness, and only willingness will get us there. First off, making amends isn’t a fun-times activity. It’s serious, and it requires some serious pride-swallowing. At that simplest of levels, we need to check in our willingness.

But as we progress into Step 9, we’re going to need to do some rigorous examination of what we are making amends for, to whom we are making them, how to make them, and most importantly, whether direct amends may create further wreckage in that person’s life.

Any amends that can be made directly should be, and our minds will rebel at the idea of facing those hurt face to face. We need God to help us get willing. Some amends should never be made directly, and we need God’s help to understand which. In fact, we may need God to stay our hand in this matter if we are zealous! Some amends shouldn’t be amends at all. Our disease is still alive inside us, and it uses our ego against us. Just as it may tell us, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to make amends for that little thing,” it may also tell us that something we did rises to the definition of harm, even though it isn’t. This is a form of self-centered thinking. So we need HP’s help to show us what to do, or who to ask about it so we gain clarity. We’ve already done damage to others, and we must take great care that in repairing that damage we don’t create more wreckage, even with the best intentions.

So willingness is massively important to our recoveries. There’s much to be done so that we can be changed. God will do the changing as we do the footwork that prepares us for it. So we must be willing to go to any length. But we are rewarded with a happy life, the joy we haven’t felt in so so long, and freedom from food obsession. Willingness is worth it!

The jigsaw puzzle of addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining our abstinence with OA’s wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

OA provides four important criteria for abstinence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tradition of the Month: Let’s keep this thing simple

7. Every OA group ought to be self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

Dr. Bob’s last words to his AA confounder Bill W. were an admonition:

“Remember Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, page 343.)

Bill had been in the world of high finance. In the high towers on Wall Street making a mint’s worth of paper proceeds, only to see them all dissolve in the market meltdown that kicked off The Great Depression. In fact, what brought Bill to Akron where he met Dr. Bob was an investment scissor fight. He involved himself in a vicious proxy battle with a tire manufacturer’s board of directors. Complicated, political, protracted dueling among the lords of that particular realm.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bob practiced proctology.

The pull and drag dynamic of their relationship served AA amazingly well. Bob could provide a realistic assessment of Bill’s more grandiose ideas. Bill could spur the more conservative Bob toward practices that would give AA the ability to reach a regional then national audience. By the time of Dr. Bob’s death in 1950, AA had blossomed across America and well beyond, so his last words to Bill were important. They had been big fish in a little pond. Now they could choose to see themselves as big fish in a vast ocean if they wished.

Bob wisely counseled against it. Addicts have enough problems with grandiosity and ego that they don’t need to see themselves as kahunas of some burgeoning world power. Stay small in your own mind, he seemed to be telling Bill. AA’s Twelve & Twelve published just a year or three after this famous encounter. In it, Bill frequently warns against big-shotism and repeatedly reminds us of the importance of humility and humbleness.

All of this relates in profound ways to Tradition Seven. The AA 12×12 analogizes Tradition Seven to a vow of poverty. As a former financier, Bill knew quite well the ups and downs of markets as well as of the accumulation and management of wealth. He understood how complex the issues around it are. If you’ve ever visited a retirement planner, run your own company, or been in accounting, you probably have some idea how complicated money can be. By taking a metaphorical vow of poverty, AA ensured that the money intake itself would be modest, posing less risk of profiteering motives. Just as important, placing that vow of poverty in the context of Tradition 5 (our primary purpose) and Tradition 8 (AA should remain forever nonprofessional…) created a bulwark against the corporatizing of AA’s message of hope. The fellowship was to use the money for one purpose (helping drunks) and not paying guys like Bill to do it.

Experience taught AA the necessity of its vow of poverty. Arguments about money divert  from the primary purpose. The endless decision making around money and the finger pointing that occurs when investments don’t pan out create disunity in a fellowship whose first Tradition stresses its importance.

So what’s this history lesson got to do with our food and OA’s fellowship? Everything. We hear in many rooms the phrase “Keep it simple.” Why? Simply because we addicts can complicate an egg timer. That adage is often used to describe our food planning, but it’s also true of the fellowship in its entirety. If we don’t keep things simple, we simply won’t be able to keep OA healthy.

Food plans are a lot more complicated than sobriety from alcohol. We have to let the tiger  out of the cage three times a day, and our deal is on every street corner. We do not have the time to deal with the complications that arise from handling money, attracting donations or capital, and making big plans for how to use it. We have just two things we need to do: stay abstinent and help others. Anytime our focus drifts away from those tasks, we are vulnerable to this vicious disease.

We take our vow of poverty so that we can find the richness of recovery from compulsive eating.