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?

Step of the Month: Humbly asked

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Because in Step 7 so much of importance occurs inside of us, we typically focus on the the removal of our shortcomings. We didn’t just write all that moral inventory and share it with our sponsor so that the bad stuff stays stuck inside us! This is a big deal. It’s where God makes good on the third step prayer. We said we’d try it God’s way, and in exchange God removes our troubles. It’s a miracle.

But we might be wise to pause for a moment on the leading adverb of the sentence: Humbly. Why did Bill W. and the gang slip that small but important word there? Those folks knew a thing or two about how us addicts work. They know that a lack of humility is an issue for us. Self-centeredness is self-centeredness whether we think we are better than everyone else or worse than everyone else. Whether we have delusions of superiority or delusions of inferiority. Either way, we are not able to assess ourselves humbly.

People like us are stubborn. Or perhaps it’s that our disease place stubborn ideas in our heads. For example, the idea that we have to be able to do the job ourselves. Whatever the job is. Or that we don’t need fixing, but everyone else does. Or that we know what actually needs to removed from us. In fact, we may know, but we may not have much perspective about the relative importance of each item that requires extraction. Finally, we may have the idea that we aren’t worth saving. That old saw has killed a lot of addicts. It’s another bit of old thinking that is self-centered in nature and has to go. It’s not humble to think that we are uniquely awful in our HP’s eyes.

If we have done the first six Steps well and learned to trust and rely on God by working them, then it is very likely that we are well and ready to ask for the removal of our shortcomings in the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge asked to be saved from the torment of understanding the terrible effect of his words and deeds on others. In the Big Book, on page 75, the authors ask us to consider whether we’ve done the work of the first five Steps well, whether we are truly ready to be changed by our Higher Power. Why would they ask this? Aren’t we all ready to have the scourge of addiction lifted from us?

Maybe we are in some ways and not others.

Are we hoping to have our obsession lifted but hang onto the worst of our defects? Are we hoping to have our obsession lifted merely to improve our life circumstances with little care for living in the solution thereafter? Are we we hoping to have the obsession lifted and then go on our merry way without returning again to help others like us? Perhaps most important: Do we still want to run the show? Or think we aren’t worth saving?

Of course, we all want to run the show. That’s how we are as addicts. We want freedom from discomfort and feelings more than anything. But if that freedom has to come via mechanisms we control, then we have not absorbed the solution. Our freedom comes from dependence on God, not merely with independence from food. So this simple little word, humbly, keys us into the idea that we still have more to learn. Humble is related to humility, a word that describes being teachable. Are we asking God to remove these objectionable items so we can learn more about our nascent spirituality? Or only for selfish reasons.

We here from long-time members and members with strong recovery that we must always stay on guard against our disease. It’s getting worse inside of us even as we’re getting better. We are never immune to its attacks on our thinking, even if we’ve got 10,000 days of abstinence. “Lurking notions” likely linger inside all of us. Step 7 is the archway we walk through into a new life of sobriety and freedom. But it does have conditions, the most important being the willingness to standing on a humble spiritual footing and to continue to maintain and expand it one day at a time. Even if it doesn’t come easily or naturally to folks like us.

There’s No God in Gossip

Today a guest poster takes on a topic of subtle importance.

There’s no God in gossip. I learn this at work, at home, among friends. Sometimes by positive reinforcement (I don’t gossip, and I feel better for it), sometimes by negative (I gossip, and I feel worse for it or confused by it). When I gossip, it’s because I want control. By pulling the information I want out of others and by doling out morsels as I see fit, I feel like a master spy orchestrating events to come to a conclusion of my devising. The reality is, in fact, humiliating.

You see, when I’m gossiping and trying to gain control, it’s usually of situation that doesn’t exist now and probably won’t ever. Or it’s of a situation I can never control. It’s all a fantasy world ordered by my ego, designed by my mind, and shaped by my fears. When I gossip, I am trying to dictate the flow of information to fill in the missing parts of the fantasy world in my head. Is this person my friend? Who is allied against me? What can I count on happening? What surprises lay in store for me? What’s the real scoop?

The sad part about it? I’m wasting all my creative energies by taking bad things that happened before (and maybe not even to me) and projecting them into the future. What if instead of gossiping and indulging these dark fantasies I simply applied my focus to the task at hand? My work. My marriage. My friendships. To helping others, in other words. That’s where the program tells me God is. Not in controlling.

In fact, gossiping can be harmful not only to me, but to others. Obviously, I’m wasting others’ time to begin with. But by gossiping, I’m yanking people out of reality and into my projections. I’m potentially filling them with misinformation that they might act upon or that might negatively impact their perception of another person or a situation. After all, slander is gossip’s frequent traveling companion. I’m sowing seeds of confusion or even enmity.

At its most reductive, when I’m gossiping, I am substituting gossip for God. I am not trusting and relying on God, I am trusting and relying on my smoke-filled back-room skills. Just like I substitute food for God when I’m eating compulsively. The hit from food doesn’t last very long. It’s a poor and short buzz. Gossip is little better. I want to know more and more, and I like the surge of power that comes from sharing it with furtive declarations such as “This has to stay between us….” But anything that gives me that surge is suspect. It’s always my self-centeredness trying to wrest control of me from my spiritually awakened self.

There can be a fine line between gathering necessary information and gossiping. Anyone who has worked in middle management knows that when you are trusted with the care of others’ professional lives, it’s important to know what changes may be coming or what tensions exist between departments. The question is how to know the difference between necessary discussion and gossip.

It seems that, for the most part, my intuition signals me. When I’m about to cross the line from legitimate water cooler talk to gossip, I tend to get a strong gut-level indication. A wincing of my conscience, perhaps. Sometimes I listen to that signal, sometimes I don’t. When I do, I feel freer. As I write, I realize that the best way to handle these situations is to enter them with God. If I ask for help and guidance before beginning to speak with someone, I stand a better chance of listening to that intuitive thought. If I listen to that thought, there’s no doubt I’ll have a better day.

In the end, the biggest of the big pictures is that God will help me no matter what the outcome of any situation. I can count on that, so the need to control doesn’t exist. Literally does not exist. It only seems real, but it’s a figment of my addict mind’s imagination. Just like the magical powers I give to food when I eat compulsively.