Patience is gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I offer myself to Thee

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

Relieve me of the bondage of self

That I may better do Thy will

and take away my difficulties

that victory over them

may bear witness to those I would help

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

May I do Thy will always.

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

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

Are our feelings killing us?

Feelings are…complicated. On one hand, they help us relate to the world and to others. On the other hand, as OA members we are emotional eaters. On one hand, we can’t undo our feelings or ignore them. On the other hand, we often hear in meetings that “feelings aren’t facts.” So what are we supposed to do with all this contradictory information?

For one thing, what are feelings and emotions? Ultimately, they are responses to stimuli whether internal or external. They can be subtle social cues, and they can be knee-bucklingly powerful. They arise naturally from our bodies and minds. Our many shades of emotion help differentiate us from all other animals, and they provide the basis for art, music, and literature, as well as the drive to compete and excel in sports or business.

The trouble for people like us isn’t that we have emotions, or that they are strong emotions. It’s that our conscious minds don’t know how to deal with them. As emotional eaters, we’ve always responded to feelings with food. Our first thought is to take the edge off a feeling. That’s why we hear phrases such as “Happy, mad, sad, glad” and “Hungry, angry, lonely, tired” during meetings. Those are all states of mind in which we eat. Either we don’t want to feel powerful negativity, or we don’t want to get too happy and have our bubble burst when the other foot comes down on it. Either we resent others for treating us unfairly, or we feel rotten for treating others unfairly. And we just can’t let any emotion linger because they are too powerful for us.

Things get even more complicated by the disease of addiction. Our addiction takes over our brain, and it uses our own minds to lie to us and poison us. We discover through our Fourth-Step inventory that we have been amazingly dishonest, even if we didn’t realize it. Our illness warped our thinking so that we saw slights or provocations all over the place. We saw danger and despair everywhere. Over time, this led us down deep wells of self-pity. It was all too much, so we had to numb out rather than face our feelings with maturity.

This is why “Our Invitation to You” describes OA as helping us with “acting on life rather than reacting to it.” If the issue isn’t that we have feelings but rather that our mind magnifies them and drives us to soothe them with inappropriately, then the problem is with our thinking. We need new ways to understand and respond to our feelings.

Luckily, that’s exactly what the 12 Steps are for!

When we do our moral inventory, we discover exactly how our brains turned our thinking against us—its modus operandi. Many of us, for example, will find out that we take personally things that were never meant for us. Another common lie our diseased brains tell us is that we can read someone else’s thoughts, and, not so shockingly, those thoughts are bad. Another is that we aren’t good enough. This lie allows us to interpret any behavior, words, or events as titled against us. Yet another lie is that bad things that happened before will happen to us again. Still another is that exerting control over a situation will help us feel better. And, of course, the big whopper: We can’t possibly live through these feelings, so we must take the edge off with food.

We find out through the steps that we are, indeed, powerless over our feelings coming up, but that we are not powerless over our response to them. When we develop a relationship with a Higher Power, we have the one resource we’ve never had: courage. We need a lot of this courage stuff. We’ve lived in fear of our feelings, of the past, of pain for all our lives. Left to our own devices, we would continue running scared to the food. But with a Higher Power to lean on, we can face our fears. We know that we can call upon God, whatever that means to us, for the strength and support we’ve never mustered on our own. We can get through our most difficult feelings with dignity and grace. We can feel some pain while we discover that it will not kill us.

The 12 Steps show us that when we give our feelings power over us, we end up in the murky depths of self-pity, a place where no human being can help us. Feelings in this way have the power to kill us. They can lead us to never-ever land, where we’ll die the death of compulsive eating, chained to the food with links of iron forged in the black furnace of self-centeredness. Sounds great, huh? But when we embrace the 12 Steps, we are shown a way out of this deadly place, a path toward the sunshine of the spirit, and a freedom from the obsession with food.

We are not what our feelings say we are. We are not doomed by them. In fact, we will ultimately use them to help others gain freedom from compulsive eating. But we can’t do that until we ourselves are free. And to do that, we must first do the 12 Steps.