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.

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.