Step of the Month: Once You Know…

There’s a 12-Step slogan that takes on a variety of wordings, but boils down to “Once you know, there’s no not knowing no more, don’t you know.” Usually, it’s an alternative to the also popular, “OA ruins your eating.”

Once we learn the truth about compulsive eating, we cannot unlearn it. Forever more, every time we take a compulsive bite, we will know exactly what we are doing. We will know that we are activating the physical craving and the mental obsession as well as dooming ourselves to food hell.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for us because in Step Four, we come face to face with the rest of our compulsive self. Many of us discover that our coping skills consist of eating and a motley assortment of esteem-squashing other behaviors that we didn’t realize we used to medicate ourselves.

Gossipping is a prime example. We may have used gossip to reduce our anxiety about a situation. We think that if we control certain information, then we control a situation. We can’t be blindsided. So we gather intelligence. We reconnoiter. We gather up every scrap of intelligence we can from our carefully developed network so that we can’t be ambushed.

We might also use gossiping to feel better about ourselves. If our allies see the predicament the way we do, we are validated in our righteous anger or our victimhood. We can get an outside of assessment of how good or bad we are in comparison to others.

And we can run our enemies down so that we feel superior.

We prescribe ourselves a cocktail of food and gossip when we feel insecure in our position in a situation. We might add some other off-label meds as well, for example self-pity, complaint, binge-watching television, people-pleasing, isolating. Bring ’em all to our pot-luck pity party!

When we get to Step Four, we have a lot of untangling to do. We think food is the big, hairy monster, when, in reality, the monster is inside our mind. Food is but a symptom, and so are all the other behaviors that we lean on. But until we write out our inventory and see how it has affected both ourselves and those around us, we don’t even realize how badly the disease has us.

Our addiction-addled brains will do anything to take the edge off of. Our disease has grown tentacles that weave themselves into our neurons. We can no longer tell where our personality begins and the addiction ends. All we can think about is how we will relieve our pain and anxiety, and so we use food and any other behaviors we have at our disposal to feel a little better. A little more in control or a little more numbed.

In Step Four we must see these other behaviors in black and white. And not just once. We’ll see them again and again, if we do an honest and thorough job. In fact, the repetition of these defective behaviors is part of the magic of doing inventory.

First, we have to know what behaviors are killing us spiritually so we can avoid them. Second, many addicts tend to cling stubbornly to their defects of character, so if we don’t seem them numerous times, we may gloss over them. Third, until we understand the hurt we cause to ourselves and others by practicing those behaviors, we may not feel much impetus to ask our Higher Power to remove them.

So we do our inventory, discover the damaged and damaging goods in our stores, and we  ask for their removal. And then we practice living without them. They may well come back. Our disease is cunning and never cured. It will try to loose our grip on God’s hand by whatever means it can, and that may mean a slow, nearly imperceptible slide back into some secondary behaviors like gossip.

But once we know we can’t not know. We remain vigilant. We ask others for feedback. We listen to the voice in our gut that tells us to avoid doing what we used to do. Most important, if we find ourselves resuming those old behaviors, we must stop them or ask for help in stopping them. They are a pathway to the first bite.

Step of the Month: 10 Suggestions for Completing Our Inventory

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Oftentimes when members contemplate Step 4, the moral inventory, they think Uh-oh. Who wants to face the past? We’ve been eating compulsively to forget it. Who wants to know the bad stuff about themselves? We’ve been eating compulsively to forget that too. Who wants to stare down their fears? We’ve also been eating compulsively to forget them. But compulsive eating never solves the problem. It’s only delaying the inevitable confrontation with ourselves or hastening our demise so we won’t ever have to look ourselves in the eyes.

Are we really that awful? We’re not, but we may not be able to understand that until we actually write our inventory. So for those wary of the inventory or approaching it in their step work, here are several suggestions for completing Step 4 that we hear frequently from those that have worked through it.

  1. It’s not as scary as we thought. In fact, for many of us, we realized that we’d built it up into some kind of monster, yet it turns out to be very gentle.
  2. Just get going. If we wait until we’re ready, we may never start at all. Our window of willingness is only open for so long before we’re again drowning in self-pity and sugar-coated sugar bombs (or whatever our favorite kind of binge foods are).
  3. Write every day. Look, if we’re going to do this thing, let’s get it the heck done! Why delay receiving the gifts of recovery! Even if we only write one page or one entry on a given day, it’s better than nothing at all.
  4. Use a timer. Commit to a certain amount of time each day, and use a kitchen timer to ensure to reach that goal. Because otherwise, our sickened minds will tell us that five minutes is thirty minutes.
  5. Say the Third Step Prayer every time you write. If we’re writing our inventory, then we ought to have completed Step 3. The prayer associated with it (on page 63 of The Big Book) is, in essence, a contract with God. If our HP helps us recover, then we’ll pass it on and be of service to others. It’s helpful to be reminded of that goal while we write. We’re not there to recover so that we can merely feel better. We’re writing inventory so that by our surviving this disease, we can be a beacon to others with our affliction. By helping them, we further insure ourselves against recidivism. So we say the prayer to remember Who’s in charge, and how the program will transform selfish us.
  6. Let God do the writing. By saying the Third Step Prayer, we’re acknowledging that HP is in charge. So then, as we write, we can take care to listen for God’s voice. We may think we know all about ourselves, but in reality, much is buried deep inside us, and we need more power than we have to dig it all out. When we let God push our pen and run the show, we are assured of success.
  7. Perfect is the enemy of recovery. Seeking perfection is self-centeredness running amok, and the Steps are helping to deflate that very kind of attitude. Instead of asking if it’s a perfect job of inventorying, we trust that God will help us see what we need to see. Getting stuck in perfection is a great way to just get stuck.
  8. Use visual aids. The Big Book tells us to be fearless and thorough. So as we make our grudge list, before we declare it done, we might consult yearbooks, photographs, directories, old address books, Facebook, any place where we might get a visual reminder of someone we resent. If we feel anger toward a person, or if we feel some gnawing but unnamable feeling, it’s worth adding them to the list.
  9. Lean on a sponsor. To write an inventory, we must be sure our sponsor has written one, and talk to them frequently about it. We check in with them often, showing them our writing. We can’t be too careful because our minds love to sabotage our efforts to get better. A sponsor can gently show us where our brains are trying to take over and BS us.
  10. The BIG SECRET is that we’re not so bad after all. Yup, if we do this inventory well, trusting God along the way, and working closely with our sponsor, we’re going to discover that while we may have done some bad things, we are not bad people. In fact, we’re good people who have been stuck in a rut thanks to a disease that controls our minds and actions. We see how we’ve been trapped and now we start to see the path ahead of us. A path that’s cleared of choking debris and that leads in  purposeful direction. All those defects of character and experiences we’d rather forget are about to be turned into assets by which we will help others and lead a happy, joyous, and free life.

GET WRITING! KEEP WRITING! FIND FREEDOM!

THE Cause versus Because

Here’s an obvious statement: We OA members eat over our feelings. Our program literature tells us that the cycle of addictive behavior begins with a thought. We are activated before the first bite. A primary emotional trigger for addicts of any stripe is resentment.

The Big Book describes resentment as “the number one offender.” We eat because we are pissed off at the world, at people, at situations. When Bill Wilson and company put together the Big Book in the 1930s, they very carefully selected their words. They knew that the addicted brain manipulates us by turning our feelings into powerful language. So when they wrote down how they inventoried resentment, they used precise language that doesn’t give our brains wiggle room to make excuses.

Look at page 65 in the fourth edition of the Big Book. It lays out the first three columns of resentment inventory (the fourth column, or “turnaround” appears in the middle of page 67). The first column is headed “I’m Resentful At.” The second: “The Cause.” Notice they didn’t say “BEcause” but rather “The Cause.” There’s a world of difference.

Our addict minds are like little lawyers, always seeking to parse language in ways that justify or excuse our behaviors and let us keep eating. Among trial lawyers, there’s a well-known axiom about questioning a witness. Never ask why [unless you’ve personally coached the witness’ answer]. Lawyers frequently ask leading questions that begin with WhatWhoWhen, Where, or How. These are all closed-ended questions with a single answer: “I saw Joe”; “I was cleaning the barn”; “8:19 PM”; “He opened the door with a lock pick.” But why is open-ended. It allows a witness to pontificate and deflect blame elsewhere. It allows opinion to enter the record. It may also give a witness license to build sympathy when sympathy is the opposite of what you want to elicit.

In a similar way, “because” is a weasel word for us addicts. We use it as a way to keep on destroying ourselves with food. Why do we eat? Because blah blah blah. If someone asked us why we were burnt up, we’d give them a litany of because statements. Insidiously, what because” does is shift the blame to someone else.

Because Mom said I was fat, I am resentful.

This is far different from the language the Big Book recommends in that second column: “THE Cause.” To get grammatical for a second, “the” is the definite article. It indicates singularity or specificity. It reduces confusion and ambiguity. To use it in a sentence related to resent would sound like these examples

The cause of my resentment is Mom’s saying I was fat.

 

We can see that when we use “the cause” instead of “because” we turn a statement of blame into a statement of fact.

Here’s a big difference between these two ways of talking about resentment. “Because” creates slippery slopes. We’ve all heard someone talk about how their mind will create a chain of because statements that leads to eating:

Because Mom said I was fat, I must not be good enough. Because I’m not good enough, I feel pain. Because I feel pain, I need to get rid of it, so I eat.

The struck out text is a reminder of how over time our brains skip over the “reasoning” and go straight to the food. But “THE cause” doesn’t easily lead to that slippery slope.

Mom said I was fat, so I must not be good enough….

Here we can see that when we put “because” ahead of Mom, she bears the blame for our believing her. If we put “because” instead of “so” it wouldn’t even make sense. When we put “so” in front of “I,” we start to see that we are taking someone else’s words and turning them into a reason to eat. Why should we believe that we are not good enough just because Mom says we are fat? Unless we, of course, we, ourselves, are complicit in that belief?

We don’t have to be linguists for OA to work. But the folks who wrote the Big Book used “The Cause” instead of “Because” because they knew from personal experience that blaming the rest of the world for their drinking predicament didn’t work. We have to own our part of things. We’re the ones holding onto the hurts, big or tiny. We’re the ones eating ourselves to an early grave. After all, it’s our inventory, and no one else’s.

Step of the Month: Step 4

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Perhaps nothing in OA’s program of action inspires more dread than writing a fourth step inventory. We’ve been eating over all the hurts we’ve accumulated, trying to avoid them. Now OA tells us that we have to allow them out of the cage inside that barely keeps them under control.

Well, we’re fooling ourselves, of course. We don’t control our fears, resentments, bad memories, and feelings. They control us! Truth is that until we look at them, all of them, they own us. Every time we feel any kind of feeling, we are driven back to the food because every feeling we have reminds us of the ones we are covering up with food. Yes, even happy feelings, because they remind us of how awful we generally feel.

When we write an honest and thorough inventory of ourselves, however, we discover that we have not been victims of others so much as victims of our own thinking. Our disease has taken control of our thoughts and used them as a weapon against our better judgment. We see through an inventory that we are human beings being human with all the same flaws that everyone else has. That we take personally what is not ours to take. That we have little ability to distinguish feelings from facts. That we have precious little accuracy in our self-reflections…if we’ve bothered to be self-reflective.

In some cases, we learn that we have been victimized by someone at one time, but that, even though it is not our fault, we have to claim what’s ours: we carried around that victim mentality for years; we are the ones replaying the past over and over again and using it as a reason to eat.

Anyone who has done a thorough fourth step will tell you a few things:

  1. It is simple, but not easy
  2. It is life changing
  3. It us utterly necessary for recovery.

The third point is the one that we must all pay attention to in OA. If we don’t do the work, we will not get the results our program promises. It’s like staring at the aspirin bottle in hopes a headache will go away. We’ve got to take our medicine. Hanging around in meetings and waiting for the “right” time to do an inventory just prolongs our agony. It gives our disease time to reassert itself inside our minds. Our window of willingness is only open for so long.

We may be afraid of digging too deep, of reliving past episodes we’d rather forget, and of seeing the worst of ourselves. But we aren’t writing to be published in The New York Times. Our inventory is ours and will only be shared with one other person (in our fifth step). We make it objective. We don’t lard every resentment with the whys and whatfors. We keep our writing concise so that our disease doesn’t have room to turn us toward excuse making. We only want to record those things that our illness uses against us. That way in Steps 6 and 7, we know exactly what it is we are asking God to remove from us.

The Big Book has very specific suggestions for structuring an inventory. They have proven over 80 years to be immensely powerful and helpful. There are other means as well. In the end, however, the most important things are honesty, fearlessness, and thoroughness.

Honesty: We must be wiling to be completely and utterly honest about our part in what we write about. No excuses, no stories, no bullshit.

Fearlessness: We must not shrink at writing about the most difficult aspects of our lives. For example, many, many survivors of physical, sexual, and mental abuse have written fourth steps about them and found the inventory transformative as a result.

Thoroughness: We must get it all out—everything that keeps our true selves at bay and allows our illness to run the show. If we hold onto something we may not recover. Like one rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel.

This is our course then. In Step 3, we’ve told our Higher Power that we’ll go to any length for recovery. Now we put pen to paper to start the process of getting rid of what separates us from God’s love. Then we’ll have it removed so we finally have the slate cleared and into the business of living a useful and productive life.

KEEP WRITING!

Step of the Month: Step 5

  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Imagine that you’ve decided to clean out your house. There’s too much stuff in there bogging you down, covering every surface, stuffing every closet. You’re constantly reminded by the clutter that it’s time to pare down. When you finally do it, you realize that you need to determine what stays and what goes, so you make a list as you sort through all the stuff.

Once the list is made, you need to get rid of everything that’s not useful, so you pick up the phone book and call for a dump truck. Then you ask a friend to come by and help you carry all the dreck out of your house. The driver arrives and backs up to the house, and you and your friend load the items you are throwing out into the truck, one by one. As you go, you carefully tick them off your list.

That’s exactly where we are in step five. Just prior, in step four, we made our list of the damaging attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, and situations that have gotten in our way. They have weighed us down, and every time we think about our lives, they are there to remind of us why we have sought comfort in food. But the trick is that making a list of our ugliest characteristics isn’t the same as getting rid of them. We need to expose them to the light of day where they lose their potency. We need to share them with another, understanding person who will see our humanity instead of judging us. We need to share them with God to demonstrate our continuing willingness to let go of what has blocked us from a relationship with our Higher Power.

Reading out our inventory to another person and God is how we load up the psychic dump truck so that our emotional and spiritual junk can be taken away from us.

* * *

The Big Book tells us that “a solitary self-appraisal seldom suffices.” We must reveal our darkest secrets and our tiniest missteps if we want to recover. Why? Because we have used food to bury our feelings alive. All the resentments, fears, and self-loathing remain inside of us, squirming to get out. If we leave even one or two behind, we will soon feel the need to beat them back with food once again.

Were that the only benefit of step 5—to expose our worst thinking to the disinfecting power of sunlight—we would be much better off than before we reached OA. Yet there is a further benefit from this step that pushes us onward. The OA Twelve and Twelve tell us “Through the fifth-step process, we begin to see reality.” Our damaged thinking begins to right itself:

All our striving to get ahead has been useless. We are neither above nor below the rest of the human race; we’re a part of it, shaped by the same basic needs and desires as all our fellows. Those of us who have belittled ourselves or felt we were worse than others also gain a new perspective. In talking honestly with another person about ourselves, we begin to feel a sense of relief. Someone knows all about us and still accepts us unconditionally. (47).

So we disinfect our insides, and we change our attitude about ourselves and others. And even that’s not all. We also learn, by watching our sponsor, how to listen. We will be grateful for that person’s help and support and will look forward to a time when we can sit in their chair, listening to another’s inventory with the same compassion and identification we were given. It is yet more motivation to continue through these steps and achieve the fullest extent of the spiritual awakening promised in step twelve.

Depending on how much we’ve written, reading our fifth step may take an hour, hours, days, even a month or more. No matter how long, this quiet, intimate, sometimes sad, and not infrequently hilarious process takes, the benefits can last a happy, joyous, and free lifetime.