Posted by: innerpilgrimage | July 30, 2010

What is Overeaters Anonymous and Why Consider a 12-Step Program?

      I have a day of volunteering planned, so I have to make this entry quick. I hope.

      Yesterday, I visited a site an author set up about her own book on normal eating. I read her scathing review of Overeaters Anonymous as a program here, and did not understand why she would attack it. I admit humbly and honestly that I had only read that part about OA and commented based on it with my own experiences.
      When I returned later, I realized OA had been bunched together with other programs in a subsection about diet clubs. It triggered an SLAA reaction–a sense of betrayal leading to grandiosity and an “I am better than her!” attitude. I recognized it immediately (Hooray for awareness!) and was able to move forward with the lesson.
      First of all, she is selling a book and eating program (which does borrow heavily from OA). Why she had to knock down other programs? No idea. I accept that her program works for others. That is good it is an option. Unfortunately, I also felt that she missed the whole point of Overeaters Anonymous as a program.
      Second, I realized in some reviews of her program, which I do believe works for some like OA works for me and many others, that people were thinking OA is some kind of weight-loss program. In “Our Invitation to You”, read at both of the meetings I regularly attend (and the meetings that I have attended in other places so far), it is made crystal clear that OA is not a place to come for a diet. We have a slogan that a lot of people use: “I came for the vanity and stayed for the sanity.”
      What does that even mean? It means, as “Our Invitation to You” continues, that this is a spiritual program which works on the source of the internal strife which causes the eating disorder. We work the same 12 Steps as Alcoholics Anonymous (with the word “alcohol” being changed to “compulsive overeating” . . . something I think the World Conference is considering changing to compulsive eating to be more inclusive toward anorexics and bulimics). This means that a portion of OAers aren’t really losing weight as much as working toward finding alternatives to binge eating or restricting eating when faced with life’s challenges.
      Third, the book cover she chose was the stories of overeaters, not the actual OA 12&12. In my social/emotional anorexic mind, I dismissed her completely as ignorant. Had she done real research on the program, I reasoned, she would have known that and chosen a more appropriate book than the one which happens to have the program name on the cover. Then I finished with the compulsive superiority that, well, she was ignorant and not worthy of my time. (Yes, it’s a compulsive overreaction, but I wouldn’t be in OA and SLAA if I wasn’t compulsive!). That’s when I began to recognize that my adverse and bitter emotional reaction wasn’t about her but about me and my experience and my addictions.
      Well, she chose that one because it had the program name on the cover. And she’s selling her program, “competing” with Overeaters Anonymous. This brings up two truths I have found over my time in OA:

(1) Overeaters Anonymous works quite well in concert with other programs and therapies. A person could belong to a nationally-recognized diet program, could be getting one-on-one therapy, could be getting group-led therapy, or even could be working her own program and still work Overeaters Anonymous.

(2) Sales tactics trigger me. The minute anyone starts with sales patter, I shut down and become completely unresponsive to them as a human being. Why would I shut down? Because I see aggressive sales tactics as a betrayal and a manipulation. A person draws me in, and I become interested in them as a human being. I enjoy learning about them. It feels like a person who is interested in becoming a potential friend.
      Once they recognize they have my attention, out comes the sales banter. I shut down because I feel betrayed that the person used whatever they could to “hook” me into listening then bait-and-switches a potential friendship with a manipulation to make money. They don’t care who I am, only what I have in my bank account that can advance their careers. Now, I will help friends. Hell, I help people in need in my community–why wouldn’t I help friends! But when it comes down to creating the illusion of connection then using that pseudo-intimacy to sell me crap? I react.
      My reaction goes either of two ways or expresses a combination of both. I shut down or I ridicule. Or I do both. Not very mature, I know. Definitely not part of the sanity and serenity from working a strong program. I admit it entirely, and that self-righteous acting out only slides me backward in my recovery.
      Okay, so now I’ve admitted a character defect that I am going to address in SLAA. I can be polite and not take it as a betrayal. After all, this person is trying to make a living so s/he can eat and have a home. This isn’t personal, and part of recovery is learning to treat it precisely as it is–career-building through tested means.

      So what about OA, then?

      Well, Overeaters Anonymous is a group of people who are working one day at a time to overcome a very real addiction. The choice of using control of eating is merely a symptom of a deeper issue, and OA recognizes this. That’s why it doesn’t work for some people; that’s why we say it’s a spiritual program, as evidenced by the 12 Steps.
      In OA, it’s not about the food plan, despite the food plan being a major part of it. That food plan has a very important purpose, to move the obsession with food aside so a person can work on finding purpose outside of food and changing broken mental messages. The threefold recovery–mental, physical, and spiritual–works in concert with itself. The physical recovery, or abstinence, is the active daily removal of they symptoms. It’s like the medication one takes to manage the symptoms of a mental illness. It is not a cure-all, but it helps to get the destructive symptoms out of the way to do the real work of understanding what’s really going on. The mental recovery comes from both the spiritual pursuit of real purpose and meaning and the active daily removal of the food obsession (by pretty-much fencing the eating into its own place). Food-as-a-numbing-drug is no longer pervasive throughout one’s life. Once the withdrawal sets in, that detoxification brings clarity. Clarity brings the mental awareness of how damaging the addiction is, what foods are the primary drugs of choice (which we learn to avoid to maintain that clarity), and what habit changes will make our lives easier–especially recognizing that we need spiritual solutions to spiritual problems.
      The spiritual is the core of the program, as I stated before. This does not mean a person has to go out and join an organized religion to get recovery. It may start out as an external source, but that makes sense to start with an external source. Changes to that relationship do occur naturally when one works a strong 12-Step program.
      What I found bothersome was that the author criticized both the use of the external source and the “denial” as parts of the OA program which don’t work. Well, if a person is seeking to lose weight, denial of excess food is part of any program. And as one works the 12-Step program, I have seen people move toward a sense of pervasiveness of their Higher Power. This once-external all-powerful entity we release the addiction to becomes part of our internal workings. That void we once tried to fill with food is not a void any more as we fill it with meaning and purpose outside of food. It becomes our inner willpower because we gain a sense that we can access a willpower which extends farther than the confines of our physical selves. We can tap the resource of unending willpower and it becomes ours.
      Surrender, then, is not kow-towing to God and assuming God will do it all for us. Actually, we are asked to do something called “footwork”, the actions an individual takes to make things happen in their lives. With a strong belief that there is an unending source of willpower, love, sanity, and strength, an OA member proceeds to let go of the boundaries of the physical self and can release the ego’s desire to micromanage the lives of the member and the lives of others around them. Accepting that one can only make changes within one’s self is a huge realization. It’s part of the Serenity Prayer to learn to accept that we are not God and we cannot control anything beyond the borders of our personal selves. But that internal change in attitude because of working the spiritual program, often imperceptible to the OA member yet starkly visible to others, occurs. Positive things enter one’s life because one begins living with hope, serenity, and sanity on a daily basis. Sure, the ego drops in to wrest control sometimes. That’s just part of life as an addict. But accepting that we are part of something more (as opposed to trying to fight to control the Universe and the people and situations within it) can drive real recovery.

      For me, surrender to my Higher Power takes the form of personal intuition. You know, those gut-pulls to do something or be somewhere or avoid something or avoid being somewhere? Well, it comes from inside, whether or not I call it my Higher Power. When I am of an addictive mindset, my head is clogged with my own self-aggrandizement and frustration that other people cannot be controlled by me and exhaustion even trying to do it. How can I slow down and observe and act on the spiritual equivalent of a quiet inner voice if I’ve got the mental equivalent of jackhammers and sirens and screaming people getting in the way? To clear it away, I close the windows to those mental distractions and start listening for that spiritual guidance from within myself.
      For example, last night I had a draw to go to the red-bullseye department store. I HAD to be there. It turned out that the cereal my family ate was on a really good sale. No, it was not a life-altering, but it rarely is. I consider those little moments practice for being open to that intuitive self when it will be life-altering. I will need that inner voice unobstructed by my self-serving ego some day. And like learning how to eat a “normal” amount of calories and learning what a “normal” amount of food is through daily practice, I know that daily practice of listening to my intuition will serve me when I hit a trigger–like dealing with the betrayal I feel when salespeople manipulate me by creating pseudo-intimacy. Having the intuition and a stable, practiced plan of “normal” reaction will allow me to act on events that would potentially send me into inpatient therapy if I had to face them outside of recovery.

      So, OA is a fellowship of people who recognize that it’s not the food that’s the problem. We recognize that something far more sinister is lurking beneath the inability to respect our hunger, our bodies, our nutritional needs as human beings. OA helps people who recognize that void inside isn’t getting filled. In essence, OA helps people who realize this problem is bigger than one’s self, that our personal willpower alone doesn’t cut it, that something is so broken that one is trapped in a hopeless life.
      If a person feels they have no more options because they’ve tried every reasonable means to manage this yet cannot get a hold of this whole food thing . . . OA is an option. If a person is afraid and has a gnawing feeling that surgery won’t truly fix the core problem . . . OA is an option. If a person considers gaining weight so that they can turn to an external source to solve their weight problem for them (like I was considering gaining a hundred pounds hoping to be accepted on a weight-loss reality television show) . . . OA is definitely an option.

      Not the only solution. An option.

      My name is Jess and I am a food addict and social/emotional anorexic and intrigue addict (Yup. I am a drama junkie, whose drama fix, which–like food did one time–exhausts me). I am seeing headway in both my programs, and this is VERY good news!
      And despite my emotional reaction to the sense of betrayal by that author (who I assumed wanted to help people, not knock down OA and other programs in order to make hers look better), I am going to look for that book. See, OA can integrate her program because my Higher Power (or internal intuition guided by the coincidences set up by the Universe–of which I am a part of) speaks to me through the most unlikely of sources. If I close myself off to the potential message in that woman’s “Normal Eating” program, I may miss something vital to my own recovery in OA and/or SLAA.

      And THAT is why OA works for me.



  1. I have been in over eaters anonymous for 12 years. For the last year or so I have gotten full recovery. My definition for recovery is that I can do what my doctor told me to .my doctor said I needed to eat 30 grams of fat per day. I never could do that before. Tee recovery did not come from OA. The recovery came from the Same recovery program that bill Wilson found and learned from

    • Congratulations on a year of food abstinence! I love that the way you define your abstinence, because it is a fantastic example of how understanding how food compulsion affects us personally helps each of us develop a food plan that fits us as individuals. Abstinence is personal; the 12 step program is how we grow spiritually as a fellowship and learn to live outside of the ravages of addiction.

      Abstinence, in my mind, is how we get the clarity to work the 12 Step program, and your example of abstinence is inspired. Thank you, Allen.

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