Posted by: innerpilgrimage | August 26, 2010

Anorexia and Bulimia and Overeaters Anonymous

      I have been given a HP-moment on service I can do, and I think I’m going to try. After all, we who are eating disordered are sisters and brothers in a very real illness.

      I was listening to the second hour of the Diane Rehm show this morning, and although I didn’t catch all of it, I am definitely going to listen to the whole podcast. Today’s second hour was entitled: New Treatments for Eating Disorders. What I heard dealt with therapeutic and inpatient recovery modalities for anorexics, and I was particularly interested in one interesting fact–anorexics, when tested, have genetic predispositions to become eating disordered.
      I, personally, would love to see addicts from many different 12-Step programs take that genetic test. I would bet nearly all of us would have that same genetic disorder, if not one that’s similar. What I would expect to see would be, however, a connection within certain 12-Step groups at least.

Anorexics and Bulimics in Overeaters Anonymous

      I sometimes wonder if the name, itself, is off-putting for the desperate anorexic and bulimics who want to enter the rooms but feel it cannot be for them. And I can see why–meetings and literature tend to focus on those of us who wear our addiction in excess weight. But . . . the literature does address anorexia and bulimia as well. Few groups, however, seem to stock it.
      Despite the belief that OA is only for the people who overeat (particularly because it’s in the name), OA is for anyone who compulsively eats. To me and many others, compulsive eating can be defined, then as having a dysfunctional relationship with food–however it is expressed. Even the OA World Service addresses it, and the book of stories from addicts entitled Overeaters Anonymous has experiential stories about anorexia and bulimia. While not as strongly represented as the overeaters who come in to meeting, OA recognizes anorexics and bulimics share the base addiction of self-controlling food intake to the point life becomes unmanageable. While an overeater (and bulimics in the binge cycle) will seek self-control by overeating food as a drug to alter their personal perception of reality by repeating the coping mechanism, anorexics (and bulimics in the purge cycle) seek self-control by denying themselves food as that same drug. The addiction is to the mind-alteration, not the food.
      To paraphrase Dr. Patrick Carnes in his book, Sexual Anorexia, we create solutions that don’t relieve us of the addiction. Instead, we find ourselves deeper in the obsession as we “do what we know”. Changing this mentality is hard, since at one point we perceived it worked by changing the uncomfortable situation. To repeat that behavior which keeps us trapped in a cycle of self-loathing and shame and terror is the insanity we seek to have relieved by a Higher Power in Step Three.
      In other words, OA is an option for anorexics and bulimics, despite having Overeater in our name.

The HP-Driven Service

      In my SLAA group, we have one week per month which concentrates on the sexual/love anorexics. Why not OA? If you look at the two addictions, they are about learning to take a basic human need that should not be denied. Like sex, food is part of human existence, and we have to relearn a healthy relationship with it.
      This is where my footwork begins. I first need to do some research into what materials OA has for anorexics and bulimics. Then I need to ask for a group-conscience vote from the meetings I am involved in to consider making one meeting per month focused on anorexia. If they agree, we can add that to the world service meeting description list and the local intergroup list. Finally, I need to bring up in intergroup that perhaps having a weekly meeting started which is focused on anorexia and another focused on bulimia. This means I also have to query recovered anorexics and bulimics who attend meetings if they are willing to lead those meetings, since I am a compulsive overeater and am not really in a position to lead a meeting for anorexics. I also would have to contact the WSO and request that I am allowed to change the 12 Step wording for those meetings to address those particular eating disorders. That said, I am willing to lead anorexic and bulimic meetings until I can find someone to lead.
      It is a big job. A very big job. However, as an anorexic in my other program, I know the despair of not having enough Conference-approved literature out there.
      Until then, however, I encourage anorexics and bulimics to keep coming back to the meetings they do attend. We are all suffering the same base illness–using our eating disorder to maintain the addictive obsession and the altered state of mind.

The Literature Which is Available

      OA does have literature available for people whose lives have become unmanageable because of anorexia and bulimia.
      The Focus on Anorexia and Bulimia Packet is something we had at one of our meetings until we had an anorexic who needed it. It’s clear we need a group copy. Also, the pamphlet, To the Teen, addresses all three manifestations of the disease.
      The book, Overeaters Anonymous has stories about anorexics and bulimics. “Compulsive Like Me” and “A Hunger for Life” are shares by bulimics; “Thin Is Not Healthy” is a share by an anorexic. These are from the first edition, by the way. The expanded second edition may better represent the needs of the bulimic and anorexic.
      The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous (The OA 12&12) does address anorexia and bulimia as part of the food addiction spectrum, but it’s pretty delicate when it addresses it.
      Stories from Seeking the Spiritual Path written by bulimics include “The Miracle of Belief” and “A Spiritual Choice”. Most of the shares don’t address the writer’s addiction directly, since they are about the recovery that comes from the 12 Steps more than the agony of the addiction and how it was relieved by a 12-Step program.
      One would have to contact OA to see if they have any Lifeline back issues focused on Anorexia and Bulimia. However, the Lifeline Sampler does have one story by an anorexic: “Keep Loving Me.”
      The main OA website also addresses anorexia and bulimia, especially for the newcomer. On the web page About OA, the second section (“Who Belongs to OA?) addresses symptoms of the eating disordered who may find relief in a 12 Step program. There is a question in the FAQ section, and it points to the packet I mentioned above and the website I just mentioned above. The Recovery Story entitled “New Way of Living Brings Joy” is written by a bulimic who found recovery.

An Option, but Not the Only Option

      I want to reiterate that OA is an option for the eating disordered. It is not the only solution. I, personally, believe that if an addiction has a spiritual cause (ie. the addiction is used to try to fill a desire to find meaning and purpose in one’s life and/or to mask the disappointment that one cannot find that meaning and purpose), then a 12-Step program may be the solution. I also believe for people who live the extreme of the addiction, medical intervention is necessary in order to keep that person from dying before they get a chance to walk in the door. Many treatment modalities exist, and many people find recovery without the 12 Steps. But OA is an option to at least look into.

The Courage to Change The Things We Can

      To the anorexics and bulimics who struggle with the underrepresentation of their addiction within OA, take heart. With dedicated footwork, the needs of bulimics and anorexics in the program can change–and it is changing. But if anorexics and bulimics want it to change faster, then get in the game and commit to serving those who are yet to walk in the door. Make yourself available as an anorexic or bulimic food or step sponsor–even if it’s just as an interim sponsor. Represent anorexic and bulimic members in meetings, in intergroup, in regional groups, and at the WSO. Write to OA through the website, asking for more literature focused on Anorexia and Bulimia. Write your experiences to Lifeline en masse, so more issues of Lifeline deal with the whole spectrum of eating disordered. Ask your meetings to address anorexia and bulimia once per month; consider starting an OA group with a focus toward anorexia and bulimia. Open the door wide for others who worry that OA is only for binge eaters. Write literature based on your particular facet of the addiction and go through the process of having it approved through the WSO. As a binge overeater and sometime anorexic (my food plan ended up getting a baseline because I ate less than 800 calories per day for a while, in OA) and stress-bulimic (I have learned in the last 5 years how to put myself under so much stress that I can sometimes purge because of it), I am deeply aware of how all three aspects of the eating-disordered mind can manifest in one food-related addiction.
      When Rozanne S. started OA, she attended another 12-Step program until she decided that compulsive eating needed its own 12-Step program. Before her, other addicts had to do the same thing. And before them, two men branched out from the Oxford Group to create a new path to recovery. In 1936, Bill W. and Dr. Bob attended the first A.A. meeting; three years later, the Big Book was published and the future of people suffering from addiction changed forever.

      My name is Jess, and I am a food addict and love addict, anorexic. I know what it’s like to suffer from something that has nearly no foundation within a program. It’s hard to be socially and emotionally anorexic in SLAA, but I take heart that I am among those who are creating a future for sex and love anorexics who follow me into the program.



  1. This is a very interesting article. I think that it is also important for anyone going through an eating disorder not to see themselves as a victim. There are some very effective techniqes, a major factor is nutritional rehabilitation to correct the physiological impbalances caused by under or overeating, that can empower us to take control.

  2. Thank you, Rebecca.

    I do consider that this is a disease, but it is one which can be managed with recovery, including the process you described. Depending on the source of the eating disorder, different programs have different success–which is why I consider OA an option, though not the only one.

  3. I’ve been afraid as an anorexic with purging tendencies (I do not binge) that I would struggle to relate to an OA meeting, particularly being around obese individuals. Talking about overeating can be triggering to me, as one of my irrational fears is losing control over my eating and thus becoming unable to stop and fat.

    I’ve had good luck with ABA (anorexics and bulimics anonymous) and especially EDA (eating disorders anonymous). EDA also welcomes binge eaters and overeaters as it encourages moderation, rather than rigidity, in food, weight, and body image. Unfortunately there are very few in person ABA or EDA meetings near me. Phone meetings are helpful, but in person would make a huge difference.

    Thanks for talking about this. If OA were to adapt more to accept other eating disorders, I think those of us who are not overeaters would be more willing to give it a shot.

  4. There are two 12 step fellowships that directly address anorexia and bulimia: and I went to Oa for years until my ED began to manifest in different ways and these helped a lot…

  5. Hi. I am an A/B/OA type. Will you sponsor me if you have time?


    • Yikes . . . well, I’m in relapse right now, but I hope that folks who aren’t take a look and volunteer.

      It’s hard to get a sponsor. I totally empathize with your frustration. I really do.

  6. I have been asked to sponsor anorexics and it worries me that I might not give them what they need. I suppose they need medical and nutritional help but I don’t think I fully understand the fear of food and distorted body image that they have. I’d like there to be special sponsors for them who share their own ESH. Thanks for a positive, reflective article and best wishes for your recovery.

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