One year ago today, I was “welcomed home” by walking into my first OA meeting.
A year later, I have learned a lot about myself and the program. The biggest thing I learned about the program is that I am really only starting out in it. This is relieving to me, because I assumed that I would be done with my 12 Steps by now, a “winner” who crossed a theoretical finish line. Sure, I knew there were no finish lines, since this is a lifelong journey, but I felt there should be one. As I near my first year of abstinence (HP-willing), I am finding that I consider finding the program, itself, more important than abstinence. I can lose abstinence and start over the next morning with lessons learned. If I left the program, I would be submitting to the addiction.
While maintaining my abstinence is a number one priority to me because it allows me to stay on the path of recovery, it has lost the despair associated with it. As long as I keep walking into meetings to share recovery with others who understand how devastating addiction is (even food, which is a basic human need), I can hold to hope. Setbacks are learning experiences, not defeats. That’s probably the number one lesson I’ve taken from this year in OA.
Infrequently Asked Questions
I’ve had a lot of questions answered over the year–many of which I brought with me into OA. Those first few weeks were a mix of hope, confusion, and frustration. I’d like to answer some questions that I’ve heard at meetings and some that I’ve learned over time.
What’s an OA meeting like?
The World Service Organization of Overeaters Anonymous has outlined “What You Can Expect from an OA Meeting” in its section for Newcomers to OA. Meetings can have many different formats–from Step Study (where the group attendees work through the 12 Steps together) to literature (where the group attendees read from an OA-approved book), to speaker meetings (where an invited speaker or a group member shares their personal OA story), to writing meetings (where time is taken to write on a particular subject then share). There are many types of meetings, and the only real way to learn about what kind of meeting fits is to attend a bunch of different-formatted meetings to find what resonates. The most important thing is to find a meeting that fits you–just like finding a food plan to fit one’s self.
I regularly attend two meetings. Both start with a meeting leader reading the meeting’s formatted opening–something that does not change. Both start with the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”) and continue with the OA Preamble then another meeting member reads Our Invitation to You. The 12 Steps are read. In one meeting I regularly attend, we read all 12 Traditions; in the other, we read the “Tradition of the Month”–which is the tradition which correlates with that particular month. For example, since it’s September, we read Tradition Nine, since September is the ninth month. In October, we will read Tradition Ten.
In my home group, we are a longtime chip meeting. That means we give out coins to honor members’ length of abstinence on their food plans. In the meeting I attend which is a chip meeting, we also adopted giving out AA recovery medallions monthly over the first year. I carry my most recent OA medallion and my current month medallion in my wallet. My second regular meeting has just adopted giving out OA chips, but it is not part of the leader’s readings (yet). Because the World Service is making changes to the program (including changing “compulsive overeating” to “compulsive eating” to be more inclusive to all eating-disordered people and adding a Ninth Tool to the Tools of Recovery), the meeting format readings will be changing some time in 2011.
Both of my regular meetings are literature meetings. In one, different attendees are asked to read an OA tool from the pamphlet “Tools of Recovery” then that day’s reading in For Today and Voices of Recovery. We share based on the reading, or sometimes we just “get current” (one talks about recent challenges and how the OA program has provided a solution already or gives us hope). No one has to share, though it is now common practice to let others know that we’re done by stating aloud that we’re passing the share. As a newcomer, if one does not want to share, it’s okay to either stay silent or state one’s name then pass.
In my other group, we are currently reading Alcoholics Anonymous, otherwise known as “The Big Book”. We usually read round-robin for a set period of time then open to sharing. However, this particular Big Book study has us reading a passage then sharing about the passage just after reading it. At a literature meeting, it’s okay to pass. Just state your name, state your addiction (or not, it’s okay just to use your name), and say, “Pass.” That’s all. No one has to read, and you don’t have to explain why you want to pass.
During sharing, there are a few no-no’s. When a person is sharing, we’re supposed to just listen supportively. It’s not a discussion–those are for just after the close meeting, if one has questions one wants answered by an experienced member. We also don’t mention foods directly, unless the meetings have a group conscience that it’s okay. Sometimes just mentioning the names of certain foods cause the desire to compulsively obsess about that food. In both of those groups, we are relaxed about it, though assume it’s inappropriate. I have certain trigger foods that I mention as “junk food” or I might mention a desire to compulsively eat everything in the snack foods aisle of a nearby store. Some people do talk about their food plans, and one of the most-used ones I’ve heard at meeting involves removing “white foods” altogether. White foods are generally considered as sugar and processed wheat flours. I have before mentioned foods by name early on, and I personally am not triggered by mention of others’ food triggers in general. Despite that, it is always a good idea not to get specific. Cakes, cookies, chips, and candies can simply be called “junk” or “snack food” if you want to talk about the trouble you have with them.
Either before or after sharing, there is a point when we do the Seventh Tradition, where a basket is passed around and one puts in a donation to keep the meeting open. Many meetings have literature at them, and newcomers are encouraged to buy literature instead of donate. So, at your first meeting, consider bringing about $20 in cash (and to each following meeting over the next month or so) to get a book or two. After the meeting, you can talk to the person who led the meeting about buying a book. They will either do it for you or direct you to the treasurer or literature chairperson so you can get change made. The first book you will want to get your hands on is The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous. That has the core information about recovery. The book, Overeaters Anonymous, is a collection of stories by OA members and is nice to own, but not necessary. You should not have to pay for your Newcomer Packet; it’s supposed to be a sunk cost of the meeting–like recovery coins and rent for the space. If you’re asked to pay for it, go ahead and say no. Just try a different meeting.
The meeting closes with a 12-Step prayer or “I Put My Hand in Yours” (a poem written by OA founder, Rozanne S. about 12-Step fellowship).
When the meeting is closed, stick around and talk to a few people. Everyone there knows what it’s like to have walked into the room for a first time, and I promise they all understand your anxiety about your feelings about the program, about your eating disorder, and about what the language even means. We all walked into a first meeting not knowing what to expect, not knowing the recovery language. Time at meeting makes it clearer.
What’s “recovery language”?
Like every specialized group, we all have terms for certain concepts. The ones OA uses are specialized, and one learns recovery language like one does in a classroom setting: through immersion and repetition. However, I’d like to offer some basic terms which will be heard at any given meeting:
Abstinence: Halting the compulsive eating-disordered behavior by using a set, daily plan. This means a person is following a food plan and has cut out foods (and behaviors) that make them want to binge eat. For bulimics, this also includes arresting the purging behavior. For anorexics, this includes not under-eating. The plan may be long-term, but it’s practiced only 24 hours at a time.
Food Plan: A long-term plan to be used daily to relieve a person from their addict behavior. This can be as simple as three set meals per day which are written the night before to the more complex
Slip: When an OA member eats compulsively–sometimes within the food plan and sometimes outside of it. Depending on the severity of the “slip”, abstinence is either lost or not. We are not expected to be perfect, since we are addicts and we have to eat. The difficulty of defining whether abstinence was lost or not is up to the individual.
Break Abstinence: When a person crosses the boundaries of their own definition of abstinence. Because the program has no finish line (unlike a diet), abstinence is a daily process. When one breaks abstinence, it is called a relapse. Nearly everyone in program has broken abstinence at one point or another. Just start over, taking what you learned about why it happened forward. No one is more advanced or less advanced than another OA member–we all are “working the program” (following our food plans and the 12 Steps) one day at a time. Some people may have chained abstinences measured in weeks, months, years, or even decades. It doesn’t matter how long we have chained days of abstinent eating. We all are aware that we are all susceptible to the addiction. That’s why we work the program only one day at a time. In other words, today’s abstinence, for me, is equal to the abstinence of a person who is facing his or her first 24 hours. Today’s abstinence is what matters–not yesterday’s and not tomorrow’s. Just get through today, and let tomorrow rest there until it becomes the new “today”.
Recovery Tool: A useful suggestion that helps us keep from acting on our compulsive desire to indulge our addict behavior. In OA, we currently have eight tools, though a ninth is being defined in 2011. I have written a post about the Tools of Recovery and how I am trying to work them. There is literature and more information on the tools is available at the OA website.
OA 12&12: The book entitled The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Overeaters Anonymous. Other recovery literature have nicknames, as well. The 12&12 is the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions published by Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book is Alcoholics Anonymous. The OA Workbook is the Twelve Step Workbook of Overeaters Anonymous. If you’re not sure what the shorthand is for a book, ask anyone just after a meeting.
Recovery language isn’t really hard to learn, but its unfamiliarity can make it challenging at first. Just remember that every longtime member in OA started in exactly the same place and we’re all here to help you on your way to recovery if you feel that the 12 Steps is right for you.
Recovery: The process of learning about then following the 12 Steps in order to live a sane life. The first reading of the 12 Steps can be pretty intimidating. A lot of it feels counter-intuitive. I mean, how is admitting daily that I am an addict going to keep me from giving in? (Because when you admit it, you have a choice not to do it. By denying or ignoring it, we can rationalize our eating disorder and continue to let it destroy our lives.) If I give control over to God or a Higher Power, aren’t I simply doing the same thing I was in addiction? (The difference between surrendering to a Higher Power and submitting to the addiction is that the Higher Power–by the definition you give it–wants you to have the life you are putting off. It’s the source of the willpower we need to put down the food and choose to feel and live in reality instead. It’s the source of unconditional love we needed but didn’t get–which caused many of us to numb our feelings with food. Also, your Higher Power isn’t like a genie–you still have to do the work of living your life. It just provides the spiritual strength to get you out of the addiction and into the life you want to live.) Do I really have to write down an inventory? And then apologize to all those people? (Yup. It’s part of the work of clearing out the reasons we indulge our eating disordered behavior. When all of the things we’re hiding from or under the food are exposed and dealt with, there’s nothing left to really eat over.) I don’t think I can do it. (Neither could I. Neither could most people walking into the program. And maybe the 12 Steps aren’t right for you. But there’s usually something in your gut which lets you know if they are–especially if you look at it and immediately run from it to the food to get away from it. The addicted self doesn’t want to give up its security blanket of food, to feel the real feelings, grieve, and move on.)
OA isn’t the program for everyone, but it is an option. If nothing else has ever worked–or if you feel that something more is wrong in addition to the eating–OA is out there. It took me years to walk into my first meeting. I always found excuses. When I ran out of excuses last September, I walked into a meeting and found a bunch of people who understood what I was talking about when I said I couldn’t stop eating. I wanted to stop. I was left a few weeks before screaming at myself in my own head to stop my hand from stuffing the food in my mouth, but that pain only made me eat faster. I could not understand how I could be doing something I consciously didn’t want to do. And the people in that room understood because they had been there. Sure, the details of their rock-bottom stories were different, but they all felt it. (I admit sometimes I still feel it, even in abstinence and recovery, which is part of the reason I admit I’m an addict every day–because when I admit I am, I have the choice to either be an addict or to try for one more day–just to bedtime–to keep from bingeing).
The last thing I want to address is sponsorship. I don’t have one, and I feel the need for one. I have access to a person who is willing to be my sponsor, and my addict-self is coming up with rationalizations as to why I shouldn’t contact her. I have given in to it so far. Same thing for exercising, too. Rationalizations are part of the addict-self, and our desire not to impose can endanger us, can put us right into the position to end up smack in the middle of our eating disorder again. Sometimes it’s hard to find a sponsor, also. I’ve been a sponsor up to the level of my recovery, and my sponsees have moved on. I sucked at it because I needed the guidance of a sponsor of my own.
There’s something I learned from another program called a recovery partner. If you cannot find a sponsor (the main website can help you find a long-distance one, if necessary, until you get a local one), you can work together with someone who is an OA member, too. While you won’t get the experienced voice of someone who has gone through the program with his or her own sponsor, you will have someone to work with and learn with and come up with questions to ask other, experienced members about. It may also make it easier to approach a sponsor when one shows up in your life ready to take you on. Remember, however, that a sponsor is just like you–an OA member who is working the program daily. Some sponsors have a more rigid approach to how they sponsor–including daily calls and use of their own food plan–and some are very laid-back in their approach. Like shopping for a car, you have to find the one which suits your needs and wants. However, your sponsor isn’t supposed to rescue you and do all of the work for you. As a sponsee, we are responsible to call our sponsor regularly, to ask questions, and to work the steps with them to the best of our abilities. Not perfect. Just the best effort we can give. If we try honestly and are willing to use the willpower we get from that Higher Power, we can enjoy a life where the addictive behaviors are few and very far between. We learn to deal with our problems through action and decision, we accept and learn from our mistakes (being imperfect as we all are), and we try again.
The most important thing to remember is that this is only done one 24-hour period at a time–basically from when we get up to when we fall asleep. Tomorrow isn’t as important as today. We can’t plan for it, we can’t control it. What we can do is learn today’s lessons and take them forward when the sun rises on a new day of recovery.
My name is Jess and I am a food addict starting year two in OA. I have so much to learn, and I am as hopeful as I was when I left that first meeting one year ago today. I worried I needed to make goals, but I wasn’t ready for them at the time. I was looking at the numbers, not the recovery. I don’t consider it a loss, because I have seen changes in myself and in my thinking that have improved my life and the lives of those around me. My biggest lessons over the year?
1. I am not a failure, though I can learn from events that don’t turn out how I had hoped.
2. I am not alone in this. I have a worldwide fellowship of individuals who, if I talk about my compulsion, know precisely what I’m talking about.
3. I have free will. I can choose to live like I did before I walked into OA at any time I want. I prefer who I am when I am working toward a lasting recovery, so I freely choose that.
4. The 12 Steps will work for me. I first only had faith they would, and now I have an understanding that the only way to stop eating over my past is to deal with my past honestly and put it behind me. Not forget, but forgive.
5. My biggest character defect is self-neglect. When I don’t take care of me and overdo for others (in order to get people to accept and like me), I build resentments and anger which make me want to eat the pain away.
6. Progress, Imperfection. It’s okay not to be perfect. That’s part of being human. I can choose to enjoy the benefits of learning from my mistakes or I can dwell on my mistakes. If I dwell in my mistakes, I’m not living in today. If I’m not living in today, I’m not living my own life. Therefore, as long as I am making progress and learning something (even if it’s frustrating me because I’m not quite sure what the lesson is supposed to be!), I know that I will be okay. I am evolving as a human being. That’s a good thing.