Posted by: innerpilgrimage | February 4, 2011

Speaking in Tongues: A Little on the Language of Overeaters Anonymous

      I was recently reminded of what it’s like to be a newcomer dropped into a meeting where people use the language of recovery (which will be defined from my experience below) into an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The language of 12-Step groups is a little different program-to-program, but the basic concepts are the same.

      I’m sure I’ll miss a few things, seeing as my “recovery language” is so much a part of me these days that I don’t really separate it from my normal conversations any more. But I am aware it takes time to understand the basic concepts from the OA (Overeaters Anonymous) 12-step program.
      As an overview, Overeaters Anonymous stems from the Alcoholics Anonymous program established in the 1930s by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. In 1960, Rozanne S. separated out her food addiction issues from another 12-Step program (Gamblers Anonymous, I think). Treating the overconsumption of food as an addiction instead of simply eating a little more than necessary, Overeaters Anonymous addresses how people use an eating disorder to distract and numb one’s self from something deeper. Eating too much isn’t always about addiction–the uncontrollable need to use a substance, even if it is detrimental to our health.
     
      Addiction
     
      Addiction, in my experience, is the insane and uncontrollable drive to seek a means to distract myself from or numb myself to the frustration that I cannot control my life. I think I do, when I try to micromanage the details of it. Using the traditional medical model of disease, the “disease” of addiction is an abnormal condition which causes discomfort, dysfunction, or distress to an afflicted person (paraphrased from Wikipedia).
      Living as an addict is abnormal. We try to explain ourselves to normal people and find no empathy. “Just stop doing it, then,” is the general response. Trust me . . . if I could have simply stopped, I would have. The feeling of isolation because of this abnormal set of unanswerable reasons why I will gravitate toward using food destructively in my life (by eating until I am over-full to nausea and stomach-stretched pain, making me clinically obese and facing potential heart disease and diabetes) made me cull myself from social interaction because I felt differently.
      Part of being in OA is knowing that when I say “I couldn’t stop”, I am in a room filled with people who could not stop, either. The empathy is relieving; my compulsion to binge eat when I consciously do not want to is not unique to the world.
      So, addiction is, in my personal experience, the destructive coping mechanisms I used to deal with life when I was not in control of it (during my childhood and adolescence) which turned into habits then turned into full-blown eating disorder which got in the way of living a full life as an adult. “Use a little willpower” doesn’t work for me. I used willpower, and that indescribable force to return to what I knew sapped it completely. Every failure at a diet (even if I did lose weight) made me weaker, sent me into fear and sadness and anger that I couldn’t be like everyone else. I also lied to myself that I ate like everyone else. I didn’t. I look back and see that I ate enough to maintain the body of a 300-lb. person. I may have thought I was eating normally? I wasn’t. The types of foods were generally the same, but I would conveniently forget the little extra bites here-and-there throughout the day, the times I would eat a whole pizza or a pie or a box of crackers or cookies or a pound of candy over a day. I did not eat like a normal person.
      My initial food plan, the one which I have modified to add calories so I can gain weight up to the normal range for my height, was a 2,000-calorie-per-day balanced diet. It’s on the side of boxes and cans, at the bottom of the nutrition facts panel. Lo-and-behold, when I ate no more than 2,000 calories per day, I lost weight. This 2,000 calorie-per-day model, chosen because I wanted to practice eating at my final weight–167 lbs.–for however long it took, exposed how much I actually was compulsively eating.
      And when I moved the food aside, the source of why I binge ate in the first place was exposed. And yes, it sucked to finally face what I had been hiding from. However, with the clarity imparted by a nutritionally balanced intake of food in a reasonable amount for my body? I found the reasons beneath that caused me to eat.
      Lance Armstrong once said, “It’s not about the bike” (his biography is entitled that). Well, for me, it wasn’t about the food. It was never about the food. I told myself it was. It is about the foundation of discomfort at real life which I hid under my drug of choice: food.
     
      Abstinence
     
      Ugh, now abstinence is a rough one, because there is no direct definition of it. Abstinence is part of what I call “the personal journey”. This is the individualized part of getting past the food, the “diet” as it were.
      Abstinence is not a diet. I think the easiest explanation would be that abstinence is taking all the extra stuff I ate in compulsion and letting it go. I know a food example is never a great idea, but I’d like to liken it to a store-bought frosted cupcake. The cake part? Not so bad. A normal-sized cupcake is about 100-125 calories of cake. In nearly every situation, that’s pretty reasonable, right? Okay, well, looking up that whipped white frosting, most national brands are about 55 calories per tablespoon. Not bad, right? 55 calories isn’t bad at all! Except . . . when I look at that bakery case, the frosting on top is about as big as the cupcake. And that, having gotten into the habit of eyeballing cup measure sizes (I have severe portion distortion, which is why I weigh-and-measure still), I would say that most cupcakes in the bakery case have about a half-cup of frosting on top. Well, doing the conversion math, I know 1/8 cup is 2 tablespoons, so 1/4 cup is 4 tablespoons, so 1/2 cup would be 8 tablespoons. Multiplying 55 by 8, I see that my picture-perfect, loaded-with-frosting cupcake has gone from 100 to 125 calories to a whopping 540 to 565 calories. Yeah. And I’m not going to take one with less frosting because “I deserve the biggest and prettiest and most frostingey one, and those bastard better’d not skimp on me!” (so says the compulsive directive in my mind). In theory? I could find one with 1/4 cup frosting (which is about normal for a bakery-frosted cupcake, as opposed to the 2-tbsp serving of the home-frosted kind, which generally gets the polite smile because it isn’t “pretty” like the artfully decorated ones from the bakery), and that would only add 220 calories of fat and sugar and corn syrup solids and whatever-else-is-in-it to the calories of the cake sitting on the bottom.
      My food plan is the cupcake; my binge eating is the frosting. Or, to use a slightly “healthier” version of this model?
      My food plan is the 20 calories of salad–about 2 1/2 filling cups worth of salad greens; my compulsive eating is the 300-plus-calorie 1/4 cup of creamy dressing. I cut the extra stuff I thought I needed which only added fat and sugar to my diet. And I learned to substitute, for example, using 90 calories of nonfat cottage cheese and spices to replicate that “creamy” texture.
      In other words, abstinence is eating what I need to sate myself; compulsive eating is eating what I think I want in order to distract or numb myself.
      My own abstinence is made up of behaviors and foods which remove my life from the whole-day process of obtaining then eating in bulk whatever I happen to crave at the moment. I have addict behaviors–eating in front of the television, eating standing up, eating to the physical pain of a stretched stomach, eating until I am in a sugar-coma, eating so fast that I don’t taste the food, and eating foods which don’t satisfy me with a serving or two. Those are my trigger behaviors, the things I do which drive me to eat more than I need in order to sate my hunger while enjoying eating a meal.
      My abstinence has a list of trigger foods. A trigger food is one which makes me want to go back for more. Which brings up the longing feelings to keep eating that one food until I am in physical pain due to that overstretched stomach. I cannot eat one or two or even three servings of trigger food. I will eat ten or twenty servings of it then go back for more if possible. A trigger food is one which I cannot have enough of, which I suffer frustration over. Those foods are cut out completely because I honestly hate the feeling of grieving over the loss of what I’ve binged on. There is no satiation when it comes to trigger foods. I obsess about them; I fantasize about obtaining then eating them; I will lie, cheat, or steal to get them. And I will consume them in shameful secret, knowing that if others see me eat my trigger food in the quantity I want to consume it? They will be shocked and horrified at the amount I will pack away. And then I will feel less of a person and a total failure because it will be pointed out (as it has so many times before), “Why can’t you use a little willpower?” Trigger foods add negative emotions to my life; the initial pain of removing them does go away over time. With their removal, I have found my weight has dropped and my life goes a little smoother. After all, if I remove the obsession with obtaining and pretending and lying (I’ve lied to checkout counter people and register people at fast food places–who don’t care–about having lots of people waiting for whatever I’m getting, or that I’m having a party, or whatever stupid lie to cover that I won’t eat it all by myself in a darkened room) then eating in secret? Then I suddenly find I have a lot more time on my hands to do things like exercise or take up hobbies outside of eating.
     
      Big Book
     
      This is the nickname for the book entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous”. It is the foundation of the 12-Step program. Yes, there are parts in it which don’t really apply to my addiction, but the book says to use what applies and don’t worry about the rest. It gives an introduction to a solution to relieve the active addiction (aka affliction, or the active seeking of the substance to avoid dealing with life) while we wait out a medical cure. The term for an alcoholic who is abstaining from using alcohol is “sober”. In essence, a person who is “abstinent” in Overeaters Anonymous could be considered “food sober”.
     
      Recovery
     
      Abstinence and recovery are linked but are not the same thing. Abstinence is taking the active addiction and putting it aside by using a personalized food plan (even if it is Gray Sheet or a food plan suggested by one’s sponsor or even a nationally recognized diet plan) to remove the obsession with food. Recovery is using the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to set up a solid mental and spiritual foundation in order to maintain that food sobriety (abstinence). The twelve steps acknowledge that we’ve gone beyond habit and choice, that we’ve exhausted ourselves into being unable to extricate ourselves from using our substance of choice. Through the twelve steps, we deal with our past and the guilt over the pain we’ve inflicted while avoiding dealing with our guilt and our problems by using a substance to distract ourselves from dealing with our pasts.
      Then, we learn to live as useful, decent, compassionate, and honest people on a daily basis. Sure, no one is perfect. I mean, even normal people have normal sadness, fear, and anger. I think that’s the worst part of the naysayers’ judgment about the 12-Step program. We’re not supposed to be perfect; we’re simply trying to live in reality today. Good things happen; bad things happen.
      There is no “graduation” from the program. We practice daily to live in reality, to apologize in a timely manner for the pain we cause others, to see our mistakes and make real changes based on what we learned from those mistakes. Yes, there’s a Higher Power involved, and the words imply it’s a Judeo-Christian Higher Power. That, however, has everything to do with the time when the program was established. We are three generations out from those original AAers. And in looking over the history of that first generation, we’ve learned about cross-addictions and our culture has changed quite a bit. The 12-Step community has evolved, and the Big Book is merely a foundation. It is not to be treated like a zealot treats a religious text. It is simply a means to inform people that there is a solution and a means to be relieved from the obsession that is addiction if one is willing to make the effort to live in reality every day.
      As an aside, I personally believe court-mandated attendance of 12-Step programs goes against the point. The program works for people who want to change. It doesn’t work for people who don’t feel they have a problem or don’t want to change. Yes, a person can go into relapse because we want to believe we’re totally in control of our world and can maneuver ourselves into a “perfect life”. Well, we’re not. I am not in control of what’s happening in Egypt right now or what my neighbors are doing; I am not in control of the economy of this country or who will be nominated and elected in 2012. Yet . . . when I am acting out in addiction, I delude myself into thinking I am. And the minute I delude myself into thinking I can force free-thinking, free-willed human beings into place so I can have what I want? I wipe myself out completely, start feeling the pain of the obsession, and want relief. And that is when I turn toward my addict substance of choice–food (or the restriction of food, depending on if I delusionally believe I deserve to be rewarded or punished).
      I say sometimes that it’s my recovery and my abstinence but the program. This comes from the slogan (a slogan is a little quick soundbite-style saying which some addicts use to re-focus toward reality instead of delusional obsession) “Don’t work your program; don’t work my program; work the program.” Abstinence and recovery are the personal experience, strength, and hope we get from progressing through the 12 Steps and living the 12 Traditions as a member of the fellowship (the fellowship is the overarching “anonymous” individuals which make up the group attached to an addict’s substance of choice). The Steps and Traditions are the program, and they don’t change member-to-member. They’re general enough that we all can build our personal recoveries upon the solid foundation of the program.
      And yes, it does work as long as a person is committed to a lifetime of growth and living in reality. Accepting that this is a daily choice is part of that. I can choose to go back to binge-eating and delusional obsession at any time. Sometimes it happens so subtly I am unaware of it. Sometimes it is very clear but I want to feel the excitement of the chemical reactions certain emotions bring up. Every time, however, it’s like starting over when I have to realign myself to living in recovery. Whenever I go back to the old coping mechanisms, I am walking a path that is so worn it has a rut. It is familiar, though not comfortable. I have to consciously step out of that groove and walk mindfully outside of it.
      I suppose the easiest discernment between recovery and addiction is that recovery requires me to be mindful and conscious. Addiction allows me to go into autopilot mode. I rarely, if ever, am mindful of the consequences of my addict-mind choices because I am just not present and accounted for in my own life.
      I have a choice to be part of my life or be mentally absent from it. For me, the 12 Step program logically breaks it down into something I can understand for myself. Yes, it overwhelmed me the first time I faced off with it. But, through time and talking to others in the program? I learned some things.
     
      The Sober-vs.-Abstinent Dilemma: I Have to Eat!
     
      I think that’s the most common comment I get from newcomers . . . that it would be easier if we could do what AA and NA do and just stop eating.
      OA requires a different approach (just like SLAA does) to one’s personal recovery through the 12-Step program.
      The easiest way I can explain it is by returning to that cupcake analogy above. Abstinence is scraping the frosting off. All of the extra unnecessary eating (or restricting) stops. A strong food plan (the daily framework of one’s dietary choices, be it 3 meals-a-day, or 3-meals-2-snacks-a-day, or five-small-meals-to-keep-blood-sugar-level, or no-white-substances-and-only-eat-when-I’m-hungry, or even my USDA-based plan) tailored to the individual will expose the reasons one binge eats. If it’s just restricting calories in order to lose weight? It’s a diet, and OA will appear to not work because the addiction will shift from binge eating to the scale and food restricting. And, at the end of every diet I’ve ever been on? There’s always the rebellion, the break in diet, the shame, and the punitive self-abusive eating.
      I personally believe a good plan of abstinence is one created with the intention of eating that way for the rest of one’s life. Sure, it may change (and abstinence is NOT lost if one consciously changes a food plan) as it gets dialed down to fit an individual’s life. But abstinence is not about the food. It’s about the life we’ve been using the food to hide from. Move the food aside by putting it in its own place (a sensible non-goal-weight-and-food-restricting-diet, tailored-to-fit food plan), and the real issue shows up. And once the real stuff shows up, that OA fellowship expands to every last addict fellowship in the world. Our individual experiences and abuse substances of choice differ, but we all are the same addict at the core.
      Hopefully this won’t depress people but give them hope. It means that not only are we not alone, we have the multi-million person fellowships of AA, NA, SA, SLAA, GA, Nic-Anon, and just about every 12-Step Anonymous group out there standing with us. All those people are looking to live in reality–good and bad. All of those people are participating in their own lives. And all of those people give me the hope that even if I relapse and break abstinence (which I got close to last night), I am walking 24-hours-at-a-time beside everyone else. I got no record to beat–there are people in OA with decades of chained 24-hour abstinence who are working today with the same purpose as a person starting his or her first go at it or a person who is starting over today after relapse. It’s about living today, being present and accounted-for today. Tomorrow will be today soon enough, so don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is where we are, where we make the decision to binge or stay food abstinent, where we choose to act with compassion and acceptance or lose our tempers because we’re not in control of the world.
            I wanted to do a glossary of terms, but I guess I really can’t. I learned the language over time. Perhaps that’s how you know if you really hit rock bottom . . . if you’re scared and hopeful at the same time, completely overwhelmed with this new language, yet you are still walking through that door every meeting to learn more. It took me a year to get to Steps 1, 2, and 3, and I am still struggling with Step 4 (which means I am struggling with Step Three and need to get willing to do an imperfect but rigorously honest Step Four).       I guess I have to remember that if I am feeling fear, it means I am being given an opportunity to gain courage. That’s a good thing, to feel fear, since I want to be courageous. I just now get to sit down and open myself up to why I am so fearful that I want to distract myself with food drama in order to have something else besides revealing the truth to myself.
     
      My name is Jess, and I am an addict. Binge eating, anorexia; approval, social anorexia. Still got the flu. I think I got pushy on the phone when the second person this morning called to talk to me about a plan of action regarding something I need to deal with. I already talked it out, and I find that I have impatience when I’ve already dealt with something and I’m getting puffballs lobbed at me in order to soften the blow of bad news. Of course, having seen a woman completely fall apart to tears and anger and blame another woman for making a change which upended the first woman’s life? This is probably what the status quo is for most people.
      Welcome to our Brave New World. We are so overstimulated by the constant influx of unnecessary information that we have to drug it away or we lose it completely when we find a comfortable groove that gets altered because someone else wants a change in their lives.
      A person who cannot deal with change because it comes at them in a barrage that is incessant can be pretty scary, especially when one thinks they’re joking and learns pretty darned quick that they’re not.
      What’s scarier? Knowing I have been that woman who can’t deal with change and who becomes irrational beyond reason.

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  1. […] A 40-Something Fool’s Journeyhttps://innerpilgrimage.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/speaking-in-tongues-a-little-on-the-language-of-over… – this blog explains that abstinence and recovery are linked but not the same thing. […]


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