Iaelle Moran argues that the good reputation OA enjoys is not well-deserved.
|The Thirteen Steps of OA (Overeater’s Anonymous)
You say what, now? I thought it was 12? Yeah, so did I , until I got into this program (and stayed way longer than I should have.) Cult? Possibly. A farce? Considerably. At least for the majority who go there and don’t ever lose a pound.
I started out in Adult children of Alcoholics – a spinoff of Al-Anon. Both my parents were alcoholics. Seems like a logical place to start. I admit, at first I thought everyone else in the family had all the programs. Not me. Both my siblings had gotten into drugs. I never did. The whole family drank – to some degree. I never did. Well, very seldom. And if I did, as soon as I started to feel a buzz, I’d get uncomfortable. I didn’t like the feeling of losing control.
It was ACA (or ACoA as some states call it) that taught me that almost all ACA's are “cross addicted.” Did I have any addictions? Well I had been overweight since childhood. Maybe my addiction was food. So I went to my first OA meeting.
I was surprised to see that people – most of them – were not so morbidly obese as I had imagined. They read the standard 12-step stuff at the beginning – about being powerless – but over food, not alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable. Well, my weight was unmanageable, but the rest of my life would have easily classified me as ‘high functioning.’ Hmm.
One good thing – I met a friend who is still a good friend – Gladys. She is about my mom’s age, but when I started going to this group she had been in OA about 6-7 years. She lamented continually “I weigh 222 lbs” – she is about 5’4”. We fell out for a while, because I stopped going to OA. I told her something seemed weird, attacking this problem wholly from an emotional standpoint, with no regard for exercise, nor for any semblance of a “food structure” – (since diets don’t work I agree but one does need to look at the style of eating they are undertaking.) She told me that her cohorts in the program said, ‘No, OA is the only things that really works.” Their reasoning was, if you are eating emotionally, fix the emotions and you will stop eating emotionally and the weight will come off. Diet and exercise were immaterial to the problem that compulsive overeaters had. I told her, even if the problem did start out emotional, it seemed that it had transgressed into a physical problem, and physical problems had to be solved in a physical manner. Well, that fell on deaf ears. We’ve remained friends though.
The next step was something about “Made a decision to turn my will over to a Higher Power as I understood Him.” That was not a stretch for me. I believed in God. Why not summon Him for this?
The fourth step dealt with, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory – and became willing to make amends…” Well, I’ve sinned, sure, like everyone else. But had I really done more than my share? I’m not saying I am perfect – far from it. But somehow this didn’t seem to fit. I was the peacemaker in all that chaos I grew up in. I was always trying to get everyone to get along. Making jokes. Smoothing things over. I was the one who, afraid of my sister’s violent temper, let her run all over me. Use me. Treat me with a lack of consideration. A veritable doormat. (Even into adulthood.) Yeah, I admit it - I was afraid of her. I was the one who didn’t confront but turned statements into a joke to keep my sister from exploding, or my mother from making one of her emotionally cruel, caustic remarks – you know the kind you remember for the rest of your life? Below the belt? Using your weaknesses against you? That’s my mom.
I had left home after college and pretty much never looked back. I was the one making excuses for them, like when my sister’s phone got turned off and she sent me to go in and talk to the phone company – as she was too embarrassed. And I did it. Again – didn’t want to confront. Home was a dangerous place.
So were my amends to others?
I’m sure I’ve hurt others too. I’m not perfect. And it’s always hard to see how you’ve hurt others, but easy to see how they hurt you. But I honestly didn’t think I had done more than my share. If anything – I’d been a doormat.
I kept going to OA, week after week, month after month. I met a lot of really nice, kind, wonderful people there. I also came to terms with the fact that, yes, I did have an addiction – mine was food. It was not just the rest of the family who had problems. They acted out. I acted in. It had started as a child – when I was pre-verbal. I have been overweight since 4 years old. OK so this is how it worked. I took all this crap from others, and never spoke up, and, since I had to put these residual feelings somewhere, I ate over them. Yes that fit me. That explained a lot. But I still didn’t feel it was accurate to say “my life was unmanageable.” And how was I in need of a moral inventory, because of all the people I had harmed? Was I missing something?
As weeks turned into months in that program, I got more zealous to learn everything I could about this food addiction thing. Month after month I went. What I liked was, we ladies (the program is almost all women) got to be close - like a little circle. Each week we would come and kibbutz – and gossip. I got to the point where I knew the in’s and out’s of everyone’s lives, and they mine. It was cathartic to share. And to boot, by doing the steps, and going to meetings, I was working on curing my food addiction, right? Well yes but there was one problem. I wasn’t losing any weight. And beyond that, as the months went on I saw few others lose weight either – save for the invited speaker for the week.
The theory was, we ate over our problems so if we come to this program and talked out our problems we wouldn’t eat compulsively. Sounds sexy. But it wasn’t working. Not for me – not for much of anyone. What was wrong with this picture?
Now it really started getting weird. And weirder with each meeting. By that time, I could not tell you how many people I saw taking 5, 10, even 20 year chips (you get a chip for length of time not eating compulsively) - and they were HUGE. Many even admitted, they had gained weight over the years, but they were ‘happily abstinent.’ Huh? What was up with this “fat abstinence?”
OA has no food plans. Apparently they used to have something called “the Gray Sheet” but that was thrown out with the "current administration.” So the theory was, if you worked the steps, went to meetings, got your emotions out, and tied up loose ends in your life by managing your interactions with people, you wouldn’t eat compulsively any more. I thought I was doing that, but my body size had stayed the same. And what of the lack of physical recovery all around me too?
So I decided to get a sponsor. Oh yeah, a sponsor. You are supposed to work with a sponsor from the start – just like in AA. Problem is, I found relatively few people had sponsors in OA. Why were so few people who went to this program so religiously, failing to work the program the way it is supposed to be done? Note too that I went to a variety of meetings- and though some were better than others, I can easily apply these generalities – like not having a sponsor – to all the meetings I attended.
Anyway, back to me. Maybe not having a sponsor was my mistake. An easy mistake to make, as so few around me had sponsors either. My sponsor was dynamite. She truly was. I was to call her every day to phone in what I would eat for the day and get out my feelings. My sponsor had lost weight. She was one of the few. And she had done it without formal dieting. They say in the Program, “stick with the winners” so I followed a basic food plan, and daily I called her and worked things out. I did start to lose weight. But I didn’t lose as much as I needed to. I still felt hungry a lot. The single best thing though I can say that I got out of OA was the benefit of those months working with her. She truly was an enlightened soul.
When I would go to meetings, I started sharing about the work my sponsor had me doing, and the things she was teaching me. A curious thing happened. People started coming up to me in drove, after meetings, in awe that I had a sponsor and called her regularly. (Um, wait – weren’t we supposed to do that?” It was like I had become a celebrity. “Who is your sponsor? Could she sponsor me? Can you sponsor me?” On and on it went, until it finally dawned on me, I was a rarity in OA, and so was my sponsor. For one thing, my shares were on point – not just gossip and kibitzing. And I was having (some) physical recovery. I was a unique individual in OA. The gals at my meetings, most of them anyway, still came week after week, but few had sponsors, and, save for invited speakers who were paraded around like a dog and pony show – neither did anyone much have physical recovery.
Long story short, my sponsor moved away to Nevada. Her husband’s job transferred her. I almost had an emotional upheaval. I looked around for other sponsors, but I could not find anyone who had abstinence, and physical recovery. No one. There were a few but they were all booked up as everyone wanted them as a sponsor, since there were so few of them.
The Program constantly harps on the adage, “It’s not about the food. It’s about getting well inside – emotionally,” as though to defend the scores of people not following a food plan, with no sponsor, and as for exercise – I don’t think I heard that mentioned more than 2 or 3 times the whole time I went to OA. Well, if it is just about feelings and not about working on things also from a physiological standpoint, then why go to OA? Why not just go to a general support group?
I couldn’t find another sponsor, though I tried. But I continued to attend meetings. I had done a 4th step (you know the moral inventory) with my sponsor. We had had a little ceremony to burn it when done. After I wrote it, what came out though was that most of my amends were to myself. We had gone all the way to the 12th step – after that – which I believe is ‘We must carry the message”. What was to come after that? Well, starting all over from the beginning and working the steps over and over. Huh?
As the months went on, the “sharing” I saw in meetings was starting to sound like gossip and drivel. It was like the meetings were little social hours for the gals. Almost no physical recovery, no one with a sponsor, no one following a food plan – or very few. Just endless drivel and whining. So I left OA and got into traditional therapy – my veritable “13th step.”
I explained to my therapist what had happened in OA, and to my shock, she reframed for me - boom boom boom - everything that I had experienced in OA. I found out that what I had experienced was well known in psychotherapy. Specifically:
• A lot of people in 12-step programs feel alienated because of their religion (this therapist was Jewish). The Steps don’t mention a religion or name for God, but they do say the Lord’s prayer often and the “tenets” mimic Christianity.
• Compulsive Overeaters notoriously have beaten up on themselves all their lives. Women with eating disorders are the ‘good girls’ of the world. Spreading peace, smoothing things over all the time. And to our own detriment. So we’ve been nice to everyone all our lives and not nice to ourselves. Then you enter OA and there is all this emphasis on all the people you have wronged and your ‘disease.” And how you need a moral inventory and to make amends. That scenario fits for alcoholics, but compulsive overeaters have little to no such experience of the sort. There are two ways to react to childhood trauma – you either act out or act in. Alcoholics act out; compulsive overeaters act in. Alcoholics leave a barrage of junk in their wake – affairs, domestic violence, smashed up cars, vehicular homicides, ruined invites to weddings as they get s&&&faced and vomit or make off-key remarks. In contrast, Not only do compulsive overeaters not have any of that, but, statistically, people with eating disorders tend to be higher–functioning than average. We were the good girls, who went to college, were in the school play and the orchestra, and who studied and made good grades. Anything to just keep the peace with the alcoholic parent(s).
• They say, rightly, that you stop developing at the age at which the addiction starts. Compulsive overeaters frequently start overeating in childhood, since food is readily available. Alcoholics don’t usually start drinking till adolescence. So alcoholics are like rambunctious teenagers, while compulsive overeaters are like children - who still have that childlike ‘magical thinking” – believing that “if I am just a good girl, don’t make waves, smile, etc., fortune will smile on me, people will be nice to me, and the alcoholic will stop verbally/emotionally/sexually abusing me and the family.”
There – she had said it in a nutshell. She was right on point. This explained why the “life is unmanageable” paradigm didn’t fit me. And neither did the idea that I “need a moral inventory to make amends to those we have wronged.”
She went on to say that there are people who are loathe to solve their addictions, in the 12-Step groups, because they get addicted to going to meetings. Some have criticized 12-step groups for being cult-like, telling members that you “must go to these meetings for the rest of your life” – “you will always need us.”
I often wonder how many others there are who are like I was in OA, with a program that is a match for an alcoholic but a total mismatch for a compulsive overeater. Sure there is such a thing as food addiction, and sure, I’ve got it. But OA is not the place to cure it. Not by a long shot. I hope the gals at the social hours – I mean OA meetings, come to realize that, before it’s too late.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about Gladys? I have since known Gladys now for about 14 years, and she still goes to that meeting. Gladys is now 73. She has two blown out knees, she is completely incontinent from all the years of a burgeoning stomach pressing on her bladder/abdomen wall, so in the winter months when she gets a cold (and coughs and sneezes) she can’t leave the house because the tiniest cough and she completely loses her bladder – and adult diapers don’t help, except the kind that are so bulky you can see them beneath the stretch pants she wears. She developed diabetes about 6 years ago, and last year she was diagnosed with third stage kidney disease (from the diabetes). Gladys doesn’t wear tie-up shoes, because she cannot reach around her stomach to tie them up. She must wear slip on shoes. She now weighs 246. But Gladys still goes to the program because, she says, “At least there I can get all the emotions out.”