STEP ONE ~ INTRODUCTION
I'm Bob, compulsive overeater. I'm a very immature 65-year-old Texas native, ran for my life as a teenager and swore I'd never live in Texas as an adult and here I am. A would-be Indiana Jones who has lived all over the world, speaks a bunch of languages and has tried to marry or date the whole United Nations. I've been married four times and I'm not married now, I live in a $4500 trailer in the woods five miles from Arp, Texas, and it's the only house I've ever owned. I drive a '95 Buick my mom gave me when she went into the retirement home. I'm retired not because I got too old to work but because nobody can tell me what to do any more. I hit on women the age of my grandkids and they call me Sir and then giggle after I'm gone. So if you want what I have, keep reading.
I'm going to talk some about my early life without putting food/overeating at the center of it. It seems to fit here some way since we're planning to go all the way through the steps and the steps tend to be about our whole lives. So bear with me, okay? And I'll get around to the point, I promise. I'd like this piece on Step One to be mostly personal story followed by some thoughts about the step itself and what it means to me. If I write too much for reasonable folks to read, give me some feedback and I'll make the other eleven pieces shorter. I'm posting this at 4:00 am and hope you'll forgive the typos and especially the sheer volume of words.
*************** The Story Part ***************
I grew up with the old folks in the small-town Old South in the forties and fifties. I was the only son, the only grandson on both sides, the only great-grandson of the great-grandparents who also lived with us, the oldest of three kids . Descendents of the prostitutes and convicts who came with Oglethorpe to settle Georgia, and of the Indians who fought and married them. For generations they'd pulled stumps out of new ground, founded little towns across the South, taught in little schools and generally built community. Family full of physicians and teachers. My dad had his own clinic. It would be an understatement to say that expectations of me were high.
The old folks taught us (and often walked as they talked) to treat others respectfully, keep your promises, don't put your personal business out in public, pay your debts and worst of all, if you've got a bad habit, well just stop doing that. Self-reliance and will power, ability to manage life well, were all tied together - one's integrity was defined by those traits. Those things tried to become core values, and what I'm going to talk about later on is how they became my biggest liability.
My childhood home was like the 1950's sit-coms, Father Knows Best and the like, with a Southern accent. Hell fire and brimstone religion, racial ugliness, alcohol, tobacco were absent from our home, and I never heard my mother and father argue, nor my grandparents, nor my great-grandparents. Three generations of best friends. When my father became addicted to his prescription drugs, we did not recognize it, nor did he, until we kids were grown and it was too late for him. Addiction was not part of the world view I knew. A person of character, if you had a bad habit, well you just stopped doing that.
Every woman in the family cooked and cooked, our maid cooked and cooked, and most of them were overweight and laughed about it if they noticed it at all. Family meals together were compulsory, and I don't remember ever running out of anything at a meal. Between meals, well we'd run through Loggins' little grocery around the corner and grab a fistful of candy bars and say, without stopping to check out, "Charge it to Dr. Wilson." We ate like fat kids and stayed skinny.
The small Southern Baptist church my parents and other young professionals founded (and remember they'd grown up in the Great Depression) was not religiously conservative, I should say, not religious at all. The guiding ethic, it seemed to me, was that we should all be socially acceptable and wear slacks and have conventional opinions and belong to the country club. Spirituality equals conventionality.
That's enough of the world outside me. Early on, I was a mixture of joy at a range of things (my mom would ask me approvingly when I was in my forties and started back to school, "Hon, are you aware that you have ALWAYS had a consuming interest in one thing or another?"), and secret shame at my failure to live up to expectations. My report card would come home, "Bobby could try harder." and my deepest secret was "This is all I've got, you're lookin' at it." I was a total failure at any sport that involved a ball and some that didn't. Around puberty, the shame at failure to live up, was replaced by intense rebellion which became a joy in its own right. I pretty much rejected conventionality, and being unconventional because a lifestyle of choice. It was punctuated by frequent stunt-driving events (on the public streets) and a couple of shooting episodes. Driver's license suspended twice before I graduated from high school.
I married my high school girlfriend and four months later we had a premature baby who weighed nearly eight pounds. My excitement for life and rebellion were like rocket fuel. I thought academics might be a better vehicle for fighting the established order, better than being a redneck, and I pushed in that direction. I turned 22 just finishing my master's degree and with a third child on the way. At 25 I was one of the youngest faculty members at Berkeley.
Fast forward some - my professional star was rising, but my personal star was in free fall. I got into red wine and revolution, walked away from a PhD at Berkeley after finishing course work and prelims, walked away from a faculty position there. I worked my way downwards and got fired from my last two teaching positions for lifestyle/drinking/drugs/sex-with-the-wrong-people. At age 31 I was running from the law, using another name, living in Hawai'i and mopping a department store for $2 an hour. Life continued in that general vein until I got into AA in 1975, at age 35.
Now about food, overeating, weight, attempts to manage. As noted, I was a skinny kid who ate like a fat kid and got away with it. I graduated from high school, I told you this I know, at six-one and 125 pounds. Gained ten pounds a year in three years of college and graduated at 155. The next four or five years I gained fast enough that people who had not seen me in six months would do a double-take. I would imagine my top weight was in the 220's though I never weighed when I was up there. And I put it all on right in front. Like the Hawai'ians say, Pali ke kua, mahina ke alo - The back like a cliff, the front like the moon. I had never dealt with eating or weight, and people's reaction to my rapid weight gain was very shameful to me. And remember this was Berkeley, 1960's, Free Love times and never mind that I was married, hadn't we outgrown those conventional ideas? But Free Love wasn't happening in my life, not to my way of thinking, and it obviously had something to do with my new fatness cause (I thought like we all do) everybody has a dazzling love life except me.
When you've got a bad habit, well quit doing that, right? Okay. So in my mid-twenties I got on the Metrecal diet. I think Metrecal had 300 calories per can, and you drank four cans a day and lost weight. Good. I was serious about this. I put a pencil and a scale in the bathroom, and I penciled my weight lightly on the wall. In the morning I would get up and get on the scale, pee, get back on the scale, get dressed, get back on the scale. I'd negotiate the lowest weight I could and pencil it on the wall with the date. Then I noticed that a quart of beer had about the same amount of calories as a can of Metrecal, 250 in fact, no harm if I'd drink three cans of Metrecal and one quart of beer, right? And funny, that plan would give way to three cans of Metrecal and four or five quarts of beer, and soon the numbers on the wall would start to creep back up and I'd write that off as a bad experiment and put the scale away.
A memory flash came back to me - during the period when I was ON the Metrical diet, really on it, I would cheat by taking a hard piece of uncooked spaghetti and nibbling on it. I'll come to a place later in this story where I do the very same thing, years later. Or maybe it would be a tiny taste of pure butter. Didn't affect anything, didn't mean anything. But what it means to me today is rebellion. Something way down in me, me the overeater more so than me the alcoholic or addict, said "You won't tell ME what to do."
It was only in 1975 that drugs and alcohol were removed from the equation, and in a sense that's where my overeating story starts to get clear. I want to tell a couple of little stories from the early AA days because they so clearly illustrate Step One for me even though they're not food-related.
First, unmanageability. Three days into sobriety, I called my wife Bessie, that's her real name, back in Baton Rouge, from Honolulu, to tell her I was going to AA and it was really going to work. She answered that she was seeing her high school boyfriend - she had given up on me. I thought I could keep her away from Curtis, that's his real name, if I kept her on the phone enough, and I would work and save money to get back there to her. It was my roommate's phone and I ran up a $200 phone bill. That was a lot in 1975. I told my sponsor about it and he said, "Call less often and don't talk so long." The following month, the phone bill was $400, okay? I thought my sponsor would fuss at me pretty hard for not doing better. Instead, he paused for a long time and then said, "Now you're beginning to understand Step One." I saw in an instant that "unmanageable" didn't just mean that big unwieldy world out there, it meant ME.
Second, powerlessness. I had it in my mind that I had been given relief from drinking and drugging and that I was supposed to stay away from those things, and going to AA meetings and doing what they told me to do would help me resist going back.. This was my program worldview for about six weeks. Then one noon, it was at a meeting at Pier 12 out over the water, Bill M came in in the middle of the meeting with his head bandaged. He told us that he had gone to seventy meetings in seventy days, had gotten drunk and put his head through his truck windshield, his wife had taken the kids and gone home to her mom.. And he didn't remember taking the first drink. And I believed him. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off the cliff while chasing the roadrunner and looks down half a mile to the canyon floor. My power to resist was not going to save me. This deal is about something more than that. What a cognitive leap for somebody who has been so steeped in self-reliance.
I'll only say this quickly cause it's more about steps two and three. It's like the kid, you knew him, who could run faster, jump higher, pitch a no-hitter with either hand. He has the world by the tail. And about the ninth grade he hits ALGEBRA. And he's down at the bottom of the ladder looking up, and not sure he has the skills to climb it and feels like a fool in his own eyes. Same thing happens decades later with intelligence, academic smarts, management skills - some of us hit a solid wall at some point where these assets don't serve us, and the new set of skills we need is spiritual. Counterintuitive, self-contradictory, all the rules go out the window, nothing we think we know applies to the new task. When Bill M. told his story that day, I understood way down in my stomach that I was at the place where I would have to let go of old ideas, take suggestions from people who were obviously less smart than me but who had the spiritual thing, and hope I could get what they had.
These two examples contain for me the seeds of understanding the terms powerless and unmanageable in Step One.
One other thing I need to tell you now is that I got into a group of fire-breathing spiritual lunatic fringe called the Beachcombers, disciples of Flobird Johnson. They had little success in the eyes of the world, most of them were pretty dysfunctional in fact, but they had the God thing and a kind of joy I wanted for myself.
Well, in that first year in AA, my marriage came back together and flew apart again, for good this time. This good woman who had stood by me during three or four of my worst drinking/drugging years, could not stand me in early sobriety, and we were separated within a few months of getting back together. I did not appreciate quite that early that I still had one raging addiction I had not even looked at - food.
But being single once again, and horny and fat, I began to think that my main problem in life now was my weight. My notion upon coming to AA had been "Now that drugs and alcohol are out of my life, I pretty much know how to DO life." That notion took a beating as one disaster after another was beginning to show me I did not quite know how to do life. And undaunted, I decided that I pretty much knew how to do relationships anyway, and if I would lose the weight, well the perfect woman would see me in all my true good qualities and we'd live happily ever after. But how to lose the weight? We weren't anywhere close to notions like "powerless over food" or even an awareness of compulsive overeating as a large part of my daily life.
As I told you in my introduction, AA/OA folks suggested I try OA. I got a copy of the Grey Sheet, the official OA plan at the time, and attacked the problem just as I had with the Metrecal ten years before. Only this time there was no alcohol to drive me off the plan. I did not return to OA meetings. Why bother, I had the PLAN now. And self-reliance.
I stuck to the Grey Sheet plan religiously, except - watch this - for a dry uncooked spaghetti noodle or a tiny taste of real butter once in a while. I lost sixty pounds and became cocky, bought skinny jeans and got a Japanese girlfriend Wendy (that's her real name). Well Wendy was somebody else's girlfriend really, but she would sneak around with me. Moving right along anyway, I got to goal weight - about 160 or so - and since I was sponsoring myself, it made sense that I should negotiate a maintenance plan with myself.
My maintenance plan was to eat only items on Grey Sheet, but as much of them as I wanted. Something like Atkins. Well, I don't know about you, but if you tell me I can have all the SAWDUST I can eat, I'll be into boxes of Krispy Kremes before long. All I want is not going to work. And it didn't work for long. Within a week or so I said to myself, as my sponsor, "You haven't had a cheeseburger in six months. Why don't you try a cheeseburger?" And we were off and running.
By way of providing a context for the next few months, I need to tell you briefly that coinciding with the low point, losing the sixty pounds, I decided to try out this God thing and walk off the cliff and see if he would catch me. I gave away everything I had except a guitar and backpack and flew to Alaska with my last $500 just to see what would happen. My best friend and sponsor Johnnie (that's his real name) wasn't having trouble with this God thing, and he flew up there to join me bringing maybe $20 of his own. We spent months in Alaska and Kodiak, then made a long trip that ended up with us working in a mill in Wilson, North Carolina. Then I returned to Hawai'i, ended up sleeping outdoors and finally spent months in the men's halfway house. Unmanageable life without drugs and alcohol, what could be going wrong? I'll say more about this probably when we get to the other steps.
So there we were, me starting off in a new place on my new maintenance plan which turned into a round-the-clock binge. I began to try some strategies. I would fast, Stanley Burroughs' lemonade fast, for eight or ten days, declaring that I was fasting for spiritual purposes and not to lose weight. And end the fast with a binge, did you ever do that? I ended one maybe ten-day fast spontaneously on the Navajo reservation where they were cooking a sheep and a cow in a pit, and I ate and ate, and when we reached the next town I hit the supermarket and gorged on hard cheese. And got constipated till I thought I would explode. My size 33 jeans thought there was going to be an explosion too.
More strategies. During the time on the road, and in the men's house, I tried more fasting "for spiritual purposes." Then I got the idea that if I would eat high-carb food from the health food store instead of junk food, God would reward me with weight loss - it was still all about weight don't you know. And then I got the idea that if I would drink enough diet cola, it would subtract the calories from the food.
I had started on the "maintenance" plan about May 1976. In the winter of 1977 I left the men's house and took a room with an older couple over in Kailua, down the street from David and Debbie K's house where they had Beachcomber meetings every Saturday night. Every Saturday night I'd ask Debbie, "You guys have an OA meeting here, right?" "Yes Bob, Wednesday nights at eight," she'd tell me each week. I was like a little airplane circling the field trying to decide whether to land.
I began to notice things: If I'd visit your house and you went back to the bathroom, I'd break off half a block of cheese I'd seen in your fridge and turn the other half around so you couldn't see it was gone, and eat it quickly before you got back. I began to SEE myself doing things like that, and reflected that I was not dishonest any more in other areas of my life. My eating was eroding the integrity I was trying to build.
I worked in a cabinet shop in Kailua. This guy Bill (that's his real name) and I both liked to eat, and both liked to talk about the owner and how bad he was and on and on.. And if you can imagine people doing construction work in a hot climate, we'd go to a long lunch at a Chinese place and the table would be crowded with all we'd order, and we'd gorge on Chinese food at lunchtime and talk about how bad it is, isn't that a good topic when you've got an eating buddy? And drag ourselves back to work. I began to wonder how smart it was to eat Roman feasts when you're going back to hot physical work.
One Tuesday in the first week of May I went down to Rocky's Liquor store in Kailua to get a bunch of Diet Pepsi - trying to subtract the calories by drinking enough Diet Pepsi, right? And I backed my pickup truck into a post and caved in the door on the driver's side. That night at a meeting out at the Marine base, I backed the truck into somebody's car. I had not had booze or drugs in my system in over two years. The light came on, and it has never gone out since that day.
The next night I was on time at Debbie's OA meeting, and she agreed to sponsor me - the Flobird people of course knew me well and she'd been watching me for a long time. A handsome, thin, principled woman, she was a perfect sponsor. She put me on Grey Sheet, and this time there was no stick of raw spaghetti or any other symbol of my rebellion. It was easier to be abstinent than not to be. I asked Debbie, "Is this what they mean by Grace?" She told me a story.
There was a kid, and his room was dirty, and his grades were bad, and he spoke in two-word sentences, and his fingernails were dirty with motorcycle grease and his mom was always ragging on him about his ways. And a girl came along, and his nails got clean and his room got clean and he talked like real people talked, and his grades got better. And the girl's name was Grace. That's how Grace works, she said.
This is getting to be a really long share. What I need to tell you here, is that while I thought OA was going to be about weight and it turned out to be about abstinence. And the abstinence made it possible for me to enter into work and romantic arrangements and try to give as much as I took. Mainly it took away my last hiding place and I was able to work the steps I had only been able to address in a superficial way before.
I told you most of the rest of my OA story in the introduction, the food part anyway, and I'll stop here with the storytelling. I want to say a few things about Step One in general and I'll quit and come up with some questions.
*************** Thoughts on Step One ***************
I hear people in meetings say "I was good today," "I made some bad choices." "I have a choice today." Old Flobird used to say, "I live in a choiceless awareness." Powerlessness is not compatible with choice. And it's bigger than good today, bad today.
Now suppose we were an epileptic support group, and suppose there were self-styled counselors out there who thought epilepsy was "behavior," and a lot of our group listened to them. They'd do everything they were supposed to do about their epilepsy and now and then they'd come to a meeting and confess, "I let the group down. I am so ashamed. I chose to have a seizure." "I promised I would not have a seizure when I was driving, and now I've totaled my car." "My bad." It's my feeling that what we've got is a lot more like epilepsy or heart problems, that is, a lot more about doing things that LOOK like behavior from the outside but from the inside, there is no power of choice involved.
Once again on the notion of choice, self-knowledge and will power: My AA sponsor and best friend Johnnie, Johnnie of the Alaska trip, is allergic to shellfish. If he eats shrimp he will swell up like a toad and have to go to the ER. Never in the thirty years I've known him has he deliberately eaten shrimp. He does not belong to a shrimp program or work the steps on shrimp, he just knows what happens when he eats shrimp and he doesn't eat them. He's a normal person dealing with a health issue by self-knowledge and making good choices. I submit that we, and the health professionals, too often treat overeating as if it were the same kind of phenomenon as Johnnie and the shrimp. If that were so, there would never have been OA.
One last example of us and our rebelliousness: Back in about 1979, when Grey Sheet was still the only game in town, we were at an OA meeting in Oklahoma City. A woman in her thirties was there for her first OA meeting. When called on, she shared a familiar story. Divorced, depressed, sits in front of the TV and eats and eats while the kids run wild, hasn't had a date in two years, hates her weight gain, thinks about suicide. After the meeting she asked me what we DID, and I said, well for starters we have a food plan where you have three weighed and measured meals a day and nothing in between... She cut me off, tossed her head, and said "I don't do breakfast!"
Step One is the end of the rebellion. In AA, NA, OA, Al-Anon, the litmus test for Step One is "Tell me what to do next," and you DO it.
As a cognitive scientist, I know that there is lots and lots the brain does that is below our radar, happens without our being able to access the process. And it's not just our heartbeat or how we unconsciously put a sentence together. If 5% of our brain's work is visible to us it would surprise me. And where we addicts are concerned, it's almost as if there were a dozen people down there. Dealing with my conscious mind, I can go to a friend or therapist and resolve to do better, to make better choices, to avoid the bad ones.. And the conscious part of me is in the driver's seat. And somewhere along the way, one of the other guys down there gets hold of the wheel and drives all of us off the cliff. That's what a binge feels like. What the steps are about is integration, getting everybody down there on the same page. And I'll be talking about the steps from that perspective all the way through.
*************** Questions on Step One ***************
1. Are you powerless over food? Is the Pope a Catholic? Does the bear shit in the woods?
2. What does "I have a choice" mean to you - is it compatible with the real relationship between you and food?
3. What does "unmanageable" mean to you? Does it have a limited application, or does it apply to your whole life? Does unmanageable only mean you can't control the events around you, or does it extend to the things that happen inside you as well?
4. The costs of compulsive overeating. Erosion of your integrity, as I talked about above? Does being overweight cause you to tolerate an unacceptable work or sexual arrangement, or unacceptable treatment from others? Does it make noise in your head so that nothing you do or say comes out smoothly the way you want it to? Make you be a control freak that everybody tries to avoid?
5. Is the biggest obstacle to abstinence having to say no to others, and you can't quite do that most of the time?
6. Some of these questions have to do with self-esteem. Do you let people treat you in a way that you would not treat them? What's that about?
7. Where ARE you with regards to Step One? Circling the field like the small airplane, or ready to do whatever it takes to recover.
8. Along that same line, are you ready to get on a food plan that WORKS for you, or do you still play Philadelphia lawyer and get wordy about it all while leaving yourself plenty of loopholes and not showing any physical progress?
The Twelve Steps
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