STEP ONE ~ PART TWO
I'm Lawrie, and I'm a compulsive overeater. I'm privileged to be asked to lead for the next while. I've never done this kind of leading before, so it's a little strange to me. I'll be away from my e-mail until the middle of July. My first three weeks of leading are being written ahead of time.
This is week 2 of our step study, done from the perspective of the Big Book. We're still on Step One.
Last week I described the phenomenon of craving -- what Dr. Silkworth describes in the Big Book as an "allergy" of the body. This is the first part of Step One.
Allergy doesn't mean a cough or a runny noise or a rash; it means simply an abnormal physical reaction to a physical substance. The allergy of the body we get when we overeat is the "phenomenon of craving". A phenomenon is an occurrence for which there is no explanation. We get cravings that we can't explain. But the essence of the cravings is that we simply cannot stop. Our body is telling us to eat, and ultimately we can't stop eating, just as we can't stop breathing or blinking our eyes; we may be able to suspend our breathing or blinking temporarily, but we simply can't stop.
Today's topic comes from Dr. Silkworth in The Doctor's Opinion. He says: "Of course an alcoholic ought to be freed from his physical craving for liquor". The Big Book takes sobriety for granted. No one attends AA thinking that he or she is going to continue drinking while working the steps. You stop drinking -- you do anything to stop drinking, even if it means going to three or four meetings a day -- and you work the steps.
What about us in OA? Is that our message -- that we stop compulsive eating -- and do anything to stop eating compulsively, even if means going to as many meetings as we can, and phoning as many people as we can, and reading as much literature as we can -- and then work the steps? It should be. We have to stop our craving, and the only way to stop the craving is to stop eating foods that cause our craving. (We also have to stop the eating behaviors that cause our cravings, and I discuss that below.) The new "Dignity of Choice" pamphlet makes that perfectly clear.
So how do we go about it? It's easier for an alcoholic in that respect to identify the substance that causes the allergy. For the alcoholic, it's alcohol in any form -- whether in beer or wine or liquor or liqueur. But for the compulsive eater, one thing that is clear, to me at any rate, is that we can all differ in the kinds of substances that cause cravings for us.
I can't eat butter in any form before I start craving it. But I know people in this program who can eat a pat or two of butter and don't want more. I can put some jam on my toast and don't get cravings, but I know people in this program who can't touch it at all. In my discussions with other OAers from all over the world, I've come to the conclusion that there's an awful lot of overlap in our binge foods, but I've also realized that in the rooms of OA there are people who can eat everything that I can't eat, and that I can eat everything that some people in OA can't eat at all.
So how do we identify what causes our cravings? I can only tell you what I have done, and what people I've discussed this with have done. You have to do it for yourself.
I started by asking myself a simple question: What are the foods that I constantly overeat when I have the chance to eat them? What are the foods that I hunch over, hoarding, eating incessantly, blissing out?
The answers were clear for me: buttered popcorn, potato chips, shortbread, cheesecake, ice cream, deep-fried foods in general but in particular fried chicken (especially the skin), fatty meats (beef ribs and pork ribs and sausages and bacon), doughnuts -- and many other similar kinds of foods.
Clearly any food that I constantly couldn't stop eating when I started was a food that caused cravings. I had to eliminate those.
But I went further than that. I asked myself whether there was a common ingredient in those foods, and if so, whether the presence of that common ingredient seemed to be a problem for me in general.
The answer was obvious -- fat. I seemed to overeat almost anything that was high in fat content. It was usually fat mixed with salt or fat mixed with sugar. All fats had such a huge effect on me, but I realized as well that high-fat dairy products, like butter, were especially powerful for me.
Was sugar a problem for me? Well, I had eliminated most sugars from my eating -- other than those with high fat content -- years before I began to analyze my cravings. I just didn't eat foods that had high sugar content, like drinks made with sugar or desserts that weren't fat as well. Very sweet foods actually gave me a headache. So I didn't include sugar in my list. Fat was clearly the culprit for me.
So I developed a plan of eating that eliminated foods with high fat content, and eliminated all high-fat dairy products in particular. I would not have a meal with a fat content higher than 10% of calories through fat. That meant I would have no deep-fried foods at all, and no snacks that contained a significant amount of fat (all potato chips, whether baked or not). I would examine content labels carefully for hidden fat content. If given a choice between a food that had no fat and one that had even a little fat, I would choose the non-fat one (1% versus skim milk; spaghetti sauces with a little olive oil versus with no oil). I would trim all visible fats away from meat. I would not eat fatty meats. I would not eat any desserts and would have fruits instead.
I did that. It was hard work, but I did it. I also worked the steps, and just as promised at Step 9 in the Big Book, I was freed from my wish to eat all the foods that I had eliminated. I had recovered from compulsive eating! I could be around ice cream and not want it. That was a miracle. I was freed from the obsession. (I'll talk more about the obsession next week. It's the next part of Step One.)
But after a number of months I hadn't lost much weight. I was clearly taking in too much food, even though it was much healthier food than it was before. I discussed this with my sponsor. I felt that Step Twelve requires me to carry the message of recovery through the Twelve Steps. How could I carry that message if I wasn't at a healthy body weight? I felt I couldn't -- I felt that I was missing something.
Around this time I reread the OA Twelve and Twelve. On pages two and three the book mentions not simply binge foods but also "eating behaviors". That got me thinking. I started to analyze my eating behaviors. Clearly I was eating more than my body needed, since I was still fat. What eating behaviors was I indulging in that caused me to eat too much, even of healthy foods?
I had a blinding flash of the obvious as I sat in my dentist's chair having my third or fourth or fifth crown put onto teeth that I had worn down or broken by chewing on bones and other things. My biggest eating behavior was simply chewing, keeping my mouth busy, constantly seeking oral gratification! I realized that while I had adopted a plan of eating that eliminated high fats, I was constantly chewing. Where I used to chew buttered popcorn, I was now chewing carrots and celery and gum and hot-air popcorn. I was keeping my mouth busy -- just as a popular weight-loss program used to tell me was necessary in order to keep from eating other foods.
What I discovered in my analysis was that my constant chewing kept my mouth wanting to chew more. At my mealtimes I was eating for the sake of chewing. Sure, it wasn't high fat foods, but it was food that contained calories of some sort. I was taking in too much food.
I remembered the time years before when I first joined OA and my plan of eating was so simple -- three meals a day, nothing in between, a day at a time. I lost a lot of weight on that plan.
This was before I discovered the notion of the allergy of the body, so as soon as I lost that weight I took back a lot of foods I had eliminated, like ice cream and buttered popcorn and deep-fried foods, convinced at that time that my only problem was quantities. That is, of course, what almost all diets tell us. They tell us that once we lose the weight, we can eat everything -- SO LONG as we eat in moderation! But what's moderation to me once my allergy kicks in? It's impossible! Once I started eating ice cream, I couldn't stop!
One element of 3-0-1 clearly did work for me, though, and that was not eating between meals. That did something for me, I began to realize, that I wasn't doing this time. Eliminating any chewing or sucking between meals kept me from craving that oral gratification I used to get.
So I added another element to my plan of eating. In addition to eliminating all foods high in fat content, I stopped eating between meals. This was difficult for me. I found myself chewing ice in my drinks, chewing or sucking on the ends of my pens, playing with my toothpick. But eventually I was able to stop chewing between meals entirely.
At the same time I also identified another eating behavior -- this time a real blinding flash of the obvious: I liked to be stuffed to the gills! I wanted to be full all the time -- not just pleasantly full, but stuffed. This had also led me to eating between meals, but in addition led to great quantities during my meals. Sure, I didn't want to eat ice cream, but I did want to be filled. So I would eat huge quantities of healthy foods, and they contained calories that kept my weight high.
So I added another element to my plan of eating. I would stop eating when I had eaten "enough". But how would I determine what was "enough"? It occurred to me that I could use my belly-button as a guide. I would stop eating when I felt as if the food had reached my belly-button, which was far better than when it reached almost up to the back of my mouth!
Those three elements -- eliminating the fats, not eating or chewing or sucking between meals, stopping when I felt full up to my belly-button -- constituted my new plan of eating, and as soon as I adopted that plan of eating, I lost my weight. That was about eleven years ago, and my weight has fluctuated slightly but basically remained steady since I lost it. I achieved a healthy body weight. How did I know? My doctor was happy. When I told some people I was a member of OA, they wondered why. And in OA people treated me as a person who had recovered.
Over the past eleven years I've added more foods to my "don't eat" list. Although I kept to my plan of eating, I discovered that when I ate certain foods that were low in fat content I kept on eating them until they were all gone. This became true, for instance, for hot-air popcorn and for certain kinds of rice cakes; so I eliminated them. I discovered that high-fibre cereals that had sugar added made me more hungry, I eliminated them. Each time it was easy, because I had already recovered and was working the steps to the best of my ability.
Just a few months ago my doctor told me that certain research he had become aware of led him to think that I should be losing more weight. So I've done another analysis of my eating behaviors and of foods. Quantities are, of course, the issue. What could I do to eat less?
What I've done is to forget about using my belly-button as a guide. What I do now is to stop eating when I begin to think about things other than food, such as when I begin to wonder whether I'm full. If I'm thinking about things other than food, my body has probably had enough. And I've discovered the amazing fact that twenty minutes after I stop eating, I'm really full! And I've lost more weight.
I've had many many discussions with people all over the world about plans of eating that work for them. In all cases they've had to analyze their own eating behaviors and their own binge foods and binge ingredients. Some have had very few binge foods, but a number of bingeing eating behaviors, and others have had the reverse. Some have been unable to figure out what they can't eat, and prefer to figure out what they CAN eat. Some have been unable to find their belly-buttons or to find other ways to limit their intake, so they have counted calories or they have weighed and measured their foods (another way of counting calories, of course).
I've never thought these differences were a big deal. Each person finds his or her own way to find a plan of eating that works for him or her. There's no magic to it. We eliminate foods and eating behaviors that cause cravings and, if we need to lose weight, we find ways to limit our intake of food in general. Whether we do that in a "negative" way, as I do, by adopting a plan of eating that sets out what I CAN'T eat or do; or whether we do that in a "positive" way, as others do, by adopting a plan of eating that sets out what they CAN eat and how much of it and when they can, those are only TECHNIQUES not different concepts --- of achieving the eliminating of foods and eating behaviors that cause cravings. All that is really needed is simple honesty.
When it comes to honesty, though, I think what's important is rigorous honesty. Some people jump very quickly to certain kinds of plans of eating because it seems to fit them, or because the plans are urged on them by other people in the program for whom the plans work, or maybe -- just maybe! -- because the plans allow them to hold onto certain foods which are really binge foods for them. In all cases we must be rigorously honest.
Here are some questions:
A little bit of fat, for instance, is necessary in our diet, but large amounts aren't. The sugars in fruits are part of a normal diet, but white sugar is of no value whatsoever. High-fiber graints are important to eat, but white flour is of very little value.
- Have you developed a plan of eating that eliminates foods that caause you cravings?
- Have you developed a plan of eating that eliminates eating behaviiors that cause you cravings?
- Are you holding on to foods that you secretly crave because you ccan't give them up?
- Have you adopted a plan of eating that works for you, or that workks for someone else?
- Are there some foods that you keep eating in large quantities, eveen if they're allowed on your plan of eating? For instance, have you eliminated sugar and flour but still eat lots of high-fat foods.
- In the end, if you have to lose weight, do you have a plan of eatting that allows you to eat foods that have high amounts of non-nutritious calories?
Hope this has been of interest. Let's share our answers and our plans of eating and how we've arrived at those plans. The more variety, the better, because the person who doesn't have a plan of eating should realize how many different plans of eating there are in OA. That person deserves the opportunity to pick one that fits for him or her.
Next week I'll discuss the second part of Step One -- the obsession of the mind described graphically in Bill's Story (beginning page 1 of the Big Book), and explicitly in parts of There Is A Solution (page 17), and More About Alcoholism (page 30).
STEP ONE ~ PART THREE
I'm Lawrie, and I'm a compulsive overeater. I'm privileged to be asked to lead for the next while.
The last two weeks I discussed the first part of Step One from the Big Book perspective -- the allergy of the body, the phenomenon of craving, we get when we eat certain foods or indulge in certain eating behaviors. Last week I especially emphasized what the Big Book takes for granted -- that we find a plan of eating that eliminates those foods and/or eating behaviors which cause our cravings -- that we become, in a word, abstinent.
Now it's time to talk about the second part of Step One -- the obsession of the mind. This is our real problem.
If our only problem were that we get physical cravings that overwhelm us is, there's a simple solution when you think about it: we just don't eat those foods or indulge in those eating behaviors, and everything would be fine. In effect, that's what we did when we went on diets.
Consider this: right now, I eat shrimp and enjoy it. But if I developed an allergy to shrimp, as evidently many people have, that meant that I would suffer a tremendous shock to my system that could kill me, I think that I would look at shrimp as a poison. I would avoid it like the plague. I would say to myself, "Well I used to like it, but I sure don't like it now. Why would I eat anything that killed me?"
Yet before OA I ate all kinds of food that I knew perfectly well were killing me!
Our real problem, as the Big Book points out, is that we keep finding excuses to go back to those foods and those eating behaviors:
Why does he behave like this? If hundreds of experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its attendant suffering and humiliation, why is it he takes that one drink? Why can't he stay on the water wagon? What has become of the common sense and will power that he still sometimes displays with respect to other matters?
Perhaps there never will be a full answer to these questions. Opinions vary considerably as to why the alcoholic reacts differently from normal people. We are not sure why, once a certain point is reached, little can be done for him. We cannot answer the riddle.
We know that while the alcoholic keeps away from drink, as he may do for months or years, he reacts much like other men. We are equally positive that once he takes any alcohol whatever into his system, something happens, both in the bodily and mental sense, which makes it virtually impossible for him to stop. The experience of any alcoholic will abundantly confirm this.
These observations would be academic and pointless if our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body. (pages 22-3 of the Big Book)
Why do we keep going back? What gets us to eat the first bite?
Well, one thing that's obvious is that virtually every diet and every book on losing weight, and many many doctors and dietitians and nutritionists whom we consult, all seem to say that once we have lost our weight we CAN go back to eating ALL the foods we used to eat, but THIS time in MODERATION! It's just a matter of will power, or maybe they phrase it as won't power. They can't imagine why we would eat in large quantities again.
What is their problem? They don't understand that we have a physical problem. They don't understand that, unlike the normal eater, we don't get unease or discomfort when we overeat -- rather, we crave more. They simply don't understand our allergy of the body.
So, on the advice of our doctors, our other health-care professionals, the diets in magazines and books, and the weight-loss programs, we lose our weight and then take back our weekly scoop of ice cream, or two cookies, or comfort food. And then the weekly scoop becomes bigger, and then becomes more frequent, and then becomes the hand going to the mouth and we're asking ourselves why we can't stop.
But wait, as the infomercials say, there's more!
Here's my list. I bet you can add to it!
Ring some bells? What are these curious excuses?
- I'm standing up. It doesn't count!
- I've been very good for a year. A month. A week. An hour.
- I didn't eat the bun!
- I'm so depressed. What will make me feel better?
- I'm so happy! How can I celebrate?
- They made it especially for me. How can I refuse?
- I'll never be able to have this food again.
- It's a stone ground whole-grain cinammon bun made with organic molasses and cold-pressed organic oil!
- She's not looking.
- I have to taste it in order to see whether it's okay.
- No one loves me.
- Too many people love me.
- Overeating will kill me, but it's a nice way to commit suicide. My spouse will not feel guilty when I die.
- How will I fit in otherwise?
- At least people can see what my weakness is.
The Big Book describes them as a mental obsession, not simply an emotional one. Certainly some of these are emotional excuses. But some of them are just plain stupid ones.
We often hear in OA that our problem is physical, emotional, and spiritual. The Big Book, however, doesn't use the word "emotional" to describe our problem. It uses the word "mental". That's because our reasons for returning to the food are often just insane, and sometimes don't depend on how we're feeling at all. We could have had a normal day, have lost a lot of weight by eliminating ice cream from our diet, be in a supermarket where they're offering a sample of new flavor of ice cream, and find ourselves eating that sample before we even know what we're doing. It doesn't do us any good to figure out what was eating us. What does us good is to realize that we keep finding excuses to go back to foods that we know, deep in our hearts, we can't eat without developing cravings.
This is the real problem, as the Big Book points out. There is no answer. " We cannot answer the riddle." We just know that we do it.
The whole of the chapter More About Alcoholism (beginning on page 30) describes the mental obsession. It is the same obsession whatever we're addicted to -- whether gambling or alcohol or cocaine or food or emotions. It is that excuse we give to ourselves for going back.
It is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. (Page 30)
In that chapter the Big Book describes four alcoholics who go back to their addiction. One of them has not had a drink for 25 years, and thinks that a long period of sobriety enables him to drink like normal people. One of them has a bad day, and persuades himself that whiskey won't hurt him if taken with milk. One of them keeps going back to jaywalking even though he has suffered tremendous physical damage, and can't explain himself at all. And one of them has a great day, and finds himself thinking that it would be nice to have cocktails with his dinner.
There was always the curious mental phenomenon that parallel with our sound reasoning there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out. Next day we would ask ourselves, in all earnestness and sincerity, how it could have happened.
In some circumstances we have gone out deliberately to get drunk, feeling ourselves justified by nervousness, anger, worry, depression, jealousy or the like. But even in this type of beginning we are obliged to admit that our justification for a spree was insanely insufficient in the light of what always happened. We now see that when we began to drink deliberately, instead of casually, there was little serious or effective thought during the period of premeditation of what the terrific [horrible] consequences might be. (Page 37)
Yes, says the Big Book, sometimes we have felt justified by extreme emotions. But we've also had trivial excuses.
That fits my experience well. I can be on a diet and have thoughts like, " That looks good, but I can't eat it. I won't eat it. It's not good for me. I' m doing so well on my diet." But I'll simultaneously have other thoughts like, "It's only a bit, you've never had that taste before, you can have just one." And then the second thought just overpowers the first, and I'm back again. I've become a yo-yo dieter.
The Big Book's characterization of this is as a mental obsession. An obsession is a thought that overpowers all other thought. It is an obsession over which we have no mental defence. We can't stop ourselves from thinking. You try it. I'll pay you $5,000.00 if you don't think of the word "rhinocerous" for 20 seconds! Did you win the bet? I doubt it. We can't control our thinking. And we can't control the mental obsession.
Therefore this is the second part of Step One. We are powerless over food -- that's the first part -- we get uncontrollable physical cravings when we eat certain foods or indulge in certain eating behaviors. We can't manage our lives in relation to our powerlessness over food -- that's the second part -- we get mental obsessions that send us back to those foods and those eating behaviors that we know will cause us the uncontrollable cravings.
We have what Dr. Silkworth called the "double whammy". We can't stop once we 've started; and we can't stop from starting again. We're doomed.
That is Step One -- the realization that we are doomed. And we're not doomed because of our allergy of the body, but because of our mental obsession. And we begin to realize that the only solution that will ever work with us is something that gets rid of our mental obsession. And we know we can't do it by ourselves, because we can't stop the thinking that keeps sending us back.
Maybe now we will be ready for Step Two. If Step One is the problem of powerlessness, then Step Two is the solution of power!
Here are questions for you:
1. What excuses have you used to go back to compulsive eating?
2. Have any of your reasons for going back to compulsive eating ever ever ever turned out to be reasonable?
3. Have you ever gone back to compulsive eating before you even realized you were doing it?
4. Does your experience show that you have been capable, on your own, of ultimately resisting an excuse to go back to compulsive eating?
5. Does your experience show that you have returned to compulsive eating only because you've felt emotionally justified, or have you had trivial excuses as well?
Let's all share on this. If I haven't touched a raw nerve in someone, maybe something you write will touch that nerve and will help that person.
Next week I'll discuss Step Two. In that connection I would ask that you read Bill's Story, beginning on page 1 of the Big Book, and We Agnostics, beginning on page 44. I am an agnostic; I was born into an agnostic home and have never stopped being an agnostic. But I have no problem with the "God thing". Nor should any of you. But even if you're not an agnostic, you should read the chapter for two reasons. First, because when you sponsor you'll meet people like me and you should know the arguments. Second, because it contains some paragraphs that are absolutely essential for those who do believe in God, paragraphs that explain why this program works.