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12 steps to recovery at Overeaters Anonymous

May 8, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 405 lbs.

Last week: 401 lbs.

Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.

Total lost: 65 lbs.

My name is Andy, and I am a compulsive eater. Step 1 on the road to recovery is the following:

“I admit that I am powerless over food and my life has become unmanageable.”

Eleven soul-searching steps to go.

The 12-step system of Overeaters Anonymous is modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous program. I’ve contemplated joining the Tri-Lakes group of OA that meets weekly in Saranac Lake. But I’ve had a lot of questions, especially the part about believing that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. I’m not very religious, but I think OA can still help me.

Luckily, a member of the local OA group was willing to explain the program and share her story, as long as we masked her identity. After all, this is an anonymous group, so we’ll just call her Chris.

The first step — admitting you’re powerless over food — can sometimes be the hardest for some.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh I’ve got control over this. I’ve dieted before, and I’ve gotten the weight off,’” Chris said. “Of course, I never had that problem because I’ve never been able to stick to a diet.”

Unlike me, being overweight wasn’t the issue for Chris. It was sweets.

“Sugar is like a drug for me,” she said. “All I could think about was sugar. I was an addict. I’d go to a party, and if there was dessert, I was at the dessert. I wasn’t talking with people. I wasn’t connecting.”

At work, Chris kept sweets in the bottom drawer of her desk and was constantly reaching in for something to eat. When the drawer was empty, she’d go to the vending machine to stock up. She couldn’t control it, either by giving up sweets entirely or simply cutting back, even for one day. Many times, she would eat to the point where she was physically ill.

“Concentrated sugar gives me a splitting headache, so I would have this splitting headache, and every bite I ate would make it worse,” Chris said. “And I could not stop.”

As Chris was explaining her story, I felt a kinship with her. I could relate. You’d think that you would stop eating when you’re in pain, but that’s not the way it works when you’re addicted to food. For years, I’d eat to the point of being full and then eat some more, much more. Almost every morning, I’d wake up and have dry heaves until my face turned red and tears ran down my face.

It took me almost 20 years to realize that the dry heaves were caused by overeating. When I was a reporter for North Country Public Radio in Canton in 1992 and 1993, I’d share the newscast duties early in the morning. I’d get sick to my stomach before going on the air, and I always thought it was caused by nerves. Looking back, I realize it was mainly because I was overeating the night before.

Since beginning the Lake Placid Diet in December, I’ve essentially broken that cycle, only losing control of my eating and having dry heaves a handful of times. Since battling depression a few weeks ago, and subsequently losing control for several days, I realized I am truly powerless over food and I need more help. That was my defining OA moment.

For Chris, the breaking point came in 2000.

“I was at a party, and I was stuffing my face with desserts, and I saw a friend of mine who is a recovering alcoholic,” Chris said. “I said to her, ‘God, I wish there was rehab where I could be sent away for a month with no sugar and just kick the habit.’ And she said there is an OA group in Saranac Lake. And so I started coming that week.”

In the program, OA members don’t talk about diets. They talk about abstinence — abstaining from eating compulsively.

“Everyone has to figure that out for themselves,” Chris said.

OA provides a number of pamphlets to help members fight their food addiction, including one for an eating plan. Nobody tells you what to eat or how to eat. Instead, the plan for eating is used as a guide to help a person abstain from overeating.

“The idea behind abstinence is that you eat the way you can eat every day for the rest of your life,” Chris said. “It’s not like you’re going on a diet until you lose 100 pounds and then you can do whatever you want, because you can’t. ... If the diet is over, we’ll start overeating and the weight comes back because we’re compulsive overeaters. We can’t control it. We are powerless over food.”

Once Chris admitted she was powerless over food, the compulsion was lifted. Shortly after starting the OA meetings, she became abstinent from sugar for almost a year. To test her mettle, she kept a half roll of Life Savers in the top drawer of her desk and was able to stay away from them.

“That was what made me believe there is a higher power,” Chris said.

The higher power part wasn’t easy for Chris. She was a “complete atheist” when she started the program, but she learned to work through those steps to help herself recover.

“The key to that is that it doesn’t have to be God,” she said. “It just has to be something bigger than you. Somebody told me, ‘You don’t have to believe in God; you just have to believe that you’re not it.’”

Instead of God, Chris chose a wave as her higher power.

“Like you have to ride the wave of the universe,” she said. “Now there’s this tree on my property that I really love, and that’s where I’ll go to pray because I don’t know what God is. I know in my youth, God was a really bad person. My family was very religious and used God as a punishment, and that’s why it was so hard for me to accept the idea of the higher power.”

The benefits of OA don’t stop at controlling food addiction. With the fellowship of the group, Chris has also seen an improvement in her self-esteem.

“I always had really low self-esteem,” she said. “I’d look in the mirror and see a piece of crap. And these women, and sometimes men, would show me what they saw of me, which was completely different. And it allowed me to see myself in a different way.”

It’s been a transformation. Chris now sees herself as a competent, intelligent, good looking and accomplished person.

“The 12 steps really are a program for living, not just for kicking an addiction,” she said, adding that OA members take their journey one day at a time because you never really graduate. “It can come back at any time,” she said.

And for Chris, it did. She was abstinent for almost a year and then fell off the wagon.

“I do not remember what happened, but I was off and running and it took me a few years to get back,” she said. “Then I was abstinent, but then I got pregnant. And while I was pregnant, I just threw it out the window because I had this bad taste in my mouth all the time and chocolate chip cookies were the only thing that could help.”

Chris never gave up. She eventually returned to OA and has been abstinent now for about six years.

“Some days it’s easy, and some days it’s really hard, but it becomes a habit,” she said.

As Chris progressed in the program, she realized that sugar isn’t her only problem. She can overeat on almost anything. So she’s drafted a food plan, which is basically three balanced meals a day and one healthy snack (1/4 cup of nuts in the middle of the afternoon). And her meals have been downsized.

“The other thing about abstinence versus a diet is you have a slip, and it’s just a slip. You get right back on again,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I broke my diet. I’m done for.’ Some nights I eat too much before bed, and that didn’t feel good, so tomorrow I’m not going to do that. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, but it’s OK. I don’t beat myself up for it. When I did beat myself up, it made it so much more likely that I would do it again.”

In the end, Chris realized she’s just human like everybody else.

And that’s about where I am right now. As I work through my food addiction, I’m yearning for that fellowship Chris found at OA. In my heart I know I need the program, yet I’m just at the learning phase right now. I haven’t committed. It’s like going to the dentist or the doctor. It’s not the most pleasant experience in the world, but I know I need it to get healthy.

The Tri-Lakes group of OA meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Saranac Village at Will Rogers, in the solarium on the third floor.

12 Steps of Overeaters Anonymous

1. We admitted we were powerless over food — that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to compulsive overeaters and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

From the Overeaters Anonymous website at


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