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Her cravings, in retrospect, were out of control—there wasn't enough pasta in the world to satisfy her. An anonymous, self-described food junkie learns to take it one dish at a time.
I do not hide candy bars under the couch. I do not prowl dark country roads in search of all-night diners or steal cookies from my kid's lunchbox. Still, after years of denying that I suffered from compulsive eating habits, I joined Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and listened to these anecdotes with horror and empathy. While the details often exceeded my own most psychotic episodes with food, yielding to the clutches of uncontrollable eating was all too familiar, along with its certain, subsequent dive into remorse, shame, and humiliation.

OA is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the language of 12-step programs, I am a "high bottom" addict: My life had not become unmanageable. Weight was never an issue in my career or in my marriage. I fit easily into airplane seats, and I came to OA wishing to lose just 20 pounds, not 100 or more. Yet after finishing a normal helping of pasta, I have another. And another. Left alone with enough for ten people, I'd eat it all. A trigger goes off in my head or in my body or in my blood sugar—I don't know where it goes off, but I am rendered completely, utterly powerless.

At those times, I am a junkie, a spasm of need and desire, wholly focused on ingesting that bowl of pasta (or doughnuts or ice cream). Wheat and sugar. The OA program doesn't promote any particular diet, but wheat and sugar so pervasively spark compulsive eating that many members make abstinence from them the turning point in overcoming their addiction.

Food has always been my drug of choice. I eat to numb myself, to deaden the feelings it loneliness? Grief? Anger? Could those circuits have blown out by age 5? That's how old I was when I began stealing loose change to buy candy. Eating became my one-beat response to every feeling. When I was tired, I ate. When I was wide awake, I ate. When I was elated, I ate to calm down. When I was sad, I ate to cheer up. Maybe it's biochemical. Maybe it's a disease like diabetes. "The reasons are unimportant," says the OA literature. This is hard for my psychologically oriented mind to accept. But OA is filled with people who have hit a wall trying to reason out their eating. Over and over again, their conclusion is that only reliance on God, or our "higher power," as we individually understand that concept, "can restore us to sanity."

I had entered the program determined to remain open to the spiritual language of 12-step work. Between growing up as a secular Jew and then gravitating toward Asian traditions, the word God had never entered my vocabulary. But I prided myself on being a cut above those prickly, educated atheists who would rather remain drunks and overeaters than enter a program where their disorder was identified as a spiritual crisis. It did not offend me to hear that my disease couldn't be healed until I turned my will over to God or to a higher power, or to be told that prayer and meditation were instrumental to recovery. There was one problem, however: I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about.

Then one day a man in his mid-30s compared the process of his recovery to driving a car when the windshield was fogged up. Initially, he cleared a small patch of the window and sat hunched over the wheel with his face pressed to the glass. The only view was, basically, the tip of his nose. But slowly the clear patch expanded; the view became wide, then immense, and then infinite. Bingo.
I thought of the hundreds of times I'd sat in a restaurant so locked into a basket of bread that Jesus himself could have sat down beside me and I would not have noticed. How available could I have been to other people at the table? Did I have anything to offer my family and friends? The underlying suffering of all addiction is self-centeredness, but unlike garden-variety egocentricity, addiction guarantees an unrelieved isolation. At every turn, need is confused with love. Need replaces love, obscures it, and manipulates it. And, as the wisdom traditions tell us—in one way or another—Love is God. This is the all-encompassing love of unconditional acceptance, and the radical vision of 12-step work is that this unconditional acceptance can be, and in fact is, realized by drunks and drug and food addicts sharing their stories and listening with open—and broken—hearts. For many members, the meetings themselves represent higher power; for others, the communion established by stories shared with raw honesty testifies to God's presence and blessing.

After several months of attending meetings, I came to recognize a paradox: The notion of higher power definitely evokes the hierarchical majesty of a Supreme Being. Yet in the pragmatic theology of OA, grace is everywhere and all around you and accessible just in the process of letting go of the addiction. There is no need to "attain" or add to who you are.

I don't know what my higher power is, but I know for sure that it's not me. Curiously, I've discovered an unexpected freedom in putting a prayer out there and not worrying about who is receiving it.

Many people in OA speak of "turning my food over to God." That's not comfortable language for me, but like many of my new friends, I'd had no success with the popular diet trade: Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers. Diets require that we take responsibility for what we eat. This is precisely where compulsive eaters differ from normal people: Responsibility for food eludes us. It's something we have to learn, and until then, OA reasons, better to turn your decisions about what, how much, and when you eat over to someone else—anyone else.


One woman sharing her story said, "My food plan is my higher power." Another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I thought about how some members of the clergy are always trying to explain to the laity that monastic vows are about dignity and freedom in restraint, not about confinement. And what did anyone have to lose by surrendering to a food plan? Twenty pounds? Or maybe 120 pounds.

So far I'm down two sizes. Weighing yourself is discouraged because it can feed a preoccupation with culturally defined standards of attractiveness that have nothing to do with your body or well-being. Still, I find myself trying to translate clothing size into pounds. I recently pulled on a pair of jeans, thinking that I had to weigh about 146 to get into them, and the zipper didn't quite make it to the top. I haven't let go of the need to estimate numbers.

But the way I eat is changing. I can sit down to a perfectly prepared meal, measured on my kitchen scale to the last ounce, but if I gobble it mindlessly, without tasting it, without gratitude, then I've blown my so-called abstinence. Eating mindfully is a challenging practice because so many of us chow down as an exit strategy, to escape from anxiety or discomfort or any feeling at all.

I've been advised that when food is on the table, I should pause, look at it, and check to see whether I'm "spiritually fit" to consume it. Meaning: Am I paying attention to where I am? To what I'm doing? When my mind is too cluttered, replaying past conversations and rehearsing future ones, my sensory apparatus shuts down and I'm unable to know anything about myself or another, whether that other is a friend or God or higher power.
Recently at a meeting, one woman sheepishly admitted to giving up decaf skim lattes because they were taking up more space in her preoccupations than her higher power. She said this with amazement at the ease with which she had forsaken her spiritual well-being. Turning to me, she added, "Can you believe that?" Well, yes, I could. It's how I've lived most of my life.

Back at my house, I carefully unfolded a brand-new placemat and a matching cloth napkin. Suddenly, I remembered a young waif of a woman from the meeting who said, "I know I'm not much, but I'm all I think about." As I continued setting the table for one, I glimpsed the reverse logic: The more worthy I become to myself, the more valuable I could be to others. But as they say in the program, "One step at a time." For now, just sticking to my food plan is a big deal. And I pray not to be left alone with a bowl of pasta.

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