After four decades of relapsing from diet after diet, I have maintained my abstinence from compulsive overeating for over two years now. I consider this a miracle, and I attribute it to working this program as a three-legged stool like OA literature teaches us. Working the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of this program is what makes it different from the endless assortment of diets I relapsed from again and again.
I work the physical leg of my program by following a definition of abstinence, as well as a food plan, that sets me up for success. I have identified my trigger foods and avoid them. I engage in exercise I enjoy almost every day.
I work the spiritual leg of my program by letting go of my doubts about what God may or may not be and praying anyway. A prayer creates space between craving and overeating so I can make a new choice. I watch how my thoughts change afterward, and I open my heart to the guidance in all the ways it might be conveyed. I take a STOP (Spiritual Time Out Please) any time of day when I need to get more calm and centered, because I am less compulsive when I am calm.
I work the emotional leg of the program by turning in deeper to my feelings instead of avoiding them with food. I use my Step work to grow more aware of my emotional triggers for overeating.
I trace those triggers back to my childhood (Step Four) when I first learned how to bury my emotional reactions to troublesome events. And I use the subsequent steps to bring those buried emotions into the light, reinterpret those early experiences, and choose new responses.
But there is more to my recovery. I recently discovered there is also a mental or cognitive aspect to this program that has been absolutely critical to my recovery. How I THINK about food and eating has been a key component of my success, and I have come to think of it as the fourth leg of my recovery stool. As a recovery friend said, “I can’t help the thoughts that pop into my head. But after that, it’s up to me.” Recovery has taught me that I have control over my thoughts; my thoughts do not control me. To gain that control, however, I had to honestly examine my thoughts and attitudes about food and eating. Most of them, I found, were filled with illusions and denial.
The first ILLUSION I uncovered was thinking of food as comfort. How could I label something comforting if it made me miserable after the first pleasurable sensation? By definition, comfort should be enduring, calming, and relaxing, not something that evokes guilt, shame, and misery. The first thing I did in program was to draw up a list of things that truly give me long lasting comfort. I turn to that list when I have a craving, and I incorporate those things into my life as often as possible.
Another damaging ILLUSION was my attitude about abstinence. At first, I associated abstinence with restriction and deprivation, like a diet. I thought of eating whatever I wanted as abundance. I had that backwards! Overeating was the source of most of the scarcity in my life: scarcity of energy, health, peace, pride, and self-esteem. Abstinence has been the root of the abundance I now have: increased energy, growing self esteem, the pride I feel when I go to bed at night, pain free living, the many choices I now have at the clothing store, good health, and the peace I live with now that the war is over. Abstinence, not limitless food, brought these riches.
Another change I needed for recovery was to think more consciously about what I eat, rather than eating distractedly. Now I look at my plate before I eat and say to myself, “This is my meal. I may want more after I’m done because that is the nature of my disease, but I won’t act on that. When I’m done, I’ll get up from the table and do something else.” And then I look at my food and consciously enjoy every bite, becoming aware of the feel of fullness as I eat.
I have learned to view recovery as a process, not an event. A diet has a beginning, middle, and end. Recovery is a one day at a time way of life. When I embraced that idea, I stopped watching the scale and began living a life that made me feel confident, connected to others, and serene; all feelings which counteract compulsiveness.
I’m also learning to think about recovery in tiny increments like baby steps. Looking too far ahead overwhelmed me. Now when I have a craving, I ask my Higher Power for the help, strength, and courage to do the next right thing whether that’s to walk the dog, wash the dishes, or weed the garden. In tough times, I work my program one moment a t a time, rather than one day at a time. If I become overwhelmed, I ask myself, “Can I do this just for today?” and I let the future stay there.
I now choose what I focus my thoughts on: do I spend more time thinking about what I can’t eat and how much I miss it, or do I change my focus to what I can eat, maybe looking up new recipes, learning about new spices, etc. Do I “change the channel” of my thoughts as I do when a food commercial comes on TV, or do I encourage dangerous thoughts that threaten my abstinence? I make these powerful choices many times a day. If I’m aware of that, I can choose differently.
I also choose not to focus on what I didn’t do perfectly in a given day. My yoga teacher said, “What we think about and talk about to ourselves all day is what we manifest more of in our lives.” I ask myself every night “what did I do right today?” If I end my day by focusing on any success, however small, abstinent or not, I am more likely to build on that success tomorrow.
I look, too, at my general attitude about life. Do I have an attitude of gratitude and hope? I can choose whether to focus my thoughts on what is going wrong in my life or what is going right. Almost every day has some of both. Focusing on gratitude and hope gives me a sense of balance and peace and, in that state of mind, I feel much less compulsive.
What are my thoughts about food and eating today? Are they based on the illusions of my disease or the reality of recovery? Do they enhance my feelings of success? Do they give me hope and gratitude? If not, why not choose other thoughts? It’s in my power; something I can do any time, any day.
That’s food for thought.