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Does OA work?

“I don’t eat no matter what… “

or 

IDENMW as they say in certain OA and FA circles.  

I have an extremely complicated history and relationship with both Food Addict Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, both as a clinician who treats eating disorders and as a past member. A lot of people ask me “Does Overeaters Anonymous work?” It’s definitely not black and white. It “works” for some but not for others- but you have to define what “works” means.  I want to share with you some of my personal history with it. 

 

My First Experience with OA

Back in the 1990’s,  when we were flannel clad teenagers, my friend Melissa and I sat in a field discussing when we would be able to go off our diets. We’d been drinking Diet Coke since our Bat Mitzvahs and trying to lose weight for longer than that. “Will we ever get there?” we wondered. Our mothers, both in their early 40’s at the time were still dieting. Thin, but dieting. Always dieting. When will it be done?  Doesn’t it seem like dieting should have some defined end? Like that you go on a diet for 6 months, lose your 10 pounds and then you’re not on a diet anymore? But no, we were always dieting, and our mothers- always dieting, and our mothers friends- always dieting and our Aunts and cousins and friends’ mothers – always dieting. It didn’t end.  And so when Melissa ended up dieting herself into a nasty bingeing and purging habit that lasted years, her therapist insisted that she join Overeaters Anonymous to cure her. “It worked.” I say it that way because it worked in the sense that she stopped bingeing and purging. She also finally lost the 10 pounds. Plus more. In fact, at 5’7″ she wound up weighing less than 100 pounds, losing her period and growing a nice coat of *lanugo all over her arms and legs.

I asked her if she was eating and she said, “Oh my god, I eat a ton! Lots of fat and oil and vegetables, and meat. It’s great.”

And then one day, after exactly 478 days of “abstinence”  she binged.

And it wasn’t just a binge- it was a binge that brought down the skies and the heavens and the thunders- one of biblical proportions where hours ran into days ran into weeks ran into months. She stopped answering her phone, she stopped leaving her house except at night to go to the 24 hour grocery store to buy binge foods, she stopped going to work and to school…  It was a binge that cost thousands of dollars,  that clogged her toilet with vomit and it was a binge that hit her with a force that felt unbeatable. She was crushing under the weight of it. She couldn’t stop bingeing, she couldn’t stop purging, she couldn’t stop running to the store to buy more binge foods. She put on 70 pounds in 6 weeks.  “Fuck,” she told me, *”I need help.”

That’s where her relationship with OA ended. Her friends and sponsor dropped her, she couldn’t get back to where she was and she hated herself. She wound up back in treatment but this time without OA. 

My next was sometime right after college.  Although I was no longer dieting, no longer restricting, no longer controlling my food, I still felt trapped in thinking too much about weight, body image and calories. It was making me crazy and I wanted it to stop. I longed to feel peaceful around food and embrace my body. A friend of mine who I respected enormously told me that she had found deep recovery in FA, that she no longer had any desire to count calories, hadn’t binged or purged in over a decade and really felt comfortable in her body. She said she just didn’t worry about anything food related. I wanted what she had. So, together, we went to her home meeting where she  introduced me to  my new sponsor, Kate. When Kate first met me, she looked me up and down, sneered and said, “you’re not fat, why are you here?” I explained to her that I wanted peace around food and my body image. I didn’t want to worry about calories and I was sick of unintentionally doing math in my head all day long- that it was stressful and I just wanted to be free. She gave me a food plan and she assured me that it would cure me but said that  I had to buy an electronic food scale, an electronic human scale, weigh and measure every morsel that I ate and call her at 6am each morning and report my weight and my food into her. I explained to her that I didn’t want to be on a food plan and I didn’t like to weigh myself. She told me that this was the way that I could have the recovery that I wanted without being willful or being stuck in my disease. She said that the food plan was the way out- but that I had to follow it perfectly otherwise it wouldn’t work. She told me that there was a line of people waiting to be her sponsee so if I didn’t want help and I didn’t want to recover and if I wanted to spend the rest of my life a compulsive overeater that it was fine, that I should leave.  I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Rather than finding a different sponsor (now I know) I  decided to work with Kate, because after all, it was the only way and she had lines of people behind me begging her to be their sponsor. She must be right. 

The first day on my meal plan,  I was so hungry that I ate an extra apple between breakfast and lunch. Kate scolded me and told me that it showed a defect of character. If I was hungry I needed to drink black coffee, black tea, diet coke or chew sugar free gum.  Each night I went to bed feeling starved, with my hands on my belly feeling my ribs for inspiration and saying “I don’t eat no matter what- I don’t eat no matter what…” as I tried desperately to go to sleep. My eating disorder hands and eyes were reactivated as I felt the outlines of my bones and stepped on the scale every morning. The obsession was familiar and it was easy. It was easy to get pulled back into that vortex. Only this time, my Eating Disorder wasn’t inside my head- it was Kate. I’d allowed her to be the voice of Ed- dictating my behaviors for me and shaming me if I went off program by taking a bite of a carrot while I was prepping my lunch – and sending me back to day 1. I felt like Sisyphus.

I drank gallons of diet coke each day and chewed packs of sugar free gum. My stomach swelled up from the aspartame and carbonation- I wasn’t able to run or swim or exercise at all- I found myself breathless,  my thought process was often slowed down and to be frank, I hated my sponsor.  It was this one day that I was sitting there and more than anything I wanted to put some milk into my tea. My stomach was so bloated and I was so hungry. I called my sponsor to tell her how stressed out I was- how I wanted to go for a run but I had no energy, that I wanted to hang out with my friends but they were going out to a cafe and I couldn’t sit around all that latte’s without wanting one,  that I was depressed, that I hated the way I felt. She told me that I should be grateful for being abstinent, that I shouldn’t think about running or socializing or exercise, that it was the time to figure out my food shit, to go to a meeting, that my complaining was showing a defect of character. I just wanted to put some goddamned milk in my tea. And that’s when I realized it, this group was insane and it was driving me crazy as well. I knew that putting milk in my tea wasn’t worse than drinking liters and liters of diet coke a day. Yet in this sect of FA- putting milk in my tea meant I had a character defect, but drinking liters of diet coke every day was okay- chewing gobs of gum was okay.  Honestly – there wasn’t much payoff for me- Besides an initial couple of pounds, I wasn’t losing much weight at all- which in retrospect, I understand was a good thing- my body was at a healthy weight and my metabolism had slowed way down to compensate for the restriction of calories- the numbers in my mind had only gotten worse. I called Kate and told her that was leaving the program that moment.

Being an FA drop out was a no-brainer for me. But it’s not like that for everybody. 

I have seen people go in and lose 100’s of pounds for the first time in their lives- and then feel like they owed that organization their life. But when they decided to go off plan or put weight back on (which lots of folks do) all the people who supported them, the most important people in their lives turned their back on them, shamed them. Made them feel like they were bad people. Because they ate cake or because they wanted something different. I’ve seen women who haven’t had periods for years- and have that be supported by the group, with many women telling them, “yeah, that’s normal, nobody here gets their period…”  In some cases of OA- eating disorders are supported and it just becomes a huge support for ED under the cloak of recovery. 

And that’s part of what makes OA and FA so confusing. 

My next experience with OA was when I was a graduate student in Psychology learning how to treat Eating Disorders. I interned at an Intensive Outpatient Treatment Center for women with Eating Disorders. The protocol was that every client needed to go to 3 OA meetings a week- no arguments – or they were out of treatment. It was rough. Although many clients were  getting amazing recovery, finding lots of support and fellowship in the rooms,  some were feeling traumatized, pained and so wounded by the program, but they couldn’t leave otherwise they’d be kicked out of treatment and then where would they go? It was definitely extremely difficult to watch and be a part of. I knew how wounding OA could be and I saw that their choices were being taken away from them. Sometimes in recovery, taking away choices is liberating- that way the patient has nothing to focus on except themselves, but other times it is extremely harmful. No two people or recovery stories looks the same so you have to find what works for you – for your mind, body and spirit wholly. 

My own personal experience with FA had really skewed my feelings about the fellowship. The problem is that FA and often Overeaters Anonymous tells people how to eat and teaches them not to trust their instincts. And that’s really the concept that they are coming from, “you are a compulsive eater and so you can’t trust your instincts because your instincts will always be to overeat.” This is a cognitive distortion known as emotional reasoning.  You believe something to be true and so it is.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
Henry Ford

You believe that you cannot stop after one bite of chocolate – or that if you eat flour or sugar- it will lead you to binge eat and you’ll never be able to stop, so the best thing to do is not eat it at all. This belief triggers black and white thinking for most.

In OA- where people count days of “abstinence” from their drug of choice (food), they have to start their day count all over again if they eat even a cracker or a slice of white bread. So, let’s say you were in OA and you had 100 days off of sugar and flour. Then one day you had a small bite of birthday cake. You would have to start on day one the next day- so you ruined your abstinence already- why wouldn’t you go to the store and buy a gallon of ice cream and cake- you’ve ruined your abstinence and have to start on day one tomorrow anyway. OA is a huge setup for binge eating. They will tell you that you cannot eat birthday cake because it will trigger a binge for you. You then believe that one bite of sugar will trigger a binge for you and so it does. And it should because your belief is that your day count is ruined and after today you won’t be able to have any cake again, so you might as well binge on all the cake you can. See what I’m getting at? Certain sects of OA keeps people in huge diet mentality and shames them (it’s a defect of character) if they eat off program. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You think that one bite of white bread or a bite of birthday cake will lead to a gigantic binge and so it does- and all the parameters for that to happen are set up in the OA infrastructure.  And then, a binge eating habit or disorder gets activated.

I’ve had hundreds of clients over the years come in both damaged and traumatized by groups like OA, Greysheets, HOW, and Food Addicts Anonymous. They are in a place where they can’t stop bingeing and they are feeling shamed and angry at themselves. They just want to get their abstinence back- but they can’t. They can do 10 days or 2 weeks – but they seem to just not be able to get to that multi-year abstinence that “everyone else” has. Oh yeah, that’s the other thing- they somehow believe that they are alone in their struggles with OA.  They believe that they are the only ones and that they are bad. The feel ashamed. OA then becomes their own inner critic and often takes the place of their own over-critical parent.  It’s retraumatizing. They’ve given their own inner critic an office and a team. And the worst part is feeling totally alone, without your tribe, your village.  If you are someone who feels  this way, you are not alone. I see multiple OA/FA drop outs each year who have scars and trauma from the fellowship, who have been rejected by this “family” because they cannot get their abstinence back. You are not alone. If you are not comfortable with the group and you have an instinct that something is wrong, their probably is. 

But is there any good to OA? 

YES! Definitely. OA is a fellowship where you can find other folks struggling with the same issues that  you are. One of the best things that you can do for recovery is get support and OA definitely has support. There are some amazing OA groups out there- where you will find smart, kind people who want to help you recover spiritually and not make it all about the food.   There are some people who have life long amazing recovery in the rooms.  Though I’ve seen people find pain in OA, I’ve also seen people find amazing recovery. There are some really amazing fellowships out there that don’t rely on food plans, or rigid rules. You have to find what works for you. As they say, take what you need and leave the rest.

If you want to find some recovery in OA here are my suggestions- this is what I’ve seen that really helps people recover in OA.  

1. Don’t define your abstinence as abstinence from a food. Define it as abstinence from a process. For example: Abstinent from obsessing about food and calories. Abstinent from dieting. Abstinent from bingeing. But never abstinent from flour or sugar or anything like that. That puts you right back into diet mode. 

2. Find a sponsor who will work on you with your steps – but not with a food plan- don’t call your food into anyone. If you need a food plan for recovery- please see a registered dietician who specializes in treating eating disorders. Find one here or here.

3. Find like minded people who report a recovery of self love, kindness and  a mind body and spirit connection. Try to stay away from the weight loss and dieting parts of OA. 

4. Go to several different meetings until you find one that really resonates with you. 

5. Consider eating disorders anonymous as well. Their principals are more aligned with eating disorders as a process and dieting as part of that process.

6. Understand that everyone is doing the best that they can– have compassion for everyone around you and honor their process. Don’t judge people’s choices in OA nor their relapses, it’s always important to have oodles and oodles of compassion for yourself and for those around you. Honoring your own process might mean that your needs change at different times.  

The situation is not black and white. There are many people who have found complete peace with food and their body image in OA- however there are as many who have not. If it feels right and good and your are happy- stay. But if it feels bad – listen to your instincts. You have everything you need inside of you to know what you need. 

Articles about OA worth reading.

Why OA Doesn’t Work

Why I left Overeaters Anonymous

Inside Overeaters Anonymous

Power, Control, & Overeaters Anonymous

How Overeaters Anonymous Saved Me

Using OA after Bariatric Surgery

 

 

*Lanugo is soft light blond peach fuzz that grows on women who have anorexia

*After years of treatment, both in patient and therapy- her bulimia is in full remission, she is on the other side of recovery and she’s a successful surgeon.

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Most recent quote from community member: "Unbelievable progress. I had a slice of cake, wasn't that fussed about it and moved on. Cake is just cake! I never thought I'd get to this place. I keep thinking back to an earlier meditation when all the negative energy left down through my feet. That was really powerful. I'm planning to play it again. I've also drawn up a weekly meal plan of healthy balanced meals. This just helps to give me a bit of guidance and planning and eliminates any need for impulsive decisions when I often feel stressed after work. Amazing, thank you so much. I always hoped for hope, but n ow I feel like I'm living hope! I'm so grateful Leora. Thank you."
  • Susan Elizabeth

    Leora, thank you so much for writing this! I was so happy when I stumbled upon this article because it speaks directly to my experience with FA. What I try to explain to my family and friends when talking about my FA experience, I tell them that it enabled me (encouraged me, really) to hate myself even more than I did before…as if that were even possible. It caused Ed to be #1 VIP, and all the while I was dropping weight like CRAZY. Of course I thought I was happy (because thin is everything to someone plagued by Ed), but I was destroying myself in the process. I followed it to the letter for 2.5 years because I really did believe that I didn’t “deserve” to be a normal eater, and truly felt that this was the punishment I earned.

    Leaving FA was absolutely the right decision for me. I finally woke up and decided to try loving myself. It was a long and painful road and took me years of therapy and searching, but now I found this amazing group of fellow recoveries. And I am so grateful!! But man, the damage that FA inflicted really took its toll. So thank you again for shedding some more light on the subject. I do agree with you though that not all OA groups are “Ed disguised as recovery,” and can be great for many people.

  • Natasha Ruiz

    Thanks, Leora. Someone I know fell prey to OA and FAA in 2010 after years of overeating. She went from being a tie-dye clad hippie with a darling shape and the energy of an athlete to a frail, emaciated and emotionally weepy shell of a woman. She’s almost like a child now. Everything revolves around OA. Her husband moved her across the country (co-dependent???) and made it impossible for us to be there for her. I fear she will not be able to keep up this dangerous “abstinence” for the rest of her life. But what can you do???