My Higher Power Problem in Overeaters Anonymous

By Paige L. 06/27/19

Although I have a strong sense of higher power in my life, I did not understand how admitting one’s powerlessness and putting faith in a higher power would aid in eliminating my compulsive eating.

Overweight woman sitting on running track praying to her higher power
No matter how much I prayed, the change never happened.

I first encountered Overeaters Anonymous (OA) while hospitalized for having the disability of schizoaffective disorder, albeit in a roundabout way. During my stay, a woman came to the ward to share her story of success from her own schizoaffective disorder, during which she talked about how she lost over 100 pounds from participating in OA. Given that I too struggled with weight loss, I immediately was inspired by her story.

After her presentation, we exchanged contact information, and she began to offer her advice on how to win the battle of weight loss. She recommended I write down everything I eat, and within a few weeks I was counting calories. After being discharged from the hospital, I continued to lose weight, writing all my calories every day without fail for over two years. I lost 70 pounds in total.

I began to fall off with calorie counting when I started working full time, juggling the stress of my disability simultaneously. I began gaining weight again, then becoming further stressed when I started graduate school in social work while still working full time. While my mental wellness has become stronger and stronger, I still today struggle with compulsive eating and weight gain.

Given my friend’s success with OA, I wanted the program to work for me as well. I attended a meeting in my neighborhood, but immediately felt alienated with the higher power concept. Although I have a strong sense of higher power in my life, I did not understand how admitting one’s powerlessness and putting faith in a higher power would aid in eliminating my compulsive eating. No matter how much I prayed, the change never happened. I shed many a begging tear.

Subsequent visits to OA meetings did not clarify the concept of higher power. I wanted to philosophically discuss the nature of what it is, with others sharing how they worshipped, how they experienced their higher power as a force in their lives. Yet when people told their stories of recovery and abstinence, they merely referred to their spirituality in bare sentences. “I leaned on my higher power, and I was reformed.” “Hold on, and the miracle will come. It’s just around the corner.” This told me nothing about the strength of their spiritual senses.

I also experienced confusion about how the spirituality of the 12 steps applied to overeating overall. I felt that compulsive overeating was different from alcoholism and substance abuse, in that it does not result in as much harm towards others. And while virtually anyone would prefer not to be around people who are heavily drunk or on mood altering drugs, overeaters are not as shunned or disparaged. Further, there is nothing comparable to the issues of body image that are always closely entwined with overeating and which are sometimes the focus of discussion in OA meetings. Body positivity is a current movement in which people embrace all shapes and sizes as equally valid. There are also people who are sexually attracted only to those who are overweight or obese. This external perspective can have an effect on how we perceive our own behaviors around food and may even cause some people to reconsider whether they need to lose weight or participate in a program like OA. I can’t think of anything similar when it comes to alcoholism or drug addiction.

My personal faith includes the world manifesting according to the plan of a higher power that may not have my abstinence from compulsive eating in mind. Just because I ask for better eating habits, that does not mean that my desire will be granted. What of people who die due to tragic circumstances? Why do people suffer in general? I have cried and begged to my higher power for sobriety, and it has not been granted.

For me, OA meetings are not enriching enough to make time for in my busy schedule. Virtually everyone at the meetings I attended were older retired and disabled women, none of whom worked. I did not find mutuality with them, not due to their different life stages, but because they did not have the same packed schedule as me. It was easy for them to attend multiple meetings per week and calmly remain connected with their higher power, while I could barely manage to make time in my schedule to relax and be mindful. I did not see them as people I could imitate, and my attempts at finding a sponsor yielded similar feelings.

Attendees also were not people I wanted to be around in general. In previous years when I weighed less, incidentally when unemployed and still on disability benefits, I achieved weight loss because I frequently went to the women’s gym in my neighborhood. I made friends and got support from people in a mutual and empowering way, and I improved my physical health by exercising in classes and in the weight room. This felt like a more proactive use of my time than sitting in a circle idly, talking about an ambiguous higher power with physically inactive older adults.

My past experiences have taught me the winning combination to fighting compulsive overeating: counting calories by writing my food intake down, eating healthy foods, and attending the gym at least three times a week. Although this proves more difficult today because I am busy with full-time work and graduate school, I now manage to go twice weekly. I hope to bump it up to three times in the near future.

Although OA is not compatible with my sense of higher power, my investigation into the 12 steps proved to be an enriching experience. Many people have found recovery with 12-step programs, and it is important for me to understand how specifically it transforms lives, especially as a social work student. When people talk to me about how it benefits them, I can empathize and identify on a fundamental level. The 12 steps also symbolize a spiritual progression, from chaos and despair to spiritual wisdom and groundedness. My sense of spirituality is somewhat congruent with these concepts.

I personally embrace harm reduction as the resolution to my compulsive overeating. This is the concept that complete abstinence needs not be the immediate goal of recovery, but rather that one can taper off by reducing the harm of current practices. This lends to taking a practical step-by-step approach to recovery, inviting the idea that recovery is a journey and not a destination.

Harm reduction also seems more forgiving and affirming. These days, addiction is not always characterized as a disease that one remains afflicted with for their entire life; it’s often considered a behavior that is rooted in the need to address a certain underlying condition, such as stress or trauma. Relapse and slip-ups merely fall in stride with the bigger picture of life, and it’s not helpful to think of it as all-or-nothing.

I hope to achieve recovery in the near future with my own eating, but I also need to celebrate what I have already. I have a loving family and a wonderful network of friends who are passionate about mental health and social work. I have achieved wellness despite my grave disability of schizoaffective disorder, and I am successfully completing more obligations than many can muster. Although weight loss is not happening now, I know that my higher power has the best plans for me in mind, and that I should have faith in everything unfolding in its due time.

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Paige L. is a pseudonym for a social work student and writer who lives in New York