Abstinence: Paradox Is the Key

Note: Judy wrote this article in July 1992 after we had completed the manuscript on Addictionary but before it was published. We were doing our Food Addiction Workshop and we were frustrated that many of our clients were returning home and reporting much poorer OA meetings than the ones they had attended while in our Workshop. We hope it’s much better now, wherever you live.

Recovery from an eating addiction using the Twelve Step model takes place in paradox. A paradox is an experience that is true, but when described with words, seems contradictory. The truths of the recovery program are filled with paradox. For example: “Only you can do it, but you can’t do it alone.”

Step One, admitting that you are powerless over your disease, your eating addiction, is an essential awareness to begin to use the rest of the Steps. Many food addicts never have this experience at depth. Years of using will power and looking for the magic diet or food plan make it hard to accept the idea that you cannot find a way to control.

The Illusion of Control

There is a factor in recovery from food addiction that is different from alcoholism recovery. When you give up trying to control alcohol, you can avoid it. When you give up trying to control food, you still have to eat. So it is easy to understand that you feel you need a way to eat to control it. Many food addicts are actually looking for a way to control. Often in the Overeaters Anonymous fellowship, newcomers are given some sort of checklist for their abstinence. Examples are: “Follow this food plan, call in your food every day, make three phone calls a day, write down your food, go to ninety meetings in ninety days.”

Checklists block the grace that produces the spiritual awakening described in Step Twelve.

Miracle, Not Magic

Recovery in 0A is a miracle, not magic. Miracles are mystery. We don’t create them. We observe them. Magic involves finding a way to control, some secret, some way, in essence, to have God-like powers.iIr1 doing that, we may create idols, looking for some special talisman in an attempt to wrest control.

You can find damaging idols in food plans, some set of rules or a checklist, or some technique that will give the illusion of relief. This only works temporarily. But it blocks the miracle, the gift, the grace that results from understanding that you are not God, and that you do not have ultimate control. And you probably live in fear that you are not doing it right, that you might make a mistake and lose control. For truly, you are not perfect. You are not God.

It helps to understand the difference between willfulness and willingness. To use will is to make choices. We can choose objects, things that are concrete, but there are conditions we cannot will. Distortions in this realm are common in modern society. We can will to earn lots of money, but not happiness. Food addicts try to will happiness by becoming thin. Willingness requires being open to trust, to being changed, to being chosen. Willingness allows you to participate. It does not give you control.

The Paradox

The paradox in food addiction recovery is that you must do the footwork. There is an original meaning of the word “earn” that is appropriate in finding spirituality — it means to “make one’s own.” You do that by the building, the toil and sweat of the work you do. Then you are in a position to receive the gifts, the “Promises” the program offers.

Paradox has existed in religion throughout history. It is the same paradox as initiating changes so you can let things happen. An example: If you want a beautiful garden, you have to plow the ground, plant the seeds, make sure it gets water and sunshine. But there is nothing you can do to make the flowers grow. God does that. Recovery takes place in the context of this paradox.

There are things human beings can and cannot do, can and cannot will. Food addiction recovery requires an understanding of this idea. That is why storytelling is the essence of spirituality, as addicts tell what it used to be like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Stories reveal that humans have some choices and freedoms, but they are limited. Though limited, freedom is real. Every story will have elements that involve cause, choice, and chance. This type of spirituality in stories reveals that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

The Footwork

Getting abstinent involves the paradox of doing the footwork and trusting your Higher Power for the results — a mini-version of Steps 1, 2, and 3. The footwork is that you do make choices to find a sensible food plan, go to meetings, read literature, talk and listen to others, and learn what it means to use the Twelve Steps in your recovery.

Refraining from addictive eating is an initial, critical beginning of the process. OA’s classic "3-0-1" is a good start. This suggests three moderate meals, with nothing in between, one day at a time. Many understand “moderate” to exclude certain binge foods, such as high-sugar desserts.

Before eating, to help dispel the illusion that you are in control, take a few moments to totally relax. You can’t control anything when you are relaxed. Then you can be aware of your Higher Power providing the guidance and strength for that abstinent meal. And be aware of gratitude before, during, and after.

The fact that food addicts must face food three times a day is even more reason to rely on a Higher Power instead of depending on your own. Hundreds of thousands in Alcoholics Anonymous credit their sobriety to the grace of God. Surely God’s grace is not discriminatory.

With the Program, the Steps, other people, meetings, and doing the footwork, you can be in a state to experience the mystical paradox of the miracle of abstinence. And it can last day after day, year after year, one day at a time.

— Judith A. Wilson, 28 July 1992

The author is indebted to Ernest Kurtz and Michael Samuels for ideas presented in this paper. She highly recommends The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham (1992, New York: Bantam Books, ISBN 0-553-08300-7) and Healing with the Mind’s Eye by Michael Samuels (1990, New York: Summit Books, ISBN 0-67168-215-6).

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