Note: Jan wrote this article in August 1992 after we had completed the manuscript for the Addictionary, while we were still doing the Food Addiction Workshops in Florida. We were frustrated that our clients were not finding at home healthy OA groups like the meetings they went to while they were in our Workshop. We hope this has changed, and we would love to hear about your experiences where you live.
This article is only for those who have addictions other than or in addition to alcoholism. Or if you are close to people like that. Did we lose anybody?
I have been working professionally with addictions for over twenty years. For all of that time I have been keenly interested in how other addictions and addictive processes relate to the “standard” addiction, alcoholism.
For convenience I’ll focus on eating disorders in this article, but with slight modification these comments could apply to virtually any kind of addictive behavior, including those often called co-depend-ency. We’ll explore the problems, but set our sights on developing solutions.
One Addiction or Many
I often see people trying to work twelve steps for their alcoholism, another set of twelve for their drug addiction, another twelve for their co-dependency, twelve for their compulsive eating, and then they go to a non-twelve-step program for their tobacco addiction. Let’s see, now, kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to St. Ives? If you didn’t understand that sentence, it simply means how confused we can get while missing the main point.
Step Twelve says, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps …” It was a long time before I noticed that it said “the result,” not “a result.” The Steps are a great set of tools to achieve the spiritual awakening that gives you the way out of any kind of addictive behavior, emotions, thinking, or spiritual void.
I can remember when alcoholics used to talk about “booze of choice.” Then it became “drug of choice.” I have started thinking about “addiction of choice.” With that I really mean addictive behavior of choice, because I see no problem with the idea of addiction being one disease, with many ways to express itself.
I also remember when alcoholics were very resistant to thinking of alcoholism and drug addiction as the same disease. Part of the reason was those alcoholics who weren’t drinking but still smoking pot. Others liked their status of having, say, eight years of sobriety and could not tolerate the idea of being a beginner in another program.
Intoxication from alcohol is different from intoxication due to cocaine. These are vastly different from any intoxication that may come from starving or bingeing on large quantities of food, or certain foods. Those differences are important at the level of identification with others, but a deeper level of addiction has little to do with intoxication. The insanity referred to in the Second Step is not why an addict drinks, binges, or uses in the height of detoxification — that is easy to understand. The insanity is why, after surviving that detox and experiencing the freedom of recovery, anybody should go back to the behavior that caused all these problems.
One of my favorite jokes is about a group called Addictions Anonymous, where members would refrain from any addictive behavior of any sort. Only their anniversary tokens would represent the number of hours free from any addiction! Actually, I think the main reason (and a very good one) for having many different twelve step groups is so the newcomer will find it easier to identify with other addicts. The steps, and the program, are the same. Though you may have to go to more than one Twelve Step group, there are only twelve steps. You do not have to do 24 or 36 or 48 steps.
From Treatment to Twelve Steps
In the late 70s we began to see an explosion of chemical dependency treatment programs more or less based on the recovery principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, with varying degrees of professional counseling expertise. In the late 80s most of these programs began to see their census decline, and many of them turned to eating disorders, co-dependency, or other addictions, largely to fill empty beds. Lots of them tried to make direct translations from chemical dependency to, for example, eating disorders.
If you know very little about addictions other than chemical dependency, your focus will be on trying to find a substance that is ingested or otherwise brought into the body from outside. Even alcoholism professionals often overlook the fact that the body’s neurochemical response to the outside substance is probably more important than the “substance.” After all, chemicals of abuse are powerful because they mimic the action of natural neurotransmitters. It is reasonable to assume that the body can become addicted to excesses of its own drugs, like endorphins, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and others. If you know any genuine exercise addicts, you can see a full-fledged addiction with no external drugs at all.
Treatment programs for food addiction have made a very poor case for their belief that there is some substance in food that has the same effect on food addicts as alcohol does on alcoholics. The substance most often mentioned is sugar, or sugar and white flour, or sugar, flour, and wheat. While it is entirely possible that a large amount of these common foods could play a part in the physical addiction, it would be very difficult to prove to either dietitians or to the public, that sugar equals alcohol. Can you honestly say that you would be just as upset to learn that your airline pilot had just had a Twinkie as a glass of Champagne?
How Much Recovery in the Rooms
A real difference between alcoholism and food addiction (and many other addictions) is that there is simply not as much quality recovery in Twelve Step groups like Overeaters Anonymous, compared to AA. If you don’t believe this, visit several open OA meetings and several open AA meetings in your area. Ask people how long they have been continuously abstinent from compulsive eating or alcohol, respectively. If there is abstinence from bingeing, see whether what you hear sounds like freedom from obsession, or is it obsession with food plan, diet, and body image.
If you do find good recovery in OA, that’s wonderful. We’d like to hear about it, too. We don’t want to run down OA, but we think the greatest obstacle to recovery from food addiction is the lack of recovery in the rooms. It is largely a “chicken-and-the-egg” problem; there is not likely to be better recovery until there are more recovering people in the meetings.
Living in the Solution
Our first suggestion is that treatment programs and individuals in recovery groups take food addiction seriously. We intervene on alcoholics and send them to treatment programs. If they can’t stay sober, we send them to halfway houses, or whatever it takes to gain continuous sobriety. Food addicts are often unwilling to spend money, time, and energy on their recovery, unless some treatment center accepts insurance (usually requiring something bordering on insurance fraud), pays for transportation, and (usually illegally) absorbs the cost of the co-insurance.
Instead of the traditional 90 meetings in 90 days of AA, food addicts struggling to get abstinent seldom go to more than two or three meetings a week. They are often faced with a choice between “fat and serene” groups, where nobody is abstinent, and the opposite extreme of rigid, cultish groups that obsessively follow a harsh food plan. This kind of polarization effectively eliminates the kind of moderate recovery that we think leads to real freedom from addiction.
In our own food addiction workshops, we integrate the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of the disease and recovery. We strongly believe in individualized food plans to find the best compromise for a particular food addict. A food plan that is too lenient leaves one feeling lost and may encourage cravings. One that is too rigid sets the food addict up for obsession and resulting failure.
It is very important for professionals in food addiction to network with each other, to try to sort out the scarce research, and to improve professional ethics and treatment standards. Those in recovery should consider themselves pioneers, like the very early AA members, and find and pass on ideas for recovery.
Pass It On
The situation is not hopeless. There are members of OA with over ten years of continuous abstinence from compulsive eating. There just aren’t many of them. Food addicts and those who treat them have to dispel some myths, learn something about nutrition, and find ways to duplicate the patterns of strong recovery that have worked in AA. Someday newcomers will walk into Overeaters Anonymous and find tha most have been abstinent for over a year, are at or near a normal weight, and no longer struggle daily with food. Why shouldn’t the “Promises” of AA apply to food and other addicts as well?
— Jan R. Wilson, 22 August 1992
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.