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Most people think of SOS as a secular organization for alcoholics. I am a
compulsive overeater and have struggled with a severe weight problem most of my adult life. Yet I have used SOS principles and gone from 196 to 110 pounds in 18 months. Even more importantly, I've maintained my current weight for a year.
My problems with food started early. For as long as I can remember, it has been a magical source of comfort and
enjoyment for me. As a child, I eagerly anticipated meats with my favorite dishes, and while eating, felt transported into a private, wondrous realm. Food gave me a high, and I turned to it in response to nearly every strong emotion. I ate to relieve tension, anger, and depression, as well as to celebrate and even just to break the boredom. Though I overate as a child, I did not develop a weight problem until adolescence, when I gained many pounds in a few years.
In college, I went on serious eating binges where I quickly stuffed myself with junk food. I swung between binge periods and months of strict dieting, entering the classic weight-loss yo-yo. I would lose some weight, then put it all back on and gain even more, then shed further pounds, then regain them. In the five years before joining SOS, I had yo-yoed up to almost 200 pounds-quite obese for a 5'2" woman.
I felt horribly disgusted with myself for being so fat, but I was even more frightened by feeling that I was completely out of control. I felt I could not stop. eating until I was totally stuffed. I often could not fall asleep unless I had binged before going to bed and was nearly sick to my stomach.! was going to great lengths to hide my binges from my family and friends. I often bought bags full of drive-in fast foods and binged on them in the car. I then threw away the wrappers and frantically tried to air out the car so my husband wouldn't discover what I'd done.
My 12-Step Experience
Before SOS, I had achieved my most sustained weight loss in a 12-step program for overeaters. The program exhilarated me at first. I loved the group support. For the first time in my life, I was talking with people who had done the same crazy things with food that I had. It helped relieve the shame and isolation. I also found that calling group members when things got bad was very helpful.
However, because I never believed in a higher power who could take responsibility for my recovery, I grew more and more disenchanted with the 12-step approach. Yet I was always too frightened to voice my true feelings, especially when members told me that doubting the higher power showed vanity, ego, and denial of my problem. I often heard that it wasn't enough to eat sensibly, lose weight, and rely on group support. If I didn't somehow complete this mysterious journey through the 12 steps, I would return to overeating. Because I was both frightened and grateful1 I tried to play along, but after a while, I began to feel fraudulent and ashamed. I also wearied of the mental calisthenics of translating 12-step jargon into concepts that I could accept. Eventually, I stopped attending O.A. meetings and regained all the weight I had lost.
When I heard about SOS over two years ago, I was desperate. The 12-step program had aided me temporarily, but
I could not imagine pretending again that a spiritual approach would lead me to recovery. Yet I knew I needed help. I attended a Los Angeles SOS meeting, and though the other members were primarily alcoholics or drug abusers, they said a
lot that was important.
SOS for Overeaters
Since then, I've used many SOS principles in my own recovery (adjusting them here and there to address the differences between alcohol and food problems). For example, I believe that I must acknowledge that I am a compulsive overeater. I must accept the fact that I have a food problem - whether genetic, physical, psychological, or some mixture of all of them - and I must change my eating and lifestyle to keep myself from bingeing, weight gain, and poor health.
Through hard experience, I've come to believe that my overeating could threaten my life. I could slowly kill myself
with health problems from the yo-yoing weight gain and pernicious junk-food diet of compulsive overeating.
I also separate my eating and behavior program -- my "abstinence"-- from all other issues in my life. I don't use food
to deal with my emotions, and I don't use problems as an excuse for overeating.
I've also found that the SOS emphasis on rational, critical thinking, and individual responsibility is especially helpful for overeaters. Overeaters have a different relation to food than alcoholics do to alcohol. Alcoholics must make One Big Decision -- not to drink. But overeaters, like everyone else, must eat to survive. At least three or four times everyday, we must make decisions about food, and we must choose when, where, what, and how much to eat. It is therefore crucial that overeaters learn sound, responsible decision-making. Surrendering these choices to a higher power may be one of the worst things an overeater can do.
Instead, to create my program of recovery, I critically assessed the different approaches to nutrition and behavior
modification. I also looked to my own experience. Overeaters are diverse. For instance, we often have trouble with different kinds of foods. I usually binged on greasy, fried food, but others may tend to sugary foods or foods with white flour. Given the complexities of the situation and the puzzles of human metabolism, one person's ideal program may be another's iron maiden.
I developed an approach that has succeeded for me. It involves: . A low fat, high complex carbohydrate diet. . Avoidance of foods that triggered binges in the past. . Behavioral techniques that help me recognize when I have just satisfied my physiological hunger, and when my desire to eat is emotional rather than physical. . Planning ahead, so I have time to prepare meals that fit in with my food program. . Weighing and measuring my food occasionally,
so I know how much I'm eating. . Exercise. Bike riding, jogging, and weight lifting have been crucial to my recovery. They not only burn calories, but kilt appetite. They also vaporize the tensions than can cause binges in the first place.
My program is not "the program". That program does not exist. But the SOS approach is highly favorable for overeaters to fashion the program that suits them.
Using the SOS Meeting Structure
I would make the following suggestions for people with food problems - overeaters as well as bulimics, anorexics, and others - who wish either to attend SOS meetings with alcoholics and other drug abusers or to start separate
Create your own food and behavior modification program -- your own abstinence -- but don't impose it on others. Consistent with the SOS emphasis on individual responsibility for recovery, group members should retain responsibility for decisions about their abstinence. Too many times we've been subjected to rigid, prefabricated diets that ignored our individuality, then been made to feel guilty because and humiliated if we couldn't stick to them. Therefore, there should be no uniform SOS food or behavior program no "official" SOS diet. Instead, SOS meetings can be a forum where individuals with food problems share their experiences about what works for them, and discuss nutrition and eating behavior rationally and critically.
Start simply. Part of the appeal of a rigid program is that beginners can start at once. The drawback is that they can't progress. Since the SOS approach lacks hard structure, newcomers may have difficulty getting started. Some may feel they require a preset pattern. These individuals can consult a doctor or nutrition specialist, or adopt some food program that has worked for them in the past. But others may simply feel overwhelmed by the responsibility for making massive and complex changes in their eating and behavior. These people can begin with simple changes.
A newcomer could decide to stop eating while watching television, or between meals, or in the car. He or she could swear off two or three foods that have triggered binges. Once started, the newcomer can set a time - one month, two months - and at the end of it, evaluate the effect of the changes and the desirability of further ones. This reassessment should continue periodically, until the newcomer develops and fine-tunes a working personal program.
Take advantage of the group support of alcoholics and other drug abusers at SOS meetings. Despite the different problems, I strongly believe that people with food problems can benefit from these meetings. I was very fortunate to be warmly welcomed at the Los Angeles meetings I first attended, though for a long time I was the only overeater present. I found discussions on the difficulties of facing life without relying on my drug of choice to be particularly helpful and I very much empathized with other people's struggle for recovery.
In areas with too few people for food-oriented SOS meetings, it is especially important that existing SOS meetings permit overeaters to attend. Many overeaters are desperate for secular group support, yet either lack the resources for commercial weight loss programs or dislike their rigid diets. SOS can help these individuals, and the lack of overeater SOS meetings need not prevent them from obtaining the support they need.
Since I began a secular approach to recovery, my life has improved dramatically. I've lost 86 pounds and dropped down through eight dress sizes. I can now enjoy many kinds of physical activity. Small changes continue to excite and amaze me. My car doesn't always smell like food. I can actually stop when I've eaten enough, and leave food on my plate. In the morning, I don't feel the bizarre mixture of nausea and intense hunger that comes from bingeing the night before. I've been able to maintain my self-respect and intellectual honesty throughout my recovery. I haven't had to surrender my rational, critical faculties to deal with my eating problems. Instead I've used them as allies. For me, it's been indispensable.
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