Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What is Abstinence and why does yours matter to me?

In Overeaters Anonymous we make a huge deal about one little word. Abstinence! It is mentioned one time in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Doctor Silkworth mentions it in the "Doctors Opinion." It is hardly ever mentioned in an AA meeting. The concept of abstinence is simply the act of not drinking booze, simple but there is no "easy" for any addiction.  But with food we are required to nourish ourselves. I can't "not eat," I will die. In OA we are talking about abstaining from compulsive food behaviors. In my case overeating. But I must eat food. Some people deal with this by calling their "Abstinence" based on foods. "My abstinence is no sugar" is pretty popular. No flour, wheat, grease or any other particular food item is what many people in OA call being "Abstinent." But folks seem to struggle. Why is it so hard? I think it is because we focus on what we can't do instead of what we can. In reality we are striving to refrain from eating unnaturally by refraining from eating.

What does "unnaturally" mean? For the purpose of this blog it means without real cause. We should be eating because we need nutrition As a compulsive eater, I eat because it's there, or I'm upset or happy or… I could go on forever, any excuse is a good one. Other people with compulsive behaviors around food, bulimics, anorexia, exercise bulimia all do their behaviors for "unnatural" reasons as well. An anorexic will not eat because in their minds eye they are fat, they fight their natural tendency to eat to "look good" or some other physically morphism they perceive. Same with Bulimics, or Exercise Bulimics. They do the behaviors because in their mind, they have to. To "get skinny," "be healthy" or some other idea that consumes their lives. 

But we all still must eat.

Abstinence is avoiding food behaviors that are destructive. It is not about the last time you ate flour, wheat, sugar or pasta. It is about no longer acting on your food compulsion.

"Why does it matter if I consider my abstinence to be from sugar or from compulsive eating?" I'm glad you asked.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous starting on page 101 paragraph 2:
"In our belief any scheme of combating alcoholism which proposes to shield the sick man from temptation is doomed to failure. If the alcoholic tries to shield himself he may succeed for a time, but he usually winds up with a bigger explosion than ever. We have tried these methods. These attempts to do the impossible have always failed."

This has been my experience with food.  I may have controlled my eating for a while.  In the end I ended up eating more and gaining weight and ended up worse than before. If I continued to consider what I could not do, I became obsessed by what I was denying myself.  By focusing on what I can eat, I no longer need to think about what I can't.  I've found my obsession over eating food I don't need is lifted.

And yet in "the Rooms" we preach avoiding our "binge foods" at all costs. I am not suggesting for an instant one should eat what they consider "binge foods." But simple self knowledge is handy, but not a cure.  The idea that avoiding them, not being in the same room or not going someplace that serves them is a prescription for relapse. We focus so much on "the food" we stop looking at the real problem – Our compulsive behavior. It's so much easier to complain that "sugar" is evil or flour is "addictive." I've got news for you, anything can be an addiction. Nicotine, sex, eating, washing hands, cleaning, doing laundry.. We could go on ad infinitum. The truth is the real problem lies in the fact as a compulsive we are not capable of stopping. If I could control my eating I would not have weighed well over 600 pounds at one time.

So what is the problem? Well there have been studies showing compulsive eaters have brains that react to food much like alcoholic's react to alcohol. It is not like a normal brain. Is it genetic or learned behavior? Why does that matter. At this point in my life, I am a compulsive eater. I will never get cured. But I can be "recovered" in the way a cancer patient is recovered from cancer. I use cancer because the metaphor fits. A cancer patient might recover from a tumor of some kind, they are considered "recovered" or in remission. But the fact of the matter is every time they get cancer, they are much more likely to get it again. They are never cured from cancer. They are recovered. So it is with compulsive food behaviors. Like cancer you are only more likely, not completely sure to get cancer, or relapse into the food behavior that got you here.

In order to change your behavior, regardless if it is programed by nurture or genetic code, something has to change. Doctor Silkworth called it a "psychic change" (BBoAA page xxvii paragraph 1) and some folks consider this the "Spiritual Experience" the Big Book talks about. This is where the rubber meets the road, the bullet hits the mark or the compulsive is set free. The Psychic change. If we focus on the physical only, what not to eat, we can never really learn how to eat. That is my problem as a compulsive eater. I don't know how to eat like a normal person. How to stop when I'm full, or to eat only when I need nutrition. I can convince myself that I am hungry 15 minutes after eating lunch, it is part of the insanity.

The only way a drunk stays sober, an addict stays clean or a food compulsive learns to eat like a real person is if this psychic change occurs. There are no substitutes or "kinder, gentler ways." Abstinence is an absolute, you are or you are not.  I will give you a hint, a food plan is what you do and abstinent is what you are. You either eat compulsively or you do not. It is like being pregnant. You either are or you aren't, and you didn't become abstinent alone.

So why is your real abstinence important to me? Because if you are abstinent, I can see the system really works, I can draw encouragement from your success. I can see it is really a program that works. It strengthens my belief in a resolution. A program where at some point I can be in a "position of neutrality - safe and protected" (BBoA Page 85, top of page) from any food. Whatever "it" is, it no longer has power over me, not because I don't eat it, but because I don't care. It has no effect at all. Your abstinence is part of the strength and hope a new comer, who is suffering pain you have known, can see and believe it works, with that belief they can develop the tools they need to be recovered as well.

This is where serenity can be found. In the ability not have to think about it. To be able to accept what I don't eat is not important, but how and why I do eat. Not just the "what" I eat but the very reason and attitude that governs my eating. That is where the success is found, in eating in a normal way for a normal purpose.

Gregor - Back from the brink! From there and back again. A spiritual Hobbits journey.


  1. At this writing I am down 128 pounds. I have 10 months of continuous abstinence from compulsive eating

  2. Thanks for writing this, Gregor. I've been struggling and just restated my abstinence and food plan with my sponsor. It's the compulsive behaviors that set me back. I will focus on what portions I CAN have. Thank you again.