A meal, however simple, is a moment of intersection. It is at once the most basic, the most fundamental, of our life’s activities, maintaining the life of our bodies; shared with others it can be an occasion of joy and communion, uniting people deeply. —Elise M. Boulding
My name is B and I am a compulsive overeater in recovery, thanks to my Higher Power (HP). For many Quakers, Friend Boulding’s quote cited above is true. For them, a shared meal is the happy intersection of bodily nourishment and communal joy. Potluck or Friendly gatherings offer both enjoyment of good food and fellowship with others, possibly even the chance for worship sharing.
For me, however, as a compulsive eater, a shared meal is the occasion for mixed feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and paranoia. There are other Friends like me. For compulsive eaters like us, social events that involve food can trigger compulsive behaviors.
I know it’s my problem, not my meeting’s. I belong to a 12-step group for compulsive eaters, along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The goal for anyone in AA is sobriety, but how can a food addict achieve sobriety if food is necessary to live and the basis for communal living? The compulsive eater, food addict, sugar addict, binge-eater, or anorexic finds an answer in the Overeaters Anonymous (OA) concept of abstinence. “Abstinence” is defined in OA as “the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight.” Abstinence involves spiritual, emotional, and physical recovery by following and working through the 12 steps of recovery as outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (BBAA) and other specifically OA literature.
I discovered abstinence a while ago when, in worship, my Inner Guide told me that the Divine loves me and wants me to live a healthy life for as long as possible so that I can love and care for others. To be healthy and to live longer, I needed to lose weight in light of the many health risks associated with obesity. It was getting very hard for me to move around. My feet and legs hurt. I couldn’t keep up with children. I was at my wits’ end because no matter what I tried, the weight did not come off. Diets didn’t work because I had no willpower.
Luckily, just around that time, a friend/Friend mentioned the 12-step group where food abstinence is the goal. A little introspection made me realize that willpower doesn’t work for everyone and I am powerless to control my eating by myself (Step 1). I needed a Power higher than myself to give me a hand (Step 2), and I turned my lack of willpower over to my Higher Power (Step 3).
I have been with Friends for long enough to know about the testimonies of simplicity and integrity, but because of my long and deep denial about my compulsive eating problem, I had never made a connection between testimonies and the way I was consuming food. Abstinence was the missing link between my values and my behavior; it was a life-changing aha moment. Abstinence was, for me, the missing testimony, because the Divine wanted me to live a healthy life, not a double life. On the outside, my community saw me as a good Quaker woman, but inside, I was a glutton. I was living a lie, a life lacking in simplicity and integrity.
These feelings often made me leave meeting at social hour instead of enjoying the coffee, conversation, and fellowship. Inside, I was deeply ashamed to call myself a Quaker.
Actually, compulsive eaters like me generally avoid the term “gluttony,” but Step 4 of the 12 steps made me realize and admit that I am a glutton. I am not greedy for money or possessions, but I am greedy for food. Pre-recovery, I ate hastily, thoughtlessly, mindlessly. I couldn’t resist certain foods. I ate until I felt well beyond full. I sneaked food when my family members were out. I secretly binged when I was alone. At potlucks, I wanted to pile my plate high with food, but I stopped myself because of embarrassment. I wondered if people were watching what I took. I worried about whether I would be able to resist eating again when I went home. These feelings often made me leave meeting at social hour instead of enjoying the coffee, conversation, and fellowship. Inside, I was deeply ashamed to call myself a Quaker. Following the AA steps, I made a fearless moral inventory and discussed it with my sponsor, also a Friend (Step 5).
George Fox’s Journal did not seem to have much to say about the subject of eating, except to classify “gloutenie” as a vanity of the mind and a temptation of the flesh, along with many other distractions. Fox was following, perhaps, Philippians 3:18–19:
For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.
Some Christians classify gluttony as one of the cardinal sins. In Catholicism, gluttony is defined as a disordered or obsessive appetite, eating too much (overeating) or too little (anorexia), eating at any time (snacking), or all the time (grazing). Catholics see that overeating often hides a spiritual hunger that only God can satisfy. Food can be comforting or numbing. Catholicism offers the cardinal virtue of temperance as the antidote for gluttony; like abstinence, temperance offers a balance of food consumption with proper physical, social, and spiritual goals.
Why is gluttony a sin? The concept of sin is loaded with baggage, but this I know experientially: the Divine is the eternal spirit of love that nourishes us and sustains us. Divine Will is to love others and ourselves without conditions and without exceptions. A sin is a thought or action that is not love, interference that stems from fear or hate and that extends fear or hate. When I compulsively eat, I am not loving myself, and I am not loving my friends and family, because I am putting my health in jeopardy. When I overeat, I am interfering with love; I am extending fear or hate toward myself and the others who love me. This story in the second edition of the BBAA defines sin as interference with love:
For me, AA is a synthesis of all the philosophy I’ve ever read, all of the positive, good philosophy, all of it based on love. I have seen that there is only one law, the law of love, and there are only two sins; the first is to interfere with the growth of another human being, and the second is to interfere with one’s own growth.
In Step 6, I became ready to ask the Divine for forgiveness and release from my sins. In Step 7, I prayed. And prayed again. And again. This prayer is modeled on one in the BBAA:
Divine Spirit of Love, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you will remove from me every defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellow humans, especially the sins of gluttony and greed. Grant me strength and health, as I go out from here, to do your Will. Amen.
I harmed my meeting by letting my food compulsions interfere with my relationship to my community; I put my fears first. I was self-absorbed. In my greed, I did not follow the testimonies of simplicity and integrity.
Steps 8 and 9 involved acknowledging those I harmed and making amends to them. Selfishly, I harmed my family by focusing more on the food than on them at times, and by putting myself in danger and letting my health suffer. I harmed my meeting by letting my food compulsions interfere with my relationship to my community; I put my fears first. I was self-absorbed. In my greed, I did not follow the testimonies of simplicity and integrity.
Step 10 is repeat Steps 1–9, and repeat, and repeat. The testimonies of unity and community come into play in working through these steps as well because of the constant examination of conscience. The work done in a 12-step program leads me to a sense of inner peace and strength, so the peace testimony is involved. Also, given our testimony of equality in opposition to food injustice and inequality, I do not want to be a privileged, overfed glutton, or even to be perceived as one. This, of course, borders on vanity.
Step 11 asked (and continues to ask) me to strengthen my connection to the Divine even more, and to follow Divine Will in all things, including my food behavior. This has become part of my daily worship; I hope you will not mind my saying that I try to harness the power of Love/Truth (satyagraha) in my personal life (with all due respect to Gandhi and King Jr.). I pray that Divine Will in and through me is powerful enough to resist the lying comfort and immediate gratification that food offers me.
Step 12 is to carry this message of hope to others suffering from compulsive food behavior, and that is what I am doing right now. Twelve-step groups do not proselytize; they grow by attraction. Anonymity ensures that people in recovery pass unnoticed around us. Someone described AA and similar 12-step groups as the greatest invisible social movement of the twentieth century.
This is what I shared at my last OA meeting:
I am B, a compulsive overeater, and I believe that HP is a spirit of Love/Forgiveness that I can tap into at any time and place. Following Divine Will is loving and forgiving others, no exceptions, including myself. Anything that interferes with doing the Will of the Divine, that is, loving/forgiving others and myself, I call a “sin.” Food compulsions and addictions interfere with doing Divine Will, so therefore my greed, my compulsive snacking, grazing, and gorging are sins. Knowing I have an addiction to certain substances, if I consume them, I am committing a sin. When I am tempted to engage in those behaviors, when I am tempted by food or drink, I think: “sin.” Naturally, I don’t mean the old-fashioned kind of sin of my childhood, something that would keep me out of heaven, because I don’t believe in that claptrap anymore. I mean the sin of not loving others and myself enough to put away the food and live a life of honesty, health, sanity, and abstinence.
Thank you for letting me share my experience, strength, and hope. I am living in truth today in grateful recovery and abstinence. My life is more coherent with our testimonies, thanks to OA and my HP.