Beating an addiction to food

2009-02-13 00:00

“From the age of 15 I did not know what it was to eat normally. I was anorexic at one stage and I started taking diet pills in my early twenties. I’ve been on every diet invented, and every time I lost weight, I just put it all back on again. You get more and more desperate, angry and hopeless every time. Dieting will never work because it doesn’t deal with the underlying issue. It’s about more than just food and weight. It’s about eating as a self-medication to deal with emotional pain.”

Joan* is an attractive 40-something blonde who speaks quietly and deliberately. She is also a compulsive overeater. “Addiction to food is not an easy thing to come to terms with. It has taken me a lifetime of struggling with eating to recognise it. I only realised in 2007 that dieting is not a solution because it can’t solve an addiction. After I went to see someone in Overeaters Anonymous in Durban, I realised that this is the way. Abstaining from overeating, one day at a time, is the only way. ”

Convinced that accountability and emotional support were critical to beating her addiction, Joan put an advertisement in the paper for a support group. Only one person responded, Wendy*, also an attractive 50-something. Together they have opened the first branch of Overeaters Anonymous in the city.

Overeaters Anonymous was founded in the United States in 1960, using the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme. There are now several thousand Overeaters Anonymous groups around the world. Abstinence is the basis of a holistic recovery plan that sees compulsive eating as a physical, emotional and spiritual illness which requires a physical, emotional and spiritual solution.

Anonymity is one of the foundations of the programme, so Joan and Wendy declined to talk about the kind of people attending the new Overeaters Anonymous group, but stressed that its “open to anyone, regardless of gender, age, race, belief system or any other characteristic”. they also said that not all overweight people are compulsive eaters and not all compulsive eaters are overweight. Anyone who has “abnormal” eating habits and an uncomfortable relationship with food could be a compulsive eater. This includes people with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

“It’s all about the thought patterns that go with eating. The compulsion to eat is very strong. It’s a desperate desire to eat as a way to try to get rid of emotional pain or cope with stress, loneliness and isolation. You may not be aware of the emotional needs you try to meet by eating. People’s self-image becomes distorted. Emotional wellbeing for people with this addiction, and how they feel about themselves, is based on what the scale says. They can weigh themselves daily, sometimes two or three times a day. To beat it, you have to identify the life situations, behaviours or foods that are triggers for setting off the compulsive eating. The first step is to recognise the compulsion and surrender — let go of the desperate need to control.”

The Overeaters Anonymous programme recommends a set of tools for recovery that include a plan for eating, sponsorship and fellowship through meetings and telephone contact. Its members work through the 12-step plan with the help of a sponsor to create accountability. Contact with other people who share the same life experiences is a powerful motivator for recovery. “When I answered that advert and met Joan, I realised we spoke the same language. You need hope to walk the road of recovery and you get it from other people’s stories. There is hope for me because others have been freed from this compulsion after 14 or 15 years of compulsive behaviour,” Wendy said.

“You never stop being a compulsive eater, but you can be recovered. Our focus now is not on what we weigh, but on abstaining from compulsive eating just for today, one day at a time. I no longer weigh myself, as that can be detrimental to my recovery. I’m learning to love myself for the first time and am experiencing a sense of peace I’ve never had before. I no longer wake up in the morning and think about food. I just get up and live,” said Joan.

Overeaters Anonymous meets at All Saints United Church, Athlone, at 12.30 pm on Tuesdays. For more details, phone Gill at 079 522 1186 or Lyn at 082 336 5574.

* Not their real names.

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