“Hi, I’m Mags and I’m a compulsive overeater.” That’s how I introduced myself at meetings of the twelve step fellowship I was part of for over nine years. At the age of 31, at perhaps the lowest point in my life, I entered residential treatment for food addiction. After the five-week residential program, I did an aftercare program of group therapy, and began attending regular Twelve Step meetings, two, three times a week, and sometimes every day. I got a sponsor, and I worked the twelve steps, using the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the age of 40, after almost a decade, I stopped attending meetings. The fact is, I no longer identify as a compulsive overeater or food addict. I can eat one biscuit, or two Cadbury’s Roses, and I don’t have to finish the packet, and I don’t think about it for the rest of the day. I’m learning (slowly, painstakingly, with a lot of zigzagging and reversing) to eat intuitively, to listen to my body and not my head when it comes to food. But even though I no longer feel at home in “the rooms”, even though I no longer feel I can honestly say “I’m Mags and I’m a compulsive overeater”, in many ways, I still feel like a twelve-stepper. The program and the people I met taught me so much. I hope I never unlearn their lessons. The humility, the solidarity, the practicality of the twelve-step approach is not just a good way to deal with addiction, it’s a good way to deal with life. The twelve steps, and their lesser-known sibling the twelve traditions, are indeed as AA founder Bill W. said, “a design for living that works in rough going.”
It’s been over a year since I stopped attending meetings, and lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on my spiritual journey in the fellowship and since leaving. In particular, I’ve been thinking philosophically about the wisdom I found in the rooms, in the fellowship and, most of all, in the steps. I want to write something about this. It may become a series, it may not, but I have decided to start, as every twelve step recovery must, with Step One:
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Of course, in my fellowship, we substituted “food” for “alcohol” when working the steps. But many of us still used the Big Book of AA as the basis of our ‘program’. The twelve-step approach tells us that addiction is not really about the substance, it’s about the spirit. It’s about the need we’re trying to fill, not the exact nature of our attempts to fill it. What matters is not so much what we’re powerless over, but that we’re powerless over something, and that our lives have become unmanageable. I had no problem relating to this. My life had shrivelled down to my small apartment in Milwaukee where I was studying for my PhD. I hated leaving my safe zone – in my bed, or at my desk watching Netflix on my laptop, eating, eating, eating. My coping mechanisms had withered to the point where all I could do was drag myself to work, get food, drag myself home, eat until I physically couldn’t eat any more, sleep, repeat. Every day was survival mode. Every day I told myself tomorrow would be different. But it never was. I couldn’t keep going, and I couldn’t stop. I lay on my bed, rocking back and forth, praying to I knew not what, “I’m not okay, please help me; I’m not okay, please help me…” And, the funny thing is, it worked. I did get help, thanks to the concern of friends and family members I hadn’t managed to alienate despite my best efforts, and thanks, I choose to believe, to a Higher Power.
I found myself in treatment, in a group therapy circle with what I thought of as ‘real’ addicts, people struggling with using heroin or cocaine, people who had to undergo horrific withdrawal from drugs or alcohol before coming into treatment, people on their court-ordered “last chance.” To say treatment was an eye-opener doesn’t quite capture it. It’s more like it awakened some entirely new sense I didn’t know I had. If I had to name the sense, I’d probably say ‘emotions’. Of course I had felt emotions before, but I wasn’t able to cope with them so I didn’t allow myself to pay attention to them. I can almost pinpoint the moment when I tried to push emotion out of my life. I was in sixth class in primary school and I was being bullied at school. My beloved grandmother, my greatest companion and supporter, was gravely ill in hospital, and my parents were sick with worry and grief about her. When she died, I shut down. It was like I just decided the whole ‘feelings’ thing wasn’t for me. I was done with that bullshit. It was just too much. One day, I came home from school, to what had been my grandmother’s house, and ate a loaf of bread with Flora, alone, in the kitchen. Then I went to the shop and replaced the loaf so nobody would know. This wasn’t the first time I overate – everybody overeats. But I remember it as the moment I gave up and let the food take over and protect me. I was eleven years old.
For the next twenty years, food was my comfort, my go-to and my survival. I didn’t know that; I just thought I was fat. For years, I thought the next diet or weight loss plan would save me. I thought the medication the GP gave me would sort me out, but it just gave me oily diarrhoea. I stopped taking it because I needed the food. I thought the program that promised to focus on “why you eat” would fix me. At first, when they gave me the ‘herbal’ appetite suppressants, I thought I’d found the answer at last. The buzz of weight loss was a good substitute for food while it lasted. But then it came time to wean off the appetite suppressants, and food took control again. Later, in the rooms of the fellowship, when telling my story, I often disclosed that I felt lucky. I felt lucky because I saw people coming through the doors who either weren’t really fucked yet or perhaps didn’t know they were. By 2011, when I started working the Twelve Steps, I knew I was goosed. I knew food was in charge of my life, and I knew I hadn’t a clue how to be an adult and live a normal, healthy life. To me, Step One was a blessed relief, like water in the desert.
Many newcomers find Step One strange. “Why would I say I’m powerless? Doesn’t that mean giving up?” I’ve heard many great explanations in answer to this question. One of the most profound is that powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless. As a philosopher, however, Step One made sense to me, because it reflected ideas I was already familiar with from schools of thought as diverse as existentialism and stoicism. My old favourite Simone De Beauvoir had already taught me that accepting reality and wanting to change it are perfectly compatible. “There is hardly a sadder virtue than resignation,” she writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity, but she couches this in an explanation about the fundamental ambiguity of humans. We’re never fully free, and in some sense all our plans will fail. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, that’s what makes the trying worth something. If success was guaranteed, our projects and plans would be meaningless, we wouldn’t be free at all, we would be robots or gods. But we’re not; we’re messy, puny, confused, ambiguous little humans, muddling through, doing our best, one day, one decision at a time. For Beauvoir, the way through the mess of existence is to strive for authenticity. By this she means embracing both our freedom and its limitations. I can’t imagine she’d be much of a fan of some of the Steps (she was an atheist, for one thing), but Step One at least is pure existentialist: If you want out of the shit, you’re going to have to start by acknowledging that you’re in it.
Step One is only the first of twelve, but it is special. Some say it’s the only step you ever really take – all the others flow naturally from an honest admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. I no longer feel powerless over food, and most of the time my life is manageable, as long as I take it one day at a time, talk to people, pray and meditate, and try to keep my side of the street clean. But when I was powerless, paradoxically, the admission in Step One gave me power, strength and hope. It wasn’t resignation, it was reinvention. It gave me a second chance to grow up. I will never be able to express my gratitude to AA (where the Steps originated) and to the fellowship I was part of for all I learned. By saying I’m no longer an addict, of course, I am putting myself at odds with the twelve step approach. Many twelve steppers would say that either I’m deluding myself and I’m not really cured of food addiction, or else that I was never a true food addict to begin with. Maybe they’re right. I accept that I’m doing my best to figure things out one day at a time. I accept that I might be wrong, and more importantly that whether I’m right or wrong, I will have to change my mind and my heart again and again as I go through life. That’s just how it is, and there’s no point fighting what is. I feel confident Simone de B and Bill W would agree on that, if not on much else.