Thursday, February 24, 2011

What It Was Like, What Happened and What It's Like Now

My name is Charlie, and I’m a compulsive overeater.

::Hi, Charlie!::

Tonight I have the privilege of speaking at an OA-HOW meeting up in Minnesota. I guess it's a really small meeting, and so every week they ask a guest to phone in and participate in the meeting via speakerphone. 

And I've been thinking it would give me the perfect opportunity to post my story here... It is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I want to add my voice to the many others who are saying that recovery is possible! I am living proof... So grateful to all of you who are walking this road of recovery with me.

So here's what I'm planning to share tonight:

My name is ______, and I’m a compulsive overeater and OA-HOW sponsor.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience, strength and hope with you tonight. I’ve been praying that I will be of service, and that God will use my words however he sees fit.

I have been a compulsive overeater for as long as I can remember. I was born into a family of overeaters. Some of my earliest memories around food involve birthdays and special family times. My family loved to eat. Every Wednesday night we would stop at McDonald’s on the way to church, and it was something I looked forward to all week.

Every Thanksgiving, our family drove from our home in Indiana to Kentucky to visit family. I look back and it seems like those visits were all about the food. Lemon meringue pie, the table full of food, desserts, pop, cookies, candy. And all of us cousins could eat whenever we wanted to for the entire weekend.

Good times in my life were always associated with food. What were we going to eat? Could we get pizza? Family fun nights always revolved around my dad making popcorn. We were never very active as a family. We would never do sporting activities, for instance. We spent quality time together eating and sitting and talking. Watching slides, for instance, or movies.

My dad and mom are compulsive overeaters who had rituals around food. Dad with his cheese and crackers every night at the table. Mom with the candy bars hidden in her underwear drawer. And even when I was a very young boy, my parents were already struggling with their own obesity.

I’m not sure why we all felt constantly deprived, but I think we did somehow. We were forever dividing up the food on the table to make sure we all got equal portions, even though there really was plenty for all. For example, if there were dinner rolls, we counted them and announced how many each of us could have. I thought all families did this. It was my future wife that first pointed out to me how odd this behavior was.

I know my parents did the best they could in raising my sister and brother and me. As we grew up, in fact, we were all convinced that we were the greatest family on the planet! There was a lot of love and affection in the house. We laughed together a lot. But I can see now, a lot of that was to cover up deep insecurities and anxieties. I think perhaps as a child, I could sense these things, but I could never have explained it. We were happy on the surface, but there was a lot of trouble brewing underneath. And I think food was one of the major ways we all dealt with it.

I was aware of being overweight – even felt fat – as a middle school and high school student, although I look back and see pictures of myself and can’t believe how thin I was. I started dieting in high school, but was never very serious about it. I made myself start drinking Diet Coke instead of regular, for instance, but I would drink it with pizza and candy bars. I might occasionally try to go without some kind of food for a time.

I would come home after school and make an entire box of macaroni and cheese for myself. When my parents would go out and leave me in charge of my younger siblings, we would always have frozen pizza and popcorn, along with sweets and other things. Holidays were always all about the food. My family loved each other by cooking and baking for each other.

In college, my eating began to take a turn for the worse. I had access to a cafeteria and a snack bar, and I could make my own choices, which never included healthy foods. I gained a lot of weight and began the cycle of trying to lose, gaining it back as soon as I would lose it.

I got married in 1993. I remember promising my wife that I would never get fat. I didn’t want to end up like my parents, but I soon began to gain weight. I worked as a traveling rep for a college for a while, and it was all about the food… driving through the McDonald’s in the morning, figuring out where and when I could eat lunch and dinner. Even the social aspect, which I loved, centered around food. Where should we eat? What are we getting? I ate massive amounts of food, and I was not very active. Soon I weighed around 220 pounds. At 5’9-1/2”, that was too heavy, and I was unhappy.

I remember talking to a doctor one time about weight loss. This was at least 15 years ago now. I was hoping maybe there was some radical thing he could do for me, maybe put me on a liquid diet or something. I remember him saying that I was not heavy enough for medical intervention of any kind, and that for people like me, overweight but not yet severely obese, it is a really hard road, and there’s not a lot of hope. He basically said “Good luck with that.”

My “history of compulsive eating” could fill a book, so here are some highlights:
  •  All the times I tried to "start over" tomorrow, or Sunday, or Monday, or the first of the month, or on my birthday, or on such-and-such a holiday, or on New Year's Day.
  • All the times I took out cash so my wife wouldn't know I was going to McDonald's or other drive-thrus on my way to or from work.
  •  All the times I ate fast food right before I got home, trying to cram it all in, and then hid the bag under the seat, went in, and ate dinner with my family. I could barely eat because I was so miserable. But that never stopped me. I did it again and again.
  • Staying up late to eat after everyone else is asleep. Eating 2-3 bowls of cereal, sometimes with sugar dumped on top of it. Eating until I felt like I would burst. Eating while a voice in my head kept saying, "Just stop, dammit!"
  • The insanity of having to eat another kind of food in order to make up for the food I just ate. Binge on ice cream, now I need something salty. Now something sweet again.
  • Fast food has been probably my #1 problem. I remember one specific time I started at McDonald's (my all-time drug of choice), got a big meal there, and then went right across the street to Burger King because I wanted a chicken sandwich with cheese and onion rings. I already had the Diet Coke from McDonald's (always a diet), so I got a shake at BK. I had a three-hour trip ahead of me, I reasoned. I could eat it all. And I did, but I was miserable.
  • At restaurants I often made sure my kids' plates were clean. By eating their food myself. Sometimes I even hung back as everyone was leaving to make sure I could grab a last fry or half a cheeseburger.

I’ve gained and lost hundreds of pounds over the years. I've tried Weight Watchers, the cabbage soup diet, the Atkins diet, the Master Cleanse, a personal trainer who made me a very specific food plan, fasting, and compulsive calorie-counting.

About 8 years ago now, I did the calorie-counting-along-with-exercise route and I lost a lot of weight and felt great about myself. Then I gained it all back. I was miserable.

I found OA in November of 2006. I was working another 12-step program at the time, and I realized that my compulsive behavior in that area of my life reminded me a lot of my compulsivity around food. I remember sitting on my couch, reading the “15 Questions” on the OA website. Tears streamed down my face as I realized that I had finally found the answer. I was a compulsive overeater. I knew it in my heart of hearts, and I had to surrender and get to a meeting.

Was I cured? Far from it. I still had a long journey to go… You see, my biggest mistake was not to fully embrace everything OA had to offer me. I went to meetings here and there, and I chose a food plan, but that’s it. I thought it was working for me, because I started to lose a lot of weight right away. I ended up doing what I called the “HOW plan,” even though I had no idea what OA-HOW was all about. I basically used a modified Greysheet diet as my food plan and hung on for dear life. I did lose over 60 pounds in seven months. What I didn’t do was get a sponsor or work the steps. In other words, I was on another diet with a nice support group that I occasionally visited.

And seven months into it, in a Baskin-Robbins in Redwood City, California, I thought to myself, “Surely I can have just one milkshake. I’ve been so good.” And so I did. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking that I didn’t look any different. “See, that wasn’t so bad!” And that was the beginning of four years of terrible relapse.

Up and down and up and down, abstinent and binging, fasting and giving up. It was all the more terrible because I had had a taste of what recovery could be like. And my weight fluctuated from a low of 191 to a high of 240 with all kinds of ups and downs in between.

In 1998, my family and I began a very intense season of our lives. I had a series of job changes that really shook us up. First we moved in with my in-laws in LA for six weeks, then I took a temporary job in Seattle for three months. Next we moved to Houston, where I took a job that I thought was going to be perfect. It wasn’t the right fit, and after nine months, we ended up back in LA with my in-laws. Finally, after a long summer spent wondering if I would ever find work again, I got a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved the family here in the summer of 2009. Five moves in 18 months were challenging to us on many levels, but they were really hard on my compulsive overeating. Although I found OA meetings in all of the cities I lived in, I could never find any long-term abstinence.

In Tulsa, I started attending regular OA meetings again. I committed myself to abstinence, and I even got a sponsor. But there was no structure, no path for me to follow. I couldn’t define abstinence, and I didn’t work the steps. I remember one day feeling particularly hopeless. I had re-defined my abstinence once again: three meals a day… It didn’t matter what those meals consisted of. I could even binge three times a day. But no eating in between meals.

I think I reached my bottom when I realized I couldn’t even stick to that plan of eating. I realized I was completely powerless over food and compulsive overeating. My life had become unmanageable. I was 232 pounds, and I was so unhappy.

And then the miracles began to happen. A blogger friend of mine reached out to me through email and really encouraged and challenged me to get and stay abstinent. Then I got a call from a woman from my meeting, just saying she missed me and inviting me back. That Saturday I went to the meeting, and this woman came to the door to let me in. As I sat through the meeting I realized that she had what I wanted… She was at a normal weight, but more than that, she was calm, peaceful, wise. I wanted that kind of recovery. (It wasn’t until later that I discovered she has lost over 200 pounds!) After the meeting, I approached her nervously, hoping to ask her to sponsor me. Before I could ask, she offered. So we sat for an hour while she explained OA-HOW to me. She explained that she could only pass on what she herself had been given, and that I would be expected to work the program like she works it.

How could I, a husband and father of four with a fast-paced, full-time job ever do all these things she said I had to do… every day?! But in a way it felt like a lifeline. The only way out. I was terrified and relieved all at the same time.

That Tuesday, August 10, I started calling my sponsor and committing my food. I got abstinent that day, and 199 days later, here I am.

As of my last weigh-in on the 19th, I weighed 171 pounds. I have lost 61 pounds from my most recent high of 232 and 69 pounds from my all-time high of 240. For the first time in my adult life, I am a “normal” weight and BMI. But this time there’s something different. I know I’m not “cured.” I am still a compulsive overeater who is being given a daily reprieve from my disease by working this program.

And it’s really important for me to say that I know this program is not all about weight loss. Yes, my weight loss is an obvious and somewhat dramatic result of my recovery, but the spiritual and emotional recovery have been amazing too. I feel like I’m really experiencing the 9th step promises in my life already…

The Big Book says: "If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them."

Notice that says nothing about weight. And everything about peace of mind. I think it’s so cool that the first thing that drew me to my sponsor was the serenity that she radiated, not her 200-pound weight loss. And, as she reminds me almost daily, this program is all about conscious contact with my Higher Power.

AND IF THERE'S TIME... I'll share some stories about life in recovery and how things are really good right now! 


Beth @ To the Fullest said...

Thanks for sharing this, Charlie. There's so much here that I identify with -- the secret eating, the shame, the effort to "start over" with each new hallmark day. I'm so glad that you were able to make a change from where you were, bringing you to where you are and beyond. Amazing!

G. Rabanon said...

Wait... counting up the food and announcing how much everyone can have ISN'T NORMAL?

See, so much of it is about what our families do... I STILL have no idea what normal eating looks like. I know what my abstinence looks like, and that's about it.

Thanks for your qualification, Charlie. I love hearing your story/stories. I always learn something new... about you, about myself, about how we're all connected to one another. *hugs* I'm proud of you.

Anonymous said...

Didnt consider myself fir OA (Im in another 12 step program) but alot of what you shared reminds me of my own family. Many of my siblings have weight / food problems. And you know what they say, "you spot it you got it."
Thanks again for sharing your story Charlie.

Sabilon said...

Charlie, thank you so much! And what a good idea to have a phone-in during a meeting, to hear people whose story one hasn't heard. In my family my mother (bless her!) counted the pieces of food and distributed them. Maybe that was necessary with two teenage boys (my brothers)?... And: I have never been big time into junk food (if you count family-size tubs of ice-cream as 'non-junk food', hahaha, that just occurred to me as I was writing), but you (I mean I!!!) can do the same thing with 'healthy' food!! And that's what I did, and when I slip nowadays that's where I go to, nuts, nice cheese etc. Something in me has TOTALLY surrendered to the fact that I can't eat sugar, and I have been off it for 17 years with two relapses of one week each (they sound harmless but were BAD; on sugar I am like a heroin addict, can't even walk straight!). I am free from the desire for sweets! But I haven't surrendered the extra bites from time to time that can and do easily lead to a binge. Something in me still goes to the food. And I still carry overweight. I am focussing on step 11 (but am also currently on another step 4), that is my only hope. When I focus on the food too much it does not work.
I feel privileged to be following your blog! Thank you for sharing.

Charlie O. Edinburgh said...

Thanks for the encouragement, everyone... It was a good meeting. Never did that before! And it was good to prepare by writing this up and sharing it with you! We're all in this together, and I'm grateful for every single person who takes a moment out of her or his busy life to read my humble meanderings. :)