– 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
I have been addicted to food since I was nine years old. Since that time, over thirty years ago now, food has been an overwhelming force in my life, an all-encompassing life-threatening passion, a devastating obsession, an epic fantasy. I truly believe, at least for myself, that my eating has very little to do with being hungry, having a difficult childhood, or biochemical inadequacies of my physical body, but is entirely based on my own personal battle between the supernatural forces of good and evil.
I still am not sure how I became addicted to food, but I distinctly remember the months between second and third grade when I got to stay home rather than go to summer school. This is when I first consciously remember using food to soothe my fears, loneliness and boredom. That autumn, I started going to a new school and suddenly was a social outcast, being the fattest child in class as a result of my binge-filled summer vacation.
It is also interesting to note that in the same era, our family experienced a series of deaths within about a year’s time. First, my paternal Grandmother died, followed by my maternal Grandmother, then my favorite Aunt, all of whom I dearly loved. Their deaths were the culmination of a very significant era of abandonment for me. My parents weren’t emotionally available, I didn’t have any positive relationships with my classmates at school, and three of the people I loved most in the world were gone. The only thing left was food, and it filled the dark, hollow hole inside of me – at least for a while.
My obsession with food continued to progress. By my mid-twenties, I had tried virtually every diet available, gained and lost anywhere from 40 to 80 lbs. over and over again, began suffering from health problems as a result of my poor nutritional choices, and had gotten up to 240 lbs. I moved out of my parent’s house and, living on my own, I reveled in the knowledge that I could now eat anything, anywhere, anytime, and not have someone looking over my shoulder interfering in any way with my eating.
For three dark years, I was living for food rather than eating to live. My entire life revolved around thinking about food, buying food, preparing food, eating it, and then starting the vicious cycle over again. My hobby at the time was Gourmet Cooking, and I took pride in my collection of cookbooks that numbered around 500. I would plan vacations across the country and to parts of Europe based on where the best Chefs were, planned my itineraries based on the reservations I obtained from Five-Star restaurants, subscribed to a handful of culinary magazines, and attended cooking classes when I could.
In many ways, my obsession with food was quite glamorous. Living in Southern California, I was a regular at many restaurants in the Los Angeles area frequented by movie stars and other rich and powerful people. I had a vast collection of dishes for every occasion, ranging from Japanese Black Lacquer sets to Austrian China to dramatic, avant-guard arrangements for Nouvelle Cuisine. I had beautiful linens, crystal, pots, pans, and serving platters, the best knives and other culinary tools and gadgets. I would sojourn to the finest markets and grocery stores in all of Southern California, always on the lookout for the freshest produce, exceptional imported cheeses and latest fads to hit the gastronomic scene. I often threw lavish dinner parties to impress my friends and family and took tremendous pride in the fact that I was the first in my social circle to experience sun-dried tomatoes. I traveled internationally and hobnobbed with illustrious, intelligent, and affluent people. But all of this was just an attempt to legitimize and glorify my all-consuming food addiction.
As enchanting as my gourmet lifestyle seemed on the outside, it was a slow and painful death on the inside. The majority of my paycheck was going to food-related expenses. My credit cards were on the verge of hitting their maximum, I was driving a car that was almost 20 years old and was constantly breaking down, and only had about three different outfits to wear to work because I had gained so much weight and was too ashamed to buy new ones in a larger size. I could rarely take my work clothes to be dry cleaned and wreaked of body odor. This then caused a domino effect of low self-esteem, depression, problems at work, and eventually a withdrawal from family, friends and life in general. At nights I would wake up unable to breathe and terrified of both real and imagined evils haunting me, and I would turn to one of my many beautiful cook books to calm my nerves, researching new recipes and cooking techniques until my heart stopped pounding and I could fall asleep.
By the age of 27, I could barely walk due to the pain of gout. My normal day included eating a very large breakfast, a variety of candy and cookies secretly eaten until I consumed a moderate lunch (in spite of my girth, I tried to keep my eating disorder a secret from my work colleagues), followed by more candy, cookies and other snacks until I got off work. Once I was off work, I did one of three things: I either went out with co-workers to one of my favorite posh restaurants; I would formulate my own progressive dinner, stopping at several different restaurants on my way home and picking up my favorite take-out food; or I would go to the grocery store and buy all the ingredients for the latest intriguing recipe I had discovered, go home and painstakingly prepare it, and eventually consume my masterpiece. This living nightmare was repeated the next day, and the next.
After three years of such intense, self-destructive behavior, compulsive overeating had robbed me of every dignity. Finally, 18 years after that first binge-filled summer, I hit bottom with my food obsession. It has been said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Through a series of “coincidences,” I had rediscovered a friend whom I had first met when we attended a commercial weight loss program together as adolescents. Like me, she too had continued to struggle with her food obsession over the years but had finally found a solution in the 12-Step program known as Overeaters Anonymous. OA, as it is referred to by most of its members, is a sister program to Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as AA. Members of OA believe they are powerless over food, and can only achieve recovery by spiritual means. In OA, those addicted to food are called Compulsive Overeaters.
On June 23, 1990 I attended my first OA meeting and was hooked. OA is considered a spiritual program and I had become Agnostic over the years, yet I could see that many of the practicing OA members were at peace with food. I wanted what they had and was humbled enough by my disease to keep an open mind, ask for guidance and follow directions. My recovery was nothing short of miraculous. The very day after my first meeting, I became willing to abstain from refined sugar and eat only three moderate meals each day with just healthy snacks such as yogurt or fruit between meals. Within several weeks, I was given the willingness to begin walking after work. I was so physically out of shape that at first I could only walk about an eighth of a mile before I would have to stop and rest, but after a few months could walk several miles at a stretch.
A month after my first OA meeting, I took a recovery chip at my home meeting to celebrate 30 days of continuous abstinence from compulsive overeating. I realized that something extraordinary was happening in my life and I was doing nothing to achieve it. After years of eating virtually all day long, or starving myself for months in order to lose weight, I had actually achieved 30 days of moderate eating very effortlessly. When I expressed my astonishment at meetings, fellow OA members explained to me basic spiritual concepts like the existence of a kind and loving Higher Power that loves me just the way I am, God’s unending grace, forgiveness and unconditional love, the power of prayer, striving to do God’s will and being of service to others. I recognized God was working in my life, and my 30 days of recovery was as miraculous to me as the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus curing the blind man.
Even more amazing was that weight was no longer the focus of my life. I was told that if I worked the 12 Steps to the best of my ability, the food would take care of itself and the weight would come off in God’s time. For the first time in 18 years, thinking about food didn’t mean that I actually had to eat it. More importantly, I understood that there were no scales in Heaven and God didn’t love me any less because I was overweight. I was precious in His sight regardless of what I weighed.
The weight loss was slow compared to other diets I had tried in the past, but I no longer had a diet mentality. Any weight loss was a gift from God, and I was content to lose weight on His schedule. By Christmas, I had lost about 50 lbs. I remember attending a Holiday luncheon in a mirrored banquet hall, getting up to receive a door prize I had won, and not even recognizing myself in the mirror. My first thought was that a nice looking person was wearing the same outfit I was. My door prize turned out to be a cheap bottle of Champagne, but I realized what a significant Christmas gift I had received from God instead – for the first time as an adult I did not see myself with disgust, contempt and repulsion.
At this point in my story, I would love to end with “…and they all lived happily ever after.” Unfortunately, that has not been my case. Since my first reprieve from the food addiction all those years ago now, I still suffer intermittent relapses of uncontrolled eating. In retrospect, my food struggles usually start around the same time of a major life event: getting married, having a baby, changing jobs, the illness of a family member or the death of a friend. I believe now that my eating habits are directly related to my trust in God at any given time. During these stressful times in my life, I simply don’t trust in God enough. Just like Eve in the Garden of Eden, I too sometimes believe Satan’s lie that food will open my eyes and help me get through life.
The Gospel of Matthew is fascinating from the standpoint of food addiction. Mathew tells the story of Jesus in the desert for forty days and forty nights. The very first thing that Jesus is tempted with is food, when Satan challenges him to change the stones into loaves of bread. Only after the temptation of food does Satan suggest that Jesus test God, and finally tempt Jesus with power. This leads me to believe that the temptation of food is a powerful and usually effective means of satanic control of a person’s soul. In contrast, how powerful and effective prayer and fasting must be to combat the supernatural forces of evil, especially for a compulsive overeater.
I can easily argue that virtually every day of life is a day of fasting for a compulsive overeater in recovery. At least for me, there are very few days that go by when I don’t think of eating something I shouldn’t be eating, even if it is an extra bite of fruit, vegetables or protein. But totally by the grace of God, I experience long periods when I am able to eat only what is appropriate, no matter how small in comparison it is to what I really would like to eat instead. Yet at the same time, every moderate meal that a compulsive overeater consumes could be considered a Passover feast. Instead of celebrating the freedom from slavery in Egypt, a compulsive overeater is celebrating the freedom from the bondage of food.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd also has great meaning in regards to compulsive overeating. In the Gospel of John, Jesus likens His disciples to sheep who hear His voice and listen. Jesus tells Simon Peter very pointedly to tend and feed his sheep. Just like sheep, compulsive eaters must rely on the Good Shepherd for their source of food. Only by maintaining a strong spirituality, overeaters too can hear His voice and listen, know when to stop eating and follow the Shepherd instead. Another important passage in the Gospel of John is when Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” Again, as long as I maintain a strong spirituality, can hear His voice and ultimately do His will instead of my own, I can experience a daily reprieve from compulsive overeating.
I cannot explain the power of food or the connection between its consumption and spirituality. I have learned through the Scriptures that Satan readily uses the power of food to separate people from their God, but there is something very sacred about going hungry in order to glorify Jesus Christ and do His will. I can only assume that compulsive overeaters as a group must receive special graces from God, as He knows firsthand how difficult the struggle with food can be.
Recently I went to confession and told a very dear priest about my ongoing battle with food. Right now I am probably the heaviest I have ever been and I can only seem to put a few days of recovery together before relapsing into insane eating habits again. The priest told me not to be discouraged, that even Christ Jesus, God of the Universe, stumbled three times while carrying His cross. But each time He got back up and kept going, intent on carrying out God’s will. I realize now that there is nothing shameful about my struggle with my food no matter how difficult and hopeless it may seem, as long as I get back on track and keep going.
I am resigned to the fact that I will have good days and bad days with my eating disorder, and I too will carry my cross until I die. But I also realize that I am not bearing my own cross without help. Of course, Jesus is with me every step of the way and I have my husband, children, family, OA and church community here on earth to help me when I stumble. I am also very aware of the fact that it was my food obsession that called me back into the sheepfold. I have been blessed with many loving family members and friends, a good education and wonderful job opportunities; if it weren’t for my eating disorder I would probably look to modern society as a complete success. I would have no need for God, but His love for me is so great that He will do anything to bring me closer to Him. In His infinite wisdom, He uses my struggles with food to do just that.
Unlike Paul in 2 Corinthians, I must admit at times I am not content with my own thorn in the flesh [this is why Paul is a Saint and I’m not!]. I sometimes wish I could go out for ice cream with my children and not fantasize about eating an entire gallon in secret. I wish I could eat just one piece of chocolate like my sister-in-law and not keep eating it until I am physically ill. I wish Tofu and steamed vegetables were as exciting to me as a rib-eye steak and a fully loaded baked potato. I wish I could sit through an important business meeting and not begin a mental debate about what to eat for lunch. I wish I could eat whatever I wanted and still have the body of a supermodel.
But I also wish that I thought of Christ our Lord as much as I think about food. I know in my heart that this is the only wish that is attainable. On the days I am victorious over my food battles, I remind myself that His grace really is sufficient for me, that power over my disease is indeed made perfect in weakness. On the bad days, I console myself with the parable of the Good Shepherd leaving his entire flock of sheep to look for the one that is lost in the desert. Throughout my life I continue to lose my way back to Him, but He still keeps searching for me no matter how many times I get lost. Each time He finds me, my relationship with Him gets a little bit stronger and I stay a little closer to the flock. Because of this, I am convinced that for every time I turn toward heaven instead of the food, Jesus and all the angels must rejoice.