‘Hello, my name is . . . and I am an addictive eater’
God, drugs, alcohol and eating disorders discussed at Addictive Eaters Anonymous
The international AEA organization developed when a group decided they needed to address all substance addictions in their lives and not just food. Photograph: iStock
On arrival at the public meeting of Addictive Eaters Anonymous (AEA), the first thing that strikes me is how “normal” everyone looks. Smartly dressed women of various ages and average weights come up to introduce themselves with friendly smiles. There are men too of various ages, some of whom seem shyer and less comfortable with the buzzy atmosphere.
As with every AEA meeting, the central focus is to listen – without judgement – to members who share their stories of addictions to food, alcohol and/or drugs. Each begins with the set phrase “Hello, my name is X and I am an addictive eater” to which everyone replies “Hello X”.
To the outsider, continually defining yourself as an addictive eater when you tell your story of recovery seems a bit disempowering, but this set introduction and acceptance of being “born an addict” is one of the ground rules of such fellowships.
The mood of the public meeting is not unlike that of a church gathering. This parallel with a religious service is even more obvious in the private AEA meeting which follows as someone reads from the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous”. The book, which describes how to recover from alcoholism, is based on the original 1939 text by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of the AA. A bag is passed around for donations as each AEA group is self-supporting and relies on donations of its members.
The 12-step programme is full of references to God. Step three of the programme asks members to turn their “will and lives over to the care of God as we understand Him”. Later steps require members to admit to God, themselves and another human being the “exact nature of our wrongs” and be ready “to have God remove all these defects of character”.
Members of the AEA insist that members have the freedom to interpret God in a way that is meaningful to them. “You can be Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant or Atheist. You choose your own concept of spirituality and higher power. It’s about action,” says one member.
The international AEA organisation developed out of Overeaters Anonymous (OA) when a group of members previously attending OA decided they needed to address all substance addictions in their lives and not just food.
I was so obsessed with myself. I couldn’t be useful to people
Admitting they have an addiction to food, following the 12-step programme, having a sponsor and going to meetings are the key elements for members of AEA. Some members are in daily contact with their sponsor. As well as having a personal sponsor, each member of AEA offers to be a sponsor and this sense of giving back to other people is a crucial element of the fellowship.
One member explains how she had tried for years to understand why she suffered from addictions. “I found that counselling put a huge emphasis on looking back over my childhood to find out what went wrong. It never got to the crux of why I ate the way I did. I spent so many years searching for the why and couldn’t find answers that it was easier to accept that I was born like this,” she explains.
As members share their personal stories at the public meeting, some dwell on how they struggled to fit in as children. Others reflect on their inability as adults to stick with jobs, relationships, sometimes finding themselves at rock bottom before they turn to AEA. “Willingness, open-mindedness and honesty are the essentials of recovery,” says one woman in her fifties. “I was so obsessed with myself. I couldn’t be useful to people. The programme has given me a way to be useful – to show up, do the best I can, think about others and magically things work out alright,” says another man in his 30s.
Another member, who has travelled from the UK for this meeting says that he was “petulant, irresponsible, reckless and destructive” but he has “let go of all that and trusts God with his future and has been given things he never would have known how to ask for”. Many members speak about how they lived selfish and self-centred lives before they let go of their obsessions with food.
“To be in AEA, members need to put down all mind altering substances; food, alcohol, drugs, over-the-counter medications,” says one member. As food is essential for life, working out a daily food plan – with the help of a sponsor – is another element of the programme.
Another explains that although she works in healthcare and advises people on a daily basis, she wasn’t able to manage her own addiction to food and alcohol. “Just because I knew what to do didn’t mean I could stop,” she explains. After seeing a flyer for AEA, she made contact and met someone who shared her story and then went to an AEA meeting. “I had got to a place that this thing had to be beaten,” she explains. A normal weight for ten years now, she continues to go to a weekly AEA meeting, partakes in a web meeting once a month and attends another fellowship three times a week.
– Addictive Eaters Anonymous meets at 7.30pm on Monday nights in Gardiner St, Dublin 1. More details on 01-5549725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Claire says her problematic eating began as a teenager:
“I became self-obsessed and body conscious as a teenager. I went on diets and did lots of exercise to control my weight. I had a huge fear that if I put back on weight that I’d lost, people wouldn’t like me anymore. I purged my food after family meals and couldn’t wait to be alone to binge and purge yet I pretended that I could eat normally. I became pretty miserable but when I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. I used to steal food and stay after work to eat the food left on people’s desks and in the staff kitchen. I got self-help books, did a food diary but it didn’t help. Drinking alcohol was a problem for me too. I binged on drink at the weekend and food during the week. I went to counseling which didn’t help.
What works for one person might not work for another
“I ended up in a treatment centre and the best part of it was the 12-step meetings. Only then did I realise I wasn’t alone. It took me quite a while to get sober. I was really obsessive. Having a sponsor who I could be honest with became a great gift for me. There is always a member I can phone all over the world and people can phone me too. I have peace of mind around food today. I don’t have that sense of denial and obsession. I have a great life today as long as I live by the 12 steps. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
John believes he was born with addictive tendencies:
“I’ve always believed that I was born with this condition. Since I was a child, I was doing things that other people weren’t doing. I stole money every day from my parents to buy sweets. I ate normal meals but I’d be strung out on sweets. After school, I became addicted to alcohol, drugs and women. I couldn’t stick at anything – jobs, relationships or even stay in the one place. My mind was constantly looking for somewhere better to live. I had a chronic malcontent with my life. I was so restless that I didn’t stay anywhere long enough to build a life. Eventually, I started doing self-help courses but that ended up in more hurt, mayhem and moving on. I wasn’t overweight as I’m active so it looked like I was managing. I used food to prop me up when I’d stop drinking. Food became a great tranquillizer. I’d buy big stashes of food, watch a movie and disappear into another world, passing out at 3am. I’d wake up and try not to do it again.
“I started going to food fellowships and at the end of one meeting, I bumped into someone who seems like the right person to help me. I started to do things he suggested. I sometimes still try to live in ways that don’t work very well for me and it hurts. I find it challenging to stay in one place because that means being in relationships with people but my problem eating, drinking, drugging and always moving on is falling away. The programme has given me a way to be useful, to show up, do the best I can and think about others.”
Dr Toni O’Connor, advanced nurse practitioner in eating disorders, St Patrick’s Mental Health Services comments on so-called food fellowships:
“There are many different approaches to treating an eating disorder which is important, given that, what works for one person might not work for another. If a form of intervention ‘fits’ with a person’s beliefs system, for example gatherings such as food fellowships, there is a better chance they will engage with that approach and find it helpful. However, as each person’s recovery journey is individual, it is important to consider the underlying factors that have contributed to the development and maintenance of the eating disorder. These factors can be appropriately addressed through a variety of individualised and flexible psychological interventions.”