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Confessions of a Compulsive Eater

When the urge for food becomes overwhelming

"Why can't I stop eating?"
Thousands of U.S. women ask themselves this question every day as they desperately struggle to gain control over food and lose weight. Excessive eating is the most prevalent eating disorder in our society. While most of us overeat on occasion, and many feel we eat more than we should, food addicts feel powerless to stop the constant cycle of bingeing—eating that involves large amounts of food in a short period of time. Such was the case with Cynthia, who struggled in her relationship with food for more than 20 years before she found release and healing. Here's her story.—The Editors

I ate the whole pie.

I'd driven to the nearest grocery store that morning where I cruised through the bakery, selecting a cherry pie and a few other items. When I returned to an empty house—my husband was at work and my son was in school—I started pushing down my loneliness by shoving heaping tablespoons of pie into my mouth. When it was half gone, I hid the rest in our refrigerator vegetable bin and began the housework. At lunchtime, though I wasn't hungry, I nibbled some leftovers. Then, an hour later, I once again stood at the counter, spooning pie into my mouth. If I hurry, I told myself, I'll be able to finish it before the school bus drops my son at the house.

Today I'd eaten an entire pie. A few days ago it was a bag of cookies; before that, a cake. I just couldn't seem to control myself. Life had become a routine that began each morning with a mental review of the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator. And once I started to eat, I couldn't stop until I was almost ill.

My eating disorder began when I was 18. I had a strained relationship with my parents. One night I'd argued with my father over some insignificant matter and decided it was time to move out of the house. It wasn't an amicable parting: For the next eight months, my father refused to talk to me and discouraged my mother from having any contact with me. My school friends had moved away to attend college, I was struggling financially, and I was alone. The rejection and pain of that estrangement were almost unbearable.

My mother ate when she was upset, and soon I began to imitate her coping mechanism. It felt safer to stuff my mouth with food than to confront my father. I gained 30 pounds and was miserable. Though I eventually reconciled with my father, lost the excess weight, and returned home, the emotional bruising I sustained never healed.

My next heated disagreement with my father occurred three years later when he accused me of having sex with an old boyfriend who'd stopped by for a visit. Of course, that wasn't true! But my father was furious and told me I had 90 days to find another place to live. After that he refused to talk to me again—or even look at me. I again reconciled with my father, but soon we had another disagreement. He refused to talk to me for 10 years after that, during which time I married—and gained 40 pounds.

Eventually this painful estrangement became unbearable, and I made peace with my father. I again lost the excess weight and noticed the connection between my eating and emotional stress.

I began to believe that if my family couldn't accept me, no one could, so I refused to get close to people. Instead, I chose to make food my companion. After all, it never let me down. It became more important to me than anything or anyone else, including my husband, my son, or even the God I'd committed my life to at the age of 30.

My husband was mystified by my cycle of weight gain and loss. He assured me repeatedly that he loved my body, but I couldn't accept his words, and our relationship became strained.

That only added to my self-consciousness. I couldn't walk down a street, through a mall, or even through my workplace without wanting to hide my body in a coat. People asked me if I was pregnant. I wore uncomfortably tight clothes because I didn't believe I deserved new ones.

I knew my problem was out of control when, one day, I found myself asking a slab of cake for a solution to a problem! I could no longer ignore how weird my perception of food had become.

That's when I got serious with God. He allowed me to handle my problem "my" way and waited for me to come face-to-face with it. Only then was I able to really turn it over to him and ask him for supernatural help. And he heard me!

I wasn't willing to join another weight loss group (I'd joined just about all of them over the years). But after I prayed for God to help me battle this problem once and for all, I discovered the phone number for Overeaters Anonymous (OA), a support group of men and women who are compulsive overeaters, bulimics, or anorexics. I learned their recovery program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, involves attending weekly meetings, formulating an eating plan, and finding a "sponsor"—someone willing to answer my questions and offer emotional support. I felt that OA was my last chance; I attended that first meeting with sweaty palms and a dry throat. I was afraid I'd fail once again and yo-yo diet for the rest of my life. It took several meetings before I felt "at home," but I hung in there until one day, everything they talked about made sense.

Before long, I made friends in OA who compassionately listened and encouraged me when I faltered. If I was upset over something that happened, I could call my sponsor instead of returning to my destructive eating habits. Over eaters Anonymous also stressed a spiritual solution to my physical problem—an approach I'd never considered. Delving into the spiritual aspects of my eating problem, they challenged me to forgive those who'd wronged me, and to make restitution to those I'd wronged.

I made a list of people I'd harmed and began to contact them to apologize. I wrote one friend an apology for the hurtful way I'd ended our friendship. I apologized to my husband and son for my attempts to control them. I apologized to my mother for my part in making our relationship tense. Though my father had passed away a year earlier, I prayed many times when I was alone, offering my amends for my part in that rocky relationship.

In OA meetings, I heard how God was willing to take away my compulsion for eating—if I would let him. Previously my guilt and shame led me to believe God had better things to do than be concerned about if I ate an entire pie. My thinking had limited the healing God had for me. In effect, I'd told God I'd handle this one myself. But in the OA meetings, I learned to exchange my will for his. The first three steps of the program are often paraphrased, "I can't, God can, I think I'll let God." I've discovered through this process that nothing is too small to bring to God.

Along with the spiritual aspect, I learned how to eat properly. I consulted a nutritionist who helped me formulate a balanced food plan. At first, I couldn't follow the food plan without turning it into a "diet." But I wanted more than a temporary respite from my compulsive eating—I wanted complete freedom. So I gradually, gently weaned myself off food I couldn't control, such as cake and brownies. Because I love sweet things, I allowed myself extra portions of my favorite fruits. Being scrupulously honest about what I was eating wasn't easy at first—it took concentrated effort plus lots of prayer.

I went through a grieving period over my relationship with food, once my ally and friend. I relived the emotions I'd felt over events that had occurred during those years when I was anesthetized by food. I grieved friendships lost and the time I wasted being angry and resentful of my parents.

Food from my former life is all around me. When I feel anger and stress, my compulsion returns. But I now know that while I have the freedom to select items that aren't the best for me, they only provide emptiness and pain. Now, when I'm unable to follow my food plan, I do the best I can and start over with the next planned meal. It took me four years to stop yo-yo dieting—and I've been at a stable weight for the past three years.

I don't look back on my years of compulsive eating with condemnation. I realize I didn't know any other way to cope with what was going on inside me. In exchange for excessive food and the illusion of control, God's given me a great life. Emotions are now a blessing—I'm so much more alive! I can reach out to others and accept the help of those who reach out to me. My family and I are closer than we've ever been. No longer do I tell myself I'm not worthy of nice clothes that fit. And I've certainly grown in my faith, asking God for all kinds of things and offering more of myself—my spirit, my will, my time, my talents—than I ever imagined he'd want. The miracle and joy of this is that he's accepted me—all of me—and I'm learning to do the same.

Cynthia S. is a pseudonym for a writer living in Washington.

To contact Overeaters Anonymous, check your local telephone directory, e-mail them at www.overeatersanonymous.org, or write to Overeaters Anonymous, P.O. Box 44020, Rio Rancho, NM 87171-4020.

Are You a Food Addict?

Do any of these 13 statements relate to you?

1. I eat when I'm not hungry.

2. I eat large quantities of food at one time.

3. I go on eating binges for no apparent reason.

4. I feel guilty and depressed after I overeat.

5. My weight's affecting the way I live.

6. I eat to escape from worries or trouble.

7. I eat differently in private than I do in public.

8. I think about food constantly.

9. I eat until I'm uncomfortably full.

10. I want to stop eating but find I can't.

11. I continually attempt one diet or food plan after another, with no lasting success.

12. I eat in secret.

13. I hide food to make sure I have "enough."

If you agreed with more than three of the above statements, you may be a food addict. Contact your health-care physician for a more detailed diagnosis.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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