© Phil Werdell, M.A. (This is a portion of a much longer essay)
“We admitted we were powerless over food, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
First Step writing is about admitting powerlessness over food. If there was something else that a person could do in a particular situation to have control over their eating, then they would not be powerless. That is obvious.
So, First Step writing is subtly but importantly different than inventorying a situation in which one was not food abstinent and figuring out what could have been done differently. In the arena of food addiction recovery, this distinction is fundamentally important because most food addicts who have gone over the line of biochemical dependency are not able to find long-term recovery without completing the First Step 100 percent.
When a food addict puts down their binge foods completely – and goes though a period of detoxification, she/he finds that their physical cravings are greatly diminished or completely removed. If the progression of the addictive disease has advanced to seriously affecting the mind, however, they are still likely to eat addictively again. Put most simply, they are in exactly the same state of mind in which they began eating out of control in the first place. They still have euphoric recall, still have and believe a rationalization for eating, still have a tendency to minimize the seriousness of the disease, and still are prone to “mental blank spots” where they simply don’t remember that food is a problem for them at all.
It is the inherent nature of the food-addicted mind that it cannot be changed by understanding or by force of will. These efforts sometimes work in the short run, but inevitably, diseased thinking and/or lack of thought returns so powerfully that the food addict is eventually back in the food and bewildered by how this could have happened again. Not seeing that this is a biochemical disease that has taken over the mind, the food addict is typically filled with guilt and shame.
If food addicts are this powerless over their disease, what can they do? Well, food addicts are indeed powerless, but not helpless. There is one thing that they can do, and that is to work on a spiritual basis to become more willing and able to fully accept their powerlessness. This is truly paradoxical: in seeing more completely how powerless they are food addicts become open to the only answer possible – a power greater than themselves.
The most immediate and practical question of a food addict in this position is: just exactly what can I do to pursue taking a food First Step? Here we have a lot of experience, and we think many readers will find it quite valuable.
To put the material of this essay/chapter in proper context, it is important to say that there are many different ways to do First Step work on food and other addictions. Each of these is effective if done as a spiritual practice. That is to say, as with the more commonly known spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, the food addict needs to do the spiritual practice of First Step work without an expectation of when or how these efforts will bear fruit.
We offer the ACORN approach to doing First Steps because it is a process which has been very effective for food addicts who have not been able to take a spiritual food First Step alone, with the help of a therapist, or even by pursuing one of the many routes offered in food-related Twelve Step fellowships. This is the most rigorous approach to food First Step work with which we are familiar, and it compliments an experiential educational process about food abstinence and learning alternatives to food as coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult feelings.
Food First Step Preparation Assignments
There are eight basic questions which can help a food addict better write a rigorous story of their powerlessness over food.
- What are your secrets about food? Be as specific as possible.
- What are other secrets? Again, be specific.
- What is it that convinces you that you are powerless over food? (Some find it helpful to also write about what convinces them that they are not food addicted.)
- What convinces you that your life is unmanageable? (Also, possibly, what convinces you that that it is not unmanageable.)
- Make a list of all the foods you have binged on, and any other out of control eating behaviors. Be specific.
- Make a list of all the diets you have tried, and everything else you did to try to control your weight or eating.
- Make a list of 15 specific times when you were powerless over food.
- Make a list of at least 30 negative consequences of being powerless over food – some physical, some mental-emotional, and some spiritual.
It helps to read each of these assignments, one at a time, to another food addict in recovery and get feedback. It is best to read to a whole group of recovering food addicts including ones who have done this type of rigorous food First Step work.
The first two assignments are about secrets – the first about food and the second about the rest of one’s life. From a worldly perspective, this is just a way of getting rigorously honest. If you are willing to self-disclose information that you don’t want to share, then you are on the track to being rigorously honest.
There is also a spiritual dimension to telling “secrets” in food First Step work. Secrets tend to be the information that we are unable or unwilling to tell others. It is information about which we lie to ourselves, and is information we often want to try and keep from God. The primary spiritual problem of addiction is often named “self-will run riot.” This is just as true for chemical dependency on food as it is for alcoholism. Telling secrets is thus a spiritual practice in which a food addict develops the spiritual muscle of willingness by telling others exactly what he/she doesn’t want to reveal.
Twelve Step spiritual fellowships put a great deal of emphasis on “rigorous honesty.” In practice, this means, at least in part, being as specific as possible. What follows is a list of increasingly specific ways of reporting one particular break in abstinence:
- “I had some problems with my food.”
- “I wasn’t abstinent – ate something not on my food plan.”
- “I ate some sugar.”
- “I ate some ice cream.”
- “I gulped down a quart of ice cream.”
- “I ate two separate pints of Haagen-Das Chocolate Chip. I ate so fast the cold of the frozen ice cream gave me a headache, and I kept eating anyway and dripped ice cream all over my shirt and pants.”
A food addict can often tell if they are being sufficiently specific by noticing if sharing that the details cause embarrassment. Embarrassment is one of the many signs of false pride.
Response to Secrets and First Step Writing
In responding to secrets – and any First Step work – the most helpful information is often when other food addicts share ways that they have done the same or similar things with food. This type of sharing begins to relieve some of the original food addict’s embarrassment. As these feelings bleed off, it also has a way of breaking denial.
A food addict often sees themselves as guilty, shameful or just a “bad” person because they are not in control of their food. When they learn that someone else – who they do not see as shameful or bad – has done the same thing, they can often see the other person was actually powerless, and this helps them begin to separate themselves from the disease of food addiction.