In this episode, I'll be speaking with Lee from London, England, a member of Overeaters Anonymous. We'll talk about her experience with binge eating and drinking, as well as her perspective on recovery. Welcome, Lee. It's nice to have you here.
00:00 John: This is episode 87 of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, and I’m your host, John S.
00:26 John: In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Lee from London, England, a member of Overeaters Anonymous. We’ll talk about her experience with binge eating and drinking, as well as her perspective on recovery. Welcome, Lee. It’s nice to have you here.
00:42 Lee: Hi, there.
00:42 John: So how are you doing today?
00:43 Lee: I’m okay. I’ve just cycled home in the home in the rain, which is something I like to do.
00:49 John: It’s morning over here. I’m having a cup of coffee, and I’m ready to have a little chat. What we generally do here is start with a person kind of introducing themselves through their addiction story.
01:00 Lee: Okay. What I usually say when I’m in a meeting is, “Hi. I’m Lee and I’m a member.” I don’t like to label myself, but I have had problems with binge eating. Well, I still do really. And binge drinking to a lesser extent and other compulsive behaviors over the years. I’m bipolar and have borderline personality disorder, which really affects my what I call “acting out.” I’ve been a member of Overeaters Anonymous on and off for 13 years. And when I first got in, it was great to be around people for whom food was a big deal. I can’t… I’m not sure if I can explain why that feels important, but it’s not something people would generally talk about in day-to-day life. So, I really appreciated the identification I got at my first meeting, which has continued to be useful to me. I came up against the God stuff quite quickly. I’ve been an atheist since I was 12 years old, so I did find that quite difficult. And then there are various workarounds I’ve used, but I’ve been in and out for 13 years, so this kind of… I’m not sure where to start, really.
02:19 Lee: But this time round, I can’t remember the timeline of this, but I was able to access your podcast and AA Agnostica and other bits and bobs around the atheist movement and well, secular AA. And I found that just so useful in showing me that it’s possible to work the program without having gods, or even a higher power, and that there’s ways of translating it in a way that works for the individual.
02:55 John: Yeah, that’s with me as well, finding the ability to translate the program in my own language. I did not realize until recently that even here in the United States, that OA meetings have the religious baggage that AA has. And I guess it’s just natural because they’ve adopted the same steps. But how did you learn to cope with that and how do you approach the program now?
03:21 Lee: The first time around, I was taught to fake it ’til I made it and I just couldn’t. I mean, I tried… Step one for me is easy. It’s very obvious that I’ve got a problem with binge eating and that it’s not something I can control on my own. But steps two and three, where you come to believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity, I could manage to fake that the first time. And I did steps four and five quite easily, because I’m quite used to telling my story and being honest with myself and other people. But when it got to steps six and seven, where you have to believe that a power greater than yourself could remove your shortcomings, for me as someone who has bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and those are some of the big impacts on how I act out with food and other stuff, that just sounded insane to me.
04:21 John: Right. [chuckle]
04:22 Lee: And yeah, so that was one of the points at which I left away for a bit. Yeah, so how does… How have I come to an understanding? Before I talk about that, I wanted to say what the problems I have come across in OA.
04:40 John: Okay.
04:40 Lee: If that’s okay.
04:41 John: Absolutely.
04:42 Lee: There’s a lot of pressure to have a higher power in OA, that I’ve experienced, anyway, in the London meetings I’ve been to. And it’s not a religious god necessarily, and that’s not something that’s pushed. Christianity isn’t such a big deal in the UK as it is in the US. And they, the people in OA, in London, a lot of them have what I call a “fluffy, hippie god.”
05:08 John: Okay. [chuckle] I hear you. I hear you. Yeah.
05:10 Lee: And I’ll use that phrase a lot, “fluffy, hippie god.”
05:12 John: Okay. I understand exactly what you’re talking about.
05:15 Lee: It’s a non-threatening thing. It’s a gentle thing. You can make it up, you know. But I don’t have the imagination to make up this higher power that can look after me. And so, whenever I’ve expressed problems with, “Oh I’m feeling really angry lately,” or, “Oh, I’m having problems binging,” or whatever, this, that, or the other, they’d say, “Oh, well, you need a higher power.” It’s as if that is the only solution to my problems. And that was the problem that I had. But I’ve done a lot of therapy over the years of the behavioral, cognitive behavioral type and well, specialists for my personality disorder.
05:58 Lee: And I’ve found the tools that I use in therapy to question if what my assumptions are to self-soothe, perhaps to really talk myself out of judgmental thinking, or anxiety-related thinking. Some of the tools that I’ve used are useful and can be used instead of a higher power. But I think a lot of the time when people have a higher power, it’s that bit inside them that is still them. It’s them talking to themselves in a helpful way, although I don’t know if that’s too prejudiced of me to think like that.
06:50 John: Yeah, I tend to think the same thing. If there’s value in prayer, it’s not… I’m an atheist, and so I do believe that people benefit when they pray, but the benefit they’re getting is the affirmations that they’re giving themselves. And I even use the serenity prayer. I do. I can’t help it because it’s such a part of me. But I’m definitely not praying to any sort of a god. I’m just saying words that comfort me. And I think that other people, maybe they do believe there’s a god. But it’s just that kind of centering yourself and trying to calm yourself and bringing yourself to some sort of a place where you can relax with how things are, is what I think the benefit that people get from that. But very interesting about how the higher power is stressed so much. Because really, my view of the program is… If anyone has a power, a higher power, I think the only purpose of it is to empower one to actually do things, to actually take action. It’s almost immaterial what a person believes is empowering them to take the action, in my opinion. But so many people get hung up on that supernatural being of something that has to kind of take care of us. I don’t quite get that either.
08:11 Lee: Yeah. Well, it does sound like something that is very useful to have. If you have this religious belief and you have this faith that a god will look out after you, I can imagine that being a great comfort. I don’t have that. Talking about prayer, I have found positive affirmations to be very useful and that’s similar to prayer, I think, and which have to be realistic for me rather than saying, “I’m the best at X, Y, Z. I’m good at X, Y, Z.” I’m good enough is the one that’s the hardest and the most useful affirmation for me. I do use the serenity prayer. When I’m in meetings, I always leave off the god bit and start with, “Grant me the serenity.” And I’ve recently started with a very old prayer. I can’t remember the saint who did it. “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
09:16 John: I like that.
09:17 Lee: Yeah. It’s a really good one. I’ll repeat it again and again in a meditational sort of thing. But obviously, I don’t believe that absolutely everything will be fine because problems happen and we’re all going to die.
09:32 John: But still it is. Just kind of repeating something like that does have a calming effect and centering the person. Lee, I was kind of curious. You mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy and I don’t know a lot about it. One of our very early podcasts here was with Jon Stewart who is also, he’s from Brighton, but he was really into cognitive behavioral therapy and talked about it a little bit. Can you talk about some of the basic tools that you use in CBT and explain those so that I can understand them and maybe the people who listen to this podcast could benefit from that?
10:07 Lee: I’ll have a go. I did a specialist behavioral therapy called mentalization-based therapy, which is a bit of a name, a chunky name. But it is essentially thinking about your thinking, like meta-thinking. And the biggest question that the therapist would ask and eventually we would ask ourselves in group therapy is, “What’s the assumption? What is that belief that you have?” For example, I can’t face tidying up today. It would be a thought. What’s the assumption? The assumption might be that, I assume that I’m not going to be able to cope. What’s the evidence of that? Other assumptions might be that it will take forever or that I’ll have to do it forever.
11:04 Lee: I have a conversation with that thought. It’s also quite helpful for a lot of people with borderline personality disorder will feel that other people don’t like them or that they hate them. And so, you go to a party, somebody might say something, and you go into a tailspin of assuming that they hate you and that everybody hates me. Everybody hates me. What’s the evidence for that? And we have these conversations with our therapist and in group therapy about that. I think the basics of CBT are to separate out your thoughts, from your feelings, from the action that you take. And that action, an unhelpful action would be to react by binging. And so, you work back and think, “What was I thinking before I had the binge?” I had a really difficult time today. I don’t want to feel these difficult feelings. And then the feelings would be discomfort, irritation, fear, anxiety, whatever, and to separate out that from the action. But I don’t know much about classic CBT. It’s usually a much shorter course than the one year of MBT that I did.
12:38 John: There is a lot of value, I think, in understanding that our brain is an organism and it kind of produces these thoughts and I guess these thoughts generate these feelings, and to be able to separate them out and really think rationally about what’s happening. That’s how I’m understanding what you’re talking about. It does help make sense of things. It reminds me, actually, of something, an old AA thing, it actually pre-dates AA, and it was religious in nature. But back when before AA was actually founded and they were all meeting in the Oxford group, they had something called The Four Absolutes. And they were totally religious principles. They were built upon all religion.
13:15 John: There was one of the Absolutes that was helpful to me, and it kind of reminds me what you’re talking about. I think if I remember right, it was, “Is it true?” And basically, it was just a question that I would ask myself when I was feeling like something… If I was feeling afraid or if I was feeling nervous or concerned or depressed or whatever, I would ask myself, “Is it true?” It really did help me because I would stop and, like you just described, I would look at the evidence. I would often realize that whatever I was feeling was not… Wasn’t really grounded in reality. That it wasn’t really happening, and it actually did kind of help me. I get a sense that maybe I was in a roundabout way doing that, what you were describing, perhaps.
14:06 Lee: Yeah, that sounds pretty good. And something I’ve learned recently as well, is to honor my feelings and to not assume that when I think I’m being rational, that I am actually being rational. I think something I find slightly problematic in the atheist movement is this belief that we can absolutely be rational. I think that belief is irrational.
14:32 John: Well, it gets pretty deep there, doesn’t it?
14:34 Lee: Yes, I suppose so.
14:36 Lee: I was wondering, should I talk about what a food binge is like for me?
14:40 John: Yeah, yeah. That’d be interesting.
14:43 Lee: Okay. I start from having this thought of, that I can’t cope with how I’m feeling. And it feels like the… That the distance between the thought and the action is instant. I’ll think why I’m going to go to the supermarket. I know that I’m going to buy binge foods when I do that. For me, fatty foods are a big part of what I binge on. I’d buy mackerel and ready cooked stuff that’s got skin on, and Camembert, and crisps, chips in US English. I was also binging on alcohol quite often during these times. I’d buy a bottle of red wine and as well, and possibly some ice cream or something, and I’d take them home and I’d go to the computer, my desk, computer desk.
15:43 Lee: And I’d put the computer on. I’d put Netflix on and open up the internet to get Reddit up. And then I’d binge on my own, I’d eat everything. I’d try and make it last as long as I could, really. I’d do that once a week or twice a week or more if things were getting bad. That’s one aspect of my eating is like that. There’s the going to the shop for the binge foods, that’s one thing. There’s another thing where I have… If there’s food in the house that I find tempting, like if there was a whole roast chicken in the fridge.
16:26 Lee: It’s like it talks to me, but not actually talks to me, but I just have these arguments with the chicken in the fridge. And if I’m not using the tools that I have, I will go to the fridge and I will get half the chicken and eat it, and sort of say, “Well, I’m just going to eat half.” And then I go back and eat some more and eat some more. I used to do that with butter. That’s pretty disgusting. I think the butter packs that we have in the UK are maybe two sticks worth of butter. So, I’d eat half of that and then I’d eat some more. And it’s gross. [chuckle] Thinking about it without doing it is really horrible. And then another aspect of my overeating is just generally eating a bit too much, which wouldn’t be terribly problematic except that, because of the binging I’ve done over the years, I am over 250 pounds. And I’m 5’5, and I’m obese and it is not good for me to overeat.
17:40 John: And there’s a lot of feelings attached to all of that. I’m sure, after a binge, is it followed by depression?
17:45 Lee: Actually, there isn’t for me. There is for a lot of people. But I very, very quickly realized that if either, immediately after the binge or the morning after, if I gave myself a hard time, if I was to beat myself up about it, it wouldn’t stop me binging the next time. So, I very, very quickly learned to tell myself that it’s okay that I binged because of the problems that I have, because it would be very, very easy to get really upset and have a lot of shame and guilt, and then go immediately back to the food, and that’s not something to do. I don’t have feelings of depression after. I mentioned alcohol, but even without alcohol, I might have a hangover the next day after a food binge, where I feel sluggish, and lacking in energy, and headachy, and just generally ‘blah.’ That’s kind of the immediate aftermath. But the good thing about the binge is it takes the feelings away and that’s what I wanted. And people talk about it no longer working for them, the binge-eating or binge-drinking or whatever, but it’s never not worked for me. It’s always took my feelings away.
19:09 John: It’s the same with me with drinking, and I’m wondering if that might be what all addictions have in common, is that the ability that it takes us away from whatever reality that we can’t deal with. That was the one thing I recall, is wanting to shut my mind off sometimes, and the sure way of doing that was to drink.
19:31 Lee: Yep. I haven’t talked about my binge-drinking yet, but I have the same emotional switch-off with compulsive eating, as I have with binge-drinking. It does switch the feelings off for me.
19:50 John: And I think that’s a big part of recovery, I guess, from any addition, is learning how to live with being clean, sober, and dealing with life on life’s terms, I guess is the way they say it.
20:05 Lee: I had a really useful thing from an old sponsor years ago, which is: One, how do I feel in 10 words or less; two, it’s okay to feel, this will pass; and three, do something different. If you’re stuck sitting at a computer, get up and do something.
20:21 John: It’s really good advice, that.
20:23 Lee: Yeah, or if you’re compulsively doing, doing, doing, doing, doing, very, very busy, stop. And I’ve found that so helpful when I do it.
20:31 John: Yes, yes. Yeah, when you do it. That one that you mentioned, I have to say that I was seeing a… I was actually in group therapy, and this psychologist was really, really, really good. But one thing that he believed in was if you’re depressed… And I was always suffering from depression. He said, “Go, get up and take a walk. Do something. Do some kind of activity.” And he said this, “I know it’s hard to do, but once you do it, it really does help.” And he gave an example, he said back in the old days, in mental institutions, when they had… They’re not as big here as they used to be, but what they used to do with the patients that were suffering from severe depression is they would just have them wash the walls of the mental institution. It sounds horrible, but that activity was actually helping them in some way. So that kind of reminded me, what you just said there. I’m kind of curious, Lee, did you ever come to terms with steps six and seven?
21:32 Lee: I think I have now. But I’m currently on step four this time around, so I haven’t got to them yet, but for me, it’s… I can’t remember how had I put it to myself, “I have unhealthy thoughts, patterns, and behavior patterns that I can address with the help of therapy and with leaning on other people, and with questioning myself.” And I think that was the sort of thing I was thinking about.
22:04 John: Yes, that’s how I have come to terms with it as well. It’s kind of funny. I’ve been to a lot of AA meetings when people would talk about steps six or seven, and one of the [chuckle] common denominators of most of these talks is that people would say, “Well, God hasn’t removed all my character defects.” But you hear that time and time again. It’s kind of funny now, because you think, “Well, maybe God won’t.” [chuckle] But, anyway.
22:28 Lee: Yeah. It’s how we deal with those so-called character defects, and that’s the thing, isn’t it
22:34 John: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve read the “12 and 12” on steps six and seven, but they’re pretty interesting because it talks about character building. And so, I don’t know, I don’t want to… Another thing that I want to get back to you is on labels, because I mentioned that to you. because I don’t want to label myself as being a person with bad character necessarily, but I do think that I needed to change, and I think there were certain personality traits that I have that weren’t very helpful to me, or weren’t very healthy. And so, I kind of approached those steps the same way as you do, in that I believe that I can change, that I can change and improve over time by seeking help through therapy, through other people and that sort of thing. And it’s like a very important part of who I am today, is recognizing that I need to continue developing as a human being, and understanding that I’m imperfect, and that that’s okay, but it’s okay for me to lean on people for help, to seek help, and that kind of thing. It’s how I kind of see it. Labels.
23:43 Lee: Yes. So, labels. Well, there’s labeling theory, which I only know from briefly looking at stuff on Wikipedia that says that it’s unhelpful to label yourself in a negative way or that it can be, and I find, particularly with the acting out behaviors, to say I am a compulsive over-eater. I’d rather say I have problems with food or I have problems with binge eating and the same with other problematic behavior, binge drinking, compulsive gaming, I am this thing, I don’t find that helpful. But then again, I use so many other labels comfortably, I have eventually come to terms with the label of borderline personality disorder, and I’ll say that I have BPD, I’ll also say that I am bipolar, and it feels like it’s kind of part of my essence, really. But also, it doesn’t reflect on me in any kind of moral way, and I don’t know why I like those labels and don’t like the other labels, I don’t think I’m necessarily being consistent with this.
25:02 John: I’ve seen at our group, I think because we are a secular group here, that we’re more likely to find people come to our meeting and say things that you wouldn’t hear at other meetings. And I have heard more than a couple of times, and it’s usually people younger than me, which is a majority of the world now [chuckle], they would come, and they’d say they don’t like having to say, “I am an alcoholic.” And we do assure them that you don’t have to say that. It’s just kind of a weird kind of a custom that we have in AA, to say, “My name is so and so and I’m an alcoholic.” But I’m noticing an increasing number of people kind of trickling in here and there that have a problem putting that label alcoholic on themselves and they also have a problem with the concept of powerlessness off the bat, they just think that, “I don’t want to attach this label to me and I’m not powerless, I need to feel like I can do something about it.”
26:00 John: So, it’s kind of interesting, because I kind of learned over time to say, well yeah, acknowledging where I’m powerless actually does empower me to do something about the problem. But that’s just the way that I see it. Some people, they have to see it differently, I guess, which is okay, but it’s interesting to me, that I’m starting to notice these people come in little by little, and maybe I’m watching a little bit of a tide change, that maybe 20 or 30 years from now, people aren’t going to want that label.
26:32 Lee: I think pretty much all of the meetings I go to, people will label themselves. I go to this great AA meeting, a secular AA one, called Heathens and it’s an LGBT secular AA group, it’s open to everyone regardless of sexuality or belief. And so many people there now are introducing themselves by their first name and saying that they are a member and some of them still using the label of alcoholic or addict, but not everyone, I think partly because of my influence, actually, is quite early on in me going to that group, I will say my name and that I’m a member.
27:21 John: Yeah, I actually after, but this was a while ago, but after I had met a few people that had an issue with that, especially when they were in the room, I would try to introduce myself, just as, “I’m John,” or maybe, “I’m in long term recovery,” or something like that. Just to try and make them feel comfortable or just to show that you don’t have to say that you’re an alcoholic, but it’s so ingrained me, it’s just a habit, I wonder… I’m going to go to a meeting today, maybe I’ll try a different introduction [laughter] because it would be interesting to see if that could change how other people introduce themselves.
28:01 Lee: Alternatively, at another AA meeting I go to, I’m the only one who introduces themselves as not an alcoholic, so I do feel a little self-conscious there but I’m quite comfortable being the odd one out, being unique, special snowflake [chuckle] that I am and that we all are. You mentioned powerlessness earlier, and I definitely have problems with the concepts of powerlessness surrender and self-will run riot, particularly the self-will run riot thing that seems to be a theme of a couple of meetings I go to. I want a coffee, that’s my will, I am not going to… I decide to live in a certain place, I decide to talk to a person, I decide to tie my shoelaces, you can’t ever get rid of that, and it does drive me up the wall when people denounce having will, and surrender as well, I basically usually use the two together of trying to get away from self-will and surrendering themselves to a higher power, and my tolerance for that isn’t great.
29:19 John: Yeah, I’m probably evolving on that too. I unfortunately spent decades in traditional AA and really immersing myself in that literature and it’s so ingrained in me, but slowly and surely over the last couple of years, I’m beginning to understand things differently. Like having conversations like this with you helps me kind of come out of that, because I’ve heard some people say it’s like we’re always bad, there’s something bad about me and I need something outside of me to make me better, and that is kind of a weird concept, and then I’ve had someone else tell me, “Well, you can’t really give up your will anyway, it’s impossible.”
30:03 Lee: Yeah. On the other hand, I do want to stress that I don’t think that I can do all of these things on my own. That I do need social supports, that I do… I have benefited a lot from therapy, and medication, and the organized programs. So, I’m not saying that I alone can fix all of these things.
30:27 John: Right, right, same here. I do believe that I need help with… I believe I get help from other people. I don’t find that as a higher power. I just believe that I need other people. I love people. I like being with people, and I like learning from people, all kinds of different people. And that brings a lot of joy in my life, and it helps me. I learn, and that’s a big part of the person I’ve become, I guess, so that’s my connection to… That’s my spiritual connection, I guess, although I don’t really get into spirituality. But yeah, that whole self-loathing kind of thing, I used to talk about that quite a bit. I used to be like one of those people that would drive you crazy in a meeting. I don’t so much anymore. I really focus on… I really try to focus on what I’m doing today, and what’s going on with my life today. And I’m in a position now where I’m so far removed from the problems of my active addiction that it’s almost silly talking about them now because they were so long ago. But I still have learned the lessons from that as experiences, I guess. And so, I can use those lessons that I’ve learned today, I guess.
31:36 Lee: Talking of long-term recovery, that’s one of the problems I had with the labeling is that people in OA with a decade of recovery from compulsive overeating would introduce themselves as an overeater or compulsive overeater, anorexic, bulimic. They would say that, even if they hadn’t restricted or thrown up for years. But then, I don’t know, they’re just saying, “This is why I’m here,” I suppose.
32:05 John: Well, this has been really an interesting conversation. I’ve really enjoyed this. I think that it’ll be interesting for people who listen to our podcast to get an idea of these different concepts. And coming from someone who has the experience in overeating, we’ve gotten a few emails from time to time of people in OA here in the States who have talked to us, who have asked about whether or not there is a secular option in OA. And I don’t think that there are any secular OA groups around here, maybe that will happen someday. Are you seeing any of them spring up in England?
32:43 Lee: No, not at all. It just seems to be… I don’t seem to hear much about it at all, secular OA in the rooms, or people who want to come together as atheists. I’ve found it useful being a member of the secret Facebook group of yours, of AA Beyond Belief, because there’s a few of us OA people in there.
33:11 John: That’s right.
33:11 Lee: So, we do talk a bit. But they’re over in Canada and the US and I’m over in England and, yeah, we’re a little bit isolated.
33:21 John: Yeah. I’m glad you like that Facebook group. Facebook can be a weird place sometimes. [chuckle] I think our group is pretty healthy for the most part. It’s hard to stay on top of things. Every once in a while, someone will say, “Oh, there’s a post here that somebody was not being nice or whatever,” and I’m like, “Oh, God, I didn’t see that.” [laughter] Anyway, what I like about that part of my experience, I guess, in the program is having all these different experiences from people, really from all over the world, and all different types of people. That is what… That has really enriched my experience, and that’s what’s… Well, that’s one thing that’s kind of cool about the whole internet thing that I can even have this conversation with you, 20 years ago, this never would have happened. So that’s kind of interesting that we could connect like that.
34:08 Lee: Yeah, this is good. I was excited about having this podcast with you.
34:14 John: Yeah, me too. I love these. So, thank you, and I’m glad that you found the podcast, and it’s been an amazing experience to be part of this. I never thought that I would do a podcast, but I’m glad that I do one.
34:31 Lee: I noticed that the first one that you said that you probably weren’t the best person to do the podcast, so I’m amused at how comfortable you’ve gotten over the, was it years with it.
34:43 John: Yeah. It’s funny too, Lee, because I’m an extremely introverted person. I really am. [chuckle] And I still kind of cringe when I hear my own voice recorded. I don’t always like listening to these things, but I get such a… I don’t know. I get so much benefit, I guess. I’ve grown so much as a person having these conversations with people, that that’s what drives me to keep doing it.
35:08 Lee: Yes. Thanks for that. Okay, so shall we…
35:12 John: Yes, that…
35:13 Lee: Finish?
35:14 John: Yeah, that should conclude our… [chuckle] As we end our meetings here in Kansas City we will say, and that concludes our meeting. That concludes our podcast. Thank you very much.
35:22 Lee: Thanks, John.
35:33 John: Well, that concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief the podcast. Thanks for listening everybody. I certainly enjoyed that conversation with Lee. It helped me quite a bit. I got a lot of good stuff out of that. I hope you did too. Next week, we continue our tour of England as I speak with Gary Bell. Gary was a participant in the documentary, “One Little Pill,” and he’ll be talking about the Sinclair method. That will be a very interesting podcast, so please do join us. If you can think about it, if you would like to support the podcast, please visit our Patreon page at patreon.com/aabeyondbelief. And for as little as a dollar or two a month it would help us out a great deal to pay for transcripts, etcetera. So, thank you again for your support, I appreciate it, and we’ll be back again next week.