Woman Vs. Food: Inside Overeaters Anonymous

Let me tell you my biggest secret: If you and I dine together and there is a bread basket sitting between us, I cannot focus on what you're saying. I'll try, but really I'm focused on not consuming the entire basket. After we say our good-byes, I'll go home and get ready for bed — or perhaps I'll salve my work stress with a stop at the bakery or celebrate with chocolate-mint ice cream or be thoroughly haunted by a bag of Sprees in a closet two rooms away. Yes, my name is Arianne, and I am conquered by the bread basket.

I tell you this because you are probably conquered by — or addicted to — something, too. Perhaps you're a shopper or a boozer or a gambler or an exerciser or an overworker; or maybe you drown your problems in a snow pile of coke or have some variation on my food issues. We all have crappy coping mechanisms. At least four nights a month, I sit on my couch, overtaken with a bodily feeling that I must eat something. It feels like a lack in my blood vessels that can be assuaged only by food. Frosting is my crack.

Like many, I am saved by the fact that my crappy coping strategy is invisible. I'm not fat, I have never been the 5,000-calorie binge type, nor have I ever required rehab. But a few years back, in a rush of book and article deadlines, the above was my life, and I reached the point where I couldn't stop eating. I'd like to think that no one knew, but I'm well aware of my friend with the passion for wine and the one whose weed habit long ago passed social. I was off-kilter. The owner of the 24-hour corner bodega stopped making eye contact.

This was about the time Lindsay Lohan was traipsing around Hollywood with her (first) 30 Days sobriety medallion from Alcoholics Anonymous, which reminded me that there's a sister 12-step program called Overeaters Anonymous (OA). I clicked onto the OA website and fell into a vortex of conquered women: There are close to 100 OA meetings a week in Manhattan alone. Five daily within blocks of my apartment.

The thought of saying, "Hello, my name is Ari, and I'm a compulsive overeater" kind of made me want to gag. I'm not into self-help. But what were my options? Cutting carbs wasn't the problem, which nixed Weight Watchers; my wallet couldn't bear a pricey university clinic. The Anonymous meetings are free, available around the clock online and throughout town, no appointment necessary. They're sort of like Cheers, the place on the corner where everyone knows your name. And your sin. Also, I was eating sprinkles with a tablespoon. So I went.

My first meeting was held in a church kitchen. I'd picked the meeting at random from the online schedule and arrived to find a beautiful, thin, impeccably dressed brunette named Carrie sitting next to a refrigerator. She looked like she'd never had a weight problem in her life. It turned out that she hadn't in the 19 years since she joined OA. Three more women my age arrived, one obese, one a bit chunky, and one quite thin. Longtime OA members, I later learned, are very thin people who lost their weight extremely slowly on a regimented personal food plan, which, along with meetings, they adhere to like a religion for life. These people never gain weight over the holidays.

The first word of the meeting was "God," in the serenity prayer, followed by a group reading aloud of the 12 Steps. Step 3 is [We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Step 6 is [We] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Six of the 12 Steps involve God. Carrie passed around copies of the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook, a collection of first-person recovery stories, bound to look like a Bible. I was looking to get off the cake, not find Jesus.

Meetings are rigorously structured, with a stopwatch militarism I imagine helpful to heroin addicts: We read aloud from the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook for exactly 15 minutes, a story about a jailed airline pilot who had flown drunk. I had trouble relating. Then, for exactly 10 minutes, Carrie reflected on the story. For precisely three minutes, each of us shared. Sharing is perversely soothing because there's always someone in the room more fucked up than you are. One woman talked of eating her sister's frozen wedding cake; another told of a public dinner where she downed three glasses of wine and, oh yes, the entire bread basket.

In my turn, I talked about how I've always been this way, dating to toddlerhood, when I was never one to refuse a bottle, drinking until it was forcefully removed. I was outed at age 7, when I couldn't stop myself from eating my first-grade deskmate's Cheez-Its, leading to a classroom-wide acknowledgment that I had eaten Sean's snack. Which, in 7-year-old world, is sort of like a public flogging. I've always been devoid of that "I'm full" feeling others have. The stopwatch went off. We said another God prayer. People offered phone numbers. Then it was over. I went home.

I was baffled. The program structure seemed more related to finding God than addressing my problems. The place where everyone knows your name is a little cultish. My suspicions were confirmed in that night's bedtime reading, the first chapter of the AA handbook, which outlines the program's origins: In 1934, a drunk Wall Street stock speculator named Bill was visited by his born-again friend. In short order, Bill had a spiritual epiphany, stopped drinking, founded Alcoholics Anonymous, and, in a flash of ecstatic light, wrote down the 12 Steps on a yellow pad. (Bill's penchant for LSD has since been well-documented.) In 1960, an obese L.A. housewife named Rozanne co-opted the steps for Overeaters Anonymous, swapping alcoholism for overeating and leaving other terms, like "abstinence," in place. The program hasn't changed in five decades. No nutritionists or mental-health professionals were ever involved.

Naomi Lippel, the managing director of OA, says as much. "We don't try to dilute the message with professional opinions from outside the program. The steps are the steps; this is our program. It's a spiritual component, not a religious component. If it works for you, great." OA is a $1.8 million nonprofit with 4,700 meeting groups nationwide. Twelve-Step has been adopted by facilities like Betty Ford and Hazeldon, as well as the courts. (DUI and drug offenders are often mandated.) Pretty impressive for a couple of amateurs.

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