"We are drugged, for lack of a better word," says Karen, who has belonged to the group since 1986. (Style agreed to keep confidential the names of group members.) It's not as simple as eating too much fat, or needing to exercise more, she says. Those who come to OA rely on food as a comfort, a refuge, a crutch. "We're emotionally not fit," she explains, " because we're in this food fog."
If the words sound harsh, well, they are. The OA program, which is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, requires members to humbly acknowledge that they are powerless over food and then take specific steps, which include planning meals and relying on a higher power, to remedy their shortcomings.
It is tough love in the extreme. Members are gently encouraged to share their stories and struggles at weekly meetings, which now number 16 in the Richmond area. But those who start talking about weight-loss strategies, or give specific advice to another member, will be chastened for "cross-talking."
Members rely on the circle outside the meetings as well. They attend retreats together, call each other when they need support to keep them from bingeing and choose more experienced sponsors to guide them on the 12 steps. Yet again, if members relapse into overeating behavior, they can't expect soothing words of reassurance. Karen recalls when she "fired" her sponsor "because she was slipping with her food." A stern response, but "it gave her a wake-up call," she says. And later, the sponsor thanked her.
Overeaters Anonymous is "not about getting on a diet," Karen says. "It's about changing your head." It has no dues or fees, although members generally contribute a few dollars at the end of every meeting to give to the church that hosts the meetings and to support OA's operations locally, regionally and worldwide.
People find OA through friends, doctors or counselors. Cynthia Todd, a Richmond nutritionist, says that several of her clients have used OA to help them eat more healthily. Yet because it is a support group, Todd says, "it's not something that's supposed to take the place of some other kind of weight-loss plan or some other structured health care/nutrition counseling."
Some OA members are overweight, some are slender. Some adapt easily to the 12 steps. Others still lean toward weight-loss tricks and quick fixes, anathema to the slow-and-steady-wins philosophy of the 43-year-old organization.
The group isn't for everyone. But for some, it is the only answer. It's difficult to gauge how widely OA is used in Richmond, as attendance at each of the 16 meetings weekly may range from four to 20 people.
One Friday at 11:30 a.m., five women sit around the table in a sunshine-yellow room at the Church of the Holy Comforter. In the next 20 minutes, more arrive, by ones and twos, until there are 13, then 16, then every chair and corner is filled. ("Unfortunately, there aren't very many men," Karen says. "It's macho to be a recovering alcoholic. It's not very macho to be an overeater.")
Karen, the leader for the day, asks for someone to suggest a discussion topic. The group is silent a moment, so she says, "What about understanding why we eat?"
Answering the question is not the goal. The flood of words that follows, is.
Abby describes encountering someone she'd had a disagreement with, then diving into food later to soothe her feelings. "I try to stuff the anger down rather than let it out," she says.
Robin says she talks to food at the grocery store, facing down sweets and fats by saying, "Get thee behind me." Sometimes she feels rebellious and wants to give in to the urge to binge. But then, she says, "I realize that my highest freedom is not in the food."
Grace is jubilant at escaping temptation during a family celebration at Easter. "I am back! In one piece!" she proclaims. "And I didn't eat any of the junk."
Emily, 23, has only just begun the program. "I'm here, which is the first step, and I'm talking, which is a big deal." She isn't sure how to use OA, she confesses in the middle of her eighth energy bar on a recent eating spree, she looked at the OA support phone list but didn't know what to do. Call and say "Hi, I'm in the middle of a binge?" It felt too strange. She didn't call.
"Do we have a topic?" asks Rachel, a young, slender woman who walked in after the meeting began.
"Understanding why we eat," Karen says.
"Well, if I knew that I'd just stop," Rachel replies with a smile.
That may never happen, members of OA realize. Relapsing is easy and the road is long. Rachel seems like an OA success; two years into the program, she has lost the stress-induced 80 pounds and accompanying obsessive misery she carried to her first meeting. Yet she continues to come back twice per week, every week. "It's progress and not perfection," Rachel says. She's only just finished step five, with six through 12 to go. "And then when you finish," she says, "you do them all over again." S
For more information on Overeaters Anonymous, call the local information line, 346-5797.