The holidays and compulsive overeating: Help is available

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - From office parties to family gatherings, food is a central part of many holiday celebrations. For those who struggle with food issues, such as compulsive overeating, it can be a difficult time of year.

However, support is available. Since 1960, Overeaters Anonymous has helped people find physical, emotional and spiritual recovery.

The organization's website states, "you'll find members who are morbidly obese, extremely or moderately overweight, average weight or underweight; still maintaining periodic control over their eating behavior; or totally unable to control their compulsive eating."

The only requirement for membership in OA is a desire to stop eating compulsively.

Participants follow a twelve-step program, patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is the admission that the sufferer is powerless over food.

This was a realization that came to "Marie" (not her real name), after years of dealing with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating.

Her struggle began at the age of 13, following an off-hand comment by a coach.

"The coach said, 'we're going to get everybody in shape' and he actually called me out by name...and said, 'you've been eating too many hot dogs and twinkies,'" she recalls.

In reality, Marie was at a healthy weight. However, she was sensitive about her appearance and took the words to heart. She began to diet, taking extreme measures. Every day, she ran three miles and ate nothing more than an apple or orange.

"Before I knew it I was in a situation where I was hospitalized with a feeding tube," she says.

Her family sought help for her. However, from anorexia, she progressed to bulimia and compulsive overeating. She says, "anytime I was stressed I would eat, but then I was worried about my weight, so I would try to get rid of it by overexercising or purging."

Then, she became a mother. As she looked at her baby girl, she realized, "I don't want to pass on this unhealthy struggle with food and weight and body image to her."

That's when Marie got serious about recovery and approached her doctor. However, she says he just tried to give her some pills. After that, she went to see a nutritionist but left with nothing more than a food plan. "That really didn't seem to be the answer I needed," she says.

She considered a treatment facility but the cost was prohibitive. Finally, while in an online chat room about eating disorders, she heard about Overeaters Anonymous. A teen participating in the chat mentioned OA, saying she had been attending meetings and had not binged or purged in five days.

Marie attended her first meeting the very next day.

"I just found out there were a lot of wrong ideas I had about life, about God, about food, about weight. And the main thing I had to learn was that I was no longer in control," she says.

She may not have been in control but she was no longer alone.

"There were other people in the program that were there to guide me through the steps and really just held my hand through the process, that loved me, unconditionally."

It was the kind of support that's invaluable any time of year, including the holidays. The stress of the season can be especially difficult for those dealing with addictions and when the addiction is food, there's no avoiding it. After all, we must eat to live.

Marie adds, "we kind of have a saying about that in the program. In AA, they get to lock the lion away and throw away the key. But in OA, we have to take ours out three times a day and pet it."

Now going on nine years of recovery, she has a message for anyone whose life is ruled by food.

"I think it takes a real commitment on the part of that person to recover but I think it is possible and that's what I want people to know," she says.

Currently in the Tennessee Valley, there are OA groups that meet in Huntsville, Cullman, Florence and Fayetteville. Each group holds open meetings, in which anyone who is interested in learning more is welcome to attend. There are no dues or fees.

The meeting times and locations are as follows:

  • Huntsville
    • Trinity Presbyterian Church, 4315 Holmes Ave NW
    • Meets 6pm Mondays & Fridays
    • Enter west facing door, 1st room in the left after the foyer
  • Cullman
    • Grace Episcopal Church, 305 Arnold Street
    • Meets 9:30am Mondays, 1:30pm Thursdays
  • Florence
    • First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 2422 Darby Drive
    • Meets 1:30pm Wednesdays, 6pm Thursdays
  • Fayetteville
    • First Methodist Church, 200 N Elk
    • Meets 12pm Tuesdays
    • Room 207

OA is also holding a public information event at the main branch of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. That's scheduled for Wednesday, January 20 from 7-8pm in the auditorium. There will be members there to share their stories, provide information about the program and answer questions. Friends and family who are inquiring on behalf of loved ones are also welcome.