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Overeaters Anonymous provides support in fight against compulsion

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. —

Facing a dozen strangers seated around a table, the heavyset man with thinning hair put down his coffee and paused before introducing himself: “My name is Christian. And I’m a compulsive overeater.”

For the next hour, members of the MetroWest Intergroup of Overeaters Anonymous shared personal stories of long-term weight gain and triumphs over and continuing struggles with obesity.

Unlike Weight Watchers or similar organizations, no one sold prepared meals, weighed members or made sure fees were paid.

Gathering in a second floor room at MetroWest Medical Center, they addressed one another only by first names to reinforce the confidentiality necessary for members to reveal painful secrets.

A middle-aged man described “getting bigger and bigger and hoping I wouldn’t have a heart attack.” A woman told of losing 120 pounds and “keeping it off for 20 years.” A first-time visitor spoke of being mocked for her weight and “just wanting to feel good about myself.”

In keeping with OA’s emphasis on confidentially, the News agreed to identify members only by first names.

About 5,000 registered meetings like this, averaging 10 members, took place in the U.S. last week with another 1,500 meetings in 75 countries, according to Naomi Lippel, managing director of Overeaters Anonymous based in Rio Rancho, N.M.

She described OA as a “grass roots” organization that uses the 12-step program popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people who eat compulsively. The group was founded in 1960 by a woman only identified as Rozanne S. who attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting with a friend and realized its program provided the support to overcome her own compulsive eating. Lippel said OA helps members overcome eating disorders by providing information, a supportive environment and arranging “sponsors” who provide around-the-clock encouragement and advice about daily food plans.

Members from other chapters credited OA for providing the tolerance and understanding to manage their eating and live healthy lives.

Ann, a teacher and actor from Cambridge who joined in 1990, said she initially “hated” the meetings but knew at 215 pounds she was facing serious medical issues.

Despite her misgivings and early weight gains, she credited OA’s “gut-level honesty” for helping her give up flour and sugar products and eventually losing 80 pounds. “We’re more than a support group. The 12 steps changed me,” Ann said. “I accepted there’s a ‘Higher Power’ whatever that is. It’s not me. I needed to accept guidance from a source outside of myself.”

Lippel stressed that OA is a 12-step program and not a “professional research” organization that promotes a specific nutritional plan or products. “Nothing in joining OA precludes members going to Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig or the other diet clubs,” she said. Since members play no fees or dues, the organization is funded through donations.

For members, OA’s principal benefit, said Lippel, is providing regular support and understanding from others who acknowledge they are “powerless over food” and trust “a power greater than ourselves” to help them. “Members are meeting in a place where they’re hearing stories like their own. They know they’re not alone and they’re going to get the support they need,” said Lippel. “Overeaters Anonymous is a lot more than a diet plan. Like AA, it recognizes there are things beneath the surface that drive people to compulsively eat.”

That acceptance helped 20-year MetroWest member Gerry B. reduce her weight from 350 to 125 pounds and keep it off.

Now in her 50s, she described being fat from childhood and using food to soothe the pain of sexual abuse.

Painful memories consumed her. She remembered herself as a 5-year-old hiding in her elementary school coat room to steal other students’ snacks. Years later she was abashed when she heard her son say, “That’s my mom. She’s real fat.”

Since joining in the 1980s on her doctor’s recommendation, Gerry B. has “had more success than non-success.” At one point, she lost 150 pounds and gained back 90 in 11 months.

After years of struggle, four sponsors and sponsoring members herself, Gerry B. weighs 125 but attends meetings nearly every week.

“The program provided spiritual fellowship. Having a sponsor gave me guidelines for food,” she said. “I have found peace and health only through the grace of this program.”
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source: The MetroWest Daily News

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