Per the rules of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA), the names have been changed to protect the identity of the group members, though their places of residence have stayed the same.
The thought of Turkey Day brings fond memories for most of America, just for the fact that it’s simple: eat, sleep, eat again, eat a third time and then catch up with relatives.
For most, it’s an annual ticket to stuffing oneself to the limit; that one day when families eat until they can’t stand up. Of course, it all ends after the big meal, and most everyone goes back to his or her regular eating habits.
But for some, Thanksgiving eating habits don’t stop at midnight on Nov. 27, but continue on day in and day out. Those who have an addiction to food – a number that is increasingly on the rise – find the holidays a particularly challenging time, let alone every other day.
The addiction to food is a curious one in that it doesn’t get as much attention as other addictions such as alcohol and drugs, but it often works hand-in-hand with those addictions. Too often, it is the true cause and underlying problem leading to the other addictions.
Deb from Chelsea, now a 53 year old emergency room nurse, was a foul-mouthed, single mother who had eaten “like an animal” since she was a little girl in Chelsea. It led her to some dark places, she said, but she never knew until 26 years ago that her addiction to eating was the compass directing her disastrous life.
“I was your worst nightmare,” she said in a recent interview. “If you saw me coming, yelling and screaming and being obnoxious, you’d have wanted to get away from me. This program, FA, totally changed my life every way you could possibly imagine. I was over 350 pounds, drug addicted and an alcoholic. I was a total horror show. I was a single-mom on welfare and in the apartment where I lived in Chelsea, I had no heat for six years because I didn’t pay my bill. My daughter was growing up with a crazy mother. All of my addictions offset one another and it all led to me eating more. I knew I was an alcoholic; I knew I was a drug addict. I had no idea I was a food addict and that was my main problem. I just thought that’s how I was – that it was my lot in life to eat and die fat.”
That was 26 years ago, when she was 33, and still today as she talks about it, tears come to her eyes. That’s because, she said, she reached a point where she could go no further, and she saw that she was destroying her 9-year-old daughter. The tears, though, come more from the fact that she is now a successful, healthy woman with two loving grandchildren; a life that was turned around through the course of a few key events.
She recalled asking God, out loud in her kitchen, to take all the pills and food and booze away.
“Little by little, the pills went out of my life,” she said.
That led her, eventually, to read a little notice in the Chelsea Record about a food addict meeting, and later to take the advice of a relative to attend one of the meetings.
“I had never heard people talking about an addiction to food, but I listened,” she said. “Some 26 years later, my life is good now. I don’t think about food. The big thing is I don’t drink, drug, or overeat and I don’t want to. Before, I couldn’t have imagined my life for one day without all the above. Before I had an existence; now I have a life.”
Deb’s story, though not so uncommon, is an extreme, and not all food addicts have out-of-control lives.
Deb and Carol, also from Chelsea, have been leaning on one another for support and attending FA meetings for decades. They would have never met had it not been for an addiction to food.
“Our lives would have never ever crossed paths,” said Carol. “I was a good, upstanding citizen, but I was destroying myself with food. I didn’t drink, didn’t drug, stayed home and took care of my kids – but I couldn’t stop eating.”
Now 85, Carol was 43 when she first came to a meeting and weighed 250 pounds. Today, she weighs half that, and she’s been that way for decades.
Carol said her story wasn’t that of an out-of-control woman, but rather a woman who would steal the kids’ Halloween candy and gorge herself in private; who would put away the leftovers from Thanksgiving Dinner and stuff herself to capacity in the process.
“I did every diet,” she said. “A new diet would come out and I would be the one to tell you about it. I would diet three months, look good and feel good. Then, I would take one bite and it was gone. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t think of myself as an addict, but I was…This program saved my life. This is a program for addiction to food and not a diet club. That was the difference.”
She said FA taught her to put down the food. She stopped eating between meals and began eating healthy food only. There is no more binging, and even on Thanksgiving her meal is a sensible one.
“Here I am and I’m happy and I lost 125 pounds and that was 42 years ago,” she said. “My life is a great life and I have a clean bill of health. I am healthier at 85 than I was at 43. I was full of negativity, fear and doubt. Today, I have none of that.”
Brenda from Revere is a relative newcomer to the FA group – having come to her first meeting 12 years ago.
Karen, now 50, wasn’t out of control, but food dominated her life.
She would hide food.
She would go out “for a drive,” and sneak snacks at the fast food drive thru. She was always making excuses as to why she needed to run errands, mostly because errands led to food.
“I really was like an alcoholic, but the addiction is to food,” she said. “I couldn’t stop eating no matter what. I despised myself so much.”
At 38, Brenda said she had one knee replacement, had anxiety, heart palpitations and very high blood pressure. Besides the physical, she said she was moody and mean – often short-tempered and usually unhappy.
After having lived in Colorado, she moved back to Massachusetts and settled in Revere. Not long after landing here, a cousin told her about the FA program and she decided to give it a try – thinking maybe it might reveal some new “magic key to the kingdom.”
However, what it revealed was her addiction.
“I had never heard people say they couldn’t stop eating and were addicted,” she said. “It was a breakthrough because it’s what I was doing. When I put the food down, my life got better. I lost 95 pounds and kept it off with no medications, no surgeries. I have a better relationship with my family. I’m calm, kind, nice, and I’m not in debt. I got married and I’m a size 6 and that hasn’t changed. I don’t miss any of it.”
The tie that binds these three local women is the FA program, a program that once existed as Overeaters Anonymous (OA) until 1998 when it became FA. With its founding traced back to Chelsea, Everett and Revere, FA broke off from OA after having developed a unique regimen that was different from OA. FA’s 12-step program is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous. Members say it’s not based on guilt, and it’s not religious, but is spiritually based. Most importantly, it’s a strong network of men and women helping one another with an addiction that often flies under the radar.
FA has the following meetings available in Chelsea, Everett and Charlestown.
- Everett and Chelsea, Monday and Weds. nights at Soldiers Home
- Chelsea, Beth Israel HC on Broadway, Friday mornings
- Everett, Parlin Library, Wednesdays, 10 a.m.
- Whidden Hospital, Saturdays
- Charlestown, Spaulding Rehab, Mondays
- Arlington, Wednesdays, 7 p.m.