The OA Secular Service Board has started a project to collect stories by secular OA members for possible inclusion in an OA-approved book. Check here for more details:
Overeaters Anonymous Lifeline magazine is now available at no cost, online. There is a search function for atheist/agnostic but the tags are sometimes “Chapter Four”* and can be misleading. All these stories are considered “approved-OA literature.”
*”Chapter Four” in the Big Book is called “We Agnostics.” Spoiler alert: all the atheists and agnostics convert at the end.
Author Alan shares his non-theist interpretations of the Twelve Steps.
Lifeline story link from October 2018: https://www.oalifeline.org/higher-power/the-power-is-oa/
Author April B shares her reluctance to attend OA meetings because she didn’t believe in God, and how she eventually found recovery.
OA Lifeline story link from March 2018: https://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/living-instead/
Author Finley shares feeling alienated by the male and God references in OA, and how she found comfort at a secular meeting.
OA Lifeline story link from September 2020: https://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/drifting-higher-power/
Author Jim D shares an atheist/agnostic meeting preamble.
OA Lifeline story link from September 2020: http://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/making-oa-accessible/
Author Mercy shares her experience as an agnostic member of OA and her adaptation of the Steps.
OA Lifeline story link from September 2020: https://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/clear-intentions/
I’ve been an OA member for 28 years, much of it with a traditional concept of God. The last five to six years, my spiritual experience and beliefs have shifted. I consider myself an atheist and a Buddhist. I’ve had to rethink the spiritual basis of how I work my program.
God or Higher Power (HP) appears all through the Twelve Steps. While program literature often refers to HP rather than God, or to God as we understand him, the understanding is always of God as rather like a person, one who thinks, acts, and feels. We listen to God. God removes our shortcomings. God cares for us. God lets us know his will for us. If there is no such powerful person, how do I work the Steps? To what am I turning over my life and my will? How are my shortcomings removed?
The transition was challenging. I tried to define my Higher Power in a way that could be equivalent to God, but it didn’t work. Instead, I focused on the two main “roles of God” in the Steps.
First, God is a source of wisdom. Instead of asking to know God’s will for me, I crowd-source wisdom. The OA 12 &12 cautions us to consult others before making big decisions, and suggests that HP speaks to us through other members. The meetings and program phone calls are a great fount of experience in what works and doesn’t work. We share with a generous honesty, and I am amazed at how answers come when I listen with an open mind. Some might say that God is sending me a message.
Second, God keeps us safe. He catches us when the bottom falls out. Not believing in a God that cares for me, what makes me feel safe now? My meditation practice allows me to notice the fear, the clinging, the demands, the control, and to notice them passing. In those moments, “there is fearlessness because there is nothing to be afraid of” (Venerable Ajahn Sumedho). As I experience the passing of fear over and over, I can trust that all is well, here, in this moment. I can stay abstinent here, in this moment. “This, too, shall pass” is my favorite slogan.
My power greater than myself is the power of love and truth. I experience that power when I let go of my conception of how things should be, my solutions, the roles I’ve learned. Yes, I pray, but not to a being. I say, May we be well and happy. May our deepest desires be satisfied. May we live in the moment at the center of love and truth, free of the bondage of self. May we have strength and wisdom to manage the challenges of life.
—Mindy L, Philadelphia, PA
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Author Steven H. writes about God as he does not understand him.
OA Lifeline story link from December 2018: https://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/feeling-supported/
Author Teresa D. shares her experience as an atheist member first coming into OA and being surrounded by god-talk, and then how she found a way to recover.
OA Lifeline story link from September 2020: https://www.oalifeline.org/atheists-and-agnostics/translation-for-the-newcomer/
An anonymous writer shares the dogma in OA and how they’ve rethought some of the Steps and Traditions.
OA Lifeline story link from September 2020: http://www.oalifeline.org/traditions/realigned-by-a-few-tenths/
These stories were written by members of the OA secular community.
The Life of an Accountability Relationship
When I came into OA 12 years ago, I didn’t really want to give up eating compulsively. Oh, I thought I did! Hadn’t I spent thousands of dollars and hours trying to get this bear off my back? Hadn’t I researched it enough? Hadn’t I spent thousands of nights in bed with a belly ache, telling myself, “No more! I won’t hurt myself like this tomorrow”? It took me nine months in program before I put down the food and started my recovery journey.
Another thing I didn’t want to do is use the telephone tool, but I didn’t wait nine months. I got a phone call two hours after my first OA meeting. This member reminded me that she’d met me at the meeting, and she welcomed me to OA. Then she said, “I’ve finished my lunch and I just want to tell you that I will not be eating again until five pm.” That phone call is one of my first gratitudes in this program; someone modeled accountability for me on my first day.
In the beginning, the majority of my outreach calls went unanswered or were not returned. Eventually, I learned to follow the recovery energy, calling only those members that I wanted to make a connection with and letting go of the outcome. Experienced, willing members showed me how to have a direct, short recovery call free of chitchat. The phone calls were supportive, not draining, and I wanted more of that type of connection.
A couple of years into program I fell into a nightly call with a member. During our calls, we shared how we used the tools, principles, and Steps to work our programs that day. Both of us struggled to not binge or eat outside our food plan and both of us had a history of overeating in the evenings, so those calls started out as a healthy distraction. We kept our focus on program, not distractions like the weather, news, or politics. We empathized with and supported each other. Sometimes, we’d ask if we could give feedback or whether the other wanted advice. We always practiced anonymity, never gossiping about other members.
Over the years our recovery strengthened. We completed the Twelve Steps with our respective sponsors. We each continued to build our circle of support. Our periods of abstinence lengthened. In time, the focus of our calls changed. We reframed our discussions to answer the question: How did I treat myself today? How did I treat others? We came to think of ourselves as Tenth–Step partners. Currently, we don’t speak as much about our struggles with food because they have naturally lessened, but we still have the daily inventory.
We had tensions to discuss over the years. She is high-spirited and I’m not. She’s spiritual and I’m not. We always try to be honest and kind during those discussions. We’ve survived those tensions because we were both committed to recovery, and we wanted our daily phone call. These days, we’ve started to discuss the marked differences in our programs of recovery, especially with my shift over to secular.
I am not quite sure if the relationship still works for me, and she has been open to discussing my uncertainty. I’ve always thought that our relationships in program are reflective of our relationships in the broader sense, and this has proved true with this one as I feel some fear come up regarding our future. There is also a tinge of excitement about what might happen next. I’ve learned to be okay with this ambiguity through the work I’ve done in this program. I’ve learned to be okay with not knowing what happens next.
I do know through our work together that to maintain this path of recovery, I need to be willing to make connections with others of like mind and to stay honest. That’s accountability for me and something I need if I want a life that is free from obsession with food.
—Anonymous, Upstate New York
Twenty years ago, while I was in the throes of food addiction and dysfunctional food behavior, an acquaintance suggested I try a meeting that would change my life. I attended an OA meeting in Hawthorne, NJ USA. I was hopeful walking into this large firehouse and seeing at least 20 women of all ages smiling at me.
The meeting began and within the first few minutes I heard all about this male God who was going to save me. I listened and didn’t leave the meeting until the end. That was the start and end of OA for many years. I don’t believe in God and certainly wasn’t going to be able to mentally concoct one.
The OA Freethinkers meeting has given me a way to finally understand the depth of my powerlessness over food without searching for a magical solution. It has allowed me to be hopeful and understand that I am not alone in this insanity. I am hopeful that I can live a healthier life with food.
—Debby K, Berkeley, CA USA
The whole point of a Twelve-Step program is to be inclusive. We make a point of welcoming “diversity” when it comes to culture, ethnic and sexual orientation, etc., and I believe it is equally important to welcome those with diverse religious backgrounds, including atheists. The strength of a secular meeting is that it proves that a compulsive overeater can still find recovery without using the word “god”—which is, let’s face it, extremely triggering to some sufferers. There can still be a “higher power” in your life, but without the help of an understanding community, it can be an incredible struggle to find that power. To be with like-minded fellows is, in itself, the strength you are looking for.
—Erin M, Berkeley, CA USA
I am 61 years old, and I’m soon to celebrate five years in OA, free from sugar, bingeing, negative self-talk, and over 50 pounds (23 kg).
Even though therapists and doctors had recommended OA for over twenty-five years, I refused to consider a Twelve-Step program. As an atheist, I would never be able to turn my will over to a higher power. Instead, I suffered and white-knuckled through many decades of diets, even one where I started to lose my hair from eating so few calories. When I finally admitted how crazy my life was, to the point where I felt nothing, not even my child, was more important than my next sugar fix, I knew OA was my last chance. My father had entered AA late in life and spent his last years sober. I thought that if he had been able to try Twelve-Step, then maybe I could too.
One night I finally checked the OA website and found a meeting I could go to the next day after work. I went to sleep very conflicted, resistant, and angry that I would have to stoop so low as Twelve-Step, and I wasn’t sure I would actually make it to the meeting. But, that night I had a dream in which my long-gone and beloved grandmother held me and said, “I wish you loved yourself as much as I love you.” When I woke up, I knew I had to honor that dream, and so I decided to go to the meeting after work.
Unfortunately, the meeting I went to was a Big Book¹ study group. I didn’t understand why we were reading about alcoholics, and the patriarchic and religious language was a real turnoff. I rushed out of that meeting convinced OA was not for me. Luckily, a woman caught up to me and said, “Try at least five other meetings before deciding if OA is right for you.” I was polite, but I was determined I would never go back.
But that night I had another dream, in which my car went off a cliff and I was hovering above the rocky waters of the Northern California coast. I had a choice: I could either allow the car to crash into the sea, or I could get back on the road. I chose the road, and when I woke up, I decided to stick with OA for five more meetings.
Luckily I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are lots of types of meetings, and I found some that were easier for me to attend, including meetings with speakers and the Freethinker meetings. I now attend three meetings a week, have been active in my Intergroup, sponsor two people, and belong to a Freethinker Step study group. I learned that I actually did have a higher power: sugar. Sobering up from that addiction has wiped the fog from my mind, and I can now access my subconscious inner voice more often during the day, and not just through my dreams.
—Jenne M, El Cerrito, CA USA
¹ Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (generally known as the Big Book because of the thickness of the paper used in the first edition) is a 1939 basic text, describing how to recover from alcoholism.
In the Big Book chapter “How It Works” there is a passage that reads: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” The reality is many, if not most, addicts don’t find reprieve in traditional Twelve-Step recovery, including myself at one time. Not all of us are constitutionally incapable of being honest with ourselves. We are not delusional or lacking rigor. In my case, I didn’t have the understanding, confidence, or support to reconfigure the program in the ways necessary to make it work for me. Instead, I was told, as so often women and anyone who doesn’t fit the Anglo-hetero-male mold are, that I needed to conform myself to the framework some white dudes who believed in a He-pronouned God had divined a century prior.
I attended my first Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting around age 24 at the suggestion of a therapist. After almost a decade of abusing drugs, I had gotten clean. But rather than seeking true recovery, I had simply swapped an illegal substance with one I could buy over the counter—food. In particular, sugary, starchy, fatty, salty, highly addictive foods. Instead of getting high amid the camaraderie of other addicts, I began bingeing alone in my house with the TV serving as my most trusted companion. I wandered into OA lost and desperate and willing to do whatever I was told, including working the Steps with a sponsor. For reasons related and unrelated to the program, I never achieved any lasting abstinence or experienced a spiritual awakening and within a few years I fell away, as too many do.
Over the following decade, my external life continued to march forward, passing by all the milestones that signaled to the world I was a functioning adult. Though, behind the charade, I remained stuck in the food. I didn’t have the consequences that followed alcohol and drug binges, but the dissonance of knowing that I wasn’t living in alignment with my values or pursuing my potential was enough to slowly corrode my soul. I studied addiction, reading books, attending seminars, and working with treatment professionals. None of it brought sustained relief from compulsive eating, but it did give me the context to understand why Twelve-Step works, how it rewires neural pathways by creating new habit loops and infuses members with a deeper purpose and meaning in their lives. And I knew OA worked. I had seen it in the rooms.
At 33, again demoralized and desperate, I went searching for a local OA meeting, which is when I found the Freethinkers, a secular group in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the first time, I am able to be part of a community pursuing recovery through willingness, personal accountability, and service to others without bending my integrity to allow for the blatant patriarchy perpetuated in Twelve-Step literature or doing mental gymnastics to circumvent the Judeo-Christian theology. Yet, listening to those who have long-term abstinence speak at meetings has given me a faith that science and psychology could not. The relationships with other fellows have become a lifeline, slowly reeling me back from the depths of food addiction.
Many who do not believe in a dualistic capital-G “God” or gray-bearded sky wizard granting wishes from the clouds choose to conceptualize a higher power that they can relate to. For some, it’s OA as a whole, or a universal spirit, or a higher self guiding through intuition. I remove the higher-power notion completely. Step Two, for me, is about coming to believe that recovery is possible. I do that by going to meetings, talking to fellows, and bearing witness to transformation in real time. Step Three is when I decide that recovery is worth all the hard, uncomfortable change that it requires. It is the willingness to do something other than what I’ve been doing, to open myself up to the guidance of those who have trudged the path before me. It is when I commit to put my recovery before all else. In Step Six I become willing to let go of the behaviors that are standing in the way between me and recovery, particularly my usefulness to others, and through Step Seven I develop and put into action a plan to modify those unhelpful habits developed not just over my lifetime but over an entire ancestral lineage. Step Eleven is about learning to pause. Daily meditation lets me observe emotions and thoughts. Instead of reacting to life, I practice responding with skill and intention.
In my experience, OA is not a one-size-fits-all antidote to food addiction. I have not been struck abstinent by working the Steps and utilizing the tools. But the program and even more so the people have empowered me to embark on a personal journey toward healing. One day at a time, we carry on.
—Meghan W, Oakland, CA USA
Que Pasa, California?
Lightning and fire
What more challenges?
Come on show your face!
At two am outside
Light flashes inches
From my window, a
Some hours later
In the kitchen
I am struggling with
The elusive “single serving”
The world moves
Oblivious to such minutiae
The winds crack and fall
I am only five feet tall
But a cup seems to me
A handful, puny
Taste that does not linger
I could eat more
Taller than me
I could eat
Hot mountains and
I could eat fire
I could eat eternity
I could shut up
And eat a cup
The low sun struggle
Breaking the gray
In the sky
Nancy P, September 2020, Oakland, CA