What's being hungry got to do with eating?
In January a small group in western Wisconsin celebrated the one-year anniversary of a local gathering where everyone may not know your name, but they all understand your struggles.
Group No. 52015 of Overeaters Anonymous, formed a year ago, meets at 10 a.m. Saturday mornings, varying locations between homes in River Falls and Bay City.
OA has been just what they and others need, say two women who've been with it since the start: Patti Albertson, rural River Falls, and Linda, who -- in keeping with the group's promise of anonymity -- asked to use only her first name.
"I had a traumatic childhood and found that food was the one thing I could use to comfort myself, to forget about what was happening," said Linda.
"By the time I was in third grade, I was the fattest kid in school," she said.
Linda weighed 103 pounds. By high school, she weighed over 200 pounds.
Albertson, too, was heavy as a child and heavy as an adult. Still, she said, friends would comment that they'd never seen her eat.
She said it was about control, the strategy and the planning for her next binge. Even when she was sick from overeating, she couldn't stop.
She said it was like eating and eating and "never getting the signal that you're eating yourself to death."
Both women said they tried every weight-loss group and program they could find.
Relief with pills
Both also had doctors who prescribed drugs to curb their appetites.
"I was introduced to 'Black Beauties' -- loved them," said Linda. "Black Beauty" was a term used in the 1960s and 1970s to refer to a pill of pharmaceutical amphetamine, a form of speed.
"I had energy, and I wasn't hungry," said Linda, who started taking the pills when she was 16. "I liked that. It worked for me."
She stayed on the pills for a couple of years until the dangers became more widely recognized and she could no longer get the prescription filled.
During that time, she lost weight and dropped to what she called "medium size."
Thin, she said, was never considered.
"If they would have kept giving them to me, I would have kept taking them," she said of the pills.
While the amphetamines had their own drawbacks, they did control her compulsive eating, said Linda, adding: "Oh, my gosh, what a relief that is."
After the pills, she tried different things and lost and regained weight throughout her adult years.
Her first experience with a Twelve Step program was Adult Children of Alcoholics. Then in 1985 she went to an OA meeting.
"For many of us, we fit for the first time ever," said Linda of those meetings. "People understand."
Her first meeting was in a different state, in a large city, in a big meeting room with 35 people.
Despite the number, said Linda, "All of us had the same stories." The tales were of compulsion and self-hatred.
She kept active in that group and, if she didn't lose weight, she did maintain a decent weight. "For me size 14 is a really nice size."
When she moved to Wisconsin, Linda left behind her OA group, and though she did find others, they were too far away to be convenient.
She began attending meetings in Hastings, Minn., and stabilized her eating plan but jumped at a chance to join the Pierce County group when she read about it in the local newspaper.
"It's a relief to be back in with a group of people who have the exact same issues," said Linda. She said the other members understand her "nutty thinking" and desperation.
It's wonderful, she said, to be with a group of people who will stand by you when you think you're acting "nuttier than a Christmas fruitcake."
Albertson said there were four or five people at the local group's first meeting. It now has a core group of seven and about 14 people have attended at one time or another.
"It's hard to get to that first meeting," said Albertson. "We all want to think that we are unique, but we aren't unique in some ways."
Linda expanded, "You're looking for that meeting where somebody tells a story, and you say, "Oh my God, that's me.'"
Living life on its terms
The thing about Overeaters Anonymous is that sooner or later, a person learns that it's not about weight, it's about life, said Albertson.
"You learn to live life on its own terms," she explained.
"We're taught if there is something to do about a problem, for heaven's sake, do it," said Linda. But, she added, OA members learn to forget about problems they can do nothing about.
They also learn, she said, to make amends when they mess up, to apologize immediately for mistakes and to help others.
"Those are good solid ways to live a life," said Linda.
A significant part of each meeting is devoted to letting members talk without interruption while the others listen.
"They are not allowed to interrupt you or give advice," said Albertson.
For some, she said, this is the only time they can be in a group and for a few moments have everyone's attention and be free to be honest without fear of judgment or criticism.
"This is what works for me," she said.
After the formal meeting, members can visit and offer options on dealing with problems, said Linda.
But, she added, "You do have to figure out your own way."
OA is a Twelve Step organization and offers those and other tools and ideas to handle the compulsion to eat.
"My goal is to not have food control me," said Albertson. Although she has lost some weight while in OA, that is secondary, she said.
She said some people will attend meetings and stay the same weight for a while and then something will click and they will drop a noticeable amount.
"If you do not compulsively eat, chances are you will lose weight," added Linda.
She said members who are overweight tend to lose and then stabilize and those who are underweight tend to gain and stabilize.
"At lot of (people who attend), you look at them, and you think, 'Why are you here?'" said Albertson, noting that the program is not about being overweight.
It's about an addiction, she said. "Food is just our drug of choice."
"For many of us, it's sugar and carbohydrates that really mess us up," said Linda, comparing it to an allergy.
She said she has learned that she will overeat if she allows herself to get too hungry or to full. "I have to pay strict attention to that middle road."
Linda said a joke among the group is, "What in the world does hunger have to do with eating?"
Albertson recalled one of her own rationalizations. She often figured that if she had eaten too much, there was no point in stopping because she could only gain so much weight in one day.
"If I eat 14,000 calories, can my body even process that?" she wondered.
While nutrition advice and tricks such as eating on smaller plates may work for people who've simply put on a few pounds as they age, compulsive eaters know those basics and can find their way around the gimmicks, said the women.
OA, they say, is about helping one another get past the control food and weight have over them.
The local group now meets on Saturday mornings, but will change to evening meetings for April through October.
For more information, call Albertson at 715-425-7580 or email her at email@example.com