Listen to the story of FA's foundations, recounted by one of the program's earliest members
This early history of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous was recorded on May 2, 2002 at the first FA Convention. The speaker recounts her personal experience as one of the earliest members of the FA program.
I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to share with you the history of FA as seen through my eyes. I would like you to know that in my opinion, there are no founders in this program, but rather at least a score of members who, over a period of 20 years, believed and trusted that recovery from food addiction was possible. They were willing to listen to truth and had the courage to follow the divine direction that was given to us through group conscience.
I will begin speaking briefly about my own personal history. I had a problem with food and weight from the time I was a young girl. I went on my first diet at the age of 16 and lost enough weight in a very short time to appear normal. This was only on the outside, however. Inwardly, I always felt out of step, different and afraid of letting people know me—letting them see how insecure and fearful I really was. I was married at the age of 20, and I had four children by the time I was 29. Throughout my life, I dieted, I lost weight, I gained the weight back, and I dieted again. The cycle went on and on: dieting, losing weight, gaining it back. Over and over again.
Finally, at the age of 43, I arrived at the doors of OA (Overeaters Anonymous) on July 30, 1973, a defeated and a broken woman. In OA, I found hope, fellowship and the 12 Steps. But there was no unity in the program regarding the food. We could each do whatever we felt would work for us. There were different food plans: gray sheet for those who are carbohydrate sensitive—so called because it was printed on gray paper—and orange sheet for those who were not. And there was the option of using any food plan at all that you thought would work for you. You could weigh and measure your food, or you could eat moderate meals. I tried all the options in OA and they all worked for a while, as any diet would, but I found that I kept losing control of the food again. I used to say, “I'm abstinent 99% of the time.” When I had been in the program for three years, I realized that it was not working for me because I continued to get in trouble with the food. I knew that I needed to find a solution that would help me not pick up the food ever again if I was ever to find any kind of peace.
I still could not understand what was keeping me from freedom—freedom from the obsession and craving and ultimately from eating addictively. In 1977, a man who was a member of AA started an AWOL in Reading, Massachusetts. AWOL is a program that originated at an alcoholic detox center in Canada. It is not part of the 12 Step program; it's merely a structured method of studying the 12 Steps. I felt in my heart that there was an answer in the Steps, but the answer was alluding me. I wanted to join the AWOL, but the meeting was scheduled to begin at 9:30 in the evening. After working for a full day and then attending the meetings held right before the AWOL, I found that I was too tired to concentrate during that AWOL. I decided to try to find someone in my own area who might know about the AWOL program. As it turned out, I was able to find someone—a woman who lived in my own hometown of Chelsea, Massachusetts.
She had just come into the OA program from AA, and I was already sponsoring her. I found out that she had been leading an AWOL in AA for the past five years, and that she had just decided not to lead another. She still had access to the room she had used. When I asked her, she agreed to lead an AWOL in OA, but she needed a co-leader. She suggested that I co-lead because I was the person with the longest abstinence at that time. I had one year of abstinence as we defined it then, a time when two pieces of chicken could mean half a whole chicken. We were all trying to feel full. I was very nervous, but since I really wanted to be part of an AWOL, I agreed to co-lead. The first AWOL was a disaster. We began with about 30 people. We had the commitments to the AWOL from the original AWOL program, but when my co-leader asked me what we should do about the commitments in OA, I thought, "Well, we should suggest that people remain abstinent.” No one in OA ever stayed abstinent for any length of time. I thought no one, I mean no one, would ever make it through an entire AWOL abstinently.
The other important commitment was that the members would agree not to miss two meetings in a row. In the end, we both agreed that the abstinence would be a suggestion, but that people needed to commit to not missing two meetings in a row. The definition of abstinence we used was three weighed and measured meals a day, no flour, no sugar, and no alcohol or mood-altering drugs. We began the AWOL, but we had many problems. Midway in the AWOL, a woman went on vacation for three weeks. When she returned, she insisted that she be allowed to continue in the AWOL because she said, "This means my life." She demanded that the group vote on whether or not she could stay. Being new, my co-leader and I agreed.
The group voted to allow her to stay. They were put in a terrible position, after all, because she had said it meant her life. So, the woman stayed, and then two weeks later she left to join a prayer group. At that point, it was around thanksgiving time. Most of the people in the group were not abstinent and they were very inconsistent in their attendance because they were busy shopping and cooking in the midst of this. My co-leader said to me, "We have got to go back to the original commitments and make them true commitments from this point on. This is crazy." I agreed and we announced that from that point on, we were going to ask everyone to accept the original commitments, including a commitment to abstinence, and the agreement that a member would leave the group if she ate or if she missed two meetings in a row.
The woman who had originally introduced me to OA was a member of that AWOL, and she was not at the meeting the night that we took the commitments again. Our AWOL meeting was on Tuesday nights, so on Thursday, I called her to tell her about our new commitments. She had diabetes and congestive heart failure. When I called her, she was baking and eating. I said, "You've got to put the food down." Her reply was, "I will, on Tuesday when I come back to the meeting." But on Sunday, she was taken to the hospital in an ambulance with congestive heart failure. At that point, in our view, she was no longer a member of the AWOL because she had missed two meetings in a row. She was in the hospital for a number of days, and when she came out, she was furious about the AWOL. She went to as many different meetings as she could saying that she had been forced out of the AWOL. She also said that because of being forced out of the AWOL, she had ended up in the hospital sick.
It was a really trying time. There was a tremendous amount of gossip regarding the terrible things that we were doing with the AWOL. People said that we were ruining OA. We continued the AWOL however, and it ended with about 18 members. At the end of that first AWOL, my co-leader and I decided that we would lead another. Before our first meeting, we wrote the introductory paragraph to the AWOL commitments which began by saying that AWOL is not for everyone. The second AWOL began in 1978. Our first AWOL was held in a small schoolhouse across the street from St. Mary's Church in Revere, Massachusetts. On the night of the first meeting of the second AWOL, my co-leader and I went to the schoolhouse. We open the door and we felt awful. The room was empty. She suggested that we cross the street and look in the church. I will never forget how my knees shook. As I entered the church, I walked across the room filled with 200 people.
As we studied the Steps in sequence during the AWOL, with members making a commitment to a shared definition of abstinence, weighed and measured food, the avoidance of drugs and the consistency of not missing two meetings in a row, it became apparent that people began to recover. The understanding of addiction as it related to food began to emerge and a different attitude began to develop. We began to understand that we were dealing with addiction, not compulsive overeating, and that addiction is a matter of life and death. I believe that my recovery began the day that we started AWOL. For many years, there was only one AWOL, the one that my co-leader and I led. The people in the AWOL came from many different areas around Boston. They were getting better. But outside of the AWOL, they returned to regular OA meetings. Their fundamental attitude regarding the food seemed to remain unchanged. They had dieters’ attitudes overlaid with a nice philosophy from the 12 Steps. This did not have the attitude that their recovery was a matter of life and death.
The understandings gained in AWOL affected the meetings we held in Chelsea, most of which were held at St. Luke's Church. My co-leader and I attended meetings in Chelsea and we always spoke from the perspective that the program was not a diet, that it was a matter of life and death for food addicts. Our sponsees also understood that attitude, so meetings in Chelsea began to change. We heard and shared a different message there—a break of abstinence was not viewed lightly, as it were a break in a diet. At this point, I began to get impatient. As I attended AWOL meetings and Chelsea meetings, I realized that I heard one message from my AWOL co-leader, myself and our sponsees, and a very different message from other people. We focused on how crucial it was to surrender the food, to commit ourselves to abstinence, and to live—not just to study—the 12 Steps. We saw this as a way of life and as I would again emphasize as a matter of life and death for a food addict.
My impatience with the dieting mentality grew, and one day in a moment of anger, I decided that we should leave OA and start a new program. I called a meeting at my home to discuss this possibility, and I invited anyone who might be interested in it. Before the meeting day, I calmed down, I took a lot of quiet time, and I heard a message from within myself that I believe was the voice of God. It said, "Not now." The day of the meeting, my home was filled to its capacity—nearly 100 people attended. But instead of urging that we leave, I explained my change of heart and asked that people grow stronger in their abstinence, and that they continue to pass on the message of recovery in OA. It was a very trying time for my co-leader and me because we were sharply criticized by many people in OA. People again were saying that we were ruining OA. Still, I thought we could strengthen OA by being powers of example. And I urged successfully that we remain within the OA program.
One woman who I met in the second AWOL played an important role in OA as we practiced it. She and other sponsees of my co-leader set out to attend various OA meetings outside of Chelsea and to change them. They also began to go to our region's intergroup, the Mass Bay Intergroup, where they voted in abstinent requirements for offices and representatives. At that time, anyone could be an officer or representative—there was no need for abstinence. This woman and her sponsees encountered much strong resistance from the older members of the Intergroup—the people who had founded it. These people eventually realized they could not hold back the movement towards abstinence in the Intergroup, and they withdrew and founded the Metrowest Intergroup.
In 1980, I was diagnosed with a breast cancer. My mother got sick, and after a short time of illness, she died. My sister-in-law went in for a routine surgery and died unexpectedly. My husband had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. My AWOL co-leader began to seem more and more distant, becoming annoyed at things that used to bring us close. We always had different ways of looking at things, and we used to enjoy discussing those differences. Sometimes when she was harsh, I would say, "Look at it this way." And she would say, "I'll pray about it." And the next day, often she would change. At this time, though, she more often stayed angry. She said she was tired of being abused in OA.
I don't really understand what happened to her, but in 1986, she gathered a group around her that placed her in a position of authority. She secretly left OA and formed a cult-like group. I was heartbroken and confused when she left, but I knew my recovery was dependent upon God and not upon another human being. I believe it was in this period that I began to connect more strongly with my friend—the woman who had been sponsored by my AWOL co-leader. We were both affected deeply by her leaving. I continued on my path leading AWOLs and working within the fellowship doing service on the group and personal level. I believed that if we were to make a difference, it would have to happen from the ground up, sponsee by sponsee, meeting by meeting. Meanwhile, my friend pursued the possibility of bringing change about through activities at the level of OA World Service. I believe that God was working, preparing us both for what would happen in the future.
I often thought about why OA did not have the success of other 12 Step programs. I came to understand that we had no unity of attitude regarding food in the Chelsea area. We saw food as a drug. Alcoholics know that the basis of recovery is the surrender of alcohol. Drug addicts know that they must surrender their drugs. But in OA, outside of the Chelsea area, there was no food plan that was commonly accepted, and there was only a suggestion that members not have flour or sugar if they had a sensitivity to them. Some people weighed and measured, others ate moderate meals. Some people ate flour and sugar, and some did not.
The OA meetings in Chelsea became stronger and stronger because of the AWOLs. Through group conscience, our meetings decided to invite sharing only from those who had 90 days of abstinence. We gave out food plans, even though OA declared the food plans were a break of tradition. We kept the food plans off the literature table and put them in the trunk in the back room. We gave them to newcomers with a starter packet. Our way of doing OA really worked. It made some people very angry, but our sponsees took this strength and their commitment to abstinence with them to whatever meetings they attended or started. Chelsea-style meetings started to spread. My friend had started meetings in Medford, Massachusetts: the Saturday morning meeting in 1981, the Sunday morning 10:00 AM meeting in 1984, and the Sunday morning 8:00 AM meeting in 1993. Other people began meetings in areas around Boston and Cambridge. As people in our area moved to different places in the country, they took this style of OA with them.
Chelsea-style meetings started to appear in places like Florida, California, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina and Washington DC. These meetings began to be called 90-day meetings in reference to the 90-day abstinence requirement for sharing, differentiating them from the other kinds of OA meetings. For me, God was the central part of all the changes that I suggested and that we adopted. I always asked God for help and guidance in all that I did. In 1996, I wrote the definition of a food addict, and by group conscience it was incorporated into the formats of the Chelsea meetings. A few months later, I wrote the definition of abstinence. I looked for a way to bring unity to our program, writing a definition that allowed for differences, but that established fundamental boundaries. The definition of abstinence was also immediately accepted in Chelsea meetings.
People were thrilled to have their meetings openly affirm what in fact they did. But the OA organization became more and more upset with us. My friend who had worked hard at the level of the intergroup and World Service had to help us now when the OA organization began to attack 90-day meetings. A meeting in Florida was deleted from the OA meeting lists because OA said that they broke tradition. In California, a task force was established to investigate 90-day meetings, and they were given a long list of requirements they had to meet if they wished to continue within the OA framework. These included the demands that they not sell the 24-hour book and that they not announced AWOLs at their meetings. The pressure was getting worse and worse. Meetings in Texas, Michigan, New Hampshire and Canada were also being pressured by OA. Meanwhile, the group that my former AWOL co-leader formed grew smaller and smaller. At one point someone left the group so confused that she called me. When I asked her why the people had left OA, she gave me something that group members had written to explain their actions.
I glanced at the paper and I put it aside. A couple of years later, on March 22nd, 1998, I rediscovered that paper. It had been written 12 years earlier, but I read it and I got chills through my whole body. Someone else had put the pen to paper but I recognized my own words. 12 years later, the paper completely described the current situation in OA. After reading the paper, I was so moved that I went to the phone and called my friend, who was in the middle of trying to respond to a letter from California. She was struggling to write to a member of a meeting affected by the OA task force that was demanding 14 changes if the group was to remain within OA. She was trying to find a way for them to stay within the OA program. At that moment, I said to her, "This is nine pages long, but you must listen to this." She did not say one word until after I had finished reading the entire piece. Then she began to cry.
She said, "It is time." She later told me that she had a spiritual experience at that moment, just as I had in the moment when I found the paper. The paper began, "We, food addicts, had found a method that is effective in recovering from food addiction. Although by the grace of God, we found our abstinence and began recovery in OA, the OA fellowship, as it now exists, and as it continues to change does not support our recovery. Within OA, however, a program and a fellowship of our own has evolved, with its own language, disciplines and nascent traditions, based on a common definition of abstinence and a common foundation on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous." At this point we resolved to call our sponsees to a meeting to discuss what they might think of our idea of withdrawing from OA.
On March 28th, 1998, we called a meeting of our sponsees. We met in a living room in Chelsea, to see what the consensus might be regarding the possibility our leaving OA and forming a new organization that would do exactly what we had been doing at our 90-day meetings all along. This would be our own organization, owning who we really were. We would stop struggling within an organization that did not agree with our philosophy. All of my sponsees came and several of their sponsees. None of my friend’s sponsees attended, however. I wondered. When I asked her about it later, she seemed to think that they felt that she and I had been making a decision with conversations over a period of months, and they were upset and thought that the meeting was not a discussion meeting, but that in fact, a decision had been made by us beforehand. My friend was a dedicated sponsor and had done so much for her sponsees, but after we had the meeting, they refused to speak with her. It was terrible for her, but she decided to go forward nonetheless.
At the meeting, we decided that it would be necessary to hold a general informational meeting for the whole fellowship—anyone who was interested—to inform the fellowship of our discussion and to dispel rumors. After our meeting in the living room, emotion and rumors were flying. Mass Bay Intergroup was held on the day immediately after our meeting. Prior to the Intergroup, there was a large 90-day OA meeting held in the same location. The meeting in Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford, Massachusetts, was generally attended by about 250 people. The members and attendants of that large 90-day meeting called an emergency business meeting. My friend was asked to step down as secretary of the meeting. There was anger and hostility in the request. She refused, stating that it was premature for her to leave and that she needed to get things in order first. The motion was tabled for two weeks. She intended to step down, but before the two weeks had passed, she received a nasty letter and she decided to resign immediately.
At the Mass Bay Intergroup meeting, the chair of Mass Bay and every person who had an interest in joining the new organization was asked to resign. Everyone interested in the new group resigned. Mass Bay continued with new offices. We had already started to make 12 step qualification tapes. The group continuing in OA decided to destroy the tapes of every person who moved into the new group. Our first intergroup meeting was held on May 31st, 1998. The room was full of people. People were filled with enthusiasm and willing to do whatever service needed to be done. The spirit of cooperation and unity in that room was amazing. We were very excited about the formation of a new organization, but the change and split off of individual meetings was going to be very awkward, we knew. We tried to be really honest and open at our individual meetings. We explained what we intended to do. We emphasized that we were appreciative of OA, of what OA had done for us, and that we were not trying to take members away from OA. The OA program was not working for us as food addicts.
We thought that OA was dealing with obesity and compulsive overeating. The philosophy of our new organization was a focus on recovery from food addiction. We embraced all food addicts, including bulimics, anorexics, and those who did not have weight to lose. At our individual group business meetings, we discussed the new organization and asked members to vote on whether or not they wished to join the new organization. If even one person did not wish to join, we explained that we would be leaving to start a new meeting, we would not ask for any part of the group's treasury, and we took responsibility for finding our own meeting place, leaving the original meeting place to those who wished to remain in OA.
At our first intergroup meeting, we had no official name for our organization, and we were of course not incorporated. We laid the groundwork for our new group in many exciting ways, but we did not have a name. Some of the names we considered were Food Addicts Anonymous, but that already existed as a group, Food Addiction Anonymous, which was not grammatically good English, and Anonymous Food Addicts which sounded to us like we were trying to be invisible. We settled on two possibilities: Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous or Recovering Food Addicts Anonymous. Then we sent a mailing to our membership suggesting that we all choose between the two. We asked members to state their preference in writing or by leaving a message on my friend’s answering machine.
Food Addicts in Recovery got 48 votes, Recovering Food Addicts received 30 votes. We chose Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, and eventually decided that we'd use the acronym FA rather than the more awkward sounding FARA. Meanwhile, we faced the challenge of legally incorporating as a nonprofit organization. We had little money. But we were blessed with a member who was a lawyer. She had graduated from law school, passed the bar and was working in a prestigious law firm, where she was in the process of realizing that she did not like the law. It seemed that even if she did not stay in the practice of law, God had put her where she was, and prepared her to be used in forming of our new group. She understood what we needed to do to incorporate, and she guided us wisely and also found a lawyer in her firm who could help us to do the necessary work. We incorporated in May 1998.
I think that I've come to the end of this part of our story. What I'd like to leave you with is a plea that you realize the tremendous amount of work done in the past four years by many who have been willing to give of themselves unconditionally, as a result of their gratitude for that which has been given to all of us by God. Please know that all decisions have been made with the help of God. These decisions have not always been easy. We have made them always looking toward a vision of what is best for the greater good. It is not easy to accept things that we do not agree with, but sometimes we must for the sake of unity.
What is the unity of our program? That we accept that we are food addicts. We have a unified definition of abstinence, and we must have faith and trust in a higher power. I'm getting older now and I tire more easily, but I know that abstinence, gratitude and service are the things that are going to keep me active in this program as long as I'm physically and mentally able to be involved. This program is the foundation of my life. Again, I want to say that I'm absolutely in awe of what has come about in four short years, and I know that with the help of all of you, this program will continue to grow at an unbelievable pace. Thank you and God bless you all, with abstinence and good health.