(Editor's note: To protect the anonymity of group members, names have been changed and only first names will be used.)
"I was at the end of my rope. I didn't want to get dressed, didn't want to see anyone, didn't want to go anywhere.... I didn't like where I was. My weight was out of control - not just my weight, but my whole life was out of control."
Kim finally hit rock bottom and, out of desperation, attended her first CEA-HOW meeting last August. Nine months and 94 pounds down later, Kim realized taking the first step inside the door of that meeting was the best thing she could have ever done, not only for her weight but also for herself.
Kim is a compulsive eater, and many of you might even see yourself in her words. Many compulsive eaters feel alone and desperate, but there is help, and Kim found it with this group.
Compulsive Eaters Anonymous - Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness (CEA-HOW) is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and hope, are recovering from compulsive eating. Compulsive eating is treated like an addiction, and the program follows a 12-step approach very similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. Meetings offer a disciplined and structured approach to the compulsive eater who accepts the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions as a recovery program.
The original HOW program was started in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1979 by two people who saw a need for structure and discipline in recovery from food addiction. Over time, the HOW concept was modified and the group eventually evolved into Compulsive Eaters Anonymous - HOW. Its world service office is located in Los Angeles, Calif.
Locally, the current CEA-HOW group began in the Upper St. Clair area of Pittsburgh. One of the key people from those meetings moved to the Wheeling area and started up the meetings here. The group holds three weekly meetings locally, Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. at East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martins Ferry. All meetings are free and there is no fee to join.
Like Kim, Margaret had just bottomed out. "I felt like a slob. I couldn't stop eating," she explained. "When we come through that door (for a meeting), we're finished. Everything quit working." Over the course of 12 years following the guidelines of the CEA-HOW program, Margaret has lost 130 pounds.
Both Kim and Margaret stress that the group is a fellowship, not a diet club. It is a three-part recovery program in which members are given tools to work on their own spiritual, emotional and physical issues. An abstinence model is used for all three components - physical abstinence from certain types of food (especially flour and sugar) and food-related behaviors; emotional abstinence from self-deprication; and spiritual development of a personal value system, including a relationship with a Higher Power. Members are given sponsors to help them through each phase.
"It's not just the physical," Margaret said. "Physical is just saying we're abstinent. The emotional and spiritual work are hard, and that's why we do an inventory and work with a sponsor to go through these steps. These can be very hard to do, so you have to discuss them with your sponsor on how to do some of these things."
Things like writing exercises can help members discover and admit things about themselves, and using the tools provided by the program, they can then adapt to each situation in a healthy way, without turning to food for support.
"One of the biggest reasons we can overeat is to calm ourselves down," Margaret explained. "The root of so much overeating is anxiety." She presented a model called HALT. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel compelled to overeat, stop and ask yourself if you're hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT). "I overate a lot because I was tired. You learn a lot about yourself."
"I numbed myself with food," Kim stated. She likened her constant eating to trying to keep an emotional "buzz." Diets worked temporarily, but every time, she'd gain the weight back - and then some. "My mind was so messed up - all this dieting and gaining. And every time I'd gain it back I'd gain more, and more, until you're up at that ultimate high. And you wonder how it happened. It was a pattern. Every time I'd lose, I'd gain it back. I really truly believe it was an addiction. I'm treating myself like I'm a food addict."
Writing helped Kim the most, because she explained that thinking about certain probing questions helped her understand herself better and allowed her to get honest with herself. She wrote: "My past behavior pattern and my all-time top weight verifies that I insidiously sneak, cheat and lie about food. This food plan is sugar and flour free and that is more than liberating for me, it's a relief!" She said she writes every day.
Kim also reflected on what her family noticed first after she began the CEA-HOW program. It wasn't her weight they noticed, but instead they noticed how differently she interacted with others. She was more pleasant and confident, and it was noticeable. At that point, she realized she didn't care anymore about the weight. She knew that by staying abstinent that the weight was going to take care of itself.
Margaret found clarity for the first time in years. "Once the food is removed, then your mind clears and then you have to deal with life," she said. She now uses the 12 step approach to tackle problems or issues in her daily life instead of turning to food. She loves the way she eats now, she explained, but she added cautiously that she tries not to "romance the drug." For instance, going into a candy store and smelling all the aromas can be difficult for her to get out of her head, or going up and down a bakery aisle. But now, she said it's a wonderful feeling to be able to walk past that.
She also continues to reap the benefits physically, revealing that she finally knows what it feels like to be full and hungry. On the other hand, she mentioned that she'd lost some friends, who she referred to as "using buddies." But that was actually for the best, because even though she enjoyed those times and people, her friendships are different now because they are based on so much more than food. "Probably for the first time in my life, I have some real friends," Margaret added with a smile.
Kim benefits from having more energy and confidence, adding that CEA-HOW gives her the tools to work through daily stresses and problems. "I don't have a lot of pity parties for myself, and don't allow myself to take on the role of the victim. I feel more peaceful with myself."
Both women stress that they don't feel that everyone with a weight problem is a compulsive eater. However, the sharing of stories within the group can benefit just about anyone. "When you hear another person's story, you think, 'That sounds like my story'," Kim said.
Still, while the program offers the tools to help those overcome their food addition, the message will only get through to those who are ready to receive it. Both Kim and Margaret reached a point of realization that allowed them to put the 12 steps to work for them.
Kim suggests taking a hard look at yourself if you find you're dealing with a similar problem with food. "If you've had a chronic problem with your weight, you're yo-yo dieting or you're unhappy with yourself, it's time to look at yourself and understand that it's not simply just a physical problem. There's something else going on."
Spreading the word about CEA-HOW is something Kim feels is extremely important. Help is available, and nobody has to deal with a food addiction alone. Kim added, "I know there's people out there who are as miserable as I was."
How do you know if you have a food addition? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you might be a compulsive eater who can benefit from the tools offered in the CEA-HOW program: Do you eat when you're not hungry? Do you hide your eating from others? Do you overeat and then starve yourself, purge, take laxatives or exercise for hours? Do you promise yourself you won't overeat and then do it anyway? Is your weight affecting the way you live your life?
If any of these stories or questions sound like you, feel free to reach out to the CEA-HOW group by attending one of the three weekly meetings - 6:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, and 6:30 p.m. Sundays at East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martins Ferry. You can also visit www.ceahow.org or call 740-381-2489 for more information.