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Sometimes, the cloak of total anonymity fits better than full frontal discussions, and thousands of members of Overeaters Anonymous around the world find participating by phone suits them better than face-to-face meetings.

Among them is a La Crosse woman we’ll call Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used to abide by OA’s anonymity as phone meetings with others helps her recover from her addiction to eating.

“From my phone, I connect to a group of people — men and women of different ages — from all over the world who have my problem and have found a way out to lose all the extra weight and to keep it off forever,” said Sarah, who had struggled from childhood to control her compulsive overeating and contain her weight, including going through two bariatric surgeries.

The struggle continued until she turned 56 and found OA phone meetings. Overeaters Anonymous mirrors Alcoholics Anonymous in many ways, including its spiritual element, reliance on the 12 Steps and dependence on sponsors.

OA, which has a website explaining its program and requirements, operates under the slogan, “No matter what your problem with food — compulsive overeating, under-eating, food addiction, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or over-exercising — we have a solution.”

Emotional, physical suffering

Sarah had attended face-to-face meetings when she lived in another city, but finding none in the Coulee Region and then discovering the phone network, she took what she could get and now, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Compulsive overeating causes emotional and physical suffering and also shortens lives,” Sarah said.

“Many citizens of the La Crosse area carry a heavy problem — their weight,” she said. “They may have a real sickness that cannot be solved by another diet or a little more willpower. They may have a disease of compulsive overeating — a painful, compulsive drive to binge on food as a solution to dealing with their feelings or problems.”

Like her, they may have tried diet clubs, shots, pills and weight doctors, achieving success for a short time failing and regaining the weight each time,” she said.

“They, like I, know the despair of feeling fat — or being thin, but knowing I am on my way up again. I was in eternal dieting mode, starving, then binging, constantly weighing myself.

“It was a torment that never ended. I have never been able to eat in a healthy manner as I am doing today, one day at a time,” she said.

In her own case, “I would do a huge diet for fear of being overweight,” said Sarah, whose top weight, after a pregnancy, was 260 pounds; her lowest, 130, and now, 165.

“In my closet, I have different size clothes” to be able to dress for any occasion in the size she was at the time, said Sarah, who had a professional job for a time before opting to stay home to raise the three children she and her husband have.

“It took so much time-consuming brainpower, it was like being in my own jail,” said Sarah, whose children are unaware of her addiction because she makes and takes her phone calls when they are not home.

OA has a variety of programs, including face-to-face meetings that are not available in La Crosse at this time.

Sarah’s choice is the OA 90 Days phone groups, which she said “are working amazingly well for me.”

In OA-90, the number signifies that members don’t speak during the calls for the first 90 days, said Grace, a 77-year-old North American who said the mandate is to “take the cotton out of your ears, put it in your mouth and listen” to learn from others’ stories.

Sarah said, “We don’t eat sugar, white flower, caffeine or artificial sweeteners. We weigh and measure all our food, and we eat three healthy and delicious meals a day,” she said.

Tools include sponsor, planning meals

OA’s basic tools include having a sponsor; planning meals; reading OA literature; calling three OA members a week; calling in to three meetings a week; writing, praying and meditating, and working AA’s 12 Steps, Sarah said.

“I get much relief and satisfaction in all these activities. I have finally found peace of mind around my eating and my weight. The program has helped me in all aspects of my life — physically, mentally and spiritually,” she said.

The nutrient score of these foods was calculated by looking at the ratio of "good" nutrients (vitamins and minerals) to "bad" nutrients (fat, …

For some members, the main issue isn’t necessarily the weight but rather, controlling the irresistible urge — the irrepressible compulsion — to overeat.

For others, it’s both, such as an Upper Midwest resident who asked to be called Mary, who said she topped out at 437 pounds and now weighs 138.

When Mary first heard a co-worker talking about the program, she said, “I had no interest. I was too arrogant, even though I was over 300 pounds and she was 100 soaking wet. I was raised believing that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and that’s what I was going to do.”

Pudgy as a child, Mary slimmed down between the fourth and eighth grades, which she credits partly to being involved in dance and tae kwon do. She began to put on weight again in high school and watched the scales slip over 400 pounds.

“I could turn breakfast into dessert in a heartbeat. Some people overeat by shoving hummus and vegetables into their mouths, and that’s where I was headed,” said Mary, a 43-year-old who formerly worked in the communications industry and now is a stay-at-home mom.

“I lost almost 300 pounds” through OA, but “pulled back in my 20s and 40s, and I was frayed around the edges,” she said, adding that that inspired her to get back on the program.

“When I was 28, I realized I was nearing 30 and staring down suicide but didn’t have the courage to change,” she said.

‘Doesn’t have to be ripping up body’

She scoffed at the suggestion to have a gastric bypass “because I knew it wouldn’t work. I’d keep eating and blow out my stomach. It doesn’t have to be ripping up your body.”

The support of her mentor and other group members, along with heavy reliance on the spiritual aspect of OA, helped her lose weight without resorting to diet programs or other aids.

Married for 10 years, she and her to-be husband had not met when she was heavy, she said.

“He never knew me when I was obese,” she said, adding that, even so, he has told her that he has noticed positive changes since she resumed OA calls.

“A different sense of peace and hope came back,” Mary said. “He says I am easier to live with, happier, healthier, and I don’t second-guess myself as much, but manage my mood to be more pleasant.”

She also copes better with behavior problems their 5-year-old son is exhibiting, she said.

“My husband told me I have a hard time not getting my own way,” she said. “I could have decked him, or said, ‘Good call.’ I said, ‘Good call.’”

Previously, she might have exploded at him, and then “spent the rest of the day coping with that.”

Mary has sponsored many other people’s entry into OA, she said, although she hesitated taking that step.

“For a long time, I thought it was telling people how to live,” she said, before she adopted the “humbling” attitude of service.

A previous participant in face-to-face OA meetings, Mary said she would consider that option again.

“There is recovery in regular OA,” she said.

Spiritual side is key for many

Carl, a 77-year-old OA member for 30 years who has lived in the Upper Midwest and now resides in the South, leans heavily on the nondenominational spiritual aspect of OA.

“The spiritual end is the key part,” he said. “It’s never too late too late for God to help. I’m the oldest compulsive overeater in the universe.”

Having had yo-yo experiences with the program, Carl has gone from a top of about 240 pounds to his current weight of 140.

“I’ve gained and lost 2,000 pounds in my life,” he said, although in the successful phase he is in, he has been able to manage his adult-onset diabetes without medication.

OA also has helped Carl with his bipolar condition, and he now takes only about one-sixth of the medications he had previously.

Also a recovering alcoholic, Carl said, “As an alcoholic, if I have a drink, I’m gonna get drunk. As a food addict, I can’t have a little. I’ve even had a hangover from eating.”

Grace became involved about six years ago after decades of trying traditional methods of curbing her weight.

“It’s is based on accepting compulsive eating as an illness. It is chronic, progressive and can be fatal,” said Grace, who is retired from being a home health nurse.

Although Grace, who has lost 50 to 60 pounds, acknowledged having a weight problem, she said, “I was never morbidly obese.”

To friends and those she cared for, she said, “I looked fine. Nobody knows what goes on inside.”

“It wasn’t weight as much as getting control of my compulsion to eat,” she said, adding that she sometimes put her robe on over her pajamas late at night went to a convenience stores to buy a bunch of junk food and gorge herself.

The change came after her “coming to grips with the fact that overeating is an illness and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s physical, spiritual and emotional,” she said.

Grace also found the spiritual aspect attractive, explaining, “For so many of us, God was a punishing God, and we had to learn he is a loving God.”

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Mike Tighe can be reached at mtighe@lacrossetribune or follow him on Twitter at @necktye.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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