There is a story from the book The Bereaved Parent, by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff. It actually starts the book, although I’ve condensed it some, for space:
It is a story of a Prince. After a coup overthrew him, he barely had the chance to escape his castle, unable even to take a horse. Pursued by enemy soldiers, he ran through the woods and into a tiny farmhouse, where he begged the farmer to hide him. The farmer, although he had no idea who the Prince was, nevertheless hid him under his bed, which was really nothing more than some hay.
The soldiers came and searched the farm and the house. They even bayonetted the hay, but missed the Prince. After they left, the Prince thanked the farmer, and left to raise an army. Once he did that, he stormed his castle and reclaimed his throne. A few months later, the Prince went back to the farmer who saved his life.
“You didn’t even know who I was, yet you still helped me,” said the Prince. “If there is anything I can do to repay you for that, name it.”
The farmer thought about it for a few minutes and then said, “I am a simple man, and my family doesn’t need much. However, it was a hard winter. If you can see your way to giving me some grain, and a few bolts of fabric so the wife can make clothing for us, that would be rather nice.”
The Prince laughed. “Simpleton,” he said, “you could have asked for warehouses of grain and fabric, but if that is all you want, so be it. Consider it done. Anything else?”
The farmer looked around. “Your Highness, like I said, I am a simple man with few needs. But since you offered … could you tell me how you felt when the soldiers were bayonetting the bed?”
The Prince reared back and yelled, “Fool! I offer you riches, jewels, wealth men would kill for and this is how you repay my generosity? How dare you presume?” And with that, the Prince rode away.
That night the Prince’s soldiers came for the farmer. They shackled him and threw him into the dungeon of the castle, where he spent an uncomfortable and terrifying night. In the morning he was dragged outside and into the courtyard. There stood an executioner, holding an axe, by the execution block. The soldiers dragged the farmer to the block, placed his head on it, and the executioner raised his axe.
“Stop!” rang out a voice. It was the Prince, and as the farmer was being helped down (the poor man could not even stand), he leaned down and whispered into the farmer’s ear, “There. I just answered your question.”
Here, the world was familiar. More than familiar, it was the world so thoroughly known it was a place of belonging.
Everyone’s struggle was my struggle — it was the same struggle. We went around the room, each talking his or her pain as the listeners nodded their heads: Floor cake? Sure, ate that -well, the part that wasn’t touching the floor. Garbage can half a sandwich? Absolutely. I’ve finished that before. We were all overeaters, and most of us knew what a food hangover (the morning after you’ve eater dinner, followed by a whole pizza, followed by half a cake) felt like. We only knew each other’s first names, and those of us who were successful had a plan, had adhered to it and were free. Free from obsessive thoughts, free from albatrosses that hung from some of our necks. Free. Those who had surrendered their will over to their higher powers could breathe, filling their entire lungs with air.
We met in a room in a Lutheran church, in their library — with rounded-out walls — looking like it was located in an old castle turret. The vaulted ceiling was crisscrossed with polished wooden beams, and the chairs were comfortable. This was an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. OA is to overeaters what Alcoholics Anonymous is to those who abuse alcohol. It uses the same 12-step approach, and at times we even used The Big Blue Book, written by Bill W. for recovering alcoholics (we substitute the word “food” for the word “alcohol”).
I received comfort from knowing that everything I had ever felt about eating and food was a feeling known by everyone else in this room. A fellowship is a wonderful thing. It’s akin to brotherhood or sisterhood, a setting so familial it’s definitely a form of family. But unlike the family you’re born into, this casts no judgements, demands only faith — and even simply to a power higher than yourself — as you understand that higher power. This surrendering of ego is the first, and most important tenant of all 12-step programs. Get out of your own way. You’re not the center of this universe, so stop pretending you have control over anything or anybody — especially yourself. The crux of this is not complicated.
Unfortunately, this kind of program has not worked for me, because it is spiritually based, but I am just not a spiritual person.
But this program, and other 12-step programs, has helped many people. It has helped them overcome the overeating addiction. It has helped them develop a “normal” approach to food. And if any 12-step program works for even one person — if it helps someone reclaim their mind, their life, then this program is doing good in the world. And who am I to stand in the way of that, to cast disparagement on that?
However, what I always loved, what I keep coming back to, is the fellowship, the companionship, the belonging — the group. I think I’ll go back next week.