When Recovery Becomes the Addiction

by Bill Brenner on January 18, 2011

I’ve noticed something interesting in the halls of recovery: Some folks cling to their program so tightly that their addictive behavior latches on to the program itself. In my opinion, this can get unhealthy.

Mood music:


To find recovery in Overeater’s Anonymous (mine is a binge-eating addiction), the only requirement is to want to stop eating compulsively. It’s very simple. There is no “OA diet.” But there are a few different food plans people choose from. One is based on a “Dignity of Choice” pamphlet that outlines a few different plans. Then there’s the so-called “Grey Sheet” plan (included among the options in “Dignity of Choice”) a lot of recovering food addicts cling to like a passage from The Bible.

For them (not everyone, but quite a few people), there IS NO OTHER WAY. If you’re not following the food plan outlined there, you are not abstinent.

There’s also the mindset that you HAVE TO ABSTAIN FROM FLOUR AND SUGAR and have nothing in between meals to be abstinent. Eat an apple in between lunch and dinner and you break your abstinence and have to start over.

To me, this is an extreme that causes a lot of people to fail. In fairness, some people need the most rigid plan available to be well because their mental state demands the most brutal discipline to stay clean.

I get and respect that.

What I don’t get or respect is when someone following that plan tells someone they’re not being abstinent if they’re doing their own plan differently.

For the record, I don’t eat flour or sugar, and I don’t eat in between meals. I have to have it this way because the defect in my brain approaches anything in between as an invitation to binge. Flour and sugar, mixed together, had the same effect on me as heroin has on the more traditional junkie.

But not everyone can do it that way. There are many reasons for someone to do it differently. If you have diabetes, for example, following my exact food plan could be bad, maybe even lethal.

I also feel that if an apple between meals keeps you from binge eating, that’s what you do. If the more extreme among us tell you you’re not abstinent if you do that, they’re wrong.

In my view, folks who get that way become addicts of a different sort. The compulsive behavior centers around the program itself.

Don’t get me wrong. If doing it that way is what you have to do to stay away from the binges that made your life unmanageable, more power to you. It’s certainly better than the type of addictive behavior you displayed before finding the program.

What makes me uncomfortable is when that person tries to force their way onto everyone in the room.

There are also sponsors who insist you do your program exactly as they do, with no differences whatsoever. Even if another medical condition forbids you from eliminating all flour and sugar, these particular sponsors won’t work with you. That’s their choice, and they’re entitled to it. Some believe they’re not qualified to guide someone with a plan that’s different from their own. In some cases, that kind of sponsor comes off like someone on a power trip.

In some cases that’s true. In other cases, those folks are just afraid of breaking their own abstinence by letting a sponsee do something different. I understand that fear completely. Nobody wants to have a relapse. That’s the recovering addict’s biggest nightmare.

The problem is that when you give a sponsee no room to do it differently, you’re doing them more harm than good. Someone hungry for recovery gets turned off and walks away to resume their self-destructive behavior.

I sponsored four people at one point, and I eventually decided I had to take a break from it because I was worried that I wasn’t in the best position to tell these people what to do.

Call it the fear of making someone worse while trying to help them.

I decided to pull back and re-organize my own side of the street to prevent that sort of thing. 

It just goes to show that addictive minds never heal completely. When you put down the addiction that made you into a monster, you tend to redirect your compulsive nature onto other things — including the recovery plan itself.

This isn’t a criticism of people who are like that.

It’s just an acknowledgement of how hard and complicated recovery can be.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Regina Boratgis January 18, 2011 at 2:30 am

As a wise person once said, “there is no flour or sugar in organic peanut butter.” Or regular butter, for that matter.
The person who said that was technically abstinent, but putting it back by eating globs of PB.

billbrenner1970 January 18, 2011 at 3:43 am

I see that happen all the time. I use peanut butter, but I always weigh it out to 3 ounces.

billbrenner1970 January 18, 2011 at 3:45 am

This comment came in through LinkedIn, but her points are so on the mark I needed to share here:

I think that is well put and, in fact, I plan to share it. I have the same kinds of feelings about AA-I love it in that it works GREAT for some people, but I also hate it in that some people become so attached to the program that they allow it to interfear with the rest of their lives. “My Sponsor suggested I not go so I’m not, even though it will hurt people in my family” kinds of attitudes. Or they HAVE to do a meeting, so they don’t give aid to a friend in need. They often lose the line between “suggestion” and “requirement”.

But Recovery (from whatever addiction) becomes a form of Religion, and like Religion, some people get confused about the fact that we were all created unique and individual, therfore having unique and individual needs. Thanks for sharing this in a way that is plesant and mindful.
Posted by Taunta Beanie Taylor

Colleen January 18, 2011 at 7:33 am

If you truly hold this belief, “It just goes to show that addictive minds never heal completely,” you are limiting yourself and you will never heal. Fortunately, for all of us, we have the ability to change the beliefs that create the *undesired* behavior in our lives.
This should help make sense of what I’ve written: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BCy2H4rQh0.
Have a lovely day!

billbrenner1970 January 18, 2011 at 7:39 am

Thank you for sharing that, Colleen. And thanks very much for your feedback.

Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 7:35 am

This bleeds into AA in a way that can be dangerous. People take on the role of doctor and tell newcomers that if they take antidepressants, they’re not sober. Or if they take any type of psychiatric drugs, they’re not sober. This can lead to newcomers ditching their meds without talking to their doctors, which is dangerous beyond belief. In the Big Book, it clearly says that we get outside help where needed. For psychiatric and mood disorders, that’s the work of someone trained in psychiatry, not an armchair shrink with four years of sobriety who thinks they know everything. Thank you for this very thoughtful and insightful post.

billbrenner1970 January 18, 2011 at 7:38 am

As someone who takes Prozac for OCD, I wholeheartedly agree with you, “anonymous”

valerie January 18, 2011 at 10:50 am

well done for bringing this subject to life! i agree with you that this happens. i spent years relapsing in AA before being diagnosied with dual diagnosis i then couldnt tell anyone in AA i was on meds! for me its not about following someones program, no matter how many letters are behind their name, its about a quality of life and to start with harm reduction. everyone is different and being in a food program or AA is not any good for your soul if you live in fear of making a mistake on a daily basis. take in mind that their are some very sick people in the rooms of recovery and i find that recovery rooms that have facilitators work well as they keep the conversation in the room positive and can guide thing in the right direction, when they start to get a bit negative a good facilitator will advise a medical opinion when people talk about medication. just remember sick people feed of each others negitivity. im not saying everyone in recovery rooms are sick but that some are “old school” and not very open minded. i attend AA once a week as i have a lot of friends there and its a social as well as support group for me. god bless and stay well val

billbrenner1970 January 18, 2011 at 10:54 am

Valerie, thanks for your feedback. I’ve seen up close the problem of the sicker folks feeding off each others’ negativity. I touch on that a bit in this post: http://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/aa-vs-oa-12-step-dysfunction/

Chrissy January 20, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I wanted to share a book about addiction I recently read. It’s called, Soaring Above Co-Addictions, by Lisa Espich.
It’s helped me. Very much so, more than words can express. I’m not the best when it comes to writing, so all I can say, is check this out. Its an amazing book, that is full of countless tips, tools and tons of resources, that friends and family can use.
I lost my zest for life, I felt broken, and this book lifted me up and inspired me. Made me want to share with everyone and anyone…

billbrenner1970 January 21, 2011 at 1:02 am

Thanks for sharing that, Chrissy. Going on Amazon and buying it now!

Sherill January 26, 2011 at 9:31 am

I am new here and just surfing a bit when your post caught my attention. For disclosure sake, I am not an addict but work in the field as a mental health professional, an addictions counselor and as a homeopath. Also was once married to an alcoholic.

Whether it is the program, the religion, or the teacher, I definitely see this rigidity. In AA you can’t mention you are on ANY other drugs as mentioned. As a mental health professional other ways to reduce symptoms are given some time and attention but the primary focus is on medication. “My religion” and my new guru have the answers.

I think it is a fear of free-falling of a sort. Since “I” have made mistakes both serious and costly I cannot trust my own instincts or logic, so must follow a plan. It is safe.

shalisha October 20, 2013 at 5:28 am

I was a greysheeter once. I was abstinent according to the cambridge greysheet for over 11 years. I became rigid in my thinking like the rest of them. I became more obsessed with my body and food like them. When I made the decision to leave, no one wanted to be friends with me anymore. In fact, they were terrified. I ended relapsing and gaining 100 pounds. I lost 74 of those pounds, but I woul never go back to those crazy people. They are physically abstinent, but absolutely unhinged.

Heather June 8, 2014 at 9:06 pm

I too once followed a greysheet food plan in the 12 step group for food addicts. I was abstinent for 5 years and became dangerously depressed. I ended up losing my physical health and leaving my job. It’s scary to look back on my time there. I’m still in the process of deprogramming and it’s been 8 years since I’ve been there! I lived in constant fear of mKing a mistake and going back to day one. I was losing my hair and turning yellow, but I was told to trust the food plan and just don’t eat no matter what. Those people were not doctors! Thank goodness I got out when I did before anything irreparable happened.

Christine March 7, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Thank you so much for this article. As a newcomer who was told that I must eat exactly a certain way in order for someone to be my sponsor, this helped me tremendously. I have medical issues that make it now in my best interest to follow someone else’s food plan. I was driving myself crazy about it because this person ha everything I want in a sponsor. But, I also had to listen to my body and my heart.

FMC June 10, 2016 at 10:58 pm

Wow thanks for the words or wisdom. I just hit 90 days on GS and it so does not resonate with me. I u derstNd more reading all these opinions. I am in a conflict w self because, although it’s working, I’m committed, and fell if I’m committed then anything will work. The program is so fanatical and extreme, it’s not healthy for my mind, always in fear.
I will continue w program and struck turned eating, however, GS is on its way out.

Deb March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am

Great article! I am 20 years sober in AA. It saved my life and I have never found any judgement in the rooms of people on medication. It’s always been a bridge to normal living and I have a brilliant and successful life today doing normal things. Meetings are like catch ups with the best friends I have ever had and complete acceptance of new comers with no judgement.
However I entered a food addiction fellowship and was mortified by the unbelievable control I encountered there. I cooked some meat that shrank just below my allotted 4 oz and had to start again at day 1!! I left some green beans on my plate and had to go back to the beginning!! You have to phone your sponsor every morning in the allotted time. Some people are given 5.30 am as their slot!! I have heard of sponsors getting up at 4 am to fit in all their incoming calls before work. Is that normal living? I was told that I had to name 3 AA meetings and attend them before family commitments or anything else. Now how can that be honest? People with food addictions being told to go to AA where the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking?? Do AA know that this is happening?
I am convinced that I have a sugar addiction but I can’t believe that being dominated and controlled to this degree by a sponsor is the only way to recover.. I find this mentally unhealthy. I got sober through love and support, not control. AA was the first fellowship so surely all the others should model themselves on it, not take it to another extreme dimension?

KB November 2, 2017 at 3:02 am

I was a Greysheeter and just found it unsustainable. Eventually you simply get bored to death weighing and measuring.

Lalenya November 26, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Not to mention that the greysheet is blind to other cultures. I mean – does this program suits to people in the Middle east, Far east, India??? South America???

Like – I am in Israel. Now – In Israel we eat for breakfast eggs and cheese and vegetables and olives and bread and jam . Let’s take off the carbs. What is wrong with a breakfast made of fried eggs and olives and vegetables and cheese? That is what is acceptble in Israel. But no – the greysheet said it is only protein and fruits. But it is so strange to our culture.

Another example – In greysheet dinner is the largest meal. It may be accepted in the USA, but NOT in Israel. In Israel lunch is main meal, and for dinner you normaly have fried eggs with tomatoes, bread, olives, sardins and avocado. and fresh vegetables, not coocked.

Again – this program suits Americans. But in other parst of the Universe people has other eathing habbits.

And it has all those rules – That are so so strange to the local culture of eating.

Or take for example – weighing the milk you drink. WTF??? In Israel the culture is to go to caf’e’s all the time and to drink coffe in a coffie shop – and it comes with a milk. that you can’t messure.

Not to mention that one of the forbidden fruits in the greysheet is whater melon. In Israel there is summer most of the year – and every one is going to the beach and eating wattermelon there. Sitting on the balcony and eating wattermelon is a common thing in Israel.

So why a program that was written by few Americans in the 1960’s should apply on people from various cultures – that those founders of greysheet has not clue about?

Going law carbs – that is fine. But to have like a world center located in the USA dictates people from other parts of the world what to eat – that is CRAZY.

I am sure every person in any part of the Universe can relate to what I am saying.

Lalenya November 26, 2017 at 2:46 pm

And another thing. How crazy it is to demand people to wiegh their food in public??? If you want to stay in the closet – cause your private matters are your private matters – you can’t eat with people. What can I do that it is part of social life? To have meals together.

Another thing – this program does not contain enough protein. it has hardly 45-58 gr protein pr day. You have to have 1 gr protein for every kg you have on your body.

Imagine people begining this program weighing 100 kg – having only .5 mg pr kg??? That is insane!!!

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