Twelve-Step Fellowships and Eating Disorder Recovery

For many people afflicted with eating disorders, getting into recovery takes a huge amount of effort and doesn’t come completely naturally. Almost everybody who has successfully ceased their binging, purging, starving or other disordered behaviours, has only managed to do so after multiple attempts. In a way, this long struggle is what makes recovery ultimately feel so good.

Everyone’s road to recovery is different and involves a unique combination of working on themselves, psychotherapy, psychiatry, community involvement, friends and family connections, nutritional science, and a host of other factors. One resource that has proven successful for many anorexics, bulimics, compulsive overeaters and other sufferers, is a twelve-step programme.

Rooted in Alcoholics Anonymous

The original twelve-step fellowship is Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, which was founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, USA. Individuals who were afflicted with the disease of alcoholism came together and formed a group to support each other’s efforts not only in getting sober but also in living life in a new, more productive way.

Over time, they became known as Alcoholics Anonymous. The fellowship learned important truths and gained hard-won experience as they developed principles, steps and traditions to bind them together and allow them to keep growing. And nobody said it was easy, but for those who found sobriety through AA, it has most definitely been worth it.

Besides helping alcoholics learn a new way of life, AA has provided a blueprint for other fellowships, and people with other difficulties who need to get sober from other habits. Anonymous groups have been formed to help people with narcotics, sex and love addiction, gambling, co-dependency, and many other things which have come to completely rule their lives – eating disorders included.

Afflicted by Powerlessness

In AA, alcoholism is seen as a disease over which the sufferer is powerless. All they have any control over is how they deal with the affliction and its consequences. The idea is that the disease has physical, mental and physical effects. By following AA’s suggestions, an alcoholic is able to begin recovering from all three.

Fellowships of those recovering from disordered eating apply these principles and conceptualise eating disorders as a disease which cannot be cured, but which can have its progress arrested so that recovery is possible. Just as an alcoholic must completely abstain from alcohol, other twelve-step fellowships require sufferers to abstain from all disordered practices.

The idea is that they have become addicted to a substance, such as alcohol or drugs, or a process, like an eating disorder or gambling. In both cases, the addiction has become the crutch that they have to put down. Ultimately, you can work a twelve-step programme on anything that is making your life unmanageable. Many individuals do it first on their addiction, and then on other problems such as serious illnesses.

All Principles are Applied

Since the “fellowship approach” aims to deal with a disease of the mind, body and spirit, it follows that it must involve more than simply abstaining from the dysfunctional behaviour. Individuals also need to look at what planted the seeds of faulty thinking in their beings in the first place, and why they turned to their particular brand of maladaptive coping mechanisms.

That means each fellowship follows a reworking of AA’s twelve steps, which have been described as a course of action for recovery. Members do written work and answer questions on each step, seeking to understand their own demons and how powerless they are over their eating disorder or other behaviours. They take responsibility for how they have acted out in the past, and work towards the ideal of not behaving that way in the future.

Meetings are held regularly and follow set structures so that people who have the problem in common can seek the solution together. Doing service to help one another and keep meetings going is considered essential too; one of the edicts of these fellowships is that they keep the peace and freedom they have found only by offering it to others.

The most central tenet, other than the strong interpersonal relationships between fellows, is the belief in some power that is greater than the individual. This can be a god if someone is religious but can just as easily be the fellowship itself or whatever else a person decides on.

The point is accepting that you are powerless over your eating disorder or other affliction, but that a power bigger than you can help you to manage it. In the context of a twelve-step fellowship, when you are able to do that you realise what you need to accept and what you can work to change. And that’s when the healing can really begin.