In the last 65 years, dozens of 12-step groups have been founded based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, including Debtors Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Incest Survivors Anonymous, Parents Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Shoplifters Anonymous, Child Abusers Anonymous, and Nicotine Anonymous as well as Overeaters Anonymous. Though these programs vary widely in focus, they all use the disease model. They all advocate admitting that one is powerless over the problem at hand, be it nicotine, shoplifting, or household clutter, and believe that only through admitting this powerlessness and asking for the help of God or some version of a "higher power" can one get better.
The first Overeaters Anonymous was formed on January 19, 1960, in Los Angeles, California. Only three women attended the first meeting, but the group has since grown to nearly 9,000 meetings in 51 countries. (15) The group was the brainchild of Rozanne S. (16) In January of 1959 she took a friend who was struggling with a gambling problem to a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous in Los Angeles. As she listened to the gamblers' personal stories, she found that she could identify with their struggle. Only it was not gambling that she had a problem with: it was food. And just as the members of that group termed their gambling "compulsive," Rozanne S. later termed her eating patterns and those that Overeaters Anonymous would deal with "compulsive eating."
Rozanne S. left the meeting hoping that she could find a similar group for those who had problems overeating, but she could not find one. With the support of the founder of Gamblers Anonymous, Jim W., Rozanne S. started the first meeting of Overeaters Anonymous with one of her neighbors, Jo S., and Bernice K., the overweight wife of a G.A. member. Bernice dropped out of the group early on, stating, "My doctor says that dieting makes me nervous." (17) The other two original members, however, were losing weight rapidly--134 pounds between the pair in less than nine months.
Like many splinter groups from Alcoholics Anonymous, OA struggled with how much of the original text from the Alcoholics Anonymous "Big Book" (18) to retain for their purposes. They were especially torn over what portion of the 12 Steps to edit, or whether to keep them in their entirety. (Appendix A) Rozanne S. initially rewrote the steps, omitting any reference to God. In a program that was based on spirituality, this was a daunting task. Step three was changed from "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him," to advising consultation "with a physician of our own choosing." Rozanne S. admits that at this point no one in the group had actually been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her sole participation in a sanctioned 12-step program (19) was her three-time attendance at Gamblers Anonymous, and she admits that her understanding of how A.A. functioned was tenuous at best.
O.A. experienced phenomenal success in the first year. In November of 1960, Paul Coates interviewed Rozanne S. and some of the other original members on his syndicated television talk show. This was an amazing accomplishment for a group so new and must have bolstered the confidence of the fledgling group. Coates' show, after all, was where Rozanne S. had originally heard of Gamblers Anonymous, her original inspiration for starting Overeaters Anonymous. The show, which ran in six cities, brought the group, which at that point consisted of a handful of members, more than 500 letters. O.A. grew by leaps and bounds after its first key piece of publicity.
In 1962, Overeaters Anonymous made its first major decision as a group. Rozanne S., who was a dietician's daughter, had previously subscribed to the belief that calories were the most important factor for weight loss and weight maintenance. She later wrote that during this time, she believed "It didn't matter how much I ate or how often, as long as my total food count remained within the limits I had set for myself." (20)
After attending an A.A. meeting that discussed the idea of abstinence, Rozanne decided that snacking between meals only reinforced her tendency to compulsively overeat. At the next meeting of Overeaters Anonymous, Rozanne introduced the idea of O.A.-sanctioned abstinence-three moderate meals with no snacking in between and only no-calorie beverages, such as black coffee and water. The new rules did make allowances for those whose doctors advised them to eat more frequently. This introduction of the first Overeaters Anonymous food plan sparked controversy that continues to roil the ranks of O.A. membership today.
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