Even before entering into recovery for my food addiction, I had heard a slogan that kind of, sort of made sense…but didn’t really.
Don’t just do something. Sit there.
I knew at least intellectually that it meant, “Stop trying so hard. Stop being a perfectionist. Let go of what you can’t change and be satisfied with what you can.”
I lived, however, like it meant, “Whenever you’re stressed, bored, or uncomfortable in any way, just sit there and eat and eat until you hurt yourself with food.”
It felt like that was the meaning of “sit there.” Of course, the more I ate, the easier it got to “just sit there,” because the more I ate, the more it hurt to move my body, and the more it hurt to tell myself no to the next binge. This caused me more stress, which I medicated with more sitting and eating.
It felt like the food worked. I’d crave and crave, and as soon as I got what I craved, I felt…well, I didn’t really feel better. But I sure felt something other than the stress, boredom, and discomfort I’d been feeling in the moments of those cravings. The problem was that even if I got exactly what I had been craving at that moment, it was never enough. As I reached the bottom of the bag of the first food I’d binged, another craving for a different food would hit, and I’d go in search of that. As soon as I’d found and binged on the next food, another craving would come up. Eventually, I’d eat so much that I was in physical pain. But even that wasn’t enough to stop me.
Surely the next bite would be enough. No, the next. The next. Just one more bite.
In that much pain, I couldn’t do much more than just sit there—sit there and wait for the next craving to hit.
Doctor after doctor told me to do something about my obesity, giving me countless new diets to try over the years. Those years became decades. I tried them all. Some worked but only for a time. I couldn’t maintain the restrictions. Eventually, I’d arrive back in the doctor’s office, having gained even more than I had briefly lost.
I fought so hard to gain control over my eating habits. I prayed, prayed some more, and even tried fasting. When I failed to fast from food, I’d fast from anything else I could manage: coffee, social media, leisure reading. Anything I could think of, I’d try handing over to God like it was some sort of cheesy game show. I’ll give You this, God, if you’ll just make me thin.
None of my strivings seemed to make any long-term difference. Each new diet was just one more failure under both my literal and metaphorical belts. I kept eating to distract myself from life’s pains, knowing that the eating was in and of itself adding significantly to my pain. Yet, that head knowledge was not enough to give me the heart change that I needed.
I asked my therapist if he had any ideas of how I could work through a food addiction and he gently guided me to search out recovery resources. The one last thing I hadn’t yet tried was 12-step recovery.
By treating my disordered eating as an addiction from which I could hope to recover, I discovered new ways to deal with my discomforts. I learned that instead of keeping my mind stuck in a craving, I could ask God to give me something else to think about. I learned that I could just observe my feelings and let those feelings teach me about my relationships with God, self, and others, instead of trying to exchange those emotions for the next snack. I learned that instead of reaching for the food, I could reach for my sponsor and other fellows in recovery.
So when one of those fellows reminded me of the slogan, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” I thought of Exodus 14:14: “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”
I decided to spend some more time with this verse. Exodus 14 describes the scene where Pharaoh has just set the Israelites free. No sooner do Moses and his people make it out to the mouth of the desert that Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his chariots after them to bring them back to slavery.
Seeing this imminent threat, the Israelites start doing what anyone used to enslavement and unfamiliar with God’s power does. They complain: “To Moses they said, ‘Were there no burial places in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?’”
Moses answers their complaints with reassurance of God’s plan for his people and his power to save. This is where he tells the Israelites to “keep still.” In the next verse, however, we hear directly from God, who tells Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to set out.”
Cue the record scratch sound. What’s going on here? Moses is telling everyone to keep still and that God will fight for them, but God is telling everyone to get moving. How does that make sense? Is it possible for the person relying on God’s help to both keep still and set out at the same time? When I was “still” stuck in my food obsession and setting out to satisfy my next craving, was God fighting for me?
Today I think the key is found in the possible meanings of the word “still.” When I first hear that word, I think of a lack of movement, the frozen stuck-ness of my pre-recovery twist of the mind. With a second look through the eyes of recovery at what it means to be still, I can think of all the times I have practiced observing my exterior triggers as well as my interior world of emotions and mindset. I can see in those times how God helped me simply to observe and accept my experience instead of changing it with food.
However, there is a type of still I can keep even as I set out. Stillness can also mean silence. In Exodus 14: 15, we hear God asking Moses why he is “crying out.” What is this crying out going on in this chapter? It is the doubt, fear, and complaint of God’s people who don’t trust that he will rescue them from death at the hands of their enslavers.
When Scripture reminds me to both be still and get moving, God is asking me to make still my complaints, fears, and doubts in his goodness and provision. In the stillness that follows, I hand those discomforts over to God, and I set my mind not on my next craving but on doing the next right thing.
This practice of simultaneously keeping still and setting out is perhaps the most obvious way to practice the type of acceptance that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous reminds us is the answer to all of our problems. In our Catholic faith, Exodus 14 reminds us of God’s power to save and our power to cooperate.
When we stay stuck in our complaints, we keep ourselves stuck in a craving mindset, a mindset of doubt that God can and will save us from the powerful pull of food. When we still those complaints and instead set our minds and actions towards something other than our cravings, we know freedom. We get un-stuck. In this stillness is our path to recovery’s Promised Land.
Erin McCole Cupp is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. She writes and speaks about mental health and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Look for her course “Filled With Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at erinmccolecupp.com.