The Magic If: Acting Our Way out of Compulsive Overeating

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I never imagined that God would use my theatre degree to save my life.

Since I received my acting and directing training before Method Acting got its current bad reputation, I was trained in what’s called Stanislavski’s Method, which involves a number of exercises an actor can use to imagine her way into creating believable characters. One of those exercises is called “The Magic If.”

Using the Magic If, an actor examines the script and simply asks, “If I were this character, how would I react to this scenario?” This then informs how the actor speaks her lines, moves her body, and reacts both verbally and non-verbally to the actions of the other characters and events in the work.

Between the day I received my undergraduate diploma and the day I entered recovery for my binge eating disorder, I’d gained 100 pounds. During my first 13 months in recovery, I literally cannot count how many relapses I racked up. After all those relapses, I was starting to tell myself that, since my drug of choice—food, that is—is something I can’t avoid entirely—like, say, alcohol or drugs—then I was just doomed to a life of relapse after relapse, and that there was no hope I could ever fully recover from my compulsive food behaviors.

It took a conversation with my sponsor to show me that maybe there was hope even for a chronic relapse like me. The topic of the conversation wasn’t my food behaviors so much as my emotional sobriety. Of course, one supports the other. It was early 2021, and I was experiencing complications from a recent surgery, and those complications were requiring a second surgery to correct. I was terrified. I shared my fears with my sponsor.

“What if I die on the table?” I asked. “What if I have complications from the anesthesia again? What if they go in for this surgery and discover that I need a third?”

She responded, “Well, what if you wake up tomorrow completely healed and don’t even need the second surgery?”

I scoffed. “Well, that’s stupid. It’s not like that would happen.”

“How do you know?”

That brought me up short. I had to admit that God can do anything He wants and that I couldn’t actually know for sure that He wouldn’t heal me overnight.

“So if you can’t be sure that an instant healing can’t happen,” she asked, “why are you spending time and energy on all the bad things that could happen?”

I admitted I couldn’t.

“And,” she went on, “if you were the kind of person who believed that God has good things and not bad in store for you, if you were the kind of person who did turn your will and your life over to the care of a loving God, then how would you act? What would you do next?”

In that moment, I had a flashback to freshman year Intro to Theatre. I could hear in my memory the professor describing for us how the Magic If works.

From that day forward, my recovery has been informed and strengthened by that sponsor’s wisdom and the Magic If. When I feel stuck in indecision, useless anger, or even my eating disordered thoughts, I now have the option to pause and ask myself questions like:

If I were the person God created me to be, what would I be doing right now?

If I were a person who trusted God to provide me with good and not evil, how would I be thinking?

If I really am exactly where I need to be, how would I be speaking to the people around me?

If I really am a beloved child of God, would my internal monologue be full of criticism or encouragement?

If I really were a beloved child of God, would I nourish or numb myself?

Then I do those things and think those thoughts. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

My brain and body spent decades in destructive patterns. Every addict knows those patterns of both thought and deed are hard to break. Even if I really do want to do the next right thing, sometimes that right thing is hard to see.

In times like those, I broke out the Magic If. I was amazed at how quickly using my imagination for self-care rather than self-destruction brought me the hope I needed to imagine a life without chronic relapse. Once I could imagine it, I became able, one day at a time, to live it.

I know Bill W. says that we can’t think our way into right action. I’m not sure if this recovering theatre major found a loophole to that principle. I do know I found a way into greater health, hope, and serenity.

Maybe it’s safer to say that there’s a method to acting our way into right action.

If your hope is fading because of repeated relapse, you’re invited to our next webinar, “What If: Regaining Lost Hope in Food Addiction Recovery” on Monday, January 23 at 8:00pm Eastern Time. Join CIR+ today to sign up! The event is open to CIR+ Premium and CIR+ Free members. CIR+ Free members are encouraged to support Catholic in Recovery with a $5 donation.

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. Check out her course “Filled With Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at