SAN DIEGO — The room was sterile. Stiff white chairs were fixed in horizontal rows. In each sat a member of "a special fellowship."
They could see only the back of the person sitting in front. No one gave a last name, only a first.
Everyone gave feelings.
The Monday night meeting of Overeaters Anonymous (OA) had begun.
The setting was the back of a dimly lit Presbyterian Church in Clairemont. The lectern lacked a microphone, but no one strained to hear. Some of the "testimonials" who came forward were so emotional their voices could be heard at least to the coffee pot in back.
The guest speaker was Jackie, a trim, attractive woman whose secret life is a history of obesity.
And of sadness.
"I was a fat kid, a fat baby," she said. The crowd of 175 "compulsive overeaters" listened intently, some nodding in sympathy. "When I was 4, my grandmother asked me when my baby was due. It's always stuck with me, I could never really forgive her for that. Kids in school would say things like, 'Is Santa Claus your dad?' It was an awful pain, being fat."
Jackie said 4 1/2 years in OA had begun to chip away at her destructive self-image, like years in Weight Watchers never could. She has almost forgiven herself for a failed seventh-grade suicide attempt.
She likes the "one day at a time" philosophy that "brings everything down to 'today' chunks. It's allowed me to live the last 4 1/2 years, sometimes by a fingernail. But, ah, I have lived them. That 24 hours a day can begin anytime you want it to. As we like to say, the person who's abstinent the longest is the one who got up the earliest this morning."
"Abstinence" is the OA term for eating three meals a day, with no between-meal treats except for coffee or diet soda. After three years of abstinence--it took a year and a half to "take"--Jackie has lost 75 pounds.
"And I no longer treat my sponsor (the person appointed as coach) as a fairy godmother, who will wave a wand and make all my problems go away," she said.
Jackie also has grown spiritually. "What I do with the program the rest of the time, is turn my life over . . . to God."
Others in OA, which is now 25 years old, do the same. Talk of God and "higher beings" fills the air. The atmosphere is not unlike an old-fashioned tent revival meeting, with hand clapping and shouts of joy. The emotions--the tears and laughter--flow freely.
"It doesn't have to be God ," said Phyllis, who's celebrating her 13th year of being "clean, sober and abstinent" through the "power of OA." (Phyllis also is a drug and alcohol addict.) "It can be any (positive) force in one's life. It can be something as simple as the feedback one gets from the program."
Many agnostics come to OA, however, "and before they know it," Phyllis said, "find themselves giving their lives over to God." OA uses the "big book" and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), its forerunner and, in Phyllis' words, its "spiritual ancestor."
"The hardest thing for me," said Beth, a young pretty woman with a peppy, articulate manner, "was admitting I can't change myself. That I'm powerless over myself. Then I realized this is a process of totally letting go.
"If I had died before I came into this program, nobody would have known who I was. I never told anyone how I really felt about anything. Now I know that working the steps and trusting in God is gonna fill me up for good. If I don't believe that, I at least know it says it in the big book, and I believe what the big book says."
Phyllis said many in OA have "spent thousands of dollars" on commercial diet programs, searching for "the magic cure" to a myriad of problems. Such people are ripe for consumer rip-offs and fraud, she said.
"I was afraid," said Roberta, a shy, soft-spoken woman, "that this was just another one of those get-thin-quick schemes. Wow, was I wrong. I love you."
Bill, a lean, sandy-haired man with the look of a beat poet, was "living proof" of "the power" of OA.
"My name's Food, and my problem's Bill," he said to a gale of laughter, which punctuated much of a two-hour meeting. "You people are nurturing, supportive, caring. And those are all the things I was convinced people weren't, growing up.
"I'm an all-or-nothing person. Just one of my many compulsions. Generally, the only time I'm in the middle is when I'm swinging from one extreme to the other. Now the temptation is to make OA my life, my obsession." A look of worry, a cluster of sighs. "Help me, please . I mean, I can take a problem and turn it into something resembling a soap opera."
More than 125 OA meetings are held each week in San Diego, in back rooms and buildings all across what one member called "America's Fattest City." Such meetings are magnets for "compulsive overeaters" of all ages.
And unlike almost any program anywhere using weight loss as a theme, OA is free.
"And once you admit you're powerless," a member said, "you're free too."