The rapes and sexual assaults began when she was 6. The worst and last time was when she was 18. She was assaulted by eight members of her boyfriend’s biker gang.
She had already developed an addictive personality by then: Her diaries show that at 8 she was taking powdered Jell-O from her mother’s cabinet, hiding in a closet to consume it and expertly lying about her actions. But the sexual assaults made a bad situation much worse, as she used food as a shield from her emotional distress.
And then it got worse still.
M.T. (as a member of Overeaters Anonymous, she does not want to be identified by name) weighed around 250 pounds by the time she was married in 1992. She gained 80 or 90 more pounds over the next five years. In 1997, she became pregnant. Then she lost the baby, as well as the ability to have more children (though she does have stepchildren).
In the next three years, she put on 150 more pounds.
By 2012, she weighed more than 600 pounds. Today, she is down to 278. She has lost more than half of herself.
“I know. It’s pretty amazing,” she said with a big smile.
At the end of 2009, M.T., who is now 54, was depressed. She suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and an unending list of weight-related physical ailments.
“I said to my husband, ‘I don’t think I have any bootstraps. I don’t want to do anything,’” she said.
“He said, ‘Well, let’s just take our time. Let’s get you better.”
She went to a therapist who agreed to treat her only if she went to meetings of Overeaters Anonymous.
M.T. told the doctor that she did not think she had a problem with food, “I just have a really slow metabolism.” But she agreed to go to the meetings, and that is when her life changed.
“I sat in the back of the room, and cried and cried for six months as person after person told my story,” she said.
Overeaters Anonymous is a nonprofit, 12-step program based on Alcoholics Anonymous. Its members have weekly meetings around the world, including 49 in the St. Louis Bi-State Intergroup. M.T. serves as the area group’s Public Outreach Chair.
“I would give up my anonymity if I thought it would bring more people to OA. If I could give people the gift that it has given me. It’s given me things I didn’t know I needed,” she said.
“Integrity. I didn’t know I did it, but I made promises I never intended to keep. Now, if I give my word, I keep it.”
As with all addicts, she said, she became a proficient liar. The first thing they teach in OA is how to be honest — she thought they meant being honest with other people, but she first had to learn to be honest with herself. Doing so has allowed her to become a better partner in her marriage, a better daughter and a better mother, she said.
As part of this newfound honesty, she had to make amends to the people she has hurt (it’s the ninth step). But making amends does not just mean apologizing to the people she has hurt — unless the apology would only hurt them more — it means altering her behavior so she does not hurt others again.
That is part of the spiritual and emotional side of the program, which is at its core. Addicts live a life of selfishness, and always place themselves and their cravings first. The OA program teaches humility and only works if you give yourself over to a higher power.
It doesn’t have to be Christianity or any other recognized religion, M.T. said. Some OA groups are even made up entirely of atheists. The higher power can be anything bigger than the individual, including the collective experience of the organization itself.
Only after the spiritual and emotional side comes the physical part, she said. And that can be especially hard because, unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, overeaters cannot live without food. So, with the help of a sponsor, they identify the foods and habits that act as triggers for them, and abstain from eating and doing those things.
M.T.’s trigger foods are anything sweet. She had been turning to sugar for comfort ever since she was a girl eating those packets of Jell-O in the closet. She now abstains from sweets, most carbohydrates and especially from Coca-Cola.
She used to drink five or six Cokes a day. It was the hardest thing for her to give up, she said.
She also does not eat in her car anymore — she said she would get drive-through fast food, so she could easily dispose of the evidence. Nor does she snack late at night, when she could clean up the traces of her indulgence.
So far, M.T. has lost 362 pounds — they call it “deflating.” Much of the loss has come from bariatric surgery, which she could only have after she had already lost a significant amount of weight. She has 90 or so more pounds to go to reach her goal.
At that point, she will be able to replace the knees that have been damaged by carrying around so much weight. She admits it is for the sake of vanity, but she also wants to have surgery to remove what will by then be around 30 or 40 pounds of excess skin.
That will bring her down to around 150 or 160 pounds, which she said is “appropriate for my age and height.”
And she will be less than a quarter of the person she once was. But so much more.
For more information about Overeaters Anonymous, visit OARegion4.org or call 314-638-6070.