It was lunchtime at the Overeaters Anonymous conference and almost everyone had a plate of food. A single plate.

But J.C. was walking around the footprint of the Mobile Marriott two weekends ago, getting in the amount of daily steps she accounts for with a smartwatch. Retired from a career in the federal government, the 68-year-old was in town for the annual SOAR 8 Recovery Convention and Business Assembly.

“I’ll eat a big breakfast, have a snack for lunch and then eat a healthy dinner between 7 and 8 o’clock,” she said. “I used to eat almost every hour I was awake and thought about eating almost every moment I was awake. On top of that, I often dreamed about eating when I was asleep. I was always surrounded by food and if there wasn’t food in sight or I couldn’t smell the aroma of food, I would have a panic attack.”

For her, rock bottom came with a diabetes diagnosis and inability to be active with her grandchildren. But compulsive eating wasn’t easy to leave behind.

“I went to my first OA meeting in 1993 but didn’t go back until 2002,” she recalled. “I weighed 312 pounds when I had gastric bypass surgery, lost 112 pounds in the months after the surgery, then put on 85 pounds after I relapsed.

“Eventually I started working the program, got a sponsor, then another sponsor, then made sure everyone knew I had a problem, then started being accountable to myself and everyone else … if I relapsed again, I knew that was going to be the end of me.” 

She still has several “triggers,” including large amounts of food such as at a grocery store, buffet or luncheon, like the one that was taking place inside the hotel. To manage her compulsion, she shops for groceries online, sits in booths at a restaurant so she can’t see other people’s plates and never, ever goes to buffets.

“I’ve fallen asleep at a buffet after 11 or 12 plates of food before,” she said. “Imagine how humiliating it is for a 300-pound woman to be awakened by the waiter and told ‘the food’s gone — it’s time to go.’” 

Overeaters Anonymous is a 12-step program styled after Alcoholics Anonymous seeking to confront binge eating disorder and other eating disorders. SOAR 8 governs OA meetings in the Southeast United States as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean. There are at least five regular meetings in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Back at the luncheon, nothing seemed amiss. Attendees were young and old, male and female, white, black and Hispanic. There was a man walking with the help of a cane and a woman breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, but otherwise this group could have been part of any convention.

“Sarah,” one of the organizers of last weekend’s event and a member of the SOAR 8 board of directors, said people with compulsive eating disorders are not necessarily obese or sickly.

“Many of us have had gastric bypass or bariatric surgery and still struggled with weight,” she said. “But OA isn’t about weight loss and exercise. It’s about loving your life and learning how to have a healthy relationship with food … it’s about support.”

She noted compulsive overeaters come from all walks of life, but are generally perfectionists, egotistical and people pleasers.

“But most of us are also damaged in one way or another … there is usually an underlying issue.”

For “Phoenix,” a 5-foot “retired lady” with rainbow-colored streaks in her gray hair, that issue was rooted in childhood, when she said she couldn’t meet her parents’ expectations.

“There was a lot of competition in my family and I always felt like I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I sort of raised myself and kept my nose stuck in fantasy novels, and that lonely little girl sent me to the food. Eating became a ritual and the most important part of my life.”

On a necklace around her neck was a photo of her 28 years ago, almost unrecognizable at more than 250 pounds and with a sour look on her face.

“I tried every doctor and fad diet and health spa you can imagine before I came to my first meeting, and it was OA that made me realize the amount of guilt and shame I was carrying. So I kept coming back and it taught me to interact with food in a way that’s not off-putting. Plus there was unity … I still struggle with compulsion today, I think we all do, but it’s manageable and I’ve turned my life around.”

Like alcoholics or drug addicts, OA participants use such words as “abstinence” and “sobriety” to describe their recovery. They introduce themselves with their first name and admit they are a compulsive overeater. There’s cursing. Then they hold hands and recite the Serenity Prayer.

The luncheon speaker said it was easier for her to overcome an amphetamine addiction than to stop eating compulsively.

“Gene,” who reads Lagniappe regularly and extended an invitation to the conference, keeps a daily weight log and calorie counter on his phone. He’s completed all 12 steps of the program and has attended meetings regularly since 1991.

“If you buy into the program you come to believe in miracles,” he said. “Alcoholics can still drink non-alcoholic beverages but food addicts don’t have the option of eating non-food food. You need to eat to survive, but in our case, food can consume you.”

He took notes on scrap pieces of paper and quoted self-help book passages from memory.

“I had completely lost the ability to make any decisions about food and it affected every relationship in my life,” he said. “But this is a big part of my life now and I’m probably alive because of it.”