Summer 2011

Freedom From Food

By Dave Milbrandt

Editor’s Note: Obesity is an epidemic in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) and 17% of U.S. children are obese. Food addiction and obesity are common struggles for many people, but — as seen in this alumni profile of Michael Noffsinger (’88) — there is hope. Anchored by a faith that believes in renewal, Noffsinger is now on the path to recovery from food addiction, and in the process he’s discovered a calling to help others in pain. Because Noffsinger’s struggle is familiar to many—including many Biola alumni—Biola Magazine is pleased to share his story here, in hopes that it might inspire others in their own paths to recovery.

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Ever since childhood, Michael Noffsinger has wrestled with his weight. His obsession with food even colored his viewing of the 1972 apocalyptic classic A Thief in the Night.

“I can remember when I thought I had been left behind in the Great Rapture and a little bit of garlic bread was a great comfort,” he said.

Although he weighed nearly 300 pounds when he graduated from Biola in 1988 with a degree in liberal studies, he seemed to find happiness in teaching music to elementary school children and performing both for Christian and secular audiences. A man with a quick smile and generous heart, he led worship at a church in California’s Inland Empire and sang at weddings. In the evenings, he would take his guitar to Los Angeles to jam with fellow musicians.

Yet, on the inside, things always came back to food, and unhealthy fluctuations in weight accompanied failed attempts to defeat this compulsion. While he had many friends, dating relationships ultimately were unsuccessful. He once was unable to buy the car he wanted because he could not fit behind the wheel for a test drive. Students even joked the teacher would break the bench he has just sat down on. When he flew, he felt sorry for those sitting next to him.

“I was the only guy bumped up to first class out of sympathy,” Noffsinger said.

Dealing with Addiction

By the spring of 2002, he had had enough. Therapy and medical weight-loss programs had not worked, as he put back on the weight he had lost and then some, topping out at 400 pounds. One Sunday morning he called “The Jesus Christ Show” on KFI-AM, curious how host Neil Saavedra would advise him. Before getting on the air, a call screener recommended a 12-step addiction recovery program.

Taking the advice, he traveled to the west side of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to begin a nine-year journey of healing that has led him to come to terms with his addiction and guide others along the process. 

“I basically, at one point, built a second life in L.A.,” Noffsinger said.

In the early days he dove in headlong, attending 90 meetings in 90 days. He has since tapered off and now goes to about three meetings each week.

While he firmly believes in the power of a nonsectarian environment for healing, staying connected with Christian friends is vital for his spiritual well-being, he said. 

“I have never been without a circle of Christian accountability,” Noffsinger said. “There has always been a presence of God’s people in the midst of this process.”

A Place to Share Struggles

Before dawn on a cold January morning, Noffsinger made the familiar trek from his home in Ontario, Calif., to L.A. and the Valley to catch up with friends and share some issues he had been struggling with, including his father’s failing health.

The first meeting of the day begins at 7:30 a.m. at a church in Studio City. As the recovery group Noffsinger belongs to does not emphasize a formal hierarchy, setting up chairs in the multipurpose room is everyone’s job. While arranging the seats, he finds time to shake hands with anyone in the vicinity.

Like many such programs, the members of this group share only their first names and promise not to reveal what is said in the meetings. And while some use language coarser than you would find at a Bible study, many pastors would envy how honest the participants are in their brokenness, shame and longing for redemption. Whether they are celebrating a handful of hours or several years of “abstinence” from certain foods or eating patterns, their stories often mix pain with the humor that helps them get through the hard times.

Interspersed between those members who are significantly overweight are many who are of average weight and others who look perfect by the world’s standard but struggle with anorexia or bulimia on a daily basis. And no matter what they look like today, many have lost 100 pounds or more primarily because of the encouragement of the people in the room.

Even when people hold strongly divergent religious beliefs, as Noffsinger does with one of his mentors, an orthodox Jew named Daniel, they share common ground in their struggles with food. 

“It’s really a relationship of mutual support,” Daniel said.

A Shoulder to Cry On

At 9 a.m. an empty hospital cafeteria in Panorama City is transformed into an intimate room where people can admit relapsing into bad behaviors and sing “Happy Birthday” as people celebrate the anniversary of the day they entered recovery.

Jamie, 27, says her obsession with food has controlled her life. For her, Noffsinger literally became a shoulder to cry on. 

“He just let me cry and cry … and just gave me the faith that [recovery] was possible,” she said. “I’ve never been particularly religious, but I love faith and I could see faith in his eyes.”

Although many speak of the need for a higher power in their lives and each meeting ends with a prayer, Noffsinger is aware not everyone shares his belief in the God of the Bible. He wrestles with when to share his faith.

“Sometimes you have to put it on the shelf,” he said. “[But] after you develop relationships with these people, you want to see them saved because you really love them.”

After a mid-morning meeting at a Beverly Hills community center, he heads to Santa Monica to spend a few minutes with friends Eve, 42, and Rachel, 46. Rachel shares Noffsinger’s faith and appreciates his spiritual insights. 

“It’s really important to talk to Mike about the core of the program and Christianity and how it all works together,” she said.

For someone seeking to avoid temptation, going to Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District might seem like a dangerous choice. But as he meets Laura, 39, for lunch, Noffsinger happily orders a chopped salad and vegetable soup while Laura chooses a grilled cheese sandwich and potato salad. At a restaurant famous for its sandwiches and pastries, the two enjoy a frank conversation of hope and freedom, not calories and forbidden treats.

Laura, who has struggled with bulimia, has seen victory in her life and counsels others with similar issues. 

“I feel God healed me from that by learning about grace and unconditional love,” she said.

“I think the root of addiction is shame and lies and hiding,” she added. “The way to work on shame is to expose the thing that embarrasses you as a person.”

The Road Ahead

By mid afternoon, Noffsinger headed back home, having travelled at least 100 miles on rain-swept roads to share life with people who wrestle with the same issues he does. As he wove his way back to the Inland Empire, he talked on speakerphone with Craig, a pastor who also is in recovery. They discussed the similarities between the recovery process and the Christian life.

“We are always addicts to our sins and our baser natures,” Craig said. But, in the midst of this addiction, there is hope. 

“What I like about the 12-step program [is] there is a confession of sin involved,” Craig said. “There is a gateway to the gospel.”

At 205 pounds, Noffsinger literally is half the man he once was. And, while his waistline has shrunk dramatically, the 45-year-old’s commitment to helping others has only grown. As he begins a Master of Divinity degree program, he is considering how he can best minister to this community as he continues along his own road of recovery.

“I think the Lord wants me to just show up and let him use me,” he said.

Dave Milbrandt (M.A. ’00) teaches at San Dimas High School and Citrus College.

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  • Michael Noffsinger July 4, 2011 at 12:48 AM

    Dave.. Your writing is amazing.. I am humbled.. and grateful.. God bless my friends at Biola - And God bless your wonderful talents and time which you so freely share. I am honored to call you friend.

    I still struggle with weight.. but the Lord ... because of his tremendous work. accomplished on calvary - Enables us to experience the brokenness which is essential for our own healing and recovery, to be divorced from the shame (something so common with any addiction)... which he bore in our place. So grateful He is ours ... and we are His! Everday, All things New!

    Michael

  • kathi July 4, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    Dave - What a beautiful representation of how well 12-step recovery programs can mix with God's Word. Thanks for sharing Michael's journey and spiritual maturity. You showed well Michael's example of faith in God's willingness to heal brokenness ("Let go and let God" - Higher Power), good works ("It works if you work it"), and helping others ("Live and let live") bear the fruit of God's grace!

  • Bernie December 10, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    Wow, what a moving account. Thank you.

    I used to see Michael at those meetings when I lived in California. A kind, inspiring, friendly man who is a picture of recovery's hardships, hope & beauty. He let my cry on his shoulder too. How wonderful to learn he's started a Master of Divinity program.

  • paula January 10, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    his article makes clear that there is help for this disease opens many possibilities for me to move forward and leave all the bad behind.

  • Robert Strong May 22, 2012 at 8:39 PM

    I still struggle so much with food addiction. I am 6' 3" and weigh around 350 lbs. I have struggled with other addictions as well. I believe in Jesus Christ and know that He is my Savior but haven't figured out how to let Him change me in this way. Looking, searching, seeking, yearning for this and other forms of healing.... :o)

  • Kelly R. in Branson, MO November 23, 2012 at 1:53 AM

    Loved reading your story Michael, thank you so much for sharing so honestly, I know it is harder for guys to admit that food can have such a grip, but it is not our fault "baby we were born this way" ya know! My obsession with food started around age 2, when I stole carbs from my Mom to :"feel good", I was normal weight for about 5 minutes a few times in my life, but mostly size 18-22 for 20 years after I had my kids. Now I am maintaining a size 12 and use a good plan weighing and measuring without exception, getting on meetings DAILY, and working with others who struggle like I do. I am a 100 lb loser, so is a sponsee, I have seen 200 lbs come off quick, what a gift and miracle surrender is, God Bless!

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