The Proper Care and Feeding of…Yourself: Center For Eating Recovery

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I ran into Alison Ross from the Center For Eating Recovery a few weeks ago at a festive wintertime event. She was in the wild – not settled on her comfy couch across from me, listening to me talk about what’s going on in my life, in my head, in my gut. I was excited to see her because our 8-week program had ended weeks before.

And then, as I suppose must happen to anyone who runs into her therapist at say, a grocery store, I felt the need to report on my good health. Even though she had advised me to throw away my scale, I happily reported that I’d lost 4 pounds since I last saw her. As soon as I said it, inwardly, I flinched.

Because that’s not the point.

The 8-week group session, a course called Hunger Balance, at Center For Eating Recovery is meant to be a gentle and supportive avenue for people to begin to release their dependency on food – control over it, or overindulgence in it.  It’s for people “whose many jobs and duties in and out of home have led them to forget the importance of care and feeding of self,” says Ross. “The women who come to me don’t identify with having an eating disorder,  but they might have struggled to like their bodies and to eat healthily for years.” I met with Ross privately, but most often this is a communal experience, and participants form bonds with each other and continue to meet after it’s over, sometimes extending their attendance in one-on-one sessions.

I entered into the 8 weeks expecting to get a few tips on how to live a healthier life, but I realized right away that what I called “health coaching” was essentially therapy. Even though I don’t have an eating disorder, my attitude about food and exercise and my own body image are all tied up in the experience and knowledge and outside influences that I’ve collected over my lifetime.

During the first four weeks, I got my feet wet. I stated my intentions, and identified possible roadblocks. Just doing that was enough to keep those ideas in my head, and helped me to change my actions. For example, now I know that the two biggest tools for me to eat healthy are time and availability of nourishing, tasty food.

In other words, I have to make time for myself and provide myself with the right foods. I deserve to slow down for a lunch break, make a tasty salad or sandwich, and sit and eat it. Like regular people. Instead of wolfing down a half a bagel slathered with peanut butter as I run out the door to pick up the children from school, already late because I’ve been working or cleaning the house instead of being mindful of my own hunger, and grabbing this particular snack because that’s all I’ve got on hand.

But it went deeper than that. My sessions with Ross frequently touched on my emotions about food, and those revelations led to conversations about my childhood, and feelings of safety and abundance, and how I want to create those feelings for my own children. We talked about the food traditions and beliefs that I have formed over my life, and my practices now, and how I feed my family.

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Most memorably, all of this affects – and is affected by – my writing. I am working on a book, a collection of essays, lessons and stories from my life. Surprisingly, every session with Ross that started about food ended up touching on these themes, more so in the later weeks, once we had worked through the structure of CER’s Hunger Balance course.

Ross zeroed in not just on the themes of the book, but of the writer. How I push myself to produce – whether in my work, or keeping house, or helping my children achieve. I am relentless, I barely give myself a break. I compare myself to others. I feel guilty when I rest. Having embraced the life of a stay-at-home-mom, I still have moments of doubt, thinking I wasted my college degree and my years of work.

When those thoughts surfaced in our conversations, Ross would slip into role-play. She was me, the real me. She asked for leniency, for kind treatment. She reminded me to be kind to myself, my inner artist. Because my best writing requires me to tap into memories and emotion, it is important to allow myself the space for that, she said.

“Take a break,” Ross-as-me asked. “I deserve to be treated kindly.”

She didn’t mean to stuff my face with seven Oreos at a time, although she didn’t mean I could never have an Oreo again, either. Indulgences are okay, unless you hurt yourself with them.

All these weeks later – we ended our course right before Thanksgiving – I still hear Ross’s voice in my head, or maybe it’s Ross-as-me, or maybe I’ve adopted her sayings and now it’s just me. “Take a break,” I say to myself. “Pick something good for you.” Or I find myself extremely hungry an hour before dinnertime…so I’ll eat dinner. Alone, before the family is even home.

Because my stomach can’t tell time, and that’s okay. I will sit with my family during dinnertime later, maybe eating some more if I’m hungry, maybe not.

I do still weigh myself, not every day, but often. And it’s true – I have lost four pounds, the ones that keep coming back, except they don’t seem to be coming back. Ross did say that when people embrace intuitive eating they tend to default to the natural weight and size that their bodies want to be.

I don’t think I’m quite there, yet, but I’m not in any hurry. I eat what I want to eat, and more and more often I do choose healthier foods. I exercise when I want to – mostly walking and hiking, which I love to do. I embrace what I’ve learned from the Hunger Balance course at Center For Eating Recovery:

Eat nutritious, enjoyable food when you’re hungry. Exercise for health. Don’t let food or fitness control you. Be kind to yourself. Care for yourself. 

It really can be as simple as that, once you work through the complicated person you have become during all your years of living.

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I participated in a comped 8-week coaching program at CER to facilitate this series of posts. This is part 3 of three. Here is part 1.  And here is part 2. Everything I share here is something I learned firsthand about the Center or about myself.

The Sacred Banana: Intuitive Eating Lessons at Center For Eating Recovery

banana joe happyI weighed myself this morning, like I do every day. Alison said I should stop it. In fact, I should get rid of my scale altogether, because paying such close attention to my weight is not a kind, loving way to treat my body. Checking in on its progress like that is unfair.

But I’ve been doing it so long I’m used to it. It doesn’t make me upset when the number is too high, but I do feel happy when it gets back down there. I weigh myself in the mornings, right after I wake up and use the bathroom. I usually do it before I put on slippers, to be more accurate, of course. Slippers are heavy.

The last two sessions with Alison Ross at the Center For Eating Recovery were about intuitive eating: the practice of eating when I’m hungry, not necessarily at the times that I’ve been programmed to eat. Breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time, snack time. Extra snack time. Time to grab a bite of chocolate while I’m walking past the bag of candy that my kids brought home on Halloween night. Times like that. Ross gave me a lot of scientific information to explain what happens in the body when people deprive themselves or overeat, and why it is much healthier (and loving and kind) to really listen to your body and feed it what it needs when it is hungry.

Last week she asked me to close my eyes and focus on my breath. Then focus on my gut, and pay attention to what is happening in there. How did I feel? Was I hungry? Full? In pain? In fact, I was in pain, a little. I wasn’t surprised by that. I have a history of stomach pain that hits me at seemingly random times. I suspect that it’s tied to my diet, but I haven’t tracked it to find a correlation.

Then Ross asked me to pay attention to my heart. I wondered if she meant my heart, the organ?  Or my feelings. It was my feelings. I was to identify any emotion that came up for me after I focused on my gut and what was happening there. In fact, I felt frustrated by the pain – all I had eaten was a banana. Bananas aren’t supposed to cause you pain. Is nothing sacred?

If I could do this meditative exercise every time I contemplated eating food, I have a feeling that I would make healthy choices more often than not. But who has the time for that? Mormons, maybe? I say that with the utmost respect. The only people I have ever seen stop and close their eyes right before they eat food, even out in public, are Mormons. That’s a perfect time to take a moment and think “Am I really hungry? Yes, I am. What delicious healthy food can I eat now?”

At this very moment the pain is back in my gut. As soon as I feel it I scan the last few hours in my memory and I think about what I ate, and what could be causing me this discomfort. Nothing stands out. It’s not like I ate a bucket full of rusty nails, or even a Big Mac. I did have a glass of red wine, but if you’re going to be all smarty pants and say “Gee, Kim, could that be the obvious culprit?” then I will tell you to shut your filthy mouth.

Even so, Ross suggested that I see a doctor to be tested for food intolerance or allergies. The most unlikely foods could actually be the ones that are making me uncomfortable, she said. The truth is that some people are just made that way, to not tolerate foods that seem normal and healthy and nourishing.

Even bananas.

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I’m participating in a comped 8-week coaching program at CER to facilitate this series of posts. This is part 2 of three. Here is part 1. Here is part 3. Everything I share here is something I learned firsthand about the Center or about myself.

Before, During, and After: The Center For Eating Recovery

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Pizza = Love

Before I eat a meal, I’m supposed to pay attention to how I feel, physically speaking, and rate how hungry I am on a scale of one to ten. The higher the number, the hungrier you are. The lower, the fuller.

It’s week four of my 8-week coaching program with Alison Ross, LMFT, director of the Center For Eating Recovery on Agoura Road. Most of the CER’s clients come in seeking treatment for eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or problems with emotional overeating. They offer individual therapy and coaching as well as an 8-week group course where participants cozy up on a large sectional couch in Ross’s office, or join in via Skype.

I don’t have an eating disorder, but I wanted to learn more about the CER. I read their pamphlet: “Do you…cycle back and forth between watching what you eat and overeating? Does your weight fluctuate?”

And I thought of the seven Oreos I ate that morning, just because they were there. And the five pounds I gain and lose every year. And the spirited bursts of daily exercise I do during the Mamavation 2-Week Challenge every now and then, which spice up my otherwise slow-paced constitutional practice and occasional vigorous hikes.

Ross proposed an individual 8-week course of coaching. Health coaching, I like to call it. After all, “We pretty much all have something we could do, but that is hard to do, to improve our health,” she said.

For me I thought it was taking the time to make healthy meals and snacks, and committing to regular exercise. And it is, but as I have learned from meeting with Ross for a few weeks, there is so much more involved. I’m 42 years old. I have had 42 years to develop surprisingly subconscious habits and attitudes about food, and shining a light on them during my sessions has been very…illuminating.

I had planned to write about this program right as it started – a “before” post, to tell you about the center. And then again in the middle, while in the thick of it, and then “after,” to process and share what I have learned. I will still do the middle and end, but this beginning post took a while because what Ross and I talked about in our first three visits was so deep and emotional for me that until now I haven’t been able to put it into words. I’ll spare you the childhood angst and how that means pizza equals love, so you’ll have to trust me. Pizza does equal love, unless it makes it you sick the next morning.

The task that Ross and her colleagues embrace is to help their clients and patients, through coaching and therapy, to learn to separate their emotions from their physical selves so that they don’t withhold or overindulge in food (and the wrong kinds of food) to starve or feed their hearts. In other words, “change your mind to change your body.”

So far I have stated my intentions (eating more healthfully and doing yoga once a week) and identified possible sources of sabotage (not planning ahead, being lazy). Then I investigated why I allow those sabotaging moves into my life. There was some role play that featured me talking to myself. There’s no YouTube video of that, but it was very revealing. Last week Ross asked me how I know when it’s time to eat, and what followed was a discussion about paying attention to what my body tells me.

Right now it’s telling me “Thank you for the graham crackers.” A little while ago I felt hungry. On the scale, I was feeling about a 5, which is hungry but comfortable. As I was eating the crackers I thought “Yum, these are good, but I know I should have a piece of fruit instead.” After eating just enough and not too many, I felt about a 4: “Feeling full and not in need of food.”

That whole exercise was important because if I had waited longer I might have eaten a less healthy snack, or gotten very hungry by dinnertime and not given myself the time to prepare a nourishing meal. Paying attention to my hunger level and why I eat the things I eat is all part of the overall effort to bring my mind and body into harmony.

Tomorrow I head back to CER for my 4th session. By now I head up the stairs to their offices with anticipation about what I’ll learn next, and I’ll admit a little bit of fear. But even though it’s sometimes uncomfortable to discover things I think I should have known about myself all along, the work is worth it.

I’m participating in a comped 8-week coaching program at CER to facilitate this series of posts. Everything I share here is something I learned firsthand about the Center or about myself. Click here to read Part 2 of this three part series. And here is Part 3.