At a secluded monthly retreat in Wayzata, Nancy Kaley helps people conquer their addiction to something they can never quit: Food.
Kaley, an Eden Prairie resident of two years, directs COR Retreat’s program to help people conquer food addiction and patterns of overeating. For 21 years, she guided people through substance abuse recovery as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor — a journey that she, too, experienced since becoming sober at age 21.
Kaley’s work at COR Retreat is personal in the same way. In 2014, she signed up for the five-day retreat to confront her own struggles with food, which she’d experienced her whole life. Four years after the program helped her build a healthier, more sustainable relationship with food, she filled in as a counselor during a retreat before applying for, and becoming, the program’s director and facilitator.
“I was very authentic about helping people get sober,” Kaley said, but “I wanted to do something more specific to food.”
An addict’s relationship with food is complicated because it’s not something you can quit, she noted, and it’s so often used as a reward.
“We use it to comfort, we use it to celebrate, we use it to soothe,” Kaley said. “You can stop drinking, you can stop smoking, but you have to live in the world with food.”
COR’s method isn’t another diet or list of restrictions, and it’s not a weight loss program, although weight loss is sometimes a side effect of recovery from food addiction. Instead, attendees live for five days at the McIver Center for Spiritual Development in Wayzata and reflect on the emotional, spiritual and physical roots of their relationship with food. Everyone eats their meals together, which is often unfamiliar for addicts who feel they have to eat alone — in a car, in the kitchen late at night — to hide their compulsion.
“With any addiction and any compulsion, there’s shame attached,” Kaley said. “I’ve got people who don’t want to be honest about food.”
Eating meals together helps banish the shame around food, as do intimate group conversations that occur every day. Kaley guides group discussions and invites guest speakers who talk about their road to recovery and demonstrate to attendees that recovery is possible.
“When you have an eating disorder, that rules you,” she said. “You just assume, ‘Nobody else struggles with it the way I struggle with it.’”
As with other substance abuse recovery programs, many attendees want to see that the facilitator has walked the walk and isn’t just talking the talk. Kaley is open about her recovery, which began with attending COR in 2014, and the 100-pound weight loss that came along with it. She shares photos and memories from childhood, when her compulsions around food emerged. Doing so opens the door for the group to become vulnerable and to support each other.
“People end up sharing stuff that they can’t talk about in their normal life,” she recalled. “Everybody there has had a different relationship with food and they get to talk about it.”
While COR Retreat doesn’t ask its attendees to commit to a lifelong diet, it does help them identify foods that can trigger a binge or that otherwise cause problems for them. Kaley has given up some foods that trigger her, including sugar and peanut butter.
“In the same way that I surrendered alcohol,” she explained, she gave up foods that she knew she couldn’t eat in moderation. Giving up sugar has been more difficult than it might seem, simply because it’s in so many products, from packaged chicken broth to tomato sauce. Kaley carries a small container of homemade salad dressing when she goes to restaurants because even a simple vinaigrette often has added sugar.
“There’s a diligence required in food addiction recovery,” she said.
Those restrictions don’t apply to anyone else in her life. She’s never put them on her family or friends, and Kaley emphasized that every person’s recovery is an individual process.
“I don’t need my mom to understand it,” she said. “The people that really have this are the ones who will understand.”
People who attend a COR Retreat will often stay in touch with each other after the five days are over, Kaley said. She calls and emails with many people who have come to COR Retreat over the years, checking in on them and occasionally inviting them to speak at a COR Retreat to help others who haven’t yet started their recovery. Watching someone start their journey is “amazing,” Kaley said, especially compared to the first day of the retreat.
“We come in so defeated,” she remembered, but by the end of the retreat, there’s a glimmer of hope for a healthier relationship with food.
“It doesn’t rule me anymore, it’s not a fight every day,” Kaley said. “It’s a beautiful way of living in the world.”