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A fight with food

Alaina Arthurs (left) and Patti Albertson say the COR retreat program changed their lives. Now they invite others with eating problems to Overeaters Anonymous meetings that will soon start in Pierce County.

One night on her way home from work, she stopped for an ice cream and ate it in the car.

Three stops and three ice cream treats later, Patti Albertson, rural River Falls, was home and sick from eating, but she couldn't stop.

She said she never ate at work, never let her coworkers see her eat. But another evening she carried out a dozen leftover donuts and ate them all in the car.

Alaina Arthurs understands.

She has made pasta for herself and her daughter, telling herself she'd cook twice as much as they needed and save half for another meal -- knowing all along that she'd eat the whole batch in one sitting.

Both women bought and stored food in ways they now call compulsive.

"I bought so much food for other people in case they came. They never came," Albertson said.

So she ate it. She bought mix for cookies she never baked and instead ate the dry mix.

Her problems with food started at an early age, said Arthurs, who now lives in River Falls. She would sneak food. She would hide food.

Albertson said she was heavy as a child and heavy as an adult. Still, friends would comment in wonder that they had never seen her eat.

It was about the control, the strategy and the planning for her next binge.

"Eating made me hungry," said Albertson, explaining there are foods, like ice cream, that she just can't get enough of.

Afraid of hunger

Arthurs understands.

"I have a fear of hunger -- super strong," she said, trying to explain her compulsion to hoard. She added, "But it's not about hunger. Food is on my mind 24/7."

She had long since passed the point where she knew what "full" felt like.

"I've always loved food," said Arthurs. "I think I knew I had a problem with it for the last eight years. A lot of my eating was mindless."

She continued, "It was like I couldn't help it. It was really, really shameful and it was secretive. I knew it was a problem, and I kept doing it."

Albertson understands.

"I was like an addict looking for a fix." She said it's like eating and eating and "never getting the signal that you're eating yourself to death."

Albertson was bulimic for more than a decade, and later off and on. She tried every weight-loss group and every program she could find, trying some over and over. She saw a doctor, who put her on drugs to curb her appetite. Such drugs couldn't be used for long and they had side effects.

Then one day on her way to work, listening to a local radio broadcast, she heard about a program offered through COR Retreat Food Recovery in Wayzata, Minn. The broadcaster was mocking the program, but Albertson only heard the words "food addiction" and "Wayzata."

She thought somebody finally understood. So she looked up the program.

"I called and said, 'I have to come.'"

Albertson immediately signed up for the five-day, four-night program and emailed her sister who signed up, too. In September she joined 14 other people for the second intensive program offered by COR.

"To me it was just life changing," Albertson said. Suddenly she was surrounded by people who understood.

"We were all different, but we were all the same," she added.

Groups ranged from people in their 20s to those in their 70s who come from across the country.

Others felt the relief as intensely as she did, Albertson said. "There were people that never stopped crying all the while they were there."

Arthurs, who was working on her master's degree in marriage and family therapy, said she learned about the program from another therapist while doing her practicum in Hudson.

She called and talked to program director Michelle Goldberger. Because Arthurs couldn't afford the $650 program fee, Goldberger approved her for a partial scholarship to the October session.

One bite and you're doomed

"When I go to COR, I was so ready, but I was so terrified," said Arthurs.

COR, which attempts to help participants begin to live free of their obsessions with food, starts a 12-step program. During the five days, participants work on the first three steps.

Early on, the women said, they were asked to make a list of their "trigger foods."

Those are, Albertson said, "The stuff that if you took one bite, you're doomed."

Arthurs added, "I had like 30 things on my list."

She had a panic attack the second night of the program.

"It just started to hit me," Arthurs said. "I could never have those foods and eat like a normal person."

Albertson said she was both thrilled and sad to reach the conclusion that while she needs food to live, she doesn't need some foods.

"I don't ever in my life have to eat sugar again," she said. That and white flour are prime problems.

Arthurs paraphrases the first three steps of the program: "I can't. God can. I think I'll let him."

Letting go of that control and the feeling of shame helped her, Arthurs said.

"It takes it out of me," she said. "I'm not broken."

The COR program progresses with small group discussions, large groups, Overeaters Anonymous speakers and writing assignments.

Participants eat meals together, dining on food prepared by a chef who cooks without sugar or white flour.

The change in diet soon made a difference, said Arthurs, who had been used to chronic joint pain but felt it slip away.

"You find your hunger again, and you find your 'full' level," she added.

The food -- a lot of vegetables, fish and brown rice -- was offered buffet-style and no one kept track of servings, but both women said nobody over-ate either. Participants were served three meals and a snack each day. Albertson said she felt the release.

"My whole purpose in life was never to eat because if I ate, I was doomed," she said. But in this group, she was too busy to think about eating except during meals, and binge eating in public wasn't an issue.

"I noticed that I tasted food," said Arthurs of her experience. She said she was eating more slowly and not eating between meals.

"It's eating what's right, what's good for me and what belongs to me," said Albertson, explaining her new attitude toward food.

"Food is always going to be there," agreed Arthurs. But her technique is to find what she can safely eat. As for the rest, she tells herself, "It's not mine."

When they leave the retreat center, COR participants get a lot of support, often through email, said the two women. They are also encouraged to attend Overeaters Anonymous meetings and continue working the 12 steps.

The two women met when Albertson was one of the alumni greeting the new members to the third COR program. Afterwards, Arthurs emailed Albertson to ask about starting a local Overeaters group. Albertson was enthusiastic, attended an OA convention, met with the chairperson and registered an OA group for the River Falls area.

The next meeting of OA will be 10 a.m. Saturday Jan. 21 at Albertson's home, N7478 County Road E, River Falls. The group meets at 10 a.m. each Saturday, and alternates locations every other week. On Jan. 28, the meeting will be held at N1872 670th St., Bay City. For more information, call 715-425-7580 or 715-594-3880.

If you go

What: Overeaters Anonymous

When: 10 a.m. Saturdays

Where: N7478 County Road E, River Falls, or N1872 670th St., Bay City, alternating every week.

Phone: 715-425-7580 or 715-594-3880

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.