by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
After years of research, the writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote a book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the essential elements of what we now refer to as “the hero’s journey.” Put simply, the hero has an awakening, is called to action, and departs from home to begin a new adventure. This departure stage is followed by an “initiation,” during which time the hero confronts countless tests, trials, allies, enemies, temptations, failures, and triumphs. The third and final stage occurs when the hero returns home, transformed and anxious to share lessons learned and victories embraced.
Every one of you is on your own health and wellness hero’s journey, fraught with slips, slides, and successes. Along the way, it helps to hear an inspiring story of mental, physical, and spiritual transformation that can help you stay the course in your own life. Here, then, is a doozy.
I first met 45-year-old Sandie in October 2014, at Malibu Vista in California, a residential treatment center for women grappling with trauma, stress, and other mood challenges. As Senior Science Advisor to Vista’s parent company, Elements Behavioral Health, I’ve created a program to help women deal with mood and food issues, with a special emphasis on addictive eating behaviors. A grade-school teacher, Sandie entered Vista overwhelmed by obsessive-compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and panic, all due to unresolved past traumas in her life. Over time, her moods had begun to consume her, leading to 24/7 self-soothing with comfort foods and culminating in her spinning out of control with anxiety, serious obesity, and full-blown metabolic syndrome.
Prior to entering the treatment center, Sandie had something I call an “EpiphaME”—a major life-changing awakening. She knew she’d hit the tipping point of pain and angst and something had to change. Beginning her own heroine’s journey, she departed her Tennessee farm and braced herself for the trials and challenges that awaited her in California and beyond.
During her five weeks of treatment, Sandie confronted her demons, and for the first time, learned the new science behind food and addiction. Feeling ready to change, Sandie dog-eared her copy of The Hunger Fix, my book upon which the program is based, and asked a hundred questions. Hungry now for knowledge (and not Little Debbie’s), Sandie eagerly inhaled all of this new news and quickly put it into practice. Never athletic or inclined to be physically active, she began to walk every day. One day, I invited her to join me to hike up the steep hills above Vista. Noting that she’d tried but couldn’t make it to the top of the most challenging hill, we walked to its base and slowly began the climb. I kept her distracted with a discussion about her work and family, and in no time, we were at the peak. Sandie stood at the top of the hill, raising her arms above her, shouting at the top of her lungs, “I’m free!”
This was a pivotal moment for Sandie. That hill was a metaphor that would serve her well as she worked to overcome life’s obstacles. Perseverance and patience are key ingredients in the recipe for success.
A vegetarian, Sandie also Velcro’ed herself to the treatment center’s culinary nutritionist to learn how to switch out her usual processed foods for tasty and satisfying whole food meals and snacks. With the help of therapists, she learned how to reframe her trauma and manage her anxiety. But something else was also happening. She was shape-shifting, removing excess body fat. The body follows the mind, and as she shed mental weight, so also did she start to shed excess physical weight.
My good friend and ABC correspondent Maria Shriver contacted me just as Sandie was completing her Vista stay. Maria was fascinated with the new science and treatment of addictive eating behaviors. And happily, Sandie was willing to share her story to help others. We taped the show, a first of its kind on food and addiction, and it aired to much positive acclaim.
Once she was discharged, Sandie practiced her new Recovery Lifestyle plan and continued on her heroine’s journey. Shortly after arriving home, Sandie was diagnosed with very early stage breast cancer. Despite that stress, she never strayed from her program. She endured biopsies, six weeks of radiation and its many side effects, and the instant menopause brought on by the antiestrogen medication she was prescribed. Doggedly determined, she refused to allow this drama to distract her from her mission.
Flash-forward to today: Where is Sandie now in her heroine’s journey? She’s still in the front trenches, slugging it out in her journey’s Initiation period. But she’s off all medications associated with her anxiety and metabolic syndrome and has thus far removed more than 80 pounds. She’s celebrating milestones that include the ability to cross her legs while sitting, touching her middle finger and thumb when encircling her wrist, becoming hooked on her Zumba class, embracing yoga, and brisk-walking her first 5K. A consummate teacher, Sandie is now spreading the word in her classes, encouraging healthy meals and snacks for her students while she walks the talk.
Sandie has a ways to go before she enters the final Return stage of her journey. I’m sure she’ll get there because her mind is acidly focused on the right goal—that of achieving and sustaining her highest level of health and wellness.
So goes the hero’s journey for us all.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.