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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

A retreat approach

Gary Holdgrafer

Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 34

I looked around the circle of men the first evening of a weekend retreat. I wondered about the personal challenges each man was coping with by eating too much, too little or by bingeing and purging.

These men all had unhealthy relationships with food, and had been labelled as having eating disorders. However, I saw them as people who had troubled spirits in their various-sized bodies. This article is not about eating disorders in men, but about men who have eating disorders.

Men’s retreats are offered at BridgePoint Centre for Eating Disorders, a residential program in Milden, Saskatchewan. I facilitate those retreats.

Asking for help

The men had gathered courage to attend. Their presence was a plea for help with a personal situation they could not solve. Each had taken the risk of placing himself in the vulnerability of an unfamiliar experience. It was a sign they were ready for more healthy lives.

The men had expectations of how the retreat would unfold. They looked to me for answers. I believed each man would discover for himself what worked best. I modelled that process. I admitted my nervousness about starting a retreat and recognized that they felt the same way.

A man talking about his feelings is not typical. It was not in their picture. I wanted to separate myself as a person from the leader role and their expectations of it. My message was: “Talking personally with other men is okay here.”

Safety was important. These men might fear criticism for acting differently from the conventional ideas of manhood. Confidentiality was emphasized to ensure safety. The rule was: What happens here stays here. Trust developed as they got to know each other.

Building community

Speaking to strangers, personally or not, is frightening. Each man introduced himself briefly and included an amusing personal experience. Laughing created feelings of safety, which produced more laughter as the men relaxed.

They organized into pairs and discussed questions on personal issues such as where they were stuck or what was going well. This was an opportunity to relate to other men in a personal way as they shared experiences. They talked more in these pairings than in the group.

The men came together as a whole group to end the evening. They each ‘checked out’ with a sentence describing how they felt. This brief, personal sharing by each man in the presence of the others provided me with a status report.

I wanted them to bond into a supportive community of men working together. Bonding results in mutual acceptance and willingness to listen to and learn from each other. Each man acted as a witness to the personal sharing of every other man.

Rather than living in the silence of withdrawal, being seen and heard by other men who were compassionate witnesses was important to their personal growth. In the residential setting, the men continued to bond after the session ended.

Getting down to work

Personal stories were shared in the group the following day. This was an important experience of being witnessed. I had spoken first, about the significant events in my life and how they influenced my default responses to life situations.

Default responses are automatic. Little thought is given to other choices that might be healthier. Primary defaults among these men, in response to personal pain, were unhealthy eating and withdrawal. Their ways of coping, reinforced by self-limiting beliefs like low self-worth, had become habitual as the only choice.

Self-worth was an issue. They expressed difficulty in hearing positive comments about themselves from others. They were anxious when asked to write, and then read aloud, a list of positive comments about themselves.

The men participated in a variety of activities. They were playful. They were serious. They experienced self- care in soothing meditations.

Each man shared what he had noticed about himself in the activities. I encouraged personal aware- ness of their default responses. Asking them “How is that like your life?” emphasized the similarities that exist between responses in a retreat and in life.

My approach was responsive. I listened and offered feedback. Timing is important. Suggestions are useless if the listener is not ready to hear them— particularly new choices to defaults, as defaults are not surrendered easily. To stay personal with the men, I used my life experiences as the basis for my feedback.

Ending is the beginning

The retreat ended with each man stating what he had learned and a manageable change he would make. They left in greater spirits, having stretched themselves, never to be exactly the same as when they arrived. Each had taken an important step on the journey that is less about food and more about life.

About the Author

Gary is a residential facilitator at BridgePoint Center for Eating Disorders in Milden, Saskatchewan. For more about Gary, visit www.

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