Love Notes from Hell: Roy Nelson on Addiction, Eating Disorders, and Freedom from Obsession

By Amy Dresner 04/28/15

“We’re in competition with no one,” he says. He is known as people’s “last resort.”

Roy Nelson

When I got the invitation to Roy Nelson’s "Addiction and Eating Disorders Lunch and Learn” and saw the words “business casual,” I panicked. I knew it didn’t include ripped tees and I was hoping I would not be “formally” kicked out of the event. Aside from hearing Roy’s story and being fed a free lunch, eating disorders are an issue close to my heart, as long before I ever found drugs and alcohol, anorexia and bulimia were my first addiction. I was chronically underweight and a purger from the age of 19-24 until I found meth. I admit I still have some body dysmorphia and I’m not sure the charge around food or weight ever really goes away completely, especially if you’re a vain insecure Jew from Los Angeles.

I donned some weird French genie pants and a Stevie Nicks-type top and arrived promptly at the Beverly Hills Women’s Club at 12:30pm on April Fool’s Day. If you’ve never been, it’s an historic building of Spanish architecture in Benedict Canyon that feels part church and part museum with Renaissance paintings, chandeliers, 12-foot windows and opera music. The attendees were 98% women (no surprise). At my table was another addiction journalist (“On guard! May the best piece win!” I joked.), a professional organizer (“But can you help with internal chaos?” I whined), a 12-step group aficionado and a therapist. What do they serve at an eating disorders luncheon, you might wonder?  Chicken, tofu, rice and salad is the answer. 

The first speaker was Tricia Greaves Nelson, Roy’s stunning wife. With her slim figure looking fantastically chic in a black sheath dress, I was shocked to find out that she grew up as an overweight kid whose first love and solace was food. In high school, she took Dexatrim and started hitting the gym. At 17, she began attending OA. Although she was grateful to have people in those meetings who understood her struggle, she did not lose weight. Next up she tried a slew of retreats, therapy and self-help books. By 21, she had lost 30 pounds but knew full well from her history that soon she’d put it all back on. A depression set over her. She returned to OA. She ran into a woman there, a hopeless bulimic whose shares, for as long as Tricia could recall, were religious confessions of “I binged and purged again.” But to Tricia’s surprise, this specific day she shared that she had not binged or purged in two weeks and that the desire and obsession had been lifted. She was visibly changed.  

The next day, Tricia saw another woman at her church from OA who was sporting the same change. Coincidentally, they were both working with Roy Nelson. She immediately contacted him. Roy explained to her that food and weight weren’t her problem. She had a spiritual issue. She worked with Roy and has been thin ever since. She was so impressed with what he did that she hooked her wagon to his and has been helping him ever since. 

In his book, Love Notes from Hell, Roy writes that the “failure of most treatment programs is that they focus on the addiction itself” (i.e., how to stop drinking, drugging, fucking, gambling) and that the problem is much deeper than the addiction; abstinence being just the first step. “Unless you heal the underlying issue you will continue to sabotage your life in some way or another.” That has been my experience with new addictions coming up to take the place of my previous alcohol or drug abuse, like a horrible game of musical chairs. 

Tricia then went on to breakdown the eating disorders spectrum from anorexia to bulimia to compulsive exercise (I wish I remembered what exercise was at all) to EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified) to binge-eating to food addiction. 

The symptoms of food addiction are like drug/alcohol addiction: loss of control, tolerance, cravings, continuing despite negative consequences, withdrawal, interaction with/release of dopamine and, of course, the dreaded progression. “They’ve proven that sugar is as addictive as heroin,” she said. 

At one point in her recovery, Tricia bravely posted a video on YouTube, which was a reenactment of the days when she’d thrown away some food during a binging episode and then went back through the garbage to eat it. (I’m ashamed to admit I’m familiar with this tactic. Eventually, to keep myself from salvaging cake or cigarettes out of the trash, I used to pour dish soap over them.) Her video, “the garbage eating video,” blew up on YouTube. She’s obviously not alone in this mortifying behavior. 

Just like drug addiction, eating disorders have some universal markers: people pleasing, low self-esteem, blaming, playing the victim, poor boundaries, poor communication skills. 

Roy’s program has what they call the “PEP check,” what the addiction is doing for you, instead of to you. He claims that a person is usually using an addiction (food, sex, drugs, whatever) as a Painkiller (to dull/numb pain), an Escape (to avoid fear) or as a Punishment (to alleviate guilt).   

There are “5 pillars of transformation” in the Nelson Method, which have come out of Roy’s own personal recovery from overeating, alcoholism, sex addiction, depression and panic attacks.

1) Awakening to the Problem: Uncovering the mystery of the “soul sickness.” “We are a spiritual, not religious program. The 'soul sickness' stems from a disconnect from self and spirit.”

2) Personal Exploration & Discovery: Exploration of one’s personal history and the adoption of a self-care blueprint. “We want to address the issue so that they can have total freedom and not transfer addictions.” 

3) Claiming Transformation: This is the “pivot point” (a term taken from Roy’s time in the army), “making a decision and taking responsibility to heal.”

4) Excavation of the “soul sickness”: “We excavate everything that is not love, especially pain, fear and guilt.” 

5) Walking the Path of Expansive Living: “A solid foundation, continued self-reflection and spiritual growth, including repairing relationships and service (12-step philosophy ideas).”

The Nelson Method claims to work because of a few very basic special tenets: They have been there, they offer one-on-one care in a safe and loving environment (working from their home on an outpatient basis), they are available 24/7, and they teach people to meditate. 

Tsilah Burman, a client from six years ago, took the microphone. She was a petite redhead with glasses who told us of her life-long struggle with food, beginning with a pediatrician putting her on a diet regimen of grapefruit and uppers. She would lose weight but would always gain it back. She heard Tricia speak at an alumni event and, impressed that Tricia had lost 50 pounds and kept it off successfully for 20 years, decided to work with Roy. Tsilah says her cravings were lifted after their first session together and that it is nothing short of a miracle. After some time, she wanted to get off her anti-depressants but was afraid to because of her history of panic attacks. She decided to forge ahead anyway, with her doctor’s blessing. When she first had a panic attack, she called Roy at two in the morning, went to his house until four in the morning and has never had another. She attributes her financial success, spiritual success, joy and great body (90-pound weight loss) all to Roy.

The last to speak is Roy Nelson himself. He is a gracious, older, bald man with crystal blue eyes and a charismatic smile. He’s from the South and you can hear the remnants of a drawl, his speech sweetly peppered by the words “angel” and “God bless you.” 

Roy joked that he has never met anybody as bad off as himself. “I almost died at birth and it just went downhill from there.” He explained that the worse off the client is, the easier it is to help them. 

Roy recounted the violence, poverty and terror that infused his childhood. His mother breastfed him but she was undernourished so the doctor suggested she feed Roy PET milk and Karo corn syrup, setting him up to be addicted to sugar from infancy. 

His first conscious addiction was fantasy. “As soon as I found my penis, it was on,” he laughs. By 23, he was a father of four and by the time he was 32, he was a size 52, with a 46-inch waist. From age 28-32, he was making the rounds of psychiatrists, to no avail. “I was suffering from a soul sickness that can only be healed by spiritual means, in other words, the sweet spirit that resides in each person, not the bearded man in the sky. A lot of people helped me a little, and a few people helped me a lot.” From all his partially fruitful searches, he gathered pieces that have now become his own program.  

Roy’s specialty is helping people who cannot get the help they need in any other way. “Many people come to us after they’ve tried Landmark, Agape and 12 steps.” He’s adamant that if you can find help somewhere else, he supports that. “We’re in competition with no one,” he says. He is known as people’s “last resort.” 

Roy told me that he used to do what he does for free but that people don’t value things unless they have to pay for them. As a recovering spoiled brat, I tend to agree with him. 

I hugged Roy and Tricia goodbye and decided to forgo the brownie bites and chocolate chip cookies that are offered for dessert. I’m gluten-free now in an attempt to control my adult acne…the beginning of some newfound “orthorexia,” no doubt. Ah yes, a former meth addict who won’t eat gluten. I’m one of those annoying assholes now.

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.