Recovery by the Sea


Ocean Recovery focuses on substance use and eating disorder treatment in a serene setting on the Pacific.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about 50 percent of people with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs, five times more than the general population. And up to 35 percent of people who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, which is 11 times greater than the general population.

“Eating disorders are not an addiction, although people often regard them that way,” says Kathy Tunney, executive director and founder of Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California. “There are similarities, however. At their root, many conditions — relational dependency, eating disorders, substance use disorders — often have anxiety and depression as a core vulnerability. Eating disorders are tortuous in that they are obsessional and the only relief from the all-consuming, relentless, nagging condition is the escape or distraction given by alcohol or drugs. So, chemical dependency develops in some ways as a relief to the tyranny of the eating disorder.”

Founded in 2002 as a gender-specific extended care facility that focuses on substance use disorders, Ocean Recovery soon included a focus on eating disorders after noting the prevalence of the condition in clients, who range in age from 18 to about 30. Today, the center specializes in eating disorders and drug addiction treatment, recovery programs, and relapse prevention.

“We found that a lot of the times an eating disorder was keeping clients from long-term recovery, so it’s essential to address that component throughout treatment for the substance use disorder,” Tunney says. “We don’t treat the eating disorder as an incidental problem but as a diagnosis that impacts the substance use disorder.”

Based on a research-driven model and rooted in the 12-step program, Ocean Recovery offers 90-day extended care, residential rehab, intensive outpatient rehab, general outpatient and dual diagnosis treatment through individual and group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, holistic therapy, nutrition counseling, trauma counseling, art therapy and individual counseling, psychotherapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, family therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

The setting is intimate and serene. Set only 90 feet from the California surf, Ocean Recovery has no more than 14 women and 18 men at a time. It keeps the genders separate to help them maintain focus and to attend to the specific obstacles men and women specifically face in recovery. Within the groups, the staff foster a sense of connectivity that builds relationships that often last well beyond clients’ time on-site and works the 12-step program using mindfulness behaviors.

The staff address both conditions simultaneously because they are so interconnected. Addiction and eating disorders can contribute to poor nutrition and can cause damage to the body and the brain. Poor nutrition can hinder the recovery process and cause symptoms such as poor sleep; poor cognitive functioning; increases in anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms; low energy; gastrointestinal ailments; and headaches. Without attention to the addiction, the eating disorder can get worse.

As with addiction treatment, treatment for eating disorders is individual. At the start of the program, a nutritionist works with clients to determine their nutritional needs and to educate them on how what they eat affects their physical and emotional health. Treatment involves stabilizing physical and emotional health, educating about nutrition while addressing false eating disorder beliefs and urban myths, and exploring the underlying causes of both conditions. Clients are taught to choose foods that can both enhance their recovery and health and address fears around eating foods that the eating disorder has eliminated. They learn how to separate food cravings and compulsions to over- or under-eat and learn the difference between emotional hunger and fullness from true physical hunger. Working with the client, the nutritionists help the client to develop a healing meal plan and grocery lists for food shopping and help with cooking skills.

Although eating problems are more common in women, they also occur in men. “Our gender-specific programs address the different challenges that men and women face in overcoming this condition,” Tunney says.

Sherry Fixelle, a registered dietitian and the eating disorder program director, notes there are more similarities than differences when it comes to treating men with eating disorders, and although there is tremendous shame and secrecy with this disease in both genders, there is even more secrecy, shame and denial in men, who view eating disorders as a “women’s disease.” “Often, men will seek eating disorder treatment on their own in only extreme cases of bulimia, and even then, it is difficult to pierce the veil of denial inherent in these illnesses,” she says.

“People see their eating disorder as a coping skill, not a problem, similar to how a person who is addicted to alcohol will continue drinking as they think it is helping to manage their anxiety or the emotional difficulties they are facing,” she continues. “Eventually, though, it stops working in managing the anxiety and creates its own discomfort, and they turn to substances to fill that need.”

Ocean Recovery also addresses other co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that about 85 million American adults suffer from both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. “It’s important to understand that either problem can occur first: Those with mental disorders could develop drug issues through increased drug exposure, self-medication and trying drugs. People with drug use problems can develop mental issues through drug effects and brain chemistry changes,” Tunney says.

She notes that when clients enter the program, they are choosing a healthier lifestyle. To meet this need, Ocean Recovery takes a holistic approach — paying attention to mental and spiritual as well as physical health — to address addiction and eating disorders as they relate to the whole person. It promotes physical fitness, increases self-confidence and reduces the appeal of drugs.

Ocean Recovery’s holistic approach helps clients learn more positive ways to deal with stressful situations. Through talk therapy, they learn the root of their substance abuse and identify triggers, such as difficult relationships, their financial situation, and traffic or work stresses. They are taught how to manage their stress through means other than substances, such as yoga, meditation, exercise, tai chi, reiki and acupuncture or through creative pursuits, such as music or art, that quiet the mind and allow them to focus on the moment.

Being by the ocean both engages the senses and promotes a natural, relaxed, meditative state. The staff encourage clients to make the most of their proximity to the ocean, whether through surfing, paddleboarding, swimming or strolling the beach. In addition, Ocean Recovery offers a range of activities, including fishing, kayaking, volleyball, yoga and attending sporting events that can help clients learn how to enjoy experiences without substances.

Its Surf Therapy program especially promotes being in the moment, which is an important concept in recovery. “Surfing is a physically demanding sport that releases endorphins crucial for the brain in recovery and promotes mindfulness — you have to be present in the moment to remain standing on the board in the surf,” Tunney says. “It also builds a support network with others who enjoy surfing and working out near the water.”

By separating the genders, Ocean Recovery allows men and women to focus on the needs specific to them personally and as a group without judgment. The women’s program is designed to allow a safe, nurturing atmosphere they need to express themselves, while the men’s program teaches them how to express their emotions in a healthy way. “Men often bury emotions from trauma because they believe that showing how they feel is a weakness,” Tunney says. “We show them that channeling their emotions correctly and facing the trauma demonstrates courage and strength to also address their addiction.”

Ocean Recovery builds communities and relationships through group counseling in which clients share similar issues and challenge and support one another.  Many of the relationships forged in rehab continue on afterward, providing a strong support system going forward.

The residential houses — Oceanside for women and Surfside for men — are comfortable living spaces with full kitchens and scenic patios that allow clients to practice sustainable life skills and bond with fellow residents, building skills that also ease the transition back into everyday lives.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy, clients learn how to change negative ways of thinking into more positive behaviors and emotions — skills they can take with them as they build a new life. “We encourage replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones. In addition, they learn problem-solving skills and healthy ways to deal with stress,” Tunney says. “By the end, our clients have improved moods and relationships.”

Family relationships also are key. The staff encourage families, including spouses, children and siblings, to learn about mental health and substance abuse. Loved ones are encouraged to attend support groups or 12-step program meetings for further insight.

“The more informed the family is, the more likely they will be to provide support throughout recovery,” Tunney says.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the relapse rate for substance use disorders is estimated to be between 40 percent and 60 percent. Although addictions and eating disorders are constant, relapse is not necessary if a person has relapse prevention skills, therapies and support required for a lasting return to sober living, Tunney says.

Ocean Recovery teaches clients how to identify and eliminate triggers through activities that reduce their cravings for substances, such as working out, eating frequent healthy snacks, playing music or participating in support groups.

Successes to this model are found in the robust Ocean Recovery alumni community, which meets regularly on the grounds. “After much time in isolation, most recovering drug users crave a sense of belonging,” Tunney says. “They desire to be around people who share the experience of the journey out of addiction. The bond they form here is taken out into the world to further support each other in their daily journey in recovery.”

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