By Dana Hall
It is a little-known fact that eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness. Categorized as anxiety disorders, many victims find forms of comfort in their eating disorders, using them to feel a sense of control in life. As an eating disorder progresses, the victim begins to lose control and become obsessive. This was where Kendra Neil found herself at age 18 when she was formally diagnosed with anorexia.
An athlete since childhood, Kendra had always been conscious of her body, but it wasn’t until she entered university that things began spiraling out of control. Studying nutrition and living on her own for the first time, Kendra’s eating patterns became obsessive.
Before she could stop it, her focus had moved off of school and onto food and exercise regimens. Upon receiving her diagnosis, she forced herself into action. She took a leave of absence from school to focus on recovery and tackled her eating disorder in any way she could.
Originally beginning with an outpatient therapy program, Kendra soon dropped out to pursue other methods of treatment. She tried both fighting the disorder on her own and joining support groups. Eventually, she entered a rehab facility where she was able to find the support and guidance that she needed to get better.
Today, Kendra leads a life free from the clutches of the disorder that had control of her for so long. Unwilling to let her eating disorder stand in her way any longer, Kendra has decided to rise, no matter how many falls she may encounter along the way.
Q1: Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Kendra and I am a 25-year-old working full-time in the field of early childhood education. When I’m not at work, I enjoy spending time in my hometown of Guelph, Ontario, with my partner, Erik. We have two loving cats (some people may call us the crazy cat couple) and I am currently completing my master’s degree online through the University of Western Ontario.
Q2: Has your eating disorder always been a part of your life? When did you first start noticing that you might have one?
Yes and no. Since I can remember, I have always been self-conscious and pre-occupied with my appearance, weight, and food. It wasn’t until I entered my first year of university that things started to get out of control and became more of a concern. It was mostly family, and some close friends, who began to notice my habits were no longer “normal” and beginning to affect all areas of my life in a negative way.
Q3: Can you describe the eating disorder that you have?
I was originally diagnosed with anorexia. To this day I have a hard time admitting that. When I was sick, I always thought to myself, “you’re too fat to have anorexia.” As time went on, some of my symptoms changed; however, when I was at my worst, I was struggling with anorexia. My eating disorder consumed me day in day out, and everything I did somehow resulted in me thinking about food and weight. I was obsessed with counting calories, going to the gym, looking for the best diet pill online to order, and pretty much anything else that involved me controlling my food and weight.
Q4: Where there any events in particular that you think might have led to the disorder getting worse?
This is a tricky question, because I don’t think that one isolated event resulted in my eating disorder getting worse. Entering university was the biggest risk I had taken at the time, and many factors and events contributed to things getting out of control. First off, I was studying nutrition in school, and the more I learnt about food, the less I ate. My family was going through a very tough time, and it was the first time I was not training multiple days a week as a competitive athlete. I compared myself to every girl I walked by on campus and was struggling with the stress and responsibilities that came along with university. I think all of these factors combined lead to my disorder getting worse.
Q5: What was daily life like for you before you started seeking treatment?
When I was deep in my eating disorder, I was no longer in school, and actually had to quit my part-time job in retail. I lived at home with my parents and literally every decision I made resolved around food and eating as little as possible. I would find as many ways possible to exercise, whether it was going to the gym, walking around a shopping mall forever, or holding my coffee in the air while driving so I was working the muscles in my arms (I know, it does not sound rational to me anymore, but at the time it definitely did).
I couldn’t stand the thought of being still, so everything I did was turned into a form of exercise in my mind. I would only eat food that I had prepared myself, and if I was in any situation where this was not possible, I would end up making a big scene (which was super embarrassing). Somehow my eating disorder became the most important thing in my life, and I didn’t really care about anything else.
Q6: Did you confide in anyone during this time?
My immediate family definitely noticed that something was going on, and maybe a few close friends. From the beginning, my mom knew everything. She was actually in an appointment with me when someone first brought up the term “eating disorder.” I hate to admit it, but because of this, I took everything out on my mom. I wanted people to still see me as a happy, full of life young girl. Behind closed doors I was everything but. Once my weight began dropping, more people began recognizing that maybe something was going on.
Q7: You decided to seek eating disorder treatment quickly after your diagnosis. What led to this decision, and how did this impact your life?
I don’t know if I have ever really thought about what led me to get help so quickly. I was miserable, and I was having a very hard time watching all of my friends continue on with their lives and school that I was willing to do whatever I needed to get back to being in that place. I first reached out to the community for support, and began with group therapy.
From there, one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had put my name on a waitlist for inpatient treatment. I was on the waitlist for just over three months, and at times it felt like the longest three months ever. The day I started at Homewood Health Care Centre is when I can say my recovery truly began.
Q8: You dropped out of a few eating disorder treatment programs and completed others. Why was this?
Yes, I did. Somewhere in the middle of my recovery, things got pretty tough and I was struggling with recovery. I ended up entering a day treatment program and completed two weeks of the program. At the time, I felt that that was long enough for me to say to myself, “you’ve already been through this once, get it together.”
I was disappointed in myself for quitting the program, and it was hard telling family and friends, but somehow these two weeks gave me the motivation to get back on track with my recovery on my own. Instead, I decided to have individual therapy appointments here and there to get the support I needed at the time. I think the big lesson I learned here was that I wasn’t necessarily giving up, but instead I was finding the best treatment and support that worked for me at that time.
Q9: What was it like going through a relapse?
Relapse was never fun, and through it all I felt a lot of different emotions. There was always a reason for my relapse, whether I was struggling with school and stress, or struggling with my mood and emotions. At first, I would feel a sense of comfort from my eating disorder: it would temporarily help me through the tough times and tough emotions. But as soon as I realized what was actually going on, I would be upset with myself, because I would have to work twice as hard to get back on track. At times I would feel as though I was failing at recovery; however, friends, family and my treatment teams reminded me that this was just one step in the recovery journey.
Would you be able to describe what you mean when you say your eating disorder was able to help you through tough times? How did it act as a form of support for you?
There were times in my life when I was either stressed, overwhelmed or dealing with very difficult emotions. It was at these times that my eating disorder would act as a comfort. It became my number one priority, and the thing that made all my decisions. I was comforted knowing all my thoughts in energy were going into my obsessions about food and I didn’t have to deal with the other uncomfortable feelings and situations going on in my life. Of course, over time it became a bigger problem of its own, but for a while my eating disorder played a role in comforting me and in protecting me from other things going on.
Q10: You don’t like to think of yourself as fully recovered yet, but what is life like with all the progress that you’ve made?
That’s right!! I don’t think of myself as fully recovered, and the reason for this is that my eating disorder can be very powerful at times, and it tries to find ways to sneak back into my life when I least expect it. I still have days where I want to engage in symptoms, and days where I feel terrible about my body. The difference now is that I have the skills to work through these uncomfortable feelings and let the urges pass by without giving in to them.
When I was deep in my eating disorder, those thoughts and feelings would control my every move, whereas now I can recognize them, let them go, and continue on with my life! As every year passes, these urges get less and less. I’ve been able to go the past six months with very few eating disorder thoughts and urges, whereas before it was every minute of every day. It’s amazing!!!!
Q11: You’re taking part in a panel discussion soon where you’ll be speaking about your experience living with an eating disorder. Is this the first time you’ll be discussing your struggles with the public? Is it something you’d like to continue doing?
Yes, this is something I have been wanting to do for the past few years. I’ve attended this panel discussion three or four times in the past, and every time I’ve told myself that as soon as I am confident with where I am at in my recovery, and can be honest about everything, then it will be the right time to speak. I still actually can’t believe how free I feel, and how little of my life is directed by my eating disorder; it feels amazing. I’d love to continue sharing my story with others in hopes of bringing awareness to eating disorders and mental health.
My dream is to write a book, but who knows if that’s what I’ll end up doing (life seems to take twists and turns when I least expect it, so I’ve learned to stop making plans and to take it day by day!). For now, I am enjoying living in recovery, and going to try and jump on any opportunity I can in which I can bring awareness to the disorder and support those in the community.
Q14: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think the one thing I would love to make sure everyone knows is that there is a life beyond your eating disorder. I also want people understand that I know how challenging it can be. There are definitely many ups and downs, but I can truly say today that all the downs are worth it to be able to get to a comfortable place in your life. Take it one day at a time, even one minute at a time, and believe that you have the strength and courage to fight the upward battle!!!
An eating disorder is not easily overcome. Refusing to let her eating disorder dictate the direction of her life any longer, Kendra took action and accepted the challenges that go along with recovery. Kendra’s story is a reminder that success is rarely achieved on the first try. Some of the most valuable tools to have are patience and understanding. Through education and self-discovery, she was able to find the treatment that worked for her. With each breakthrough serving as a reminder that the fight is worth it, Kendra pushes herself each day to keep progressing. Not every step can be a step forward, but for Kendra, deciding to walk is more important than standing still.
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