Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa: 'That moment broke me down and I told my mum what had happened to me when I was younger'
Donna Kennedy has overcome huge personal challenges to become a successful motivational speaker and author
Author Donna Kennedy contends that if you encounter difficulties in life, the key to success is taking power back rather than succumbing to your circumstances. The glamorous and strong 35-year-old from Westport knows all about transcending difficult experiences, as she has turned her own personal experience of sexual abuse, an eating disorder and wrongful hospitalisation into a force for good, and now works wonders at motivating and encouraging others to succeed.
Growing up as the fifth of Padraig and the late Maureen's seven children, Donna had an amazing family and kind and loving parents. She was sporty and smart at school, which didn't work in her favour when a group of bullies turned their attentions to her. They began taunting her, which had a devastating effect on her self-esteem at 12. While she wasn't fat at 5'7" and nine stone, she got it into her confused young head a year later that she should lose six pounds, and began surreptitiously reducing the amount of food she ate. "I got a buzz from seeing the numbers going down on the scales," she says. "I felt in control and it spiralled quite quickly and I just stopped eating. You have to have determination and intense emotion behind it to fuel through the hunger, and I did."
With a large family coming and going and eating at different times, Donna took advantage of the situation to disguise how little food she was actually consuming. Her day revolved around "crazy amounts" of exercise, so she cycled, swam, did aerobics and walked to school early to do a few laps around the pitch. As she was playing sports at a competitive level, she also went out training at lunch-time to avoid eating.
Wearing layers and baggy clothes hid her weight loss initially, but part of her knew that what she was doing was wrong. At 14, she went to the doctor for a check-up, who told her that she was underweight and tried to dig deeper to establish what was happening. Around that time, Donna's sister caught sight of her body in a changing room, and told their mother that something was seriously wrong. Their worried mum rang the doctor for advice, which resulted in Donna being admitted to hospital.
"At that point, I was eating an apple a day," she admits. "I never saw myself as fat or thin, as it was all about controlling the numbers. It was very tense at home although I never wanted to hurt my family, but when you're in that bubble, you don't think about the effect it's having on others."
While in hospital, Donna was put beside a girl who was also anorexic and had a lower weight, which made her want to push herself to become even lighter. She achieved this by hiding food under the mattress and behind the radiator. "I think it's the worst thing in the world to put anorexic people in a ward together, because it becomes a competition," she admits. "I thought I wasn't achieving my goal because I couldn't get down to the other girl's size, as I felt that the more weight I lost, the better I was. When I was doing a book signing, some girls from school came along and told me that at the time they had put their money together to get a card and a locket for me, but I wouldn't let them into the hospital room as I had completely isolated myself."
The turning point came when Donna was at home one day, and couldn't move her body off the bed. She realised that she would die if she continued self-starving, and told her mother that she didn't know how to help herself. Her mum came to her with a pen and paper and asked her to list ten things she was grateful for, and while Donna resisted initially, by the time she had 39 things listed, she had a genuine smile on her face.
"That moment broke me down and I told my mum what had happened to me when I was younger," she says, hesitantly. "I was sexually abused when I was seven by a teenage visitor who stayed at our home for a few weeks. I obviously went to bed early in the evening as I was a child, and he would come in and rape me while my parents and older siblings were downstairs in the kitchen. At seven, you don't know about sex but I knew it was wrong. He said that if I told anyone, he would kill himself and I would get blamed and would be locked up for his murder. When I told my mum all those years later when I was 15, we both burst into tears. She felt so guilty, but it wasn't her fault at all as he was very manipulative and did it very cleverly so that people wouldn't be able to know and stop it."
Donna went to counselling but it didn't work for her at that point, and says that she slowly got her life back together with the help of her family and GP. Her solicitor felt there was no point in prosecuting the perpetrator because it was her word against his, and there was no physical proof eight years later. She credits her mum in particular with helping her to become stronger and blossom into full health again, as Maureen used to read self-help books to her and brought her adult colouring books to help bring brightness back into her life. "I became very strong with mum's help, because when you are read so much positivity, it sinks in," she says.
Donna reckons that the sexual abuse had made her vulnerable and an easy target for the bullies, and as she recovered from the anorexia, she changed schools and made great friends. It got to the point where she felt very balanced and wise beyond her years, and her life started going very well. She began socialising like a normal teenager and got herself a lovely boyfriend. She completed her Leaving Cert, and chose to study psychology at NUI, Galway, because she thought she would be in a good position to help other people after all she had been through.
The dark-haired beauty also started modelling around that time, and was on the books of Assets. They even entered her in the Miss Holiday World competition, which she won, and she enjoyed modelling and it provided extra cash for college. "Modelling is all about body image, but the journey I had been on was so intense that it wasn't an issue for me," she says. "I was at a healthy weight and was eating properly and it wasn't that pressurised in Irish modelling anyway. I was very happy, and thought I had it made."
Just as things seemed great, Donna's life was derailed again when she was 19. A car hit the car that she was travelling in, and it happened in 1998, in the days before seatbelts were compulsory. There were none in that particular car, and Donna banged her head off the dashboard. In the weeks that followed, she began experiencing strange symptoms, and told her mother that she could feel something physically wrong with her brain. She went to her room and forgot where she was, and began hearing "mumbles" in her head. She also felt "ridiculously tired and spaced out" and began having seizures.
She visited a doctor, who advised her to take anti-depressants based on her history, but she knew she wasn't depressed. The doctor said they would help so she took the medication anyway, but the symptoms weren't going away. She was brought to see a psychiatrist, who advised her parents that they needed to admit her to assess her. Her family were then told the devastating news that Donna had schizophrenia and had to be put on the highest dose of medication straight away. She refused to believe it as she was studying psychology, and was pretty sure that she didn't have that condition.
Donna was admitted to a mental health facility, where she was sedated and put on medication that had very unpleasant side-effects."I used to dribble and even ended up wearing glasses from the medicine they had me on, as it affected my vision for a while," she says. "They put me on crazy stuff, including things that have since been taken off the market. I knew I didn't have schizophrenia, but they thought I was acting out when I protested, and would physically sit on me when they thought I was having episodes. My dad walked in one day and flipped because of how they were treating me, and my mum knew a nurse in another hospital who advised her to get me out of there before they destroyed me. Between my parents and GP, they got me into Saint John of God's, where Dr Terence Larkin looked after me. He monitored me and concluded I didn't have schizophrenia, and took me off the medication."
Dr Larkin's investigations suggested that Donna had epilepsy, which was confirmed through brain scans at Beaumont Hospital. It came as a huge relief to her to find that her problem was neurological rather than psychiatric or psychological. She is very grateful to Dr Larkin, as the proper diagnosis meant that she went on medication to properly control her epilepsy and was soon as right as rain again.
"I hit my head in the car accident and they should have looked into that in the other hospital," she says. "It was an old school psychiatrist who saw me and just ticked boxes with symptoms to come up with a disorder for me. People think it might be easier getting up off the floor when you are knocked a second time, but it was actually harder for me. I found it very degrading being in that particular psychiatric system, because you weren't treated as a normal human being. You were someone who was nuts and the things that went on were very different to what happened during visiting hours. I remember going into the ward the first day and a woman poked me and said, ''This place is like a revolving door. Once you're in here, you'll always be back.'' She was right, as the people that were in that unit were just being medicated and not helped, so they were coming back over and over again."
Donna was fortunate because her college kept her place open, and although she missed six months, she went back and completed her degree. She worked as a waitress to help boost her confidence and regain her footing socially, and began the process of rebuilding her life yet again. She was doing voluntary work throughout college to gain experience, and after she graduated with first class honours, she qualified as a psychologist and opened up her own practice. She did a lot of volunteer work with people who had different types of disorders, and felt she was well placed to help. Not alone was she a qualified professional, but she's someone who has been through the system from the other side.
Donna is very strong and personable and radiates wisdom and serenity borne of overcoming such early difficulties. She is far from being any type of victim, and her passion for helping people comes from a very real place. It led to her being invited to speak at many events, and she found that this was a way to impact a larger number of people more quickly, so she set up a motivational speaking company. She met another successful speaker seven years ago called Pat Slattery, and the friendship they developed turned into love.
"Pat is such a good person," she says. "I asked him if he would come on board full-time with my company. We were still only friends at that stage, but we got along really well and shared the same values, which is key to a good relationship. Pat has three sons between 14 and 24 as he was married before and was living in Limerick, so when we got together, I moved to Limerick too. Everything fell into place and we moved to Lanzarote for three years, but then my mum got sick so we came back. We had our son Ashton three years ago, and he's a total character. With our genes, he's a recipe for world domination. Pat's youngest son, Jason, lives with us too and he's great."
Donna's beloved mum Maureen died in July aged 66 from ovarian cancer that had spread, and she misses her very much. Her dad Padraig is very active and is captain of his golf club, and she has had great support and love from them both throughout her life. "Mum was the kindest person I have ever met and was always thinking about other people, so I hope I can be as nice as she was," she says. "She was exceptionally strong and helped me through so much. She died a very happy person and believed that death isn't the end, it's a pause. My dad is a great guy and is loved by everyone in the town, because he's so down-to-earth and genuine."
These days, Donna works on coaching different groups and holding motivational events. She loves teaching people who want to excel in business or in life, and has just published her third book, The Confidence to Succeed. As well as great advice, the book contains practical, easy-to-implement exercises for anyone who wants to take their life to the next level, and Donna has written the book she feels would have helped her when she was on the floor earlier in life. It aims to help readers embrace every situation with a solution-focused approach to enable them to feel and perform at their best.
"A lack of confidence is something that prevents people from taking the next step or giving themselves the chance to succeed," she explains. "Depression is a very real feeling, but your body reacts to what is in your mind in a neurological way. So if I constantly think I won't succeed in life, my body reacts to that. I have been around the world meeting people who have achieved great things despite circumstance, and have compiled the things they told me into the book. If you can understand the way your brain works, you can induce serotonin naturally and it empowers you. You need to separate yourself from bad experiences to overcome them, because I firmly believe that we are so much more than the things that happen to us."#
For information and support on Anorexia Nervosa or other eating disorders visit www.seechange.ie or www.bodywhys.ie or call the Irish Helpline on: 1890 200 444
The Confidence to Succeed by Donna Kennedy (€12.50, Easons.com) www.donnakennedy.com
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