Originally from the US, Dr Kielty Oberlin is a Kilkenny-based eating disorder treatment and recovery specialist with first-hand experience of the mental health condition
‘My father was a US Air Force officer and we moved around a lot — so much so, that by the time I was 12 years old, I started in my eighth school.
My active eating disorder began between the age of 10 and 11, but I can see that my relationship with food had always been a bit off. I coveted it and was always really aware of what was on offer. I remember sneaking back home when I was six or seven to cut slivers off of a pumpkin pie which was cooling in our kitchen. I didn’t particularly like it, but once I started, I ate nearly the whole pie.
I also ate to soothe the ache of loneliness and boredom because (after moving house) we never had friends until school began. But, somehow I was aware that if I ate too much, continuously, that I would get bigger and it would be unacceptable. So although I ate in a way that no one seemed to notice, it caused me shame and discomfort and I began to think that if I were thinner I would be more popular, have more friends and fit into clothes.
The first ‘diet’ began when I was about 11 as a quest to lose weight. The adults in my life noticed and began to show concern and this both soothed and frustrated me. I ate a bit more to avoid causing trouble, but the preoccupation with food, size, shape and less obvious ‘dieting’ persisted. Exercise increased and I used it to control what I ate. This looked ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ and even praise-worthy which spurred me on, but as I was entering the ninth grade, the food chaos began and I was out of control.
My dad spent most of that year in Seoul, Korea with a new job, while we navigated a new city, Philadelphia, alone. A lot fell on my mother’s shoulders and because of that, I felt responsible and guilty for struggling. With a child’s reasoning, I thought that if I just looked better, I could fit in better and then I would be more helpful. What was really going on was that I was eating/not eating/over-exercising, and getting sick. It was my way of distracting myself from what felt like chaos and our family’s world falling apart. Of course, given time, everything eventually fell into place, but in the meantime, my ED (eating disorder), while soothing and giving me a sense of security, was actually threatening to tear everything apart. Part of me knew this and felt guilty, but my attachment to food had begun so young that I had no idea how to change and thought that it was a matter of willpower that I didn’t have — so I felt even worse about myself.
But I managed to settle in, even though I always felt like I wasn’t good enough and if I messed anything up, things would all fall apart. I worked really hard to get good grades, was on the honour roll, played varsity field hockey, was voted onto the student council, had a singing scholarship and got leads in the school plays. But these achievements were never enough to soothe that part of me that felt that I wasn’t enough. Without realising it, I made my body shape the ‘condition’ or the measure of how well I was doing — which was never ‘enough’.
Over time and with various therapeutic interventions, what had begun as anorexia (AN), merged into bulimia nervosa (BN) and then binge eating (BED) and back again. I really didn’t understand what was expected of me in therapy, was ambivalent about getting better and because the focus was always on the food, it confirmed for me that I didn’t have enough willpower. Also, no one addressed the concurrent exercise which was reinforcing my sense of food control and keeping me from actually getting better. Throughout the initial outpatient therapy, I didn’t believe I was sick enough to warrant the help I was receiving and part of me thought that if I were in inpatient care it would prove that I was sick enough.
I had read about EDs but most of the stories were of dramatically thin girls with anorexia nervosa. I didn’t think I was ‘bad enough’ or thin enough to have an ED let alone warrant getting help. I knew something wasn’t right, but everyone I knew was on some form of healthy eating diet or food/exercise plan so I couldn’t see how what I was doing was any different.
I have been significantly larger and smaller and in tremendous emotional distress at every size. To some extent, at the more normal sizes, the despair was a bit worse because people thought I was okay, that I had ‘sorted the eating thing out’ and was fine. But I needed people to continue to reinforce for me that I was not fine and allow me to talk about it without feeling like I was being a drama queen.
By the end of my journey I had three inpatient hospitalisations, a suicide attempt which led to me needing heart surgery and I tried all sorts of alternative medicine.
I also came to realise and accept that I had developed a concurrent dependence on alcohol to help with my shyness in social settings and to de-stress myself. Participating in 12-step programmes helped with this aspect and there was a very long and scenic road to recovery as treatments gave me ‘permission’ to begin to change.
Psychological interventions helped me to understand food as chemistry and I also learned to accept that my personality is both empathetic and tends towards perfectionism. Giving myself space to learn and adopt healthier and more authentic communication styles helped me to work through all of the shame present before and during the ED, including the many relapses.
Also, I was not able to make lasting change until I believed that others had actually recovered. A lot of my early treatment providers said that ED was something I would have to live with for the rest of my life and when I looked at the people around me on diets and exhibiting various forms of disordered eating I wondered, why bother?
For me, the belief that there was hope in full recovery, combined with a belief in a God who had the capacity for mercy beyond what I was able to witness in myself or others, gave me courage that I had been unable to muster by myself. The courage that I needed to begin to gently practise, putting in the work necessary for change.
Entering the field of psychology was a mission to understand ED, myself and recovery. Because I received so many unhelpful treatment attempts, I sought to help others to change — and hopefully more quickly than I did.
I do believe there is hope for full recovery and it’s important to beware of diets packaged as ‘healthy’. Life is about balance and the thing about balance is that we are always adjusting, tweaking and then readjusting. One of the most important aspects necessary to living recovered is building resilience for when we begin to tip, then we simply adjust.”
As told to Arlene Harris