My Personal Struggle with Body Image and Anorexia


My name is Kathleen Odenthal and I am 27 years old, however I feel like I am twice that age. I have lived a long life, and I wasn’t dealt an easy hand to play.  It is not like I believe that life is easy for anyone, trust me, I have met many people of all races, religions, ethnicities and ages, people of all economic status, different sexualities and genders, and if I have learned anything, it is that life is hard – for everyone.

I didn’t come to this realization overnight, but rather I came to this conclusion after traveling the country – going from one treatment center to another trying to tackle a vicious eating disorder and a serious drug problem. It was by meeting people of all walks of life, people who have fallen and stayed down, as well as people who keep falling but will NEVER stop getting up, that I realized how alike we truly are, and how no one is handed life on a silver platter.

I grew up in a white picket fence kind of family- a “happy” family with two loving parents, two boys and one girl, grew up in the suburbs, all attended parochial school. On the outside, we were perfect, but nothing is ever perfect. My family, we were far from perfect. My parents were loving. My brothers were great, through my eyes they were both exactly what a son should be. They were smart, athletic, popular, funny, and girls lusted after them.

I was the screw up. At least, through my eight year old eyes I was. I wasn’t as good of an athlete as either of my brothers, I wasn’t as smart as them, and I definitely wasn’t as popular. Actually, I was the complete opposite of popular. I was more of a wall than a wallflower.

Something always felt wrong inside of me, nothing i ever did was good enough. I thought that my family would be better off without me, and I dreamed of a world where I was never born.

I was first brought to a psychiatrist when I was 15 years old. My mother made the appointment after my doctor told her that I was losing too much weight. The psychiatrist told me that I had anorexia nervosa, whatever that was… She also recommended that my mother shipped me away to some wilderness camp in the middle of nowhere where I was supposed to be able to “find myself.”

Thankfully my mother didn’t agree with the crazy lady, but that day started what would be a very long journey for me. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the next ten years of my life.

Eating-1

I was sent to treatment instead of the woods, and looking back now, maybe the woods would have worked better. After my first treatment my eyes widened to the world of eating disorders. Although I was diagnosed anorexic before treatment, Renfrew told me that my diagnosis was EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). 

All I thought was “oh great! I can’t even succeed at being sick!”

From that moment on I was on a mission – determined to show people that I could be thin, that I could starve myself, that I could be the best anorexic the world has ever seen. I bounced from therapist to therapist, nutritionist to nutritionist, psychiatrist to psychiatrist and treatment center to treatment center. Some people said they didn’t know how to help me, other said I didn’t want to be helped, and then there were the ones who said that I was helpless – that anorexia would kill me and that I was wasting their time.

I have been to Utah, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California, Oklahoma, New York, and New Jersey. I have gone from coast to coast across the United States as doctors searched for treatment facilities that would take me. Doctors considered me a “difficult patient” and many centers said they weren’t equipped to deal with my issues.

Although I had great medical insurance thanks to my mother, she still had to pay probably millions of dollars over the years trying to make me better. My mother would go to the end of the world for me, and it killed her that she couldn’t make me better.

Anorexia had its hook in me so deep, that I couldn’t physically see myself without the disease ever- I had anorexia, and anorexia had me. I felt like I would be nothing without my disease. If you tried to take it from me, you were my enemy.

Anorexia has cost me a lot of things in life: I missed most of high school, I was in treatment during my graduation, I was pulled out of college, I never had friends, I never felt like I had a home because I was constantly moving from facility to facility. I honestly think that I spent more days in treatment as a teenager than I spent out of treatment.

I remember when a doctor told me that I was no longer addicted to my eating disorder, I was addicted to treatment. That hit home. I didn’t know how to live in the real world – all I knew was treatment. Honestly, the idea of not being in treatment terrified me. I was 22 years old and I felt like I knew nothing about the real world. Everyone else my age had decades of experience socializing, going to school, working jobs – I had no idea how to do any of these things.

I guess it is kind of ironic that the best treatment for me was telling me that I could no longer go to treatment. It had become my “get out of jail free” card and every time I felt scared, everytime life got uncomfortable, I would allow myself to fall back into my disease and have them ship me away to the bubble I knew so well. So they took away my bubble.

To be honest, I crashed at first, hard. I didn’t know how to deal with difficult situations, I didn’t know how to handle real relationships with people – I was baffled by society and the way that it functioned.

I found drugs, booze, anything and everything anyone has ever used to avoid dealing with life, and I used it as long as I could. I went to AA meetings, I tried to get sober. I failed and failed and then failed again.

One day I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. This time however, it wasn’t my body that disgusted me, it was the person that I had become. How did I let it get this far? I had a good upbringing, parents who loved me, and all the opportunities I could want. How did everything get so out of control?

I saw my life for what it really was, a wreck, a miserable wreck. My friends were only my friends because I bought the drugs, my family had given up on me, and I had dropped out of college.

This was the lowest I had ever been in my life, but instead of wanting to die, I finally wanted to live. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I buckled up my boot straps and told myself that if I could handle everything that was in my past, I could tackle anything that came up in my future.

photograph by Kathleen Odenthal

photograph by Kathleen Odenthal

First thing I did was change my phone number. Nobody who had my number was anyone I wanted to be associating with anyway. I stopped going out and I used the internet to catch up on the decades of life that I had missed. I started to adopt hobbies and search for a passion in life.

I began writing, painting, and taking photographs. I enrolled in school for art and I started to see a psychiatrist. Instead of thinking that I was at a disadvantage having spent half my life in treatment, I looked at it as an opportunity. From CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to ACT (acceptance commitment therapy), I realized that I learned a lot more than I thought I had in all of those treatment centers.

I started to recognize thoughts as just thoughts, instead of viewing them as facts. I meditated, practiced yoga, and read lots of books. I viewed my past as a lesson – a difficult lesson, but one that included a wealth of wisdom that proved to be helpful in recovery.

Today my life is very different than it was ten years ago. Ten years ago I was two seconds away from winding up either in jail, or in a coffin, and today I am planning a wedding, running my own company, and finishing up my degree.

No days are easy, and many are hard. One of the lessons I have learned however is that life isn’t supposed to be easy, and that each of us comes to bumps, pot-holes and detours on our journey. What we do when we reach these obstacles, and how we deal with them is what makes us who we are – it is what defines us.

Today, I feel strong, I feel confident, and I feel like I am ready for whatever life throws at me.

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