Story of Hope Contributed by Sharon McConville – The Meadows Ranch
When I was a child, I thought that thirty was extremely old. When I was a teenager I thought that I would have life sorted by the time I was thirty. When I was in my early twenties I didn’t believe that I would ever live to see thirty.
Now that I am thirty, I don’t feel extremely old, I don’t have life sorted, but I can say that I am incredibly happy and fortunate to be alive. In my thirty years, I have had all kinds of life experiences.
In my thirty years, I have had all kinds of life experiences. At thirteen, I spent a summer working in a vet’s office. I mixed bright red worming powder into a liquid, I cleaned out the cattery, and I helped out in the doggy grooming parlor. I knew then I was going to work with animals.
By fifteen, I was less sure. I spent a summer working on the production line in a factory which made faucets. By the end of that, I was certain I was going to get a college education. At eighteen I worked in the newspaper shop at my local hospital and also at McDonald’s.
I knew which environment I preferred, so at nineteen I went to medical school. I wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to be a doctor. I knew that I wanted to work with people. I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day. I had physicians and surgeons in my family and I could see that they were happy and fulfilled. It all made sense, but deep inside me, there was a niggling doubt.
This seemed to wear off by the end of year one. I enjoyed being with my classmates full time and making friendships as I got to know them. I liked meeting patients and having the privilege of hearing their stories. It was good to learn practical skills like examining various body systems and taking blood samples.
I had fun doing extra-curricular activities such as singing in the university choir and going to Pilates classes. Life was busy but life was good. And it continued in that vein for the next couple of years. Then, in year three of a five-year course, a few friends and I set up a charity, ‘STEP’, which stood for Students Tackling Eating Problems.
All of us had some experience of disordered eating. When I was seventeen, I had suffered significant weight loss after I had to give up sports due to an arthritic condition. I had been afraid that if I ate like I had during heavy training, I would balloon. I ended up hospitalized for re-feeding, but no eating disorder was ever diagnosed and I had no psychological support; I simply ate more and recovered.
My STEP co-founders were all in recovery from diagnosed anorexia or bulimia, and together we made it our mission to ensure other students in similar situations received adequate support. I became STEP Director and began to supervise a drop-in center on Wednesday afternoons when there were no classes, an email helpline, and resource library, as well as annual awareness campaigns.
The project was such a success that after my fourth year at medical school I was offered a stipend from a university chaplaincy to run STEP on a full-time basis for a year. The chaplaincy would also pay for me to do my University Certificate in Counselling. What an opportunity!
I grabbed it with both hands. My STEP ‘gap year’ began well. I started to operate a one-to-one supported self-help program for students with bulimia, I ran a series of training seminars for university staff, I spoke to 500 students at the Christian Union, and I co-wrote and helped produce a short film about a student with an eating disorder which was shown in a local cinema as part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Then, in January 2006, things started to go wrong. I was told that no funding would be available to continue the project once I returned to medical school, a key trustee resigned, and the detailed site I had designed was removed from the web.
I was devastated but I kept working in the hope that the funders would change their minds. They didn’t, and in May I had to tell all sixty of the students on my books that STEP would not exist to help them after the end of the academic year.
I remember one day I went home to my parents’ house and could not stop crying. That was probably the start of my breakdown. I can’t recall much about the next few weeks but I ended up in California staying with my aunt and uncle. One evening, sitting on a rocking chair out on the veranda, I told my aunt I didn’t think I wanted to live anymore.
She knew I meant it. The next day she contacted a friend who was a psychotherapist. She agreed to meet with me and within an hour she had diagnosed clinical depression. My aunt sent me back to Ireland once she had booked an appointment for me with my family doctor. Her diagnosis was the same. I came home with a packet of Citalopram and a referral to a psychiatrist.
From that point on I went rapidly downhill, and within six months – right in the middle of my final year at medical school – I was detained in a psychiatric ward, depressed and severely underweight. Now the words ‘anorexia nervosa’ was ringing in my ears and the irony did not escape me. Just a year previously I had been supporting students with eating problems and now I had my own.
I thought back to my experience at seventeen and for the first time realized that the thoughts and feelings were the same: I was having a crisis of identity and self-esteem, my mood had bottomed out, and I felt as if food was an indulgence I didn’t deserve. Being thin was only a side effect, but it had its benefits. I felt like I could disappear into the background, and I was perceived as being so ill that little was expected of me.
My relapse lasted for two years. I was sent twice to London for inpatient treatment in an eating disorder unit. The first time I was bullied and came home after five weeks; the second time I was so depressed I could not engage with treatment and was not accepted on to the ‘recovery program’. Again, I came home.
This was in early 2008, and things, in general, were much worse. My medication had been changed and I had begun to injure myself. Also, after two failed attempts at specialist treatment, I felt completely hopeless. For the first time, I renounced the faith which had kept me going up until this point and I told my parents that I was suicidal.
All the same, there must have been a part of me that wanted to live because I began to pursue options for treatment beyond the UK and Ireland. At first, I looked in California, thinking that I could be near to my aunt and uncle, but then I remembered coming across a Christian treatment center online when I was working with STEP.
I googled ‘The Meadows Ranch’ and began to read through their programs. I thought that there was no possible way that I could afford treatment there but I called in any case to find out what they could do for me. Five days later I was admitted.
The Meadows Ranch was a transformative experience. It didn’t instantly cure me but it turned the trajectory of my life right around. I felt this awesome sense of love and acceptance there which boosted my self-esteem, and within weeks my nihilistic attitude changed as I began to feel tiny seeds of hope germinating inside myself.
I realized that, even though I had walked away from God, he hadn’t walked away from me and I chose to turn and run into his arms. I gained weight and I made progress in therapy. It was a slow process, hampered at times by medical complications, but after 100 days at the Ranch, I was ready for the transition to residential treatment.
I found residential treatment tough, but I learned new skills in cookery and intuitive eating, and eventually, I came back to Ireland. My struggles with self-harm did not end until I stopped taking an SNRI antidepressant a few months later, but I can now say that I have been free of that behavior for four amazing years!
I graduated medical school whilst I was ill, but after treatment I found myself prohibited from practicing as a clinician on mental health grounds. This created a new challenge regarding what career to follow. With my weight healthy and stable, I have been able to try out a wealth of different options which have broadened my horizons and made my résumé rather more interesting than it would have been if I had been a doctor.
I have worked as a media spokesperson for a local mental health charity, I have been a Constituency Support Officer for my local Member of Parliament, I have taught anatomy to medical students, and I have published a book about my experience of mental illness. I have also taken classes in Irish language, creative writing, poetry, politics, music, clinical education, and art.
Yet what I have come back to again and again is writing. When I was seven years old I told my parents that I was going to be a writer. Now I can’t help but wonder whether I knew myself better then than when I was a teenager and had to choose a career route.
I wrote a number of published articles whilst I was a medical student and I have been writing ever since, so now I am excited to be writing for Eating Disorder Hope. Today it is my dream to make writing my career. In 2010 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the ups and downs make it difficult to sustain regular work, whereas writing can fit around my moods.
I asked my boyfriend how he would describe me today. He said that I was sensitive, thoughtful, caring, generous, insightful, humorous, articulate, artistic, intelligent, experienced, complex and moody and that I had very varied ambitions. A few years ago I would have found it difficult to accept the positive and impossible to accept any hint of negativity.
Now I can take his words as amazing affirmations which are testaments to how far I have come. Even the fact that I have a sense of humor again is a miracle…and how wonderful to read a list which does not include the term ‘anorexic’!
Yes, today, I walk in recovery. That does not mean that I do not battle with comparison from time to time, or that my weight is always right on the same number. It does mean that I choose to reject negative thoughts about my shape and that I work hard to meet my body’s nutritional needs and to enjoy the food I eat.
Because of this, I can live life to the full, spending lots of time with friends and family, enjoying the great outdoors, traveling when I can, exercising appropriately, and enjoying being the woman whom I was intended to be. When I was running STEP, my tagline was ‘Recovery is Possible’. Now I’m proving it to be true!
Sharon McConville MB BCh BAO Cert Counselling
For over 25 years, The Meadows Ranch has offered an unparalleled depth of care through its unique, comprehensive, and individualized program for treating eating disorders and co-occurring conditions affecting adolescent girls and women. Set on scenic ranch property in the healing landscape of Wickenburg, Arizona, The Meadows Ranch allows for seamless transitions between its structured multi-phase treatment. A world-class clinical team of industry experts leads the treatment approach designed to uncover and understand the “whys” of the eating disorder through a host of proven modalities. Providing individuals with tools to re-engage in a healthy relationship with food – and with themselves – disempowers eating disorders and empowers individuals with a renewed enthusiasm for life. Contact us today at 888-496-5498 and find out why The Meadows Ranch is the best choice for eating disorder treatment and recovery. For more information call 1-888-496-5498.. or visit www.themeadowsranch.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 2, 2018.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com