Connection and Community: Recovery Coach Kirsten Hunneyball's StoryNov 17, 2023
Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirsten Hunneyball, a Recovery Coach based in Ballito, South Africa. Kirsten is an incredibly genuine, soul-led human on a mission to serve others. She is a blessing to the eating disorder recovery community. And, I have no doubt her recovery story will inspire you.
Can you share a little bit about your background struggling with an eating disorder? How long did you struggle, at what age, and what your treatment process was like?
"The first thing I think of with this question is 'What does my eating disorder comprise of?' Yes, we can look at the physical manifestation of disordered food and body behaviours, but I cannot say that I was 'recovered' when these behaviours subsided because the eating disorder was only one way (and quite an easily accessible one at that) in which I was trying to influence the reality around me. And this started when I was very young – way before any thought of food and body control was introduced to me.
As a child I remember having a very strong connection to my spiritual self, but a few situations in my early childhood left me wondering whether who I was, fundamentally at my core, was bad, wrong, or not worthy of love, and this connection to my spirit dwindled away into a sea of bullying and trying to manage undiagnosed ADHD. I had SO much love to give, so I couldn’t understand why I didn’t get it back. I felt like I became an outsider in my own life, and something was always missing. Throughout school, I was always the 'second option' in friend groups, and was severely bullied by my peers. I remember writing how much I deserved to be hated in my journal at the age of 9. No child should have to carry that. I had AMAZING parents who took very good care of me, so I can’t even say that I fully understand WHY I struggled this way. When I hit puberty, the bullying continued (mostly due to my unusual surname, freckles and big ears), and my mom (bless her) who has chronic gut health issues, went on a diet. Should I even bother to explain what happened next? Ha ha!
I took to the diet in an attempt to feel more connected to my mom, but I took it too far (being the perfectionist I am). I also started exercising in an obsessive way every day. I was an A-level student, high achiever, never touched alcohol or went out late. The 'perfect child.' Heavy restriction followed for about two years. At 16, I was doing a school project on mental illnesses, and was tasked to research bulimia. And thus, I found my best friend for the next 10 years on a pro-ED website. (So sad those exist!). I would binge and purge up to 20 times a day. I had severe health issues as a result and had to stay home most of my final school year. Then in University I experienced two incredibly traumatic events, and that was me done. I started drinking until I blacked out at least 4 times a week, doing any drug that my friends had available at the time, binging and purging religiously, and sleeping around with whoever happened to find me in my blacked out state that night. All whilst maintaining my position on the Dean’s merit list and wining various academic awards at my Uni. That lasted three years…Until I broke. That’s when I realised I wanted out. I wanted to get better. I admitted myself to one of the only places that treated eating disorders in South Africa, there are hardly any by the way – and none covered by insurance at the time. I was introduced to a 12-Step approach to recovery, but experienced trauma within the centre. Unfortunately my treatment process was not nurtured, I had no follow up from the centre, no family therapy, or individualised care. Upon leaving my parents got divorced, and because I had not formed adequate recovery foundations, it threw me straight back into the ED.
I then moved to Durban, SA to work for my aunt. There was a Narcotic Anonymous meeting across the street, so I went. And that is where I believe, my recovery truly began. I found a community of people who were there to support me every step of the way.
Since then, I have worked the 12 steps of NA and EDA both twice, went to meetings daily for about 2 years, did extensive psychotherapy with an amazing therapist, Claire Moore, got my own recovery coach, recovered my spiritual self, and began my journey with somatic and nervous system based healing practises. These have all led me to where I am today, which is helping others through their own recovery through coaching, trauma informed yoga, and my podcast, Curious About Recovery (which Merrit has been a guest speaker on!)."
Was there a moment in your eating disorder recovery journey when you realized you wanted to recover? A moment where something shifted in you?
"There have been many moments, bringing various lessons and levels of willingness along the way, so I will bullet point a few that stood out.
- Sitting at my desk during university trying to study, and realising that I couldn’t focus on my notes because I was stuck in a trance of binging and purging. It was like something had taken over me, and I realised I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing, but couldn’t stop. I was powerless, and I needed help.
- After many failed attempts at stopping the binge/purge cycle, I was lying on the bathroom floor, ready to end my life. All it took was calling my sponsor instead of following through, and realising that I could put action in to ride the urges of my mental illness. It showed me I could change.
- Well into my recovery journey, still feeling trapped by certain things, I reached out to a professional and realised I had been in 'quasi-recovery' for years, and I wanted more freedom than that, so I became willing to try any suggestion she set out for me."
How did you deal with feelings of shame in eating disorder recovery?
"I never felt shame when needing to eat, I felt shame when I acted out on the ED. So, in the beginning I shared everything with my sponsor and my 12 step fellowship. Airing out my fears, thoughts, behaviours etc. in a space I felt safe, relinquished the shame every single time. If I could share with people who knew how to hold non-judgemental space for me, I could trust that I did not need to feel shame.
This became my mindset in my recovery – to “Leave no stone unturned”. For me, this means sharing openly and honestly in a safe space with at least one other human being (and then sharing in my spiritual practises). Speaking about what’s going on for me has always been the fastest release for shame.
I think I still experience a sense of shame when ED thoughts creep up into my mind, and for a long time I felt that I needed to keep these thoughts and feelings inside, specifically because I am a professional in the eating disorder world. I felt fear of being judged, and that I had to be perfect (which is where the ED started, didn’t it? Ha ha! ).
However, this left me feeling isolated and very quickly the quasi-recovery began looking like a good idea again. So I went back to basics, and hired a recovery coach, so that I could share what was going on for me. So, at every level of my recovery – sharing in a safe space, has always been my key to dealing with shame. Which is why I started my podcast (to create a shame-free space for people to share!)"
If you could identify the three biggest factors that helped you achieve full recovery from your eating disorder, what are they?
- "Connection: My spiritual relationship and journey with God has been at the root of my journey every step of the way. And trust me, it has not been a conventional journey. This goes hand in hand with making stillness a priority – nervous system regulation through body-based practises like meditation, breathwork, yoga etc.
- Community: The people that have guided me along the way and been there for me no matter what. For example, my family, my sponsor, my spiritual coach, friends I’ve made in and out of recovery and support groups.
- Creative expression: Writing music, playing my trumpet, or piano, or singing. Dancing through emotions, and creating my podcast."
Do you have any favorite eating disorder recovery resources?
"I would be lying if I didn’t mention my podcast, ha ha! [Curious About Recovery] So, there’s that, but in terms of the things that I have found incredibly helpful:
Journal Of Eating Disorders: I enjoy science-based studies that help me understand the illness on a physiological level, you can find a lot of information here.
Can you leave any readers currently struggling with an eating disorder with an inspirational message?
"I don’t have a message, but I do have a hug. Sometimes there aren’t enough words to fully articulate the pain you’re experiencing. Sometimes even thinking of the next step can feel overwhelming. So, right now, just in this moment, I am reaching out to you to hold you. To hold you in WHATEVER way you are showing up today, without trying to change you or get you to do anything, or be anyone. I invite the fullness of you, fully into my arms, and I hold you with love."
Please share your favorite quote.
“To take much pleasure in a world filled with many kinds of beauty is a joy in life to which all women are entitled. To support only one kind of beauty is to be somehow unobservant of nature. There cannot be only one kind of songbird, only one kind of pine tree, only one kind of wolf. There cannot be one kind of baby, one kind of man, or one kind of woman. There cannot be one kind of breast, one kind of waist, one kind of skin.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Author: Merrit Elizabeth
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