Rebecca Barry Hill meets three women whose suffering taught them survival — and led them to success

After a decade-long struggle with bulimia, Anna Coventry thought she'd beaten her demons. But, as her corporate career began to take off, severe anxiety took over. Now 33 and based in Hong Kong, she is a yoga teacher and author of a blog,

"I was 17 when bulimia started to take over my life. As I got thinner and thinner, the idea of what I wanted to look like got thinner and thinner and I had these ridiculous expectations of what I felt was the ideal. I had some real on and off patches, without ever addressing the reasons why I was doing it. I'd just stop for a while and think I was okay but then I'd go through another difficult patch and it would come back again.

"I went to London when I was 24 and pretty directionless. I'd left school quite young and didn't really know where I was going. But once I got over there the bulimia started up again. For the first couple of months it was almost like an old friend, a way of coping when things were uncertain.

"I got a job at a recruitment company. After a couple of months things settled down on the bulimia front, quite frankly because I didn't have time for it. I was so busy with work, doing well and really enjoying it. But after a while it took its toll. It was a compulsion: I have to be this and I have to be that. It was driven from a place of fear - what if I don't succeed at this?


"My boyfriend used to say, 'You're recruiting f***ing secretaries, would you please pull this into perspective.' But I'd be so amped and stressed-out from work that I had no off switch, no ability to breathe or stop. I'd get up at 5.15am to ride my exercycle, work a 12-hour day and, on the weekends, I'd go out taking drugs and getting no sleep. In a way, it was the outlet I needed. But I was taking too much speed, cocaine and pills and starting to have bouts of anxiety, heart palpitations, weird vision. I stopped taking drugs but the anxiety only got worse as I became more and more tense.

"I was keeping up my job and making a lot of money for the company but inside I was screaming and just not coping. I started to withdraw from my friends, and my boyfriend thought I was going crazy, which I was - I just kept spiralling down. It's quite hard to perform for 12 hours at work when you're sleeping only two hours a night.

"I ended up going to New Zealand for Christmas, thinking a bit of time at home would be the answer. But when I went back to London I got a promotion and threw myself back into it. I was under a lot of pressure because I was 25 and managing all these people without any experience. But still I kept pushing myself.

"I was very controlled with what I was putting into my body. My bulimia took on what you would call orthorexia, like health anxiety. I was so obsessed, I could barely eat an apple without worrying I was going to get diabetes. One thing led to another and I had to have a week off work with stress leave. It got to the point where I could not leave the house. I wasn't able to eat a piece of fruit for breakfast without having a panic attack about what it was going to do to my body. I ended up having what I consider a nervous breakdown when I was 26. I was having panic attacks about the idea of having a cup of tea, and panic attacks in bed. My boyfriend did his best to help but it was really difficult for him.

I'd be hyper-ventilating and pacing around the house in the middle of the night.

"I don't remember the exact moment but I woke up one day and went 'Anna, what the f*** are you doing?' I went to one counsellor, then another, and started to accept that I had to deal with what was going on. I reached out to a couple of my girlfriends and they were amazing. I realised I wasn't going to be able to address the cause of my problems while living in London and working in this job with no time to think. So I decided to leave and break up with my boyfriend.

"There were still a few rocky months ahead but I went travelling in America, and met up with a friend in Las Vegas. That's where I decided to go to my first yoga class. I had a panic attack one evening and went off to yoga the next morning, and it was like, 'wow'. An hour of quiet. I made a real effort to get to that class. Something in me said, 'go'. I knew there was something more to life than this ridiculous pressure I'd been living under for such a long time.

"Yoga answered so many questions for me. I gained so much clarity from the inner silence, and I'd experienced nothing like that for 10 years. I'd been blessed with all these amazing things in life and yet I'd been so miserable and it was all a result of what was happening in my mind. I knew that 100 per cent but I'd had no idea how to change it. All of a sudden it was like, I get it. My life turned a different direction at that point and I knew, 'I have to teach this, I have to share this, this is what I have to do'. I moved back to New Zealand and did my teacher training in 2011.

"There's a thread to all the ridiculous decisions I've made and the pressure I put myself under. It comes from a lack of self-acceptance and love of self and being my own worst enemy as opposed to being my own best friend. That's something I am really passionate about with yoga. When I'm teaching, I come at it from an angle of increasing people's awareness of themselves and the world around them. Because when you have an awareness of the subtleties of life, you can tune into the things that cause you stress or distress and start to view yourself differently.

"That's how yoga helped me. With my body, for example, it has helped me go from a place of 'I don't want to look like this, I need, I need, I need ...' to 'I am and I love'. I'd gone from pushing myself off a cliff to nurturing and loving myself and really caring about my wellbeing.

"For the first few years after I discovered yoga, I had to accept a lot of
my issues instead of burying them. I'd made some bad calls in life and hadn't treated myself with as much love and respect as I should have.

"If you look back at all the silly things I've done there was just no inner peace and happiness coming from within, ever. I was always looking for something external to gratify myself and now that I've found yoga, it provides me with a way to be able to access my inner world and find that what's there is beautiful. It's an amazing place."

As a child, Amanda Betts was repeatedly told she was fat, ugly and would amount to nothing. Now 45, the former model is the co-owner of Red11 model and talent agency in Auckland.

"My stepfather used to beat the crap out of my mother. She was often in hospital with terrible asthma attacks and the last thing I wanted to do was make her life even more stressful by telling her he'd been sexually abusing me for two years. We literally ran away in the night when I was 10, and everything changed.

"Up until that point my mother cared about me. Then my mother's new boyfriend came on the scene. He began abusing me when I was 11. I had no one to talk to about it and as I got older, Mum got harder on me. She'd strap me and my brother with the jug cord and sometimes we couldn't go to school because we had massive welts on our bums and couldn't sit down. She cut off family members who sensed things were wrong. I was hoping it would go away, but it only got worse.

"My mother hated my biological father. He was the one that got away - he'd left us when I was little. I got his height and a lot of his attributes, so I think Mum used to look at me and see him.

"When I was 15 I remember peeling potatoes when Mum walked in and said, 'Your father's dead'. I burst into tears and she said, 'I don't know what you're crying about. He left us ages ago, he has nothing to do with us.' I wasn't even allowed to grieve.

"In the meantime I was developing as a teenager. I was 5ft8 [1.73m] by the time I was 15.

"Nobody liked me because I was the really intense, weird girl. But I was becoming quite attractive and boys started noticing me. One day I came home with a hickey on my neck and Mum went into an absolute fury. 'If I wanted to act like a dog I'd be treated like one'.

She booted me out of the house and made me sleep in the garage in the middle of winter.

The next day I knew I was going to get a beating but this time she made me take all of my clothes off. I remember thinking, I'm so much bigger than her, I could do something, but I could never raise a hand to my mother and I never did. I buried my face in my bed and she let rip with the jug cord. The humiliation and emotional torture was worse than the physical pain.

"She'd tell me I was nothing, I was worth nothing, I had no value, that I'd be able to attract boys but I'd never be able to keep the ones that got to know my personality. She spent my teenage years putting me down. She'd draw ugly, exaggerated pictures of what she thought I looked like and tell me I was fat. I believed her.

"Instead of [letting me study] for School C, Mum insisted I leave school and go to work.

My first job earned $90 a week working at a bakery in Wyndham St in the city. Mum took $60, $10 was to get the bus so I was left with $20. [My brother and I] were never allowed to go out, never allowed to use the phone, we had no friends, no one came to the house.

There wasn't even decent food. Yet she'd walk in with silver on her arms and beautiful clothes.

"I decided I had to get out. I left home at 15. I was like a tiger out of a cage - I went crazy. I put myself in so many dangerous situations, had no respect for my body whatsoever and basically lived hand-to-mouth, a real alley cat. I was 17 when my grandmother, my father's mother, [paid for] a modelling course for me. She loved me and thought I had so much potential and she would see past my bad behaviour. After the course I got my first $5000 television commercial and print campaign. I couldn't believe I could actually be of value.

"Then one day my mother rang and told me she was going to live in Perth. I thought, I may as well speak the truth and tell her about the sexual abuse. She called me a liar. I was devastated. What the men did was terrible but it was nothing compared to the damage she did and the lack of redemption from her.

"When I had my son, Izaac, I booted her out of my life. [She has since passed away.] But the one thing that was really important is that I was never going to be a victim. You choose to be a victim or you dust yourself off and get on with it.

"Because I was so lacking in education I knew I had to educate myself so I started becoming the best I could be so nobody could take my job. I'd be the best receptionist ever, the best customer services ever. In my modelling jobs I'd offer to help the stylists. I was always conscientious and grateful. Every employer I had, I negotiated for them to pay for something to educate me.

"I went on a PR course, a business letter-writing course, a creative letter-writing course. And it all helped towards this role. I decided I wanted to own my agency by the time I was 40, and here I am.

"What's so amazing about my job is I use all of that strength. There are no excuses with me. You can't be lazy. For every girl who grabs opportunities there are five who can't be bothered. I want my models to take advantage of this unbelievable opportunity. Because one of the biggest things my past has taught me is how to be an opportunist.

Opportunity is nothing if you do nothing with it. No one's going to do it for you.

"Modelling isn't just a business, it leads to other things, not to mention the travel and money.

"I wouldn't say I'm grateful for what happened but I'm grateful for the way I am and the choices I was able to make. I'm grateful for psychotherapy - it helped immensely. And I'm grateful for my spirit, my really hard spirit. Because, in theory, I shouldn't be here, in such a nurturing role, taking care of people and being such a part of their journey with them. I should be a failure."

Sian Jaquet was one of several students bullied and intimidated daily at her Welsh boarding school. Her defiant nature and struggles with dyslexia made her a prime target. Now 50, she runs her own life coaching business, Sian Jaquet Foundations, is the chairwoman of the grievance panel in New Zealand's largest adolescent secure unit, Korowai Manaaki, and hosts television show Starting Over, on Sky TV's Vibe.

"I remember on my first day at boarding school, I got up and got dressed but I put my Sunday clothes on. I didn't know the difference. I went to class and got shouted at for having the wrong uniform. My life just went from bad to worse then, whatever I did was wrong. In that first term I remember teachers giving me instructions and speaking at me but I can't remember talking. I didn't fit in. I wasn't academic or sporting. I didn't come from the right social set. I was utterly insignificant.

"When I was about 14 I had a boyfriend. They called my mother up to the school to inform her that I was fraternising with a boy and that it had to stop. It was like I'd done something really heinous. My mother said, 'This is perfectly normal behaviour. Has she broken any school rules?' 'No, but he's writing messages in her newspaper. We're intercepting them and reading them.'

Mum said, 'Why? It's got nothing to do with you.'

"Later, when things got worse, I never told Mum and Dad, because it was so hard for them to get the money together. They'd been penniless mental health nurses. To think that their daughter was going to this prestigious private school ... I couldn't burst the bubble.

"Once a week my name was called out by the head girl. She'd sit on the teacher's desk, making accusations about my behaviour: 'You had your blazer done up incorrectly' or 'you walked through a door you weren't supposed to'. That was what most people dealt with. But I'd sit there and eyeball her, and she'd get angrier and angrier. She instructed the school wardens to follow me around. At weekends, I'd be walking through the school and they'd be standing there, staring at me. Today, if you saw that that was happening to any child, you'd have the police in there.

"I'd had two months of this bullying when the deputy principal walked into the hall and asked me, in front of everyone, to see her in the library. She was standing there with the head girl and she went up to one of the tables and 'Sian' was engraved on it. Then the head girl started: 'You don't belong in this school, you're not right for this school, we don't want you, you're common.' On and on. I didn't flinch. The deputy turned to me and said, 'You are inadequate and stupid. And we know you did this, because you're the only girl in this school capable of vandalism.' What would I be doing in the library? I had dyslexia - I couldn't read or write.

"They sent me to bed at 8 o'clock, instead of 9.30, for a term. Even on Saturdays and Sundays, when everyone was allowed to watch films, I wasn't. But one advantage of being on long-term detention was that I was always around to talk to. I can still see the girls' faces in the house I lived in. 'I need to talk to you, can you help me?' Tampons were considered contraband and, because of my parents and the open way we'd always talked about sex and periods, I started to help people. I'd get Dad to buy loads of Tampax and I'd bring them into school but I didn't tell him why. It was quite empowering.

"This is the thing I'm most grateful for. Because I didn't have a camp to go in, I really did become me. I developed a sense of true independence. I was defiant. I would just eyeball people in a way that I don't think any of the other girls did, which is why they hated me.

They couldn't break me. I'd like to say it was confidence. I think it was bloody mindedness. It was about injustice.

"I learned how to read people, because I was on the outside so much. And it's become my life's work. I can spend a really short amount of time with somebody and know what's going on. Yes, it's because I had parents who were psychiatric nurses. But my intuition became the one thing I worked at.

"There were girls that didn't survive, emotionally speaking. I think we're all damaged in some way. But I know that the depth of my resilience is because of that life experience.

You learnt how to mend your own heart, to create a sense of balance out of a traumatic experience because you knew there was no option. You couldn't leave. There wasn't a parent to tell, there wasn't an adult who was even vaguely bloody interested.

"In my career, once I realised there was an inspectorate process for boarding schools [in Britain], I worked incredibly hard to get the opportunity to have significant influence at Government level. This is a girl who couldn't read or write and thought she was stupid, and that's what drove me. I was absolutely determined.

"When they put together the Children Act, I pushed myself into places and with people I never thought possible. I wanted to make sure I had my say about how they protect kids at boarding schools. I ended up running an inspection unit and having 80 inspectors under me. I worked for more than three years all over the country, training inspectors to go into schools.

"I insisted they should be able to see the kids without staff there. Now it's become common practice. That was one of the most important things I've ever done. To give kids the opportunity to speak to someone one-to-one."