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Why one therapist chose to reveal her own painful past

Kelley and Ryan Kitley with their children, Emma, top left, Maggie, top right, Murphy, front left, and Connor, front right.

Kelley Kitley could easily go through her days pretending life is a breeze: Her four children (11, 9, 7 and 5) are healthy, her career is soaring, her marriage is solid, her home is nestled on a quiet block in leafy Oak Park.

She has every incentive, in fact, to appear the picture of serenity. She’s a psychotherapist with a private practice on North Michigan Avenue, a frequent guest contributor to health and fitness magazines, and a go-to expert on questions of life and love. (I first got to know her when she offered her insights for a column I wrote about politically divided marriages.)

It behooves her to look picture-perfect.

But she’d rather look real. And her real, it turns out, is complicated.

Kitley, 38, just penned a self-published memoir called "My Self: An Autobiography of Survival," which reveals a childhood and young adulthood that included substance abuse, an eating disorder, sexual assault, postpartum anxiety and no small amount of family dysfunction.

"In some ways, ignorance is bliss," Kitley told me this week. "I hear it all the time from clients, ‘Oh my gosh. Why did I even start therapy. It’s so hard.’ But undeniably the best thing we can do for ourselves is work through our issues, because they’re just going to keep coming up in different ways. They’re like a shadow that always follows you around."

"My Self" revisits some incredibly painful territory, including abuse at the hands of a man hired to do work at Kitley’s childhood home.

"That was the hardest part to write," she said. "I thought I had worked through it, but writing about it required a lot of emotion and sobbing and thinking about my own kids and, God forbid, anything like that happening to them. It made me angry all over again."

Kitley said she told her dad about the abuse, but no one followed through with authorities. Her family, she said, tended to avoid emotionally difficult topics.

"Nobody was acknowledging any of our issues, so I always thought, ‘Gosh, something must be wrong with me,’" she said. "It wasn’t until I started hearing other women’s stories that I was able to start healing."

When she was battling an eating disorder and drinking daily, she said she would take respite in bookstores, searching for stories of women whose lives looked like hers, desperate to learn how they fixed themselves.

"I always had so much shame around all the issues I dealt with," she said. "I wanted to write this as a way of reaching people who had similar situations and open up a dialogue about mental health and relationships and family dynamics. Writing this was never a ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ It was always an ‘I am because.’"

Kitley said she is mostly estranged from her dad, other than occasional meetings at family gatherings. She remains close to her mom, and she calls her four siblings her best friends. But none of them has acknowledged her book, she said.

"It’s going to take some time," she said.

I asked if she feels uneasy about her clients knowing so much of her life story.

"Well, I’m selling the book in my waiting room," she said with a laugh. "I might lose some clients along the way, if people would prefer to think I’m perfect and just sit across from them and nod and validate. But I think it can also be helpful for people to know that I’ve been in the trenches."

And lived to tell about it.

Twitter @heidistevens13

Kelley Kitley will sign copies of "My Self" 1-3 p.m. Sunday at Burwood Tap, 724 W. Wrightwood Ave.

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