How I lost 10 stone
It has been a year since 24-stone Margaret Donnelly underwent gastric bypass surgery in a final, desperate attempt to reduce her weight.
Weighing 24 stone, image consultant and professional make-up artist, Margaret Donnelly had become an expert in disguise.
She knew how to create the illusion of looking a little taller, a little slimmer. She dressed well, keeping her hair nice and her make-up well done. She was, in her own words, "well groomed".
Dundalk native Margaret (43) had moved to the Donegal village of Manorcunningham four and a half years ago to be with her partner, Pat, and to set up her own business Love Your Look.
In her professional life, she spoke to women daily about self-esteem, while inside she had none. Her strong personality and great sense of humour hid the torment she was feeling inside.
"You knew when you walked into a room of women that they looked at you and went 'hmm!' It is just human nature, you live with it and you know it and you try to get to them before they get to you. You make fun of yourself. It is a protective thing."
And the unhappiness that was welling up inside didn't end in the workplace.
"When you take off your clothes at night you know you are 24 stone. When you are rolling over in bed and the person beside you nearly bounces out the other side, you feel it.
"When you are tying your shoelaces and you are out of breath and you just can't do all the physical things you want, you know all about it," she recalled.
She was occasionally subjected to personal insults and felt humiliated at having to look for seatbelt extenders on budget airlines. But her rocketing weight was also taking a serious toll on her health.
Rock bottom came for Margaret when her father developed a stroke and died and she was forced to confront her own health problems.
"I just thought 'that is going to be me' if I don't lose weight. Strokes and high blood pressure run in my family. I had high blood pressure. My joints were beginning to suffer and I was just spiralling downwards.
"I didn't want to be that person that somebody had to look after. I began to think, 'If I fell on the street or collapsed, nobody would be able to pick me up'. It comes down to those basics. If I died, how would anybody be able to pick up my coffin?
"I had come to the stage when I realised my body did not suit the person that I was, my character. I would be a very outdoorsy person. I appreciate nature, I love animals and I just found that I wasn't living, I was existing," she said.
Margaret, who describes herself as an emotional eater, had tried everything to lose weight, but with little success.
"I had done the drugs, the hypnosis, the weight watchers, the stuff that works for a lot of people but they just didn't work for me. I would lose weight and then put it on in spades."
After Margaret's GP had warned her that she needed to lose weight or suffer health consequences, she began researching gastric bypass surgery. She opted to go abroad, having discovered there was a waiting list of three to four years in Ireland.
'I knew I would have been four stone heavier at the rate I was going if I had to wait.
"Once I had made my mind up, I wanted to motor on. I opted for the ZNA Hospital in Antwerp because it has zero MRSA, and the surgeon was one of the top in this field," she explained.
She underwent a series of tests at the hospital to determine her suitability for the surgery.
Last January, she underwent the three-hour procedure, which makes the stomach smaller and allows food to bypass part of the small intestine.
The surgeon also removed her gall bladder to prevent the onset of gallstones, which sometimes occur when weight is lost quickly.
The effects were almost instant. By the third day, her weight had dropped by 12 pounds.
It took six weeks after the operation before Margaret could lift anything or drive and a further two months before she began to feel comfortable.
"Every time I got a pain, I would think, 'Oh my God, what's that. Did something burst?' There is a lot of fear in the unknown. But it just takes time to get used to the whole process.
"You get used to not ordering massive quantities. It becomes a way of life and the upside of it is that you are satisfied. In your head you are satisfied, which is wonderful," she said.
But there have been a few scares. Once in a café in Derry, she ordered a panini with pesto and "within 30 seconds" was in the bathroom throwing up.
At Christmas, after a glass or two of wine, she indulged in four or five Liquorice Allsorts and became so ill with palpitations and pain that she thought she would have to be hospitalised.
She has learned to avoid heavily processed foods, which, at the very least, make her instantly tired. But for Margaret the price has been worth it.
"I feel fantastic. I don't think I have changed as a person. I hope I'm a better person for it. Physically I look an awful lot better. Mentally I'm much stronger. People's opinions of me don't matter as much as they used to before the operation.
"In the past I was very self-conscious, nearly intimidated by people. I didn't enjoy going out places. I didn't really want to go out places. Now I don't want to be in!"
But she stressed that the gastric bypass is not a fix-all solution. She still had to confront her emotional demons.
"You are still living with the fat head, the head hunger. I would have been an emotional eater so for every eventuality, food was my crutch.
"It helps you take control. You have to look at the reasons why, so I do quite a bit of soul-searching and walking. I have two German shepherds that drag me around the roads but it is wonderful because I would never have gone for walks."
She also finds that the surgery has improved her relationship.
"Pat was great. I don't think it mattered to him what size I was. He always thought I was gorgeous but he had to put up with a lot when I was overweight because I would take a lot of my frustration at not being able to enjoy life out on him.
"I think he would find that his life has improved greatly, now -- probably because my personality had improved. I am not the demon I used to be. I am actually full of fun," she said.
Margaret knows that such extreme measures for losing weight are not for everyone, nor does she want people to think that having a gastric bypass is a 'quick fix' solution.
"I had reached a stage of being overweight where my health was at serious risk. I firmly believe this procedure has saved my life.
"It's a tool for improving your eating habits, for reducing quantities, but you still have to confront your demons. It is a massive life-changing thing, in a good way. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner."