New Year motivation: How Áine O'Connor lost 50lbs by making a commitment to be happy
This time last year, Áine O'Connor was overweight and dispirited. But a shift in thinking led to a spiritual and physical overhaul, and the loss of 50lbs. This is her story.
Unsolicited advice, no matter how well-intentioned, can be incredibly annoying. Most likely when there is a problem in your life you already know what you should do. It's not the knowing that is the issue, it's something else - something harder to define and all but impossible to act on that gets in the way of a resolution.
And while there can be many reasons for a problem - good reasons, valid ones - the real block to resolution is something that lurks within yourself. So this is not advice, it's a story. Take from it what you will.
I was so used to the concept of self-loathing that I had grown immune to it. I had said it out loud plenty of times, and I'd written it, so, when a friend asked last summer what had motivated me to make changes in my life, I said it again. Some time passed. I wittered on with the rest of the story until my friend stopped me. "Self-loathing? That's a really strong word, you can't mean that?" she said. But I did.
Prone though I might be to a bit of hyperbole, 'self-loathing' was exactly what I meant. It was so familiar, so long-term, so intrinsic to how I felt about myself that it almost didn't feel strong enough. I woke every morning, spent every day and fell asleep every night for years loathing my body and the part of me that did nothing about it. For me, it was weight - but a demon can be anything you wish to change but cannot: drink, drugs, unhealthy relationships, self-sabotage, anything that keeps you feeling bad.
You will either understand self-loathing, or you won't. I don't think there is a half-way. My friend has no experience of it and was shocked, upset even, by my casual reference to it. The shock gave me real pause for thought, and so began another step on a journey that had been long overdue.
By the end of January 2015, I was sick of myself. And sick of being sick of myself. I had been some variation of overweight for most of my adult life, the queen of yo-yo dieting. I've been really fat and pretty thin, and must have lost and gained 30 stone in the last two decades. There was a clear pattern, however, that when I did notice I was losing weight, I would sabotage it. Every. Single. Time.
I looked for solutions, and I found them. I looked for excuses, and I found them. Every time I lost weight I would put a little more back on. It was not so much yo-yo as stepping stones, steps upwards, so that by about 2012 I was proper fat again.
Over these years I had been struggling quite badly with depression and anxiety. I was on and off medication, trying lots of different techniques, therapies and solutions - trying and failing, succeeding and sabotaging. As for many people, financially things got really tough for a while. No matter what I tried I couldn't seem to make a worthwhile contribution to family finances. The anxiety attached to this was enormous, and it was not a healthy combination of events and feelings.
It spiralled. The self-loathing was insidious, constant, soul-destroying. Even bad feelings offer a weird comfort, because they are familiar. But basically, because you can't fix the thing that bothers you most - the thing that is in your sole power to fix - on a very core level you feel like a failure. And that colours everything else that you do and feel. I was feeding the self-loathing when I fed myself, and it was very keen on chocolate - even though all of the attempts at weight loss meant I knew more about nutrition, calorie content and calorie burn than the average dietician.
For all the joys that family life can bring, I wouldn't be the first or only mother to feel that she comes last in the pecking order. For all the joys that family life can bring, a lot of it is just plain tedious.
Sometimes I thought if I had to think up one more nutritious, tasty dinner, if I had to wander the supermarket, if I had to harangue about homework or washing the tea drips off those fecking cupboards one more time that I might spontaneously combust. I hardly ever went out socially - totally my own doing - and I had no sense of direction for my life. I was on auto-pilot, and the voice on the satnav was really nasty. That voice was my own. It was somewhat of a shock to realise that no one has ever been quite as mean to me as I have.
So, by the end of January 2015, I was 46, fatter than I had been for years and I was sick of myself. I had been practising mindfulness for some time and perhaps the cumulative effect was to shake some sense into me. For the love of whoever-takes-your-fancy, woman, get off your knees and sort yourself out! There was no official start date, it just started.
Even when fat I was reasonably active, so I upped my exercise game and radically reduced my food intake. I had a black front tooth that had been driving me mad for years, and had done nothing about it. Partially finances, for sure, but partially 'mammy martyrdom'. In flash photographs it looked like I was missing a tooth. With that and the fatness - and the miserable, humpy head on me - how gorgeous. So I got the tooth fixed.
I realised that I hated my hair, so I got my fringe cut back and felt like myself again. I did a course, I made new friends, I re-purposed old ones, I started going out - a lot. I went dancing, I went on little trips, I got back a sense of myself. I stopped making daily dinner. I got very lax about the shopping. Let the tea drip down those cupboards - no one else cares, why should I? The world did not end.
There were a few baffled heads, alright. "You're going out again?" they wondered, but they adapted. It wasn't them after all who'd put this 'Baby in a corner', it was Baby herself. Selfish? Probably. Feel-good? Absolutely. And my appetite shrank rapidly. It was as if my body said: "Ok, now you're talking, let's do this."
If you believe in the Universe rowing in when you put out the right message, the Universe rowed in. In March, probably a little over a stone down on January, I was offered the chance, for a series of articles for this paper, to do a course of hypnotherapy for weight loss with the Goldin Clinic. It was at exactly the point at which I would have normally sabotaged myself, so the timing was perfect.
The course - therapy once a week for eight weeks, different CDs twice a day, every day - worked along basic principles, but was tailored to what came up for each person. What came up for me was that once the self-loathing had stopped - and it did - I was left with incredible anxiety. I was back to having panic attacks at night, waking at 5am in sheer horror. I sometimes couldn't talk I was so anxious, so my therapist, Mary, had to tailor the hypnosis for that as well. The mind is an amazing beast and, on some level, perhaps mine had decided that self-loathing was preferable to the worst kind of anxiety. I truly don't know, but with the hypnosis it subsided - though it will be a longer-term project. But, through it all, I never felt the urge to return to overeating.
I'd had aversion therapy for sugar and had been trained to eat whatever I wanted, but only if I was hungry and never beyond a certain fullness. I had no problem keeping up a fairly busy exercise program - the exercise really helps with the anxiety too, so it's simply vital.
From February to the end of July, I lost 50lbs. I only know that because I had to weigh myself for the articles, I didn't really care that much about the actual numbers. I didn't count calories either, I ate when I was hungry, and as little as possible, because something intrinsic had changed.
Once I had shifted how I saw inside myself the body was keen to follow, and self-sabotage didn't occur to me. To me it was no accident either, that I had pretty much finished the weight loss part when I had a conversation with the only person ever to haul me up on 'self-loathing'. It underlined what I had failed to see, that it is a shocking and abnormal feeling, an alarm bell that something has to give and that you deserve better.
I'm a size 12 - not thin, normal - and where my body seems to be saying 'enough'. It's not like I have a future as a bikini model. I'm under no illusion that, with my history of yo-yo dieting, I have to watch it. I'm capable of putting on 60lbs before next July. But I really feel like so much has changed. My body is different, but my head - and my heart - are whole new worlds to me.