Entertainment Books

Sunday 15 December 2019

All work, no play? I wrote the book...

Aoife McElwain weathered burnout, anxiety - and the worst boss ever. Now her new book is about life balance

Aoife McElwain, writer and stylist, with Daffodil. Photo: Tony Gavin
Aoife McElwain, writer and stylist, with Daffodil. Photo: Tony Gavin

Sophie White

Aoife McElwain is the most productive self-professed procrastinator I have ever met. She is a food columnist, runs the popular club night the Sing Along Social, curates festivals and runs workshops. However, her hectic work life eventually led to serious mental and physical health problems. So like any good over-achiever, she turned a period of extreme burn-out into creative output.

"When I tell people about my book Slow At Work, they say 'woah, I need that book in my life.' And I say "Me too, that's why I wrote it!" McElwain's career has been varied to say the least. She's been a teacher, a food stylist, a project manager and a radio broadcaster. It's a career that reflects McElwain's personality.

The second daughter of intrepid parents, her childhood spent dividing her time between her native Monaghan and Saudi Arabia surely inspired her broad interests.

"My parents are adventurous and really hard workers. They took a two-year career break when I was three but actually ended up staying for 20 years," Aoife laughs. "I was in an American school in SA, and we lived on a big compound with kids from all over the world."

McElwain returned to Ireland every summer to stay with her grandmother in Monaghan. "I think that's where my connection to food started," explains McElwain, who started a food blog in her 20s which ultimately led to food styling and newspaper columns. "I always associated food with my Granny."

She finished her schooling as a boarder in Alexandra College and after studying media and broadcasting in England, the high-achieving McElwain embarked on a career in radio which proved difficult. "I felt like a massive failure. It was a thing I'd always wanted to do. I had interviews and it was beyond devastating when I didn't get the jobs." McElwain says now that she battles a lot with her inner critic, hilariously personified in Slow At Work as her ''Aunt Linda''.

In her early 20s, she moved back to Dublin and taught English. While the radio career didn't fully pan out, McElwain did have a late-night indie music radio show which led her to her future husband, acclaimed music blogger, Niall Byrne aka Nialler9.

"I was at a gig and talking to this guy. He said 'you're really familiar, do you have a radio show? I recognise your voice'. It was cute because I didn't really have a huge listenership. We had a short MySpace courtship! And we've basically been side-by-side ever since." The couple married in 2014 after McElwain proposed.

"A friend said 'oh it's leap year, you could do it!' She was joking but I thought 'that's exactly what I'm going to do'. So I took his mother out for dinner to ask her permission. I brought him to the Iveagh Gardens and found a secluded tree and got down on one knee and asked him to marry me. I can still see his face when I close my eyes - it was exactly the face I wanted to see. He thought it was really funny but he also knew that I was serious."

Byrne encouraged her to begin her food blog I Can Has Cook? in 2009 which McElwain used as a kind of online diary of learning to cook. The blog was a huge success and eventually led McElwain to diversify her work interests. Blogging led to writing for national publications, running events and exploring more and more creative avenues. At the time, she held a full-time job as a project manager before taking the leap into freelancing full time in 2015.

After juggling so much for so long, McElwain was optimistic about her new plans. "I was going to work for myself and everything would be different... And that's when I realised that I was the worst boss that I've ever had. Wow, I just didn't give a shit about myself!"

In the following months, McElwain was struggling to cope with the pressure she was piling on herself. "I was really burnt out, really anxious and depressed. I felt like a failure at everything I was doing." The stress eventually saw McElwain literally flattened with a severe back injury and with that came a realisation that she needed to find a new way to live.

Only McElwain would opt to treat burnout with more work but there's method to her particular brand of madness. From this period of turmoil came the Slow Series, events curated by McElwain to explore living more mindfully, be it through our work or play. McElwain also began the research for what would eventually become her first book.

For Slow At Work, she interviews everyone from a Buddhist monk to comedian Blindboy Boatclub, to a man who doesn't use money and practically every breed of psychologist around. It sounds dense but McElwain's enthusiastic curiosity is infectious.

The introduction ''Banana-Level Busyness'' essentially asks the question "Why are we living this way?" and the rest of the book seeks a holistic solution to this problem of living in an "always on world" covering things like food, energy, money and even the all-important craic.

McElwain is a great believer in re-examining our use of technology.

"We have this amazing technology in our pockets but it controls us rather than the other way around or we feel like it's controlling us." McElwain puts her phone on airplane mode in her bedroom to keep the assault of notifications ("pings of anxiety") at bay while resting.

If all this sounds a bit prescriptive, McElwain is quick to point out that it's a work in progress, even during work on the book she was still struggling with self-doubt and berating herself over perceived failure. She is candid about her journey with anti-depressants and her decision to give up alcohol four years ago.

"I call myself a recovering Irish person!" she writes. "I started getting really bad hangovers when I turned 30. I'd always kind of worried that I was a bit too dependent on alcohol... I would've had wine every night and I'd often have a bottle maybe going into the second bottle on a random Tuesday night. Back then I'd think 'some of my friends are drinking this way, I think it's fine?... But I'm the one getting sick in the morning, I feel f*cking terrible. My anxiety is out of control so whatever everybody else is doing, I need to not do this.'"

"I'm pretty determined when I want to do something. I saw an addiction counsellor for three sessions and then kind of did it on my own for a bit but I knew I needed a therapist to help me process it."

"The challenging thing about not drinking is that you have no escape from who you are. If you're not happy, that's really difficult. So I needed to figure out a way of accepting myself and therapy has really helped."

While therapy has obviously helped McElwain, her book is the therapy we all need and should be prescribed to everyone battling that constant feeling of barely holding it all together. And if that sounds a bit notionsy, as McElwain writes, "get some notions about yourself, for feck's sake!" We all deserve to slow down.

'Slow At Work' by Aoife McElwain is published by Gill, €12.99

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