Tuesday 23 January 2018

Model Alison Canavan on finding out she was pregnant after a difficult break-up- 'I had to look after myself for the first time in my life'

She's one of Ireland's most feted models. Alison Canavan talks about beating depression and anxiety, the struggle of being a single mum, not being able to find a man, her new book, and why she's never been happier

Time for me: Alison Canavan, with her son James, has gone through five years of painful self-discovery, but she says she is now in a much happier place in life. Photo: David Conachy
Time for me: Alison Canavan, with her son James, has gone through five years of painful self-discovery, but she says she is now in a much happier place in life. Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Alison Canavan started modelling when she was 15.

By the time she was 17, she was modelling in Paris, Milan and London. By her 23rd birthday, she was working for Ford Models in New York, living in a penthouse on Central Park West, and was in a stormy seven-year relationship with an American businessman. "We broke up just after Christmas," she says,  "six years ago."

Alison came home to Castleknock and her family "to heal my heart". It was only meant to be a short stay in Dublin. All these years later, Alison is still here. What kept her here was perhaps the intricate nature of the situation: in short, when Alison arrived in Dublin from New York in Christmas, 2010, she was unaware that she carrying her ex's child on the Aer Lingus plane home.

Alison has dedicated her new book, Minding Mum: It's Time To Take Care Of You, "to an angel that was sent to me. His name is James Joseph Canavan. He was born on 16 September 2010 in The Coombe Hospital in Dublin and he saved my life."

To the outsider, Alison didn't at times seem very good at minding herself. . .

Alison says she doesn't want to talk about her ex. She will say, however, that they sadly split up in January, 2010, for "the reasons everyone breaks up for. It just wasn't working. I was pretty heart-broken."

Model Alison Canavan with her son James in 2012
Model Alison Canavan with her son James in 2012
Model Alison Canavan with her son James in 2012

"I didn't know I was pregnant," she adds. "I wasn't feeling well. My mum just said to me, 'I want you home.' Because I was so upset. So I went to my own doctor here, who has been my doctor my whole life - he is actually Leo Varadkar's dad."

When Alison discovered she was pregnant, she was "absolutely terrified. My first thought was just complete and utter shock."

Because it was unplanned?

"I was on the Pill. And we were being careful and doing all the things. You know what?" she says in a slightly American twang. "This is a journey for me when all my preconceived ideas and notions and judgements, I suppose, about someone getting pregnant, went out a Manhattan penthouse window." Alison explains that before, she might have thought, unfairly, of a woman who had an unplanned pregnancy - "How does that happen? Is she not smart enough?"

For Alison, finding out she was pregnant was the start of a hard process of learning, understanding and self-acceptance.

"My family were very supportive," Alison, who was born March 7, 1978, in the Rotunda, says referring to her four sisters, Jennifer, Laura, Grace, and Kate, and their mother Margaret. "So I decided I was staying in Dublin. Going back to New York city was not an option."

Alison Canavan with son James at Dublin Zoo in 2012
Alison Canavan with son James at Dublin Zoo in 2012

Was there ever an option to get back with her ex following the birth of the child?

"No. No. Absolutely not. For loads of reasons. We broke up for the right reasons. It was something that we had tried to work on over the years. It wasn't working. And babies don't fix those things. In fact, babies can make those things worse. So I had to look after myself for the first time in my life."

Alison says she spent her pregnancy focussing on being healthy and being positive through meditation and suchlike. "I didn't want my negative energy or anything I was going through to be passed on to the baby. That, of course, comes at a price. . ."

What was the price?

"I suffered very bad post-natal depression and my world fell apart. You push things down."

"When you have children," she continues, "we are solely focussed on the children. It is baby, baby, baby. And I think that has come at a cost. I think we need to focus on mums. It makes sense to me that if we focus on mum being healthy and happy, then the baby will automatically be healthy and happy. So my main feelings were of being absolutely terrified," Alison says going back to the time of being pregnant and single.

"I was completely uncertain about my future. I was going, 'How did this happen to me?'"

One of Ireland's most feted models used this time - however frightening - productively: she reflected on her life and her dreams. At that stage in her life, she felt, "I was supposed to be married with 2.4 children, living this really happy life."

Alison had always expected to be married and to be in a stable relationship to bring up children. She blamed herself for being in a turbulent relationship with her ex. She believes now that "in the last year and a half, probably, I have really started to heal. I am in a completely different place now."

I say to Alison that I'm shocked that it is only in the last year or so that she has reached a happier place in her life. So, she went through five years of pain prior to this?

"Five years of painful discovery. But different stages of painful discovery. I think that journey, though, has been happening throughout my life."

"I was in an industry," she says, meaning modelling, "where I was constantly looking for happiness - like most of us are in our lives. I was in an industry where I thought happiness was in the big job in the next big city," she says. "And every time I did get a big gig in New York, it was kind of like you got a glimpse into this world of happiness. Or so I thought.

"Then if I wasn't happy in New York, I went down to Miami for a month or over to LA. I just kind of kept hopping from place to another. I kept trying to find this elusive happiness that just kept slipping through my fingers."

Alison believes her job gave her "the ability to run away from my problems. I didn't have to deal with problems. I think I started suffering from depression and had anxiety issues [from an early age.]

"A lot of people have said to me, 'Do you think modelling and partying caused your problems?' No, modelling and partying gave me the ability to deal with my problems and run away from them. Not the other way around."

Was it almost like as one of Ireland's top models - with an international career and lifestyle to match - she somehow expected to have the perfect life?

"I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect life," she says. "I thought we all expect, though, what we have been taught equals happiness: the money, the house, the partner.

"In the Western world, we're taught that what's outside of ourselves is what brings us happiness: as soon as you achieve your college degree, you meet the person you love etc and you do all these things that are eventually going to make you happy," she says - "instead of teaching our children about self-love and accepting yourself and being content with yourself."

In Minding Mum, Alison writes that she imagined that her "wedding would be big, but not ridiculous. We would have an old country-style house as well as our apartment in NYC, as that's where I lived. We would have the best of both worlds. But sometimes life has a different plan, and now I am writing this book in a park in Dublin instead of Central Park in New York."

Mystifyingly, Alison can get the big book deal, but cannot find a man. Nor does she have great expectations in the future boyfriend/husband department. "Just someone who is kind to me and whom I can have fun with. Someone who accepts me for who I am."

And who is that?

"I'm not the model. I'd like someone to give me the chance to get to know me and not sit down in front of me with a preconceived idea of 'She's a model and she's this and that' and have it in their head already what they think I am. That's kind of what's happened with the couple of men [she's been on dates with.]

"I thought I had a lovely date with a guy I knew from New York late last summer. It went really well and we had a great laugh. Then I got a text message the next day saying something along the lines of, 'Oh, I'd say you expect me to take you here, there and everywhere?'"

You don't mention marriage on dates, do you? I joke.

"No I don't! Nor do I say: 'Oh, and I want another kid in a couple of weeks - can you help me out!'" she laughs.

Does she wear six-inch heels on these dates?

"Yes I do. 'Don't be frightened of me! I'm okay. I don't bite!'" she says putting on a voice directed at suitors who might feel a tad like Stuart Little - the charming young mouse from the movie of that name - upon meeting the leggy six foot Amazonian Dub.

"I do not get asked out on dates. I go to balls and I never seem to meet anyone.

"I'm open to help!" she laughs. "I'm still single. What's wrong with me? I hope nothing! I just work really, really hard. My focus really has been James and work."

Is she that much of a head-wrecker that she can't get a man? I joke.

"I know! I've gone on a couple of dates with guys. The conversation has turned to - now, remember, they don't know me but they know of me - 'Oh, I imagine you're really high maintenance.'"

I ask her is she high-maintenance.

"Not. At. All."

"It couldn't be further from who I am. I am definitely not high-maintenance."

We talk instead about self-maintenance. Minding Mum, Alison says, is "basically about self-care and understanding that you still need to mind yourself after you have a baby. I aim to help mums join their dots with their own health and well-being, understanding that looking after ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally is really important. There is great practical advice on nutrition, exercise, body-image, meditation, beauty, post-natal depression and much more."

Far from bling Manhattan penthouses overlooking Central Park, Alison now lives in a cosy cottage in Castleknock with James. Up until five and a half years ago, she was still living in the family home with her mother. "That was another thing as well!" she hoots. "Imagine leaving home pretty much when you were 15 and working internationally as a model - and then being pregnant back in your bedroom."

She can remember being "in the single bed - and the room was still fucking pink! I was going: 'What happened? How did this happen?"

Whatever the reasons for how it all happened, Alison has brought up little James herself. That said, the situation, perhaps typically, leaves Alison with nothing but positive and philosophical thoughts. "What I have learned as a parent is that we have got to teach our children to understand what the word 'family' means. I think the word 'family 'has changed in so many ways. I think people who might perceive themselves to have the perfect family with 2.4 kids. They have no idea about tomorrow. They could separate.

"They could lose their partner," says Alison who lost her father when she was 21. Tom died of cancer on May 18, 1999 in the Blackrock Clinic. "My Dad was the person who could fix anything," she says. "No matter where I was in the world he could save me almost like a superhero. When I lost him I lost that security and I don't think it gets easier. I think you just learn to adapt to those you love not being here anymore. There's a level of acceptance and growth as time goes by and you start to understand loss and grief but it can be painfully slow. Grief is a very individual journey and we all deal with it differently. Sometimes a song, a smell or a person can bring me right back to a time and a memory with dad but it can also bring me back to that place of pain."

Does Alison think her father's death when she was still relatively young played a factor subconsciously in her future pain?

"Everything in our life shapes us."

Did she properly grieve her father's death?

"No. I ran away. I did what I was really good at - I just got on a plane and I left. I probably drank through it, because I could. I don't drink any more."

I ask her did she have a drink problem. "I wouldn't say I had a drink problem" is her answer.

"I would say I used alcohol as a form of escapism, absolutely. I used it to escape. Partying was great fun and I was very good at it, and I was the life and soul of the party. I used it to help me numb my problems." What required numbing she believes was her depression and her anxiety. She never dealt with either issue because "nobody ever told me I had depression or anxiety. I always felt I was ungrateful." In hindsight, the signs that she was suffering from depression and anxiety were - "unexplainable lows. Feeling low all the time. I felt like I was in a bad mood all the time." The high priestess of Castleknock Zen, looking back, believes that the reason she was drawn to such a tempestuous relationship with the father of her child arguably was "because I was trying to fill a void within myself. When we are hurt, we tend to hurt ourselves. I was with him, on and off, for seven years. We broke up a few times because of the reason that we broke up finally in the end," she smiles.

But there was good in the relationship too?

"Of course, there was. There were great times. Really great times. We travelled together. We had great fun together. There were really, really happy times."

Alison is very much a je-ne-regrette-rien kind of woman. "I don't believe in regrets. I am very grateful for all the things, bad and good, I've been through in the past few years. And as such," she smiles, "I've never been happier."

'Minding Mum: It's Time To Take Care Of You' is out now on Gill Books, price €16.99.

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