Irish woman Ciara Connelly (28) sheds six stone: 'I was smoking 20 fags a day, I was partying as much as I could'
As a child, Ciara Connelly was very aware she was overweight. She continued to gain weight throughout her teens and in college, her unhealthy lifestyle led to anxiety and panic attacks. Now aged 28, she talks about her six-stone weight loss journey, and why she's not finished yet ...
Ciara Connelly (28) from Kildare can't remember a time in her life when she was not overweight.
Three years ago, however, she made the decision to take control of her life and her health, through healthy eating, exercise and determination.
"I have been twice the size of a normal person for pretty much as long as I can remember," Ciara explains. "As a kid, I just ate and ate. I think it has a lot to do with how I grew up. My parents separated finally when I was about 10. I think that is how I coped with it. I just ate a lot of bad stuff.
"It never really dawned on me what I was doing and how I used food as a coping mechanism," Ciara smiles.
Despite the fact that Ciara had grown accustomed to being much bigger than most of her friends in her teenage years, she admits that photos would often shock her.
"I would look and think, 'oh my God, I didn't think I was that big!'" Ciara laughs. "I would go to the doctor and they'd tell me I was pretty much on a smooth path to diabetes, cancer, heart disease and all of this stuff. I would think 'God, I really need to sort this out now,' but I would keep putting it off."
By the time Ciara moved away from home to attend college in Galway, her unhealthy habits had now extended to a point where she was also drinking and smoking very heavily.
"I was smoking 20 fags a day, I was partying as much as I could and I was just mad into the party lifestyle," Ciara grins a little cautiously.
"I used to think that that was what I had to do to fit in and I never felt right when I was doing it. I was always waking up the next day thinking 'did I do that? Did I have that conversation?' Horrible thoughts. I was riddled with the fear and I just didn't like who I was."
A year-and-a-half into this lifestyle, Ciara began to suffer with panic attacks.
"That's when I thought 'I can't keep doing this; I have to take control of my health,'" she says.
Ciara started by giving up smoking and a couple of months later she stopped drinking alcohol. Her food addiction was next on her list.
"When you quit drinking and smoking you need something to fall back on and I fell back on food again; not that I had ever stopped but the cravings were there even more. So a few months into that I joined Weight Watchers and lost maybe three or four stone," Ciara explains.
But it was not all plain sailing. Throughout her final year in college Ciara's weight loss came to a standstill and she even began to creep back up on the scales.
"I started gyming it, but I was kind of on a plateau. I joined Slimming World in September last year and that was grand, I lost another couple of stone and again I hit a plateau," Ciara says.
Last November, determined to keep her transformation on track, Ciara, who works as an English Language teacher, joined what she calls a 'big boy gym' in the form of Ultimate Fitness in Dublin's Inchicore.
"There are no women, who are really intimidating bouncing on treadmills and checking their hair and make-up," Ciara beams. "It's just a big sweaty lad gym, where they all lift weights and shout. It's a lovely place.
"I was always so anxious going to other gyms," Ciara adds. "I've been to some where there have been these gorgeous girls wearing just their bras and knickers and they are sweating like hell, but still look like models. I can't work out beside that.
"In this gym I don't care, there are no mirrors in your face all the time or people chatting each other up; everyone is there for the same reason and everyone is fully clothed!" Ciara laughs.
Ciara's weight issues began very early in life.
"I have always been aware of it," she tells me.
"My parents have said it to me over the years and they tried so hard to say it nicely, but there is no nice way of saying 'sweetheart you are fat' or 'Ciara you need to sort this out.'
"There was nothing they could really do about it; you have to take control of it yourself. It's not their fault; they did their best and this just happens to be my cross to bear.
"Everyone would always say 'Oh Ciara you have got such a pretty little face!' and then that's it. And I would think 'is the rest of me not nice?' I had no facial features as a kid. I was a just one big moon face, but I think I am getting some facial features now".
In fact, Ciara's transformation has been so dramatic that she did not recognise herself in a photograph taken of the crowds watching the St. Patrick's Day parade near her home this year, until her father pointed her out.
"I was absolutely stunned. I blended in and I couldn't believe it. I couldn't even tell you how happy I was. It was the first time I saw a picture of myself where I didn't feel like a monster," Ciara admits.
At her heaviest Ciara weighed in at approximately 19 stone 4lbs. She is now 13 stone 8lbs.
"I still have another three stone to go ideally, but I know myself that it's going to be about two-and-a-half stone of fat and the rest is going to be excess skin sadly, and there is nothing really I can do about that because I am doing it slowly and I am doing the weights. So if it is there, it's there," Ciara explains.
"I think this is an issue many people who lose a substantial amount of weight encounter. You spend all this time training and eating well to obtain a healthier body and mind, yet as you reach the end of your weight-loss journey you're left with this awful-looking skin. There's nothing you can do about it.
"Well that's a lie... in Ireland there's plenty you can do if you have €8,000 to have it surgically removed, but the majority of people can't afford that, me included, and a medical card doesn't cover it either," Ciara smiles.
"So there is this bittersweet side to losing weight; if you stay fat, you remain unhealthy, but you fit into your skin; if you lose weight, you're much healthier physically, but left with the torment of wearing an XXL skin suit that at the end of the day feels more like a prison.
"That might seem like a very superficial dilemma, but it's a very real problem for people who work so hard to achieve and deserve the body they want only to discover this approaching the finish line," Ciara adds.
Ciara's fitness regime includes three gym sessions a week with a mixture of weights and cardio training. She also walks two days a week and "eats cleanly" and "consciously".
"I wouldn't say I follow any particular diet and I don't subscribe to any diet plan," she explains. "Realistically you can eat healthily and lose weight. All you have to do is make sure that you are eating 1,500 healthy calories a day and doing a bit of exercise. All of the extreme stuff doesn't last. It is not consistent and it's not good for a healthy weight loss - I have tried them all."
In October 2014, a little over two years into her journey, Ciara began writing what she describes with a grin as her "fat blog". Ciara has used her blog as both a creative outlet and a motivational tool, while documenting her transformation "from being a fat worrier into a fit warrior."
"I am riddled with self-doubt; I think most people are, but self-doubt is the number one killer of creativity, so that's why I started the blog. I decided that I needed to turn that negative into a positive," Ciara explains.
"I would like to build an army of warriors, male and female. I invite anyone who wants to lose weight and build their confidence to contact me and subscribe to the blog. I would love to organise events for warriors where we all go climb a mountain together or do some activity together, where we all encourage each other and leave our worries at home."
So what is Ciara's end goal? Well, health and confidence primarily, but maybe a little victory lap in the nip to top it all off.
"I lived in Spain for a while and there were auld ones on the beach butt naked and I just thought 'these women are amazing! I wish I could do something like that,'" Ciara grins.
"I hope that however long it takes me and I don't know how long that will be; I hope I do get to a level where I can just strip naked on a beach when no one is there and run into the sea.
"I want to get to a level where I can climb a mountain and not worry about having a heart attack at the top," Ciara laughs. "I want to go on adventures and that's what I see a warrior as being - a warrior sees an obstacle and conquers it.
"It's all about learning to be confident in who you are. I am realising that as I build physical strength in the gym, emotional strength is coming with that."
Photo: Peter Harkin.
Hair & make-up: Sharon D
Ciara's top 15 weight-loss tips
1) There is no such thing as a quick fix. Trust me. I've tried everything to try shed 8st. When they say healthy eating and exercise works, they're not telling you porkie pies. It took me 15 years to realise that.
2) You don't HAVE to subscribe to anyone's diet plan to become a warrior. You don't need to eat what Weight Watchers or your personal trainer tells you to. It's ok to take their advice, but once you're eating 1,500 healthy calories a day and doing a bit of exercise, the weight will go.
3) Don't let ANYONE make you feel like a failure or make you think that you're not enough. Your weight-loss journey is YOUR journey, nobody else's. So what if you had a bad week? So what if you're not losing weight quick enough? You're human. Just get it together and hop back up onto that fat-fighting horse. It's ok to mess up. It's normal to mess up. I mess up all the time. The important thing is that you don't quit.
4) Don't, and I can't stress this enough, DON'T deprive yourself of the things you love. Deprivation leads to binge-eating, which leads to guilt, which leads to completely falling off the wagon. I've been there and done it, and ate the wagon on top of it all. I train and eat well all week because I know at the weekend I'm going to have my precious Tayto and chocolate. I have a cheat meal because it keeps me on track.
5) The slower you lose weight the better. You see these weight-loss journeys of people that lose 10st in a year. I couldn't do that. I was in college for eight years. I had a job. I couldn't focus on trying to lose all my weight in a short period of time. I'm in this game over three years now and I still have a little over 2.5st left to go. So take your time, you're not in any hurry, and your bones will appreciate it too.
6) Stay away from people that like to use the word 'can't'.
7) Make small changes. Take your time to build good habits. The smaller the change, the longer you're going to stick with it and it then becomes a part of your everyday life.
8) Don't put your life on hold because you're overweight. I've done it myself. Get up, get out there and do the things you love. If you're eating well and exercising the weight is going to go.
9) Help is ALWAYS there if you look for it. You will always find a friend who will go for a walk with you, try a spin class with you, or even just cook a healthy meal with you. Never feel alone or isolated.
10) Read blogs, even if mine isn't the one for you there are millions more out there. When you find the right one that makes an impact on you, it can be far more beneficial than a gym.
11) Training your mind is just as important as training your body. We are what we think.
12) With physical strength comes emotional strength. I didn't believe this until I started to do weight training.
13) Just because I chose to give up the party lifestyle at 23 doesn't mean that I'm 'the anti-craic.' It took me a VERY long time to realise this. Turns out I'm good fun and always up for an adventure.
14) Always listen to your body. This is VITAL. If you're in pain, stop doing what you are doing. If you don't feel well, get it checked out. This is your body's way of communicating with you. You have to listen to it.
15) Become friends with your body. It loves you. Every day it works hard to keep you alive, to keep you breathing, to fight infection, to mend broken bones. I hated my body for years and it's only recently I'm starting to come to terms with all of this. You have to try and love your body and take care of it the way it takes care of you.
Health & Living