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‘A heavy body to match my heavy heart’ – Niamh Fitzpatrick reveals how marriage breakdown and her sister’s death impacted her physical and mental health

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In March 2020, coronavirus came into our midst, changing life as we knew it, bringing in its wake a whole new existence. Threaded through this new life are overwhelming feelings of anxiety as we grapple with very real concerns about our health and that of our loved ones, alongside concerns about our incomes and livelihoods. We are rocked to the core and it has been a relentless rollercoaster of emotions over these past seven months. At the start, we experienced shock, fear, terror. Then we adapted and adjusted how we live, after which we felt a sense of relief and comfort that we had flattened that first curve.

ow, as the dark days of winter come nearer and we watch Covid numbers rise, anxiety begins to dial up the volume and shout more loudly. These are hard times. Uncertainty abounds. We are pushed to the pin of our collar on all levels. Anxiety and fear are wholly normal at this time: our bodily system waking us up, ensuring that we’re alert and aware of the threats facing us, galvanising us to act and protect ourselves.

Sometimes, however, because they are so overwhelming, we seek to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, wanting to get away from those uncomfortable feelings: the knot in the stomach, the quickness of breath, the racing thoughts, the sensations of dread. If you soothe anxiety with food or if you have stopped your usual exercise routine because of anxiety, I’d like you to think about being kind to yourself right now. Because self-criticism often comes hand in hand with those self-sabotaging behaviours when we do the opposite of what we know is good for us. But compassion and kindness will get you places that criticism never will; they are your best armour now.

Life as I knew it ended in March 2017, with the sudden death of my sister Dara and the end of my marriage, and in the three years since then, the pain of grief nearly broke me. In time, however, we do learn to live with loss, and I can say now that I’m doing well, I’ve found that balance between remembering and living, and hope has a place in my heart again. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that while we navigate those early days, weeks, months and years after loss, we can lose ourselves a bit along the way.

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Niamh's late sister, Dara Niamh's late sister, Dara

Niamh’s late sister, Dara

Niamh’s late sister, Dara

The cumulative loss and distress in my life was immense. I struggled continually for an awfully long time. Mentally, emotionally, physically, practically. Loss and grief impacted and imprinted on every level and no part of my life went untouched. Each time I felt I might possibly be coming to terms with the loss in my life, grief barged in to show me who’s boss, bringing me to my knees once again.

As a psychologist, I knew that such struggle was both normal and understandable in the circumstances, but it was still a challenging time.

I worked hard to accept, adapt and adjust to this new life. A life that I hadn’t asked for and I certainly didn’t want. A life without Dara. A life where I was no longer a wife. A life where I wasn’t a mother, yet I was at times in a mothering role.

Physically, grief hit hard and knocked me out in every round. I began to lose my hair; I had recurring colds and flu; I developed pneumonia; I was so unwell that I was hospitalised and I spent more than a year on cycles of steroids and antibiotics as I battled infection after infection.

When someone dies, our focus is on them. And on the howling, raging pain of their absence from our life and their life left unlived. Then one day, we emerge from the bunker where grief holds us captive, and it feels like time to look around and assess the damage to our own life. Three years after my sister’s death, I feel as though I’m holding my own when it comes to navigating the emotional side of grief and, painful as it is, I have learned to live with her loss. But the big damage has been to my physical body: I am unfit, out of shape, unhealthy.

I have a heavy body to match my heavy heart.

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Niamh says: "We are more than how we look, more than what we weigh, more than what we achieve, even." Niamh says: "We are more than how we look, more than what we weigh, more than what we achieve, even."

Niamh says: “We are more than how we look, more than what we weigh, more than what we achieve, even.”

Niamh says: “We are more than how we look, more than what we weigh, more than what we achieve, even.”

Layers of pain

But I’m not ignorant of the factors involved in achieving a healthy body, so how could I let myself go like this? What was I thinking? And what’s wrong with me that I couldn’t do simple things such as keep my body moving and make healthy food choices throughout these past few years?

These and similar thoughts have sat at the edges of my mind for a while now; not shouting loudly, but gently whispering each time I tried again and failed again in the pursuit of a healthy body. Exercising regularly for a week, but then not for the next three; eating healthy, fresh food for a few days, then turning back to processed convenience foods that I know are not good for me.

It has taken me a long time to figure out that, actually, there’s nothing wrong with me. Not a thing. I’m not stupid. Nor lazy. Nor any of the other insults that we sometimes whisper to ourselves when we inhabit a body that is less than optimum. I’ve figured out that all those times when I have tried but haven’t been able to get back on track with minding myself physically, it’s because I just wasn’t able to hurt any further. Between losing my sister and my marriage, and the reopening of old wounds around parenthood, plus, of course, months of living in a pandemic, I’ve been at full pain capacity and I haven’t been able to ask myself to hurt any more. Grief brings layers of pain as we learn to live with loss, and I had no room left for one single bit more pain or discomfort in my life. Surviving the pain already there was as much as I could cope with.

You might wonder how I could say that it hurts to go for a walk or to choose fresh food instead of junk food? How can that be difficult? Well, going from unhealthy to healthy takes effort. It involves planning, preparation, discipline and, at times, feeling uncomfortable when we need to choose what’s good for us over what we want in the moment. But when you’re depleted, as I have been, there’s little capacity left for that planning, discipline or discomfort. A bit like the mobile phone on 2pc battery, there’s not enough left in the tank to make that last call.

Compassion & kindness

Coming to this understanding was a revelation, a lightbulb moment in the darkness of self-blame. I hadn’t been chastising myself as such; I did understand all along that I was doing well to be still standing after the significant losses of the past three years. But still, a small part of me felt relief when the penny dropped about why what felt like 738 attempts to get back exercising and making good food choices always started so well and with such good intent but, until recently, always fell away within weeks.

I consider myself to be reasonably smart and highly motivated, so it felt good to have a reason why I kept failing, a reason that made sense to me, a reason that felt right. And being honest, perhaps a reason that felt palatable. Having figured this out, I knew that I just needed to wait until I felt able to push myself again, to accept challenge and discomfort once more, to ask more of myself beyond surviving the towering waves of grief and all that came with that.

There was a sense of peace that came with that understanding, a letting-go of the pressure I put on myself to get into the zone and get fit again. I would do it; I would reclaim my body after the ravages of trauma and loss, but I would do it when I was able, and that was good enough. In amongst all that I had lost in the past three years, I had also lost myself, and there was no need for shame or blame around that: I needed only understanding, compassion, and kindness.

From me, to me.

Kindness that needs to kick into gear each time that sneaky little voice of judgement creeps into my head. When I feel the internal sigh coming on as I look in the mirror and don’t recognise the woman I see looking back at me, seeing her as being somehow ‘less than’. Which is kind of ironic if you think about it, because, having gained three dress sizes, I’m actually more than…

we are so much more than weight

Anyway, these days, I need a bucketload of kindness whenever I unwittingly move towards judging myself, because judging myself is not going to help me one bit. It will sink me. And having survived the last three years, I’ve come too far to be sunk now.

So, I make sure to be kind to and about my body. My focus is on how I feel. How I feel as a person, rather than how I feel I look. Because inside, I don’t feel pudgy or dumpy or chunky, or any of the things I sometimes see in my reflection in the mirror. I feel much more than how I look, especially having navigated such difficult times in the past three years.

I feel strong, capable, fearless. I feel loyal, compassionate and warm. I feel adventurous and brave. I feel ambitious; I feel excited about life. As human beings, we are so much more complex than any one-dimensional label that we (or others) might attach to us. We are more than how we look, more than what we weigh, more than what we achieve, even.

Being kind to myself means reminding myself of all those other feelings I hold about myself, dialling up the volume on the voice that tells the story of what I have done over my life, of who I have been as a person, of how I have lived each day, especially over the past three years. Being kind means looking past the superficial piece of not liking the bigger outline or the double chin, looking towards what my body has achieved, something that is much more important than how it looks.

Because this body has worked hard over the past three years: I have survived. Survived hearing that my sister was dead. Survived the horrifying images that invaded the crevices of my mind in those early days whenever I thought about her last moments of life. Survived the end of my marriage, the sadness for the loss of what had been a truly lovely relationship. Survived accepting that I would never be a parent. Survived by getting up and having a shower on the days when I didn’t want to get out of bed. Putting one foot in front of the other and getting through each day, each week, each month, each year.

That’s a body to be proud of, not ashamed of! Being kind to myself and having compassion for myself means escorting my mind away from the judgement and the criticism and guiding it towards appreciation and gratitude. It has been a struggle in this respect, but I’ve gotten there now, and while I have a job of work to get my body in shape in order to be as healthy as I want to be, at least I’m starting from a place of understanding and acceptance. Surely a good place to begin.

So, if you’re experiencing grief, anxiety or other emotional challenges, and you struggle with your body resulting from that, remember to be gentle with yourself. You might just be working on something else important.

Like surviving.

Tell Me the Truth About Loss: A Psychologist’s Personal Story of Loss, Grief and Finding Hope, by Niamh Fitzpatrick, is published by Gill Books

Making a start

⬤ Start by adding, not taking away. Add something to your day that will move you nearer to good health: a walk, a piece of fresh produce, drinking more water. Don’t worry yet about the behaviours you want to stop doing; begin by adding in the ones you want to start doing.

⬤ Make one change a day.

Rather than thinking that you have to overhaul your whole way of eating and moving, think of just one small change and do that consistently. It will become habit and, in time, you can add in more change, but slowly and at your own pace.

⬤ Start with what you like.

If you hate broccoli, don’t force yourself to eat it. If you hate running, don’t sign yourself up for a 10k. Begin with what you like, find healthy foods you enjoy, ways of moving that you like and start there. Slowly, with patience, trust yourself to progress when you’re ready.

⬤ Notice the benefits. Begin to see how good you feel when you care for yourself as you would for another. It may not always be easy, but it’s something you’ll be glad you did.

Irish Independent

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