One of our biggest challenges over the past six months has been remaining positive and motivated, as we deal with a swathe of fears, losses, uncertainties and challenges. Our collective mental health has taken a battering, and many of us have gained that Covid stone or slipped into bad habits.
These three women have made a really positive change over the past six months, despite losing beloved family members or jobs or both. They share how the changes have positively impacted their mental and physical health.
Suzanne Fitzgerald — Took up hiking
Suzanne Fitzgerald turned to hiking to help her deal with a traumatic double blow. She lost her beloved dad Noel (76) to Covid-19 in April, and learned the day before his funeral that Debenhams was closing down and her job of 23 years was gone.
Noel’s death was all the more shocking as he was still working full-time as a butcher in P&A Homan in Walkinstown, a job he had loved for over 60 years. Losing him was a devastating blow to Suzanne and her mum Rita, siblings Declan, Louise and Stephanie and their families.
To make matters worse, the family were only allowed in to see Noel for 15 minutes two days before he passed away, and only 10 people could attend his funeral.
The shock left Suzanne reeling, made worse by not having a job to take her mind off things. “I was feeling very down and uninterested in everything for the first few weeks,” she says. “Then I said, ‘Right Suzanne, you can either sink or swim here.’ I knew what Dad would have wanted for me, so I decided to start thinking positively.”
With so much time on her hands, Suzanne decided to go out with friends who were hikers, and found, to her surprise, that being up in the mountains helped her to feel better. She puts this down to having to focus her attention on the physical act of climbing up and down hills.
“I just had a normal fitness level beforehand,” she recalls, “but because I was in an emotional state, it kind of got me up there. As I got fitter, I wanted to do longer and more challenging hikes, because I felt the higher up I went, the closer I was to Dad. I miss him so much because he was such a great dad and so much fun. He lived for his family and loved to see us all happy.”
Being up in the mountains distracted Suzanne, as she could enjoy the scenery as well as the chat and laughter with her pals. “The girls were fantastic,” she says. “They were so positive and gave me great advice as we walked, which really helped. In the early days, I’d hate coming down the mountain because I wanted to stay there. I’d put my sunglasses on and let the girls walk on and the tears would be rolling down my face.”
Suzanne is now hiking five days per week and has conquered all the peaks in Leinster. Her next challenge is Carrauntoohil in Kerry, the highest mountain in Ireland, but that will have to wait until restrictions lift. “Having a goal helps me to stay positive because it’s something to look forward to,” she says. “Hiking is definitely what has got me through the past few months.”
Anne Doyle — gave up smoking and started a law course
Actor Anne Doyle began smoking at 15, but gave it up in recent months. The 30-year-old was touring with a play in Germany in March, but was sent home to Dublin when the pandemic struck and theatres closed.
Several factors influenced her decision to quit, the primary one being health. Her dad Pat was diagnosed with cancer before Christmas and has thankfully received the all-clear, but her grandmother Anne sadly passed away from Covid.
“I realised that my health is my wealth and decided I had to stop abusing my body,” says Anne. “When I started smoking, it was glamorous and fun and wasn’t as socially unacceptable as it is now. I became totally fed up with the whole thing as my car was a mess with ash everywhere and my breath stank.”
What Anne liked about smoking was the stress-reliever of being able to take short breaks from whatever she was doing.
During lockdown, she started embracing yoga and running, and realised that these were also good coping mechanisms for her mental health. She is delighted to have quit cigarettes and is already feeling the health benefits.
Another big change in Anne’s life is that she has decided to become a barrister, and has taken the first step by embarking on the Diploma in Legal Studies at Kings Inn.
Much as she loves acting, she realises that it may be a long time before she will get to work at it full-time again. “The course is really challenging and very different, but I’m really enjoying it so far. Although if Spielberg called tomorrow, I wouldn’t say no,” she laughs.
Carole Menon Byrne — lost weight and got fit
When the pandemic struck, Carole Menon Byrne from Swords experienced a huge change to her busy lifestyle. Married to Sean with three children, stepson Adam (17), daughter Shonah (13) and son Noah (10), she was furloughed from her job with an agency providing host families for students.
Carole had joined gyms and slimming clubs over the years to lose weight, but nothing had ever clicked with her.
“I was really depressed about the whole thing, but I lacked the motivation to change and was stuck in a vicious cycle,” she says. “I felt absolutely terrible, because I love clothes and had a wardrobe full of lovely things that I couldn’t get into or looked awful on me.”
She and Shonah initially used their unexpected free time to bake and test out new recipes, but Carole and her sweet tooth realised that this wasn’t an ideal approach to take.
“When Covid began, I had never been heavier in my life, and I thought, ‘This is a disaster, because by the end of this pandemic, I won’t be able to get out the door,’” she laughs. “I realised I could spend my days in bed wallowing in self-pity and eating myself to a very unhealthy weight, or I could do something about it.”
To motivate herself to get up, Carole decided to try some morning high-intensity interval training Zoom classes run by Meredith Emily from Intelligent Fitness. To her surprise, she found that she loved them, and then became addicted.
“I never realised that doing something like this could help with mental health and make you feel so good about yourself,” she says. “I started looking after my diet as well, and cut out all the stuff I loved like bread and cheese, and because it was summer, I did salads and healthy veg instead.”
Carole has now lost 20lbs, and says that while she still has 10lbs to go to reach her ideal weight, she’s delighted to feel so fit and healthy.
“It has changed my life,” she says. “Having so much spare time was the key — I just had to fill it up with good stuff!”