How Eamonn Holmes helped Brenda Shankey through anguish of marriage break-up
After almost a year of turmoil, hairdresser Brenda Shankey talks to Karen Ireland about how her friends helped her when she feared she was having a nervous breakdown and why she's in no rush to the dating scene
Friends including television presenter Eamonn Holmes and his wife Ruth Langsford have been rallying around celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey during what she has called her "darkest days".
The Belfast businesswoman, who runs the Jason Shankey hairdressing business alongside her former husband Jason, as well as mindfulness classes, has endured more heartache in the past eight months than many people go through in a lifetime.
"I lost my husband, my home, my life as I knew it and my beloved sister and best friend Erin, all within a few months," the mum-of-two to Lauren and Will, both 14, emotionally explains.
Brenda (45) admits that she "hit a brick wall" a few weeks ago and couldn't even get out of bed. Fears of a return of the nervous breakdown she suffered four years ago were at the forefront of her mind and she was frightened, but all she wanted to do was stay in bed and hide from the world.
"I was crying all the time and missing my husband, my own home, my old life and my sister," Brenda explains.
"I cried at the loss I felt and I stayed in bed for three days. I was worried that I would start to have the anxiety and panic attacks I had four years ago when I had my nervous breakdown. Once something like that happens you, the fear of it returning stays.
"My friends were fantastic and had a rota system for visiting me and coming in and making me cups of tea and making sure I was okay.
"In the space of eight months my world had turned upside down and I felt like a scared rabbit in the headlights. I am an old-fashioned girl and believed that marriage was for ever. After the third day of crying and being in bed, I realised that what I was feeling was normal and I needed to give myself permission and space to feel the way I did.
"But I knew that hiding away was the worst thing I could do, so I started with baby steps and almost started over again.
"I started medit ating in the mornings, which over the months of turmoil I had stopped doing. I started going out walking again and I r ealised I needed to be kinder to myself.
"My expectations of myself and the way I should heal were far too high, so I allowed myself to feel the pain of loss, shock and heartbreak.
"I started to read my positivity books again and I put one foot in front of the other and just started to get through each day."
Brenda says that during this time she spent a weekend with Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford, who were, she explains, "a great support".
"My son, Will, is best friends with their son, Jack, and he goes over every August to stay with Jack while his mum and dad are working on This Morning," Brenda tells me.
"I went over for the weekend and it was great therapy. Ruth and I went for long walks with her dog, Maggie, and had long chats, which lifted my spirits. Then we would have dinner with Eamonn, which was always great fun.
"They took me to the set of This Morning and I watched it being filmed. I even got an invite into the audience for the Loose Women programme. I met all the ladies and sat in the front row for filming. It was a fantastic day and just what I needed to lift my spirits."
Back home, Brenda decided to start tackling her problems one by one and head-on and had a long heart to heart with Jason. "We talked about things and cleared the air," she explains. "We agreed that we had worked too long and too hard on the business to let our marital split get in the way of a successful company.
"We are both good businesspeople and we work well together, so we agreed to keep our personal life out of the business and also just to function as two business partners. Now we only communicate if it is about the children or work.
"Jason is a great businessman and a fantastic father, and I will always admire those qualities.
"Eventually I think that we will probably become really good friends, but it is all still very raw."
Keen to end any speculation that she is currently dating, an ever candid Brenda says: "I did dip my toe in the dating waters, but it didn't work out.
"Close friends were angry and worried about me and told me it was too soon and the wrong time, and they were right.
"If there is a next time, it will definitely be kept very private and low-key. That's the problem with social media -everyone knows too much about everyone else and then things can just get blown up out of all proportion.
"I made a mistake, but in times of crisis we don't make rational decisions. I believe our biggest mistakes are our greatest lessons and you learn something from everything."
The death of her younger sister, Erin, impacted greatly on Brenda, who spoke at length to this newspaper several months ago about her sister's struggle with alcohol addiction.
"I was overwhelmed by the response to the article," she says. "I had over 1,000 emails and messages from people who welcomed my honesty and who were all going through a similar story.
"Most people praised me for speaking out as addiction is often swept under the carpet and not discussed.
"There is still a taboo about the subject, but I promised Erin in her last few days that she wouldn't die in vain and I would share her story and hopefully help at least one person."
It seems Erin's story touched a chord with many people. Three girls that Brenda knew of checked themselves into rehab and many more opened up about their problems for the first time.
"Everyone was in agreement that more needs to be done for addiction problems in the province," adds Brenda, who has organised a ball and a fashion show in her sister's memory, with all proceeds going towards an addiction treatment centre in Derry.
Brenda admits that she has been so busy organising events and running her successful hairdressing business that she hasn't taken the time to properly grieve for her beautiful sister, who was just 32 when she died.
"I am great at giving out advice and teaching other people to be calm and reflective and to deal with their problems, but I was honestly running from mine," she says. "So much had happened in a short space of time. My 18-year marriage had come to an end and I had to move out of the home I loved and into rented accommodation. I had to get used to sharing my children and not being with them all the time and then I lost Erin, who I had battled to save for over five years.
"After her death I went at full speed to work and to help other people, but I just wasn't dealing with what was in front of me."
Now that she has recovered her drive, would she like to be in a relationship again? "Yes, eventually," Brenda replies. "Everyone wants someone to love and I come home some nights to an empty house and I think I would just love someone to have a cuddle with and to enjoy each other's company.
"But it is definitely too soon for me. I am just learning to love myself again after all the pain.
"I'm heading off to Palma this week with a few of my best girlfriends. We go there every year. It is our girly time and we just chill out and relax.
"This year I plan to rest as much as possible, so that when I come back I am on fire and ready and raring to go and take on new challenges.
"I have just started my mindfulness classes for children and I also want to write an audio book on the subject for teenagers, because research reveals that 50% of all teenagers are stressed.
"I want to use my life experiences to help others as much as possible and to show that everybody hurts at some point in their lives.
"I now know it is okay to admit when you are having a bad day. It doesn't mean you are falling apart.
"I will also be busy with the salons over the coming months with plans to expand the House of Fraser salon and add in Ireland's first braid bar, where you can just pop in and have your hair braided. We are also about to open in a prestigious hotel. So there are a busy few months ahead and I need to be in top form.
"Moving on isn't easy when there has been so much hurt, but you have to start somewhere and right now I am taking baby steps and moving forward instead of looking back."