Ring in the changes: Three women on making changes
The New Year is a time for optimism, a time when most of us make plans for achieving our hopes and dreams and improving our lives. We meet three inspirational Northern Irish women who are proof that with the right frame of mind and self-belief, it is possible to accomplish whatever it is that you set your heart on.
Everyone makes New Year's resolutions, but very few manage to keep them up beyond the first week in January.
Belfast businesswoman Brenda Shankey is, however, on a mission to change all that. She wants to help other people change their lives in 2016 and says her new audio book, Be Fabulous: Have it All, offers practical, easy-to-follow steps to doing exactly that.
The book is the result of a resolution that she made a few months ago when she was drawing up her plan for the year ahead. She had pencilled in writing a book based around mindfulness.
Married to successful male grooming guru Jason Shankey and with four salons - at House of Fraser in Victoria Square, Belfast, on the Upper Newtownards Road and the Lisburn Road, also in the city, and Holywood - and two children, Lauren (14) and Will (13), time was something Brenda was short of.
Yet a week spent abroad while working on our sister newspaper Sunday Life's Covergirl photoshoot provided the ideal opportunity to write.
"I found I was only doing the models' hair for a couple of hours a day so that left me plenty of free time and I started to work on the book," reveals Brenda.
The inspiration for Be Fabulous: Have It All was the result of a long journey of self-discovery which Brenda has been on for the past few years.
On November 17, 2012, ironically at a time when it appeared to the outside world that Brenda had it all - beautiful home, great marriage, two wonderful children, a thriving business and a great social life - her life imploded.
"I literally collapsed on the floor at a friend's house," recalls Brenda. "She said my face turned blue and then the next minute I was lying on the floor. She immediately called Jason and he rushed me to the hospital."
The ensuing medical examinations revealed that Brenda was suffering from severe exhaustion and depression. Doctors put her on a course of antidepressants and told her she needed to take some time out from her hectic life.
"At that point I was up to my eyes in work," she explains. "I was practicing for a charity version of Strictly Come Dancing, training five days a week, eating very little and always trying to look good. I was also juggling my family and my work and I never seemed to have enough time for either."
For six months Brenda was forced to essentially take a sabbatical from her own life. She stopped working in the salons and started meditation classes, which were to completely change her life.
"Looking back, I know I wasn't really depressed, as I wasn't feeling low. The truth was that I was just completely shattered trying to keep everyone happy all the time. My body was suffering from severe burnout.
"And I can see now that I did have warning signs that it was all becoming too much. I was having panic attacks and was anxious all the time. I was hiding my true feelings and covering up what was going on deep inside."
As it turned out, Brenda only stayed on medication for a month. What proved particularly helpful to her was a complete change of lifestyle and approach.
"The doctor recommended meditation classes as it was obvious I could never sit still and I always had to be doing something," she reveals. "I realised the fact that I could never switch off was abnormal and so I started to find out more about mindfulness.
"Since I left school I'd been working as a hairdresser, then I met Jason and we opened the businesses - that had been my whole professional life. I suppose I wanted to prove that I could do something outside of that so I started my Bootcamp fitness classes during the following six months and they went really well.
"Not only did I learn that I could do something else, but I also realised that actually I loved my job and I was really good at it. It was just my mindset that needed to change.
"Through the courses I was doing and all the reading around the subject that I undertook, I learned about the tools that I needed to cope with everyday life and with the stresses and strains and traumas that come along, without being so emotional and highly strung all the time.
"I learnt that thoughts determine reactions and outcomes so you need to change the way you think and your approach. There is always going to be heartache and trauma in life. Life is often going to be fast-paced too. Yet with the right approach you can cope with anything.
Brenda says that it took her a year to get her life back on track. "There was no quick fix," she says. "It was hard work at times, but little by little things did become easier and I became stronger."
And, having turned her own life around, she couldn't wait to reach out and help other people to take the same steps to transform their own lives. To start with she set up her Be Fabulous mindfulness classes.
"These classes were aimed at teaching others how to remove the stresses and strains of their life and cope with all that was going on," explains Brenda. "The aim is to prove that you do not have to tick all the boxes every day, you just need to get through what needs to be done and not be overwhelmed by having too much on your plate.
"They proved very popular and that led me to writing the book. I felt there was no simple down-to-earth book out there which explained it all, so I thought 'why not me?'"
Yet after writing the book in April, Brenda shelved the project for six months until a chance meeting with her former yoga teacher revealed that her husband produced audio books. Consequently, a meeting was set up and Be Fabulous: Have it All was born.
Brenda especially liked the idea of an audio book as you can listen to it anywhere, anytime.
"You can listen to it on the bus, in the office, in bed, wherever and whenever you have the time. It aims to teach people how to set goals and how to overcome stress.
"Every day I wipe things clean. I don't worry about yesterday or think about tomorrow - I just deal with what I have to do today and I do the things that make me happy. I've learnt that the hardest lessons are the biggest game changers and as things change I grow and evolve."
She also says that her family are loving the "new improved version of Brenda".
"I'm home more often and I spend lots of time doing fun things with the kids. I go for long walks with Jason and we don't talk about work at all. All of this has changed how we think.
"One of the big changes I made over the past 12 months was to stop watching TV at night during the week. That has given me an extra couple of hours to my day. I get to go for walks, read books, study or meet up with friends and that small change alone has made a dramatic difference to me.
"It's all about learning to take control of your life and, most importantly, to do the things that make you happy. And, yes, then we can have it all."
Brenda's book will be launched on Monday, January 11, at her former school, St Mary's College in Londonderry. It is available to download on cdbaby.com. For further information on her Be Fabulous classes log on to befabulous.guru. Classes run on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings in Holywood.
'I stayed a size 10 for a whole 12 months!'
Mental health project worker Ruth Curran (27), from Ardglass, found new confidence, a new purpose in life and helped her entire family transform the quality of their lives in 2015, after losing a life-changing amount of weight.
Ruth struggled with her weight throughout childhood and while she had successfully dieted a number of times over the years, she always put the weight back on.
Now, as she looks forward to 2016, she is celebrating having gone a full year maintaining her healthy weight for the first time in her life.
As well as losing four-and-a-half stone to slim down from a size 18-20 to a size 10-12 she has set up a new class in Downpatrick helping others. And in 2015 Ruth also helped her mum, dad and sister shed a life-changing amount of weight.
Since opening her own We Slim Together class in Downpatrick in September, Ruth has helped 80 people lose an astonishing 107 stone.
Her achievements in the past year are all the more remarkable because she has struggled with low self-esteem in the past.
She says: "I had lost weight before, but always put it straight back on. I had very low self-esteem because of my weight. I was on a night out in Belfast when a stranger came out of a crowd and said I looked like a member of Sesame Street.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back and I decided to go to We Slim Together in Randalstown.
"The more I got to know the people in the group the more my confidence grew and the more I lost weight the more I connected my own position with my profession as a mental health worker.
"I saw that my own self-esteem was causing a lack of motivation, which was making me overeat. It was a vicious circle and I started to look at myself the way I would when supporting clients. This led to me becoming a consultant and opening my own We Slim Together Group."
Ruth spent a miserable childhood being called "the big girl" at primary school. At just 13 years old she was a size 22.
The fact that she has now kept her weight off for a year is her biggest achievement.
"It is massive for me to be able to say that I have gone a full year without putting the weight back on and I now want to help others to do the same.
"I am now 12-and-a-half stone and a size 10-12. It is the longest time I have kept the weight off and I believe repetition is the key to success. To maintain this weight is the most important thing for me.
"I knew how to lose it, but to be able to not become that 'big girl' again is wonderful and it makes me want to help others to do the same.
"I have great confidence now for the first time in my life and I no longer feel that everyone is looking at me and laughing.
"I also have more confidence in my competence in my professional life and I have self-esteem, which I never really had before.
"Setting up my own class has been amazing. There are no words to describe how privileged I feel to know I've been part of someone else's success and to know that I've helped people to feel better about themselves. It's absolutely priceless."
As well as people attending her Downpatrick class, in 2015 Ruth has encouraged her family to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Between them, her mum, dad and sister lost eight-and-a-half stone this year.
She says: "Their lives have been completely changed as well and to be able to help my family like that has made my year."
As we make our New Year's resolutions for 2016, Ruth has some words of encouragement for anyone hoping to lose weight next year.
She says: "I think everybody deserves happiness and to be who they want to be.
"I think it is about taking one step a week and after 10 weeks you will have taken 10 steps. People can be so hard on themselves and don't realise that they have the same ability as everyone else. They just have to believe in themselves, no one is going to do it for them."
Ruth's group meets in the RGU in Downpatrick on Thursdays at 10.15am, 5.15pm and 7.15pm.
'After unofficially tying the knot, we're finally planning a proper wedding!'
In what was a highly personal ceremony she will never forget, Tracy Marshall-Elliott enjoyed a pagan marriage earlier this year to her long-term partner Denny Elliott.
Tracy (46), who is executive director of Belfast Exposed Photography Gallery, says that the ceremony proved so emotional that the couple, who had no intentions of marrying legally, are now planning to tie the knot officially next September.
Denny (56) and Tracy have been together seven years and between them have five children - Clara (27), Luke (22), Cal (18), Angus (17) and Jude (10).
The couple, who live in Carryduff, had both been married before and while they had found new happiness together, neither felt the need to get married - until they went through their symbolic pagan ritual.
Tracy explains how it came about: "We had been sitting one night discussing how unless you get married there was no real alternative symbol to show that you are together and happy. We decided it would be good fun to buy each other rings and exchange them.
"I was telling a girl in work what we had planned and she said that is was very like a pagan ceremony.
"So I started to research it, even though the idea seemed hilarious, but then we decided it would be fun to have our own version of a pagan wedding."
The traditional pagan ceremony involves sharing a goblet of mead and dry bread cake, jumping over a broom and wrapping rope round both hands while making a commitment to each other.
The couple chose the romantic setting of Lough Eske Castle in Donegal for their unusual wedding and as Tracy reveals they tweaked some of the traditions.
She says: "We did make some of it up as we went along by using some pagan traditions, but adding our own twist.
"I did buy a special dress for the occasion and as well as exchanging rings we did a thing called handfasting, where you wrap some rope around both of your hands while making a commitment to each other.
"You are meant to share a goblet of mead, but we took a large Marks & Spencer wine glass and shared a bottle of Prosecco.
"Instead of dry cake bread to share we brought some mini lemon cupcakes. I drew a line at buying a broom and decided we didn't really want to be jumping over a broom!
"It was such a personal and intimate thing to do and it did feel like making a lifetime commitment to each other while making the symbolic commitment.
"We weren't prepared for how the ceremony symbolically and emotionally tied us together and it left us feeling like a married couple. Now we want to do it legally and with all of our family and friends there and we have planned to get married next September."
The couple have booked Beech Hill House in Londonderry for their wedding and reception next September.
Tracy adds: "For us 2015 will always be a special year and even though we plan to have a huge celebration at our legal wedding, the pagan wedding will always be very special to us."