'I was going through hell after my marriage break-up but I had to put the children first ... they were my concern'
Life changed ever so dramatically for Tina Blackburne 18 months ago when her 11-year marriage to former Ulster rugby and Ireland star Paddy Wallace came to an end. Here in her first interview since the split, she talks openly to Karen Ireland about moving on from the pain and creating new lives for her and her two children PJ (10) and Leila (7)
When we meet up for this interview there is a sense of excitement and eager anticipation about Tina Blackburne (41), who is embracing newness in her life. She has a new name, a new home and a new business but getting to this 'new' place she readily admits hasn't been an easy journey.
"In the beginning, I was a mess. I was heartbroken and went through hell," she reveals.
The couple split publicly 18 months ago, but Tina reveals the cracks were showing a lot earlier.
"I think we papered over the cracks for a good while trying to make it work but the end was inevitable and I wanted to leave."
She is dignified and silent about why the couple, who had been together for 14 years in total, finally split - only to say when it finally came it was a relief.
"There are so many stages to go through during the breakdown of a marriage. First it was shock that it was actually over, then disbelief, then anger and then all the hurt comes tumbling in.
"Through it all though no matter how I was feeling, I had to put the two children first. They were my main concern and biggest worry."
The couple's eldest son Paddy Jack (PJ) has well documented autism, a condition which Paddy and Tina have worked hard to help raise awareness and funds for over the years.
"PJ is at Harberton Special School and in addition to autism he has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. With all of that going on, I worried so much about how he would cope with the break-up and us living in separate houses."
A proud Tina says her son has been remarkable throughout and has completely blown her away.
"PJ has handled things really well. He has just adapted and even his headmaster has commented on how well he is doing and how his schoolwork and behaviour has not been affected at all."
Such is the extent of PJ's autism, his mum has been warned that he will probably never learn to read or write.
"This was such a shock and not in your plans for your child, but he gets so much support. He has a full-time classroom assistant, he has a laptop with a pen which reads the words to him and he is doing really well. He has flourished at that school and learnt so many coping mechanisms."
Having worried so much about PJ, Tina reveals it was Leila who took the change in circumstances the hardest.
"She was completely heartbroken which was very difficult to watch your child go through," she explains.
"Her behaviour really suffered. She started misbehaving at school, having temper tantrums and really getting in a state about things. She worried all the time about me and never wanted to leave me. She was really clingy and I had to keep reminding her I was the adult and it was my job to look after her, not the other way around.
"Again, as a parent there is nothing harder to have to watch than your child suffer. In the end we didn't know what to do to reach her anymore so as a last resort we tried mindfulness classes with coach Brenda Shankey.
"When I took her at the start she was a nightmare. She wouldn't sit still and was running about and wouldn't listen, but she started to love the classes and a placid calmness would come over her.
"We have all been amazed at the transformation. It has been a life-saver as we really were at the end of our wits with her."
With the children settled, Tina began to think about restoring herself and for her the biggest trauma was that she was still living in the marital home.
"It was a massive 3,500 sq ft house near Stormont that was full of bad memories and ghosts so I wanted to move out of it. It just felt wrong to be there. It had a bad atmosphere about it."
In March this year, Tina and her two children moved to a much smaller home, still in east Belfast, but one which has become their haven and where they have started to put their lives back together again.
"The children were apprehensive about leaving their home and everything they knew behind. They were born and grew up in that house - it was all they knew - but as soon as we moved to where we are now, a stillness settled on everyone and we all loved the new place from the off. We just all feel safe here. It is our haven and there is a real calmness about the house."
Adjusting to life as a single parent has come with its challenges for Tina who admits that in the early days she missed being part of a team.
"I missed having that other person there to help with the everyday things like getting the kids up and ready for school and bathed and ready for bed at the other end of the day.
"Paddy was always the one who put the kids to bed for me on the nights when he was home. This was my one luxury and I got that time out from being a mummy. Suddenly I had to take on the role of both parents and be there for the children round the clock. It was tough going.
"I had always prided myself on being very organised and I found I was struggling with small tasks like getting the kids to school, doing the ironing or even getting them sorted out for bed at night."
Tina says she knew, and her family who are all extremely close knew, she was suffering from depression.
"I was fortunate in that I had gone to the GP just before the break-up to say I had a lot going on and I knew what was about to happen and I could feel myself getting anxious and panicky.
"I asked for some anti-depressants as a preventative pressure so I could start talking them before things got too bad.
“This definitely helped me cope better. It took the edge off and helped me stay calm in the weeks and months following the break-up. I was less anxious.
“In those first few months I know I was operating on autopilot. I was like a robot. I didn’t have time to think about me as I was so concerned with how the children were and making sure they were ok.
“Trivial things at that time like the cooking and the ironing seemed and felt like a mammoth task for me.”
On top of her depression and concerns about the children, Tina adds that she felt financial pressure too to provide for her small family.
“Before we split up I had studied beauty and was working as a beautician from home and had built up my own clients.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a head space to continue to do that. I had built up relationships with these people and I didn’t want to have to face them, to talk to them about what was going on.
“I felt like I would be doing them a disservice to continue looking after them but I needed work.
“In the end, I took a part-time job in the Kingsbridge Private Hospital on the Lisburn Road.
“I worked taking bookings for the plastic surgeons which turned out to be an excellent job for me. I ended up meeting the public and being the face they saw from booking their appointments right through to discharge in many cases.
“I held their hands along the way. This got me out and about and forced me to get the kids up and get organised and myself off to work.”
She adds that despite how low she felt at times or how much she was struggling, she never took a day off work.
After that job came to an end, Tina worked for several months for a financial company as a receptionist.
“Again, I made a lot of new friends and it took my mind off things,” she adds.
When she moved into her new home, her mum and step-dad, Elaine and Brian, told her they thought it was time she put her qualifications to use and started practicing beauty again.
“We started looking for premises and then they suggested I build out the back and work from home to allow me flexibility with the children.
“I am very lucky they invested in me, we put a log cabin out the back for treatments and Tina B Beauty was born.
“Again, it has been a saving grace and I am back doing what I love. I do everything from nails and make-up to massages and I am currently studying sports massage. It is a lifelong learning curve.”
Looking back on the various phases she went through during her break up, Tina says she started going out a lot and was spending time with friends drinking wine and trying to block everything out.
“I wanted to numb the pain but I also think I thought I would meet someone else who would make me feel better and take all the hurt away.
“I know now that was the wrong thing to be doing and any relationship was on the rebound. I needed to learn to like myself again and to get used to being me again which takes a while after being part of a couple for so long.
“Because Paddy was in the public eye, I found when I went out everyone knew who I was and I could never trust their motives in talking to me.
“Now I feel more ready to meet someone. I know now what I would be looking for. I know no relationship is perfect, but I’d like to love again.
“The children will always come first so they would need to be prepared to take them on and love them as much as they love me. We are a package.
“My step-father Brian gives me hope. He is such an amazing man and has been a wonderful dad to me. He has loved me unconditionally and been such a good male role model to me as I am estranged from my own dad.
“I use him as a yardstick for judging men in my life. They’d need to be like Brian. He has been a wonderful husband to my mum. I don’t know what I would do without them over recent years. They have been there for me every step of the way. My mum is my best friend and I am so thankful for her.”
Tina says the last few years have taught her a lot about the value of true friendship.
“A lot of friends who I thought were my best friends weren’t there for me at all. And I lost a lot of friends as there are always casualties with a break-up. People are forced to choose sides.
“But I am so thankful for the true friendships that I do have. I have made a lot of good friends through work and through meeting people in a similar situation to me. They have become the stalwarts in my life.”
Another saving grace for Tina has been her singing. The night before her 40th birthday, she auditioned for the Belfast Community Gospel Choir.
“I was over the moon when I got a place. They are a fabulous bunch of people. I go to rehearsals every other week and I always come out feeling better and stronger.
“Singing is a real release for me and it is very cathartic. Marie Lacey is an extraordinary woman and she says God brought me to her.
“I have a strong faith and believe that to be true.
“I am in a good place now. Life is good again. The kids are settled and doing really well which is the most important thing to me. I am looking forward to new beginnings — to building my business up, to meeting new people and spending time with those closest to me.
“I would like to meet someone now — but it would have to be the right someone. I’ll know that when I meet him,” she laughs.
- Tina B Beauty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org