‘After losing mum, my brother’s suicide was like another bomb in my life... if I let stress get on top of me, the colitis flares up and my health deteriorates’
Boxing was Belfast man Christopher Downey's escape from the trauma that engulfed his life, including the deaths of his mother and brother. But following serious health problems he feared he'd never enter the ring again, as he tells Linda Stewart
Boxer Christopher Downey was baffled every time he had a weigh-in for a bout. His body shape would fluctuate wildly, swinging between skinny one day and swollen around the stomach on another.
"One fight, I'd be 60 kilos, the next I'd be 75 kilos - but I was still training the same, still eating the same. It turned out to be ulcerative colitis," the 27-year-old boxer from Short Strand says.
He first noticed these symptoms around 2006, but later began to notice that he was losing a lot of blood when he went to the toilet.
"I'd be going to the toilet after a fight and I was peeing blood. To be quite honest, because of the state I was in at the time, I was more worried about winning at boxing than my physical health."
It was a wake-up call in August last year when doctors told him he was going to need a stoma bag and would never box again.
Adamant that he would be back in the ring, Christopher worked hard to manage his condition, partly by training hard and concentrating on a "lean, green" diet regime, but also by managing the stress and depression that were sparking flare-ups.
Since that hospital stay, he has dropped 33 kilos, is back in the gym training two or three times a day and has pledged to turn his life around both mentally and physically, turning his back on the "divilment" that has seen him up in court time and time again.
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His most important goal now is to help young people and adults in Belfast find better ways to tackle problems such as depression, addiction and anti-social behaviour and he is setting up a series of free boxing classes for anyone who wants to come along.
Christopher admits that despite his success in the ring, he spent years getting into trouble after a difficult upbringing with his late mum, Marie, a single mother who fell prey to alcohol and prescription drug addictions.
"My mum was a beautiful woman, but she obviously had issues growing up in the Troubles here and she lost her sense of self - and that impacted on me," he says, perched ringside at the Dockers Amateur Boxing Club in Belfast.
"Her own mother died and she never had it easy. She witnessed numerous murders when she was growing up, her home got blown up and she found her cousin's head after the Anderson Street bomb - that just messed up her life.
"That Belfast mentality consumed her, where everyone tries to escape with drink and drugs and smoking. I want to show people there is a different way to deal with things."
Christopher describes his upbringing as rough: "Ninety per cent of the time she was either drunk or on prescription drugs. I was constantly finding her drunk and seeing things a child shouldn't see."
He says he was quiet and shy as a young child, and was bullied.
"Then I started boxing - that kind of changed me and it flipped my whole world upside down. Once I knew I could fight I became a troublemaker," he says.
Christopher first got involved in boxing when he was at Short Strand Community Centre and was offered a fight by Olympic boxer Paddy Fitzsimmons, whom he describes as a father figure. He won with a first round knockout.
"From then on, it was on. I felt freedom and I felt that it was a new beginning for me. Fighting was my escape - even the training alone, I loved it and still do. It lifted me, but it turned me into a violent monster.
"You can go two ways with boxing - you can abuse it. What happened was if I'd seen somebody getting bullied, I'd probably have taken extreme measures to take revenge. I wish I'd handled that better."
But Christopher credits Paddy with instilling self-belief in him and launching him into a career that allowed him to travel all over the world, winning Ulster titles, competing in a couple of all-Ireland finals and fighting in Sweden, London, Scotland, Wales and Boston.
In the background, however, life was a struggle and Christopher describes the Short Strand as being like a war zone at the time.
From an early age, he says, he was forced to be self reliant.
"I did everything. I made my own dinners, ironed my own clothes, I did my own washing - I never relied on anybody," he says.
Christopher says he was quite academically smart at school but was expelled from several schools as his bad behaviour escalated.
"The thing was, my mind was elsewhere - I was caught up in too much crime," he says. "I remember my teacher nearly crying, 'why do you not put in a bit of time and effort?'"
He shows me the scars on his hands from street fighting during those years. "I felt it was a case of it's better to be feared than loved.
"Due to my upbringing, because of everybody walking out of my life, I never felt loved, ever. It was just charge sheet after charge sheet."
Because of the bomb in Anderson Street in 1975, Christopher's mum had scar tissue in her lungs from asbestos and was not supposed to smoke.
"Because of the alcohol abuse and the stress she had in her life, she kept smoking and then over time her health deteriorated. They gave her a year but she lasted two years," Christopher says.
"Then one night I was out and I got up the next day and I found her dead. The asbestos gave her a stroke - closed up her arteries. I was walking out last thing, and she said 'Right, I love you, son'. Those were the last words she said to me and the next day I found her. I remember trying to shake her to wake her up - it was tough."
Shortly after that, his daughter Saoirse Rose (now six) was born and Christopher describes her as his rock. But he says the violence still stayed with him.
"Through the years I was in court case after court case. Even though she was my rock I was still getting into a lot of fights. I should have walked away," he says.
Then came the suicide of his beloved brother Martin at the age of 34.
"I got a phone call one morning from my friend, just saying that he was dead. He went on to the Ormeau walkway and committed suicide. It was one of the hardest things to deal with by a mile," Christopher says.
"He was my hero and I thought he would never break. He hid it well from everybody. He didn't show me any signs. Again it was another bomb in my life and I just went off the rails again."
Meanwhile, the colitis was growing worse and Christopher was in and out of hospital more and more often.
"The ulcerative colitis pretty much has a mind of its own, but when it flares up the whole intestine goes," he says.
"If I wasn't training and I was staying static and letting things get on top of me, the colitis would flare up and my health would deteriorate. But as long as I stayed busy training and fighting I kept it static and I still do.
"Coming up to the anniversary of my mum and Martin and even friends that I had lost, the subconscious mind knew and that was triggering it. I was having to go into hospital for long bouts, sometimes three weeks at a time. And things just started to deteriorate."
Eventually Christopher was told he would need a stoma bag due to the level of bleeding and would never fight again.
"I was in a bad way and was just crippled in pain. The intestine was so swollen and that's why they were putting the stoma in," he says.
At his lowest ebb, he says, he pushed away everyone he loved, including his then partner Meabh.
"I was completely and utterly depressed - I just didn't want to live," he says.
"I was constantly in pain and constantly thinking about my mum and Martin.
"But I had a choice - whether to lie in hospital, become the victim and accept everything or fight it and become something completely different."
Instead, he read up on the condition and discovered his triggers - and knowing that helped him to find a way of getting it under control.
"It was like hitting a switch - it was like I died and came back," he says.
"I tried every solution, educated myself more and more on the condition and the biggest link is stress and depression. Honestly, I believe that what I have done and I am doing now has finally got it under control.
"It affects the mental health more than anything - both were linked, but honestly, clean diet, anything clean and green, and training keeps it at bay.
"When I have a flare-up, there's a swelling of the abdominal region, every joint aches and my hands swell.
"The first sign I notice when a flare-up is coming, apart from passing blood, is my kneecaps, in and around my patella - they swell like baps and then I know it's coming. But I then just try to suppress it via a method of training and a 24-hour fast.
"I still get a flare-up even when things are good, but I'm able to just knuckle through it."
Once he began to recover, he started hitting the gym again, dropping from 101 kilos in hospital to 71 now and training for two or three sessions a day.
Over the years, Christopher had returned to education and did an HND in Sports Science at Belfast Met, studying level three in personal training and specialising in exercise referral.
With that qualification it means he can work with people who have mental and physical disabilities, using boxing training and other forms of exercise to help them build resilience.
That has been the spur to set up a series of free boxing classes at the Dockers Club this summer, which has proven hugely popular.
Christopher is planning to hold another free boxing session at the Dockers Club on August 19, and there has been a huge amount of interest.
"Training saved me. It wasn't just the boxing - it was the whole training that made me able to programme my mind and use the pain," he says.
"It's not about hard drilling in the classes - the way I teach is through getting into people's minds and unlocking who they are.
"I would like people to know that even if times are rough, think of it as a wave. Let it go through you, pick yourself up and then go on," he says.
"Ideally I want to change the way people in Belfast deal with things, that mentality that when things get tough, they go on the drink or drugs. I want to change the way society handles things."
And he insists he will never be up in front of a judge again.
"I wish the people who are no longer in my life could see me now. It has taken me a long time to become this person, but I never stopped working towards it," he says.
To find out more about the free boxing training on August 19, contact Christopher Downey on Twitter at @TwoSevenEight1
How to spot symptoms of ulcerative colitis
Ulcerative colitis is a long-term condition, where the colon and rectum become inflamed. It is estimated that around one in every 420 people living in the UK has ulcerative colitis; this amounts to around 146,000 people.
The main symptoms of ulcerative colitis are:
Recurring diarrhoea, which may contain blood, mucus or pus
Needing to empty your bowels frequently
You may also experience fatigue (extreme tiredness), loss of appetite and weight loss
Some people develop:
Painful and swollen joints (arthritis)
Areas of painful, red and swollen skin
Irritated and red eyes