A young south Belfast woman who almost died battling anorexia when her weight plummeted to four stone is now fighting fit, weight training and planning a future in counselling to help others who find themselves on the same path she once walked.
Retail worker Aoife Boyle (21) says her eating disorder started suddenly when she was in her early teens and soon took over her entire life.
"I was 14 years old, just going into fourth year at school, and I don't really know what happened," she explains. "It was just a switch in my head flicked and day by day there was less and less food.
"My friends in school started to notice and would ask me why I wasn't eating. And I would tell them that I just wasn't hungry, even though I was starving. I am very, very headstrong, which is a gift and a curse at the same time.
"I just thought to myself: 'I am going to lose weight'. And I just stopped eating. But obviously what came with that was all the mental health problems that I never even thought of. So eventually it led to me being taken out of school by my doctor and I got diagnosed with anorexia and anxiety and depression" Aoife had treatment at the Beechcroft facility in Belfast, which she describes as "pretty tough", before she was admitted to the City Hospital, where had tube-feeding. "The worst time for me was in October 2015," she says. "I was 15 years old and I weighed just over four stone."
Aoife says that she couldn't feel herself going so badly downhill and thought "everyone was overreacting".
"Whenever I saw myself in the mirror when I was just four stone I just didn't see what other people were seeing," she says.
"People were saying that I looked so ill, but they didn't say it to my face. I remember going downstairs and hearing my mum and dad talking about me and how worried they were and I couldn't understand it. I thought to myself that I didn't look that bad."
Aoife has photographs from that time; ironically, she used to look at them to encourage herself to lose further weight but she now regards them as a shocking record of how desperately ill she was. "I used to take photographs of myself every day when I was ill to look back on. I didn't do that because I thought I was ill. I would look at the photographs and think to myself: 'I'll look at that next week and hopefully I'll be even thinner'.
"But now I look back and see that I really did look terrible. My cheekbones and collarbone were protruding out. I had practically no hair, I had lost a lot of it. I was always very, very cold. I had to go out of the house wearing eight layers. It was no way of living. Yet in my head all I thought was that I needed to be skinny and that I wasn't, and I needed to be skinnier."
Aoife got to such a dangerous point that for nearly three months she didn't eat at all.
"It started off with me having a few bowls of cereal a day," she says. "And then it went down to three, then I would just eat cornflakes as I thought they were healthy and there was no taste to them. Then it went it down to two bowls, and then one.
"For a few months all I ate every day was half an apple, two or three cups of green tea and just multiple packets of chewing gum. That was every day, and then that all completely stopped too.
"I would say that for two or three months I didn't eat anything. Before I went into the Beechcroft facility I didn't eat anything. I got my bloods taken, which is a very simple thing. But my body couldn't handle getting the blood taken because it was already so thin. I fainted and I was transferred to the City Hospital.
"I was there for a month to be tube-fed. My stomach was so small and there was all this heavy milky liquid being tubed into me and it made me feel really, really ill."
Aoife says she went back to Beechcroft, before her mum and dad discharged her and looked after her at home.
"Mum and dad bought all these cases of this health drink that was supposed to get me back to a healthy weight," she says. "But then the anorexia took a massive grip of me and I ended up throwing bottles down the sink or lying that I had taken it, and the weight just dropped off me.
"I would have gone to town at around 10am and I wouldn't have come back until maybe 6.30pm. All I would have done was walk around Belfast. I wouldn't even have gone into a shop, just walked around every day. It wasn't good."
Aoife says that at her lowest ebb her family were told that she wasn't going to survive. "There were many nights I heard my parents speak downstairs about 'what ifs' - what if I never got better, what if it does end up taking my life," she says.
"My weight had plummeted to just over four stone. I was admitted to the Ulster Hospital. To be honest, I don't really remember most of that, it was a bit of a blur. My body went to such a stage of malnutrition that I was getting psychotic episodes where I would maybe talk to myself or laugh uncontrollably. My brain wasn't really functioning and everything was really quite cloudy.
"At the time I didn't think I was in any danger. I just thought that everyone was being really over dramatic. I thought I was fine and that I'd be back home soon doing what I had always done. But I know that wasn't me myself thinking that, it was probably the illness." Her father's 50th birthday proved particularly harrowing, as Aoife explains: "On the day of my dad's 50th the doctors told my parents to prepare for my death. All my family came to the hospital and were around my bed. I still don't remember that to this day.
"The next morning all this clear liquid just came out of my mouth and in my head I thought: 'There is something seriously wrong here and I need to get better'.
"I don't know what happened that day, it was really weird. They put me on heart monitors because my heart wasn't doing well. I had all these wires and tubes coming out of everywhere and I was hooked up to so many machines. I was there for another month. But they were brilliant and I couldn't have gotten better care anywhere else. They were just fantastic.
"Looking back now I wonder how I pulled through it. I don't understand how I managed to beat it, but I think someone was looking over me."
After her discharge from hospital Aoife's desperate parents found help for her in Dublin.
"I'm so lucky that I have parents who really do try their best with everything for me," she says. "We found that we couldn't really get any help up here in Northern Ireland. We tried every avenue for psychological help and we just ran into brick walls.
"I was in a very fortunate position that my parents were able to pay for me to go to Dublin and speak to a dietician, Aveen Bannon, and she made me realise that there was a problem. And she is the reason that I was able to have a better relationship with food. She was fantastic. And for psychology, I still go to a lady in Ardee, Olivia McCoy, who is also fantastic and also specialises in the psychological side of eating disorders. And I keep going to Olivia, just to keep me right. It's been tough, but we are getting there.
"I am really proud of my parents because they have really learned about the illness and the effect it has on the body. I know it's very hard for anyone to grasp what the side-effects are or the triggers, what not to say and how to approach things, but they have been absolutely brilliant. I probably don't tell them this enough, but they have been amazing through this."
Though happily now on the road to recovery, Aoife says she takes it "one day at a time". She adds: "It really is a gradual thing. I wouldn't say that there was one day when I suddenly felt better. I remember my brother coming in and announcing he was going to be a daddy and asked me to be godmother. That was a big thing for me. I thought if I am going to have a nephew, I really want to be there and watch him grow up.
"I went back to school but I was still very low in weight. My parents were very supportive and I went on to train as a chef. I made friends and had a social life. All of that helped, including getting jobs and meeting new friends. I remember when I was 17 and it was my first night out. I was still very skinny and ill. It was my first night seeing all my school friends again and when I went in they all screamed and cheered for me. I got all the hugs and I felt so amazing and I thought: 'This is life and this is what I'm missing out on'."
Aoife is now a healthy weight, enjoys weight training and is enjoying feeling strong.
"I eat now around 2,800 calories a day for my training," she says. "If you had told me that I would be eating that years ago I would have laughed at you. I didn't think I would even be here. I think I'm using my tendency to be headstrong in a more positive way now.
"I weight train now and am trying to build up the courage to do competitions. When I was declared a healthy weight I started training and in 2016 dad and I went to the gym together and trained together. And I've been training ever since. It's almost like a therapy. I go in and I have my music on and it's just me and those weights for that time. The feeling of being physically strong is absolutely amazing."
And, having learnt so much from her experience, Aoife says that she now wants to return to education and train as a counsellor to help others who find themselves on the same journey as herself.