'I was stressed and in so much pain I turned away from relationships and towards the bar stool'
Having turned to drink and prescription drugs to relieve the suffering of a crippling back injury, Newcastle man Gareth Toner found a treatment which worked. Now, he tells Lee Henry he has a new career as a dynamic craniosacral therapist
In the weird world of alternative therapies, it can be difficult to distinguish between the genuinely useful and the patently bogus. For Gareth Toner, a 37-year-old sports nut plagued by chronic back pain for 15 long years, the road toward blessed relief split off in many directions.
"I tried anything and everything," he recalls. "From working with my football team's physiotherapist to receiving acupuncture, being driven hundreds of miles lying flat in the back of a car to see an osteopath, getting nerve-numbing injections in my spine and talking with specialised consultants. All roads led toward an operation. It seemed like my only hope."
Hailing from Newcastle, Co Down - with the Mountains of Mourne, miles of sandy beaches and a thriving local club scene on his doorstep - for Gareth, sport was life.
He describes himself as a "very active child" who played gaelic football, hurling and soccer, and enjoyed mountain climbing and swimming.
"Sports gave me a sense of being part of something," he admits. "I played gaelic and hurling for Bryansford GAC and soccer for Ardglass and then Newcastle. It kept me active and I guess I was okay at it.
"My teammates were competitive by nature. We were always striving to get one over each other, to get acknowledged by teachers, coaches, parents and friends. This continued through my teenage years and into adult life, playing at senior club level."
With injuries and ailments brought on by years of hard tackling and hours spent in the gym commonplace, Gareth's back pain didn't worry him too much. It began when he was 21 and, initially at least, he considered it par for the course.
Few sessions passed by, after all, without some sort of niggle here and there.
"Both muscular and skeletal," he adds. "Ankles, wrists, nose, knee, they all troubled me at some point," he explains.
"There was a lot of impact on my body."
Those injuries came and went, and Gareth believed it would be the same for his back, but that wasn't the case. As the years went by, in fact, it got worse, and before long it was almost unbearable. Various therapies were pursued, with little or no pain relief received.
He began to contemplate the cause of the pain.
"Naturally, we attempt to pinpoint one significant event as the cause of pain or trauma," he says. "For me, I was playing sport from a young age and had experienced a couple of significant incidents, namely a car accident aged seven and falling off a moving bus at 22. In hindsight, I can clearly see that at that point in time I was struggling to adapt to big life changes."
Gareth had just graduated from university with a Sport & Exercise Science degree and, like many young people his age, the transition into full-time employment was a daunting one. At the same time, he was forced to come to terms with becoming a father as his son Fionn, now 15, was born during that period.
Although Gareth is no longer with Fionn's mum, the pair are happy co-parents.
Stressed and in pain, Gareth found himself floundering. "Struggling to find meaning" he turned to medication.
"I was taking Co-codamol, a painkiller; amitriptyline, a nerve suppressant, and diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory, and ultimately I became dependent on them as a means of functioning with the pain.
"As a result, I found myself beginning to retreat from my relationships, avoiding intimacy in any form, training twice as hard. I moved toward the bar stool, spending more and more time drinking with the boys.
"I was running away from my problems and disconnecting from myself, my emotions and my body."
With the prospect of an invasive surgery on the horizon, he consented to trying one more thing. After a recommendation from a friend, he signed up to a yoga class.
"And it was there that I finally learned to stop, to slow down and listen to my physical and emotional pain.
"Much to my surprise, my body liked it," he adds. "I decided to move forward, to avoid numbing out and become aware of my body, to listen to my neurophysiology and make healthier lifestyle choices.
"From there my pain, which had formed my identity for nine years, dissolved and my life started to change."
Although he enjoyed his burgeoning career as a physical education teacher at St Colmcille's High School in Crossgar, a change of scene - a time to reflect on new discoveries - seemed like a good idea.
Gareth subsequently took up a two-month volunteering position at the Bernard Nordkamp Centre in Windhoek, Namibia.
"Hitting 30, I decided to quit playing gaelic and soccer," he explains. "When your life has been consumed with pitch training, matches, weight training and the rest, it's a big change. So I paused and dwelled on what might happen next.
"Volunteering was transformative. I wanted to be more fulfilled and purposeful in my life, and by offering my teaching skills and supporting opportunities given to young children affected by Aids, or living in family environments destroyed by the disease, it gave me perspective. It was very influential on my future decisions."
Having retrained and taken a sabbatical from teaching, he now practices biodynamic craniosacral therapy (BCST) and tension releasing exercises to help others "reconnect" with their bodies and overcome all sorts of challenges and disorders.
BCST is not an easy concept to explain - which is perhaps why Gareth gave his new business the infinitely more palatable title Gareth Toner Health Concepts - but, simply put, it involves "skilled touch" and "listening" to the body's breathing in order to facilitate the regulation of the central nervous system.
This, in turn, improves physical and emotional wellbeing, enabling individuals to centre themselves and cope with difficult situations.
Observe Gareth in action during one of his clinics in Belfast or Newcastle's Slieve Donard Hotel, for example, and you will understand further.
He spends the majority of each 45-minute session with his hands hovering an inch or so above each affected area of the patient's body, where the "breathing" is stunted, in order to achieve equilibrium.
Using this technique he has worked with a range of people living with autism, depression, post-natal depression, physical pain, stress and chronic conditions such as fibromylagia and ME since making the switch to full-time healthcare.
"Every patient is different," he explains. "The central nervous system of autistic children, for example, is highly sensitised, so being in stimulating environments like shopping centres is overwhelming for them.
"I recently supported a non-verbal autistic 13-year-old boy over a three-year period and the changes in him were profound.
"The parent shared with me that her son could only navigate busy environments in a wheelchair and that each day's route had to be communicated clearly so that he knew precisely what would happen.
"I helped him to develop resiliency and now he can walk through such spaces without becoming overwhelmed. The boy continues to express more emotion and vocabulary. It is really quite moving. Their daily lives are a lot easier.
"I see lots of children with colic and reflux, and the common theme there is their birth experience, perhaps involving a difficult delivery.
"One mother had her child delivered with the help of forceps - the baby stopped breathing for two minutes - and there was a lot of shock held in the system of each.
"The baby wasn't sleeping, not digesting its food. After three sessions, there was a release of tension and the baby began to sleep longer and become more settled."
Now, he is one of just five BCST practitioners operating here.
He hopes to combine what he has learned from working with students and patients by developing a range of workshops and programmes that combine both skills.
He has made it his mission to enable others to become healthier and happier too.
"We live in a paradigm these days where we believe that we have to take something, or that a doctor has to complete a procedure or manipulation, before we become healthier, but I am very clear with clients on how we can reorganise our own health. I educate them to reconnect with their bodies to move towards greater wellbeing," he says.
With his back pain now a thing of the past, and a future in healthcare very much a reality, Gareth admits to being happier than he has ever been.
Gareth has been dating girlfriend Heather Madrill, (35), since they met in Dublin three years ago.
His life has changed dramatically, in many ways for the better, and he is determined to make the most of it in the long years ahead.
"My family and friends have all been very supportive as I have transitioned between my careers, particularly my parents, Cathy and John," he says.
"My dad managed the Europa Hotel after the ceasefire and received an MBE for services to tourism, and he's always been an inspiration.
"If you asked my family and friends what it is I do exactly, I'm not sure they could tell you. I would love to hear their unique descriptions.
"I am the butt of the odd joke occasionally, but that's okay, because maybe one day they'll need my help," he jokes.
"It took me a good 10 years to come to terms with being a parent, but Fionn has also been brilliant.
"He plays lots of sport and is doing his GCSEs later this year.
"I give him treatments from time to time and he says they make him feel relaxed and calm - though it took him a while to be able to say the word craniosacral," he laughs.
Visit garethjtoner.com for more details