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'I was taking drugs, having nightmares and panic attacks... but just a few minutes in a floatation tank were to change my life'

Following years of mental health problems and drug addiction, Vivian McKinnon found help through an unusual form of treatment — and went on to establish the first flotation therapy centre in NI. She tells Stephanie Bell about her long road to happiness

Life transformed: Vivian McKinnon
Life transformed: Vivian McKinnon
Vivian and her husband

The horror of sleeping rough on the streets with her 18-month-old baby - to escape a relationship that broke down in her early 20s - is a world away from the calm Vivian McKinnon is now enjoying.

As the owner of Northern Ireland's first dedicated floatation and wellness centre in Dundonald, Vivian, who battled drug addiction and mental health issues for years, is now dedicated to helping others recover from trauma.

Growing up in Scotland, her childhood was overshadowed by difficulty, which led to her abusing drugs in her teens.

The pressure got so much that she ended up on life support in hospital in her late 20s.

This was a major turning point, and she decided to change her life for the better, but the mental scars proved hard to heal until she discovered the calming benefits of floating.

Vivian has been living in Northern Ireland since 2010 when she moved here to be with a new partner, who is now her husband, Tommy McKinnon (49), who runs his own sheet metal fabrication company.

A mum-of-three, Vivian has a son Gary (28), a daughter, Hayley (21), and she and Tommy have six-year-old Sonny together.

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Passionate about helping people struggling with trauma, Vivian's life as she describes it then couldn't be more different from the way it is now.

She started drinking at 13, was smoking cannabis at 14, ran away from home at 15, married at 17 and became a mum at 19.

She believes the seeds of her own mental health issues were sown in early childhood, as a result of her mum's struggle with mental health and alcoholism.

She says: "When I was eight months old I fell down 30 concrete stairs in a baby walker and that set the tone for a traumatic and confusing childhood.

"Having a parent struggling with mental health and using alcohol to cope meant my experiences fragmented my view of myself.

"It also left me very vulnerable and I suffered different types of abuse because of that, although not at the hands of my parents.

Vivian in the chamber
Vivian in the chamber

"I was always an anxious child and I remember my forehead was covered in sores when I was very young, because of stress.

"I was 13 when I discovered alcohol. My dad was president of the local miners' club and mum worked behind the bar, which gave me access to alcohol.

"By 20 my mental health was seriously compromised. I was in a troubled relationship and found myself homeless on the street with an 18-month-old, drinking too much, smoking cannabis and taking amphetamines to get through the day.

"I had been staying in a B&B after the relationship broke down, but my ex-partner found out where I was and took my son. When I got my son back I had nowhere to go and we slept on the streets for a few nights, as at that time it was the safest place to be. I was still taking drugs and I think I was addicted to avoiding the pain of the past.

"Drugs were a really good escape for that. I was having nightmares and panic attacks and sleep paralysis, all the symptoms of trauma. I always had this negative voice telling me I was no good and would never amount to anything.

"When I was 29 I woke up in intensive care. My body and mind had decided enough was enough."

Vivian's family
Vivian's family

A huge wake-up call for Vivian, she says she knew she needed to change her life but had no idea how to. Her first step was to volunteer for a charity called Kids in Care and within three months she was offered a part-time job, which six months later became a full-time post.

She had found purpose, but still struggled with her own mental health issues.

Having no sense of identity, she decided to throw herself into a series of challenges to try and discover who she was.

She says: "Even though I didn't know how I was going to do it, I was committed to creating a better life, both for me and my children. I threw myself into anything that scared me. I walked over 100 miles of the Great Wall of China, abseiled off the Forth rail bridge, and jumped out of a plane.

"It was about challenging every belief I had about myself, other people, and the world in general to create the very best version of me and I did eventually start to move more towards pleasure and away from pain."

It was around this time in her early 30s that a friend suggested she should try floatation as a way to combat anxiety. Vivian had never heard of it and when she saw how small the floatation tank was, she was at first hesitant.

Vivian outside her business
Vivian outside her business

Since trying it that first time, she has been passionate about sharing its benefits and realised a dream when she opened her own floatation centre, Hydro-ease, in Belfast - a first for Northern Ireland - just three years ago.

She says: "The tank looked like a coffin and I thought 'I'm not getting in there' and then I decided to give it a go. I started to float and thought 'this is a bit strange and a bit different' - and then silence and suddenly my inner critic was gone.

"I had residual pain from fibromyalgia and soreness in my muscles and I had none of that when I was floating.

"I just knew instantly that I could help other people with this, especially people with addiction and mental health issues and I dreamt up this whole plan to open my own floatation centre.

"Then I heard a knock and they told me my time was up and I remember getting up and thinking 'what just happened there?'.

"I remember it so clearly, it was a real turning point for me. It was 2004 and it made me realise there was magic within us all.

"It was such an amazing experience that I decided to spend the rest of my life helping people heal from the pain of their past."

Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, Vivian started by educating herself and devoted the next few years to studying. She is now qualified in cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro linguistic programming, time line therapy, hypnosis, clinical hypnotherapy, the Havening technique, laughter yoga, auricular acupuncture and is also the only spectrum performance and emotional coach in Ireland.

Knowing how much she wanted to open her own floatation centre, her husband applied for funding as a surprise to enable her to draw up a business plan.

He offered Vivian his life's savings and she also took out a substantial business loan to set up her wellness and floatation centre.

Now she is devoted to helping people cope with trauma through solution-based therapy and floatation.

She says: "I didn't want the small coffin-like tanks and the larger two-person tanks were more expensive, but my vision was to have two of them so that I could have autism days when kids could come and float, as well as people struggling with trauma.

"I spent my husband's life savings of £27,000 and went £66,000 into debt to set it up.

"I didn't have a clue about business and no one knows about floatation here, but I decided to keep my eye on the goal, which was to help people heal, one float at a time."

Vivian is currently working with researchers in the sports science department of the Ulster University, who are conducting a study into the benefits of floatation.

She has also participated in a global research study being carried out in the US.

For people struggling with trauma, she has developed her own programmes of support, combining her solution-driven neuroscientific approach to counselling with floatation.

Floating involves lying in 25cms of body temperature water with half a tonne of Epsom salt.

Vivian explains: "We use 80% of our energy to fight gravity, which you don't have to do in the float tank, so instead this energy turns inwards to activate the blood flow, increasing circulation while stimulating both the lymphatic and digestive system.

"This in turn restricts the production of lactic acid, breaks down any already in the system and places the body into detox mode.

"At the same time the whole peripheral nervous system glides into a state of stable balance, placing the body into a deep state of rest and relaxation. This allows the body to rest and repair four times faster than in a bed.

"We experience the world through our five senses, where we are met by over two million pieces of information every second. The stimulation to these senses is restricted while floating to allow our central nervous system to begin to slow down and our brain drifts from our usual alpha/beta brainwaves into theta, where it will release the same endorphins as five to seven hours' sleep will.

"The whole skeletal structure has a chance to realign and decompress and we are afforded the experience of resetting.

"Floating is described as the closest thing to being back in the womb."

For Vivian, her life today couldn't be happier, as she has finally found her sense of self and a purpose in helping others avoid the effects of trauma, which she lived with for so long.

She adds: "Today I am more in touch with me than I've ever been, happily married with a true sense of self. I am the owner of Northern Ireland's only floatation centre and working as a wellness coach.

"I achieved it all by understanding I am not the story... I am who I chose to become."

For details of Vivian's programmes and prices for floatation, go to her website at www.hyrdo-ease.co.uk

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