Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with Aoife Lennon: I've battled anorexia and lost my father, my absolute hero, but he's still with us and I know he's very proud of me

Home comforts: Aoife Lennon
Home comforts: Aoife Lennon
Aoife with her mother Mary
Aoife Lennon's late dad John
National duty: Aoife Lennon starring for NI

In the latest of our popular series, Northern Ireland ace Aoife Lennon discusses heartbreaking loss, battling eating disorder, and why her mum is one in a million.

Q Tell us about your impressive sporting background.

A I've been playing sport since the age of six. My dad encouraged me to give football and Gaelic a go. I was playing football with the boys from the age of eight to 16 with Armagh City in the Lisburn League.

I captained the boys' side for a few years. When I turned 11 I went to Friday night football, a bit like the Elite Stages now, and I was chosen to join the international sides.

I travelled with the team and progressed through the age groups until I made my senior international debut at the age of 17 against Wales. In the Under-19 Elite Stages we played against Germany for the first time. I moved to Newry City Ladies when I was 17 and we fought our way up to the Premiership and played in Europe.

Throughout the years I was playing Gaelic too with Armagh Ladies but stopped to focus on the football. After that I took a year out to go travelling to New Zealand on my own. I just needed time to relax, work and travel so I left in January 2017.

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Aoife Lennon (right) in action for Armagh against Donegal in 2015.

Q How was the New Zealand adventure?

A Unfortunately I fell sick when I was away and was diagnosed with anorexia. Before I went I worked out and ate well but my life was to change. One of the things I wanted to do was a bungee jump in Queenstown.

You had to step on the scales before the jump and when I went on I was 55kg. Before I had left for the trip I was 65kg. I was really shocked and felt burnt out. I took up yoga but didn't play sport.

A few alarm bells went off and I got scared. I even told the woman she was wrong and that wasn't my real weight, but after stepping onto the scales again I had to accept it. I did the jump and didn't think much about it but I became tired and found it difficult to focus on things. I was struggling to remember everything.

One day in work I was very emotional and didn't feel well. Girls invited me along to Gaelic training and when I was running I went completely white and couldn't see anything. I felt weak, like I could collapse.

Something wasn't right and when I got home I just collapsed on the bed. I rang my aunt and she encouraged me to go to the doctor. I explained my symptoms to him and he then diagnosed me with anorexia and I had to go home.

That was tough to take as my dream was to travel but I needed emergency help. I came home straight away but was losing weight and eating less. The anxiety was creeping in and I was petrified. I was warned I had to put on weight or I'd end up in hospital on a drip. It was a big wake-up call.

Q Do you think you had anorexia for years and didn't realise?

A I think there was relief in accepting that fact and I was at peace from then on. I had an obsession with healthy eating and a fear of putting on weight. I had a fear of how I looked and it was affecting my life. I don't look back with anger.

I thought I was eating the right way but in reality I was depriving myself. I wouldn't eat a sweet, I needed to know everything was healthy and I lost interest in sport. But I was an athlete and I had to put on a brave face.

It was very difficult travelling with the Northern Ireland team because my anxiety was going through the roof. I would bring my own food because I was afraid of the hotel food. I didn't want to change my diet.

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National duty: Aoife Lennon starring for NI

Q Did your family see the symptoms?

A I think they must have but possibly assumed I was trying to be this perfect example of an athlete. If anyone had seen me eating a bun or a sweet I would have felt embarrassed and mortified. That was the way my mind worked. Life for me now is about a balance.

Before it was about perfectionism and me wanting to live in this perfect bubble but it was tormenting. I would search grocery stores for the right food. I've learned you have to do what you feel is right for you and not worry what other people think. I'm taking care of myself now and not striving for perfection.

Q How are you feeling today in relation to the anorexia?

A It's a stepping stone and process, it just won't go away suddenly. I went to an eating disorder clinic in Armagh when I weighed eight stone and for my height I should be 10 stone. My body wasn't working properly and I knew my diet had to change.

Adding pasta and bread to my diet scared the life out of me but I had to embrace that mental challenge. It was a very tough time when I got the news but it was also one of the best moments of my life because it set me free from the suffering.

It was a blessing in disguise and I accepted something was wrong. A weight lifted off my shoulders. Doing the food diary was hard and a mental challenge but life means more to me now. I want to be happy and healthy.

Q Has the illness disrupted your sporting career?

A It has because I didn't have the energy to walk down the street, never mind kick a ball around. Last year I played a bit of Gaelic and I'm gradually getting back into it and gaining strength.

I want to be the athlete I deserve to be and not the athlete I was. I'm playing for Armagh Harps and will just play Gaelic. I do love football so I could play it again. Today I accept myself more and love myself more than ever. My health is my wealth.

Q Is there any reason why you think you developed anorexia?

A I don't know. I lost my dad John when I was 13 but I can't say that's the reason. It's hard to find an answer but everyone's journey is different. I just had to accept it was part of my journey and I didn't want to feel sorry for myself. I hope I can help others who are on a similar journey.

I can tell them how I have helped myself. I would never want anyone to go through what I've been through and I can offer a helping hand. I've had a lot of support from my family and friends. I have three brothers, Simon, Ultan and Conan, and my mum, Mary.

Obviously, losing my dad affected our whole family. It was hard for my mum and now they have had to deal with my anorexia but they have stood by me and always will. My friends and team-mates are there for me too and I've seen a private psychologist.

I've helped myself too and reached the point where I don't need to be in an eating disorder clinic. I'm learning every day how to deal with it and overcome my own fears.

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Aoife Lennon's late dad John

Q What happened to your father?

A He suffered from depression for years and took his own life on March 21, 2006. I was 13 at the time and he was 52.

My mum might have seen symptoms more than myself but he was my best friend, my absolute hero and we did everything together.

Without him, I wouldn't have played football or be the person I am. Losing the most important person in your life at the age of 13 was heartbreaking. As a wee girl you are left to just get on with your life. His death really hit me a few years later but I know he's happy now and at peace and he wants the same for me.

He's still with me and always will be. He wants me to live my life the best I can and I knew he was guiding me in New Zealand and taking me to a place of peace with the diagnosis which has changed my life.

The grieving process was horrible but I no longer say to myself, 'Why me?' because it's part of life and everyone loses someone at some stage. Ten years after my dad's death I finally found peace.

I can remember when I was 13 going to the window every day after school looking out and hoping my father would come home. Depression wasn't talked about and I didn't know what was going on. We were left to deal with it.

My mum is a strong, powerful woman who has brought up four amazing people. Her strength and dignity is amazing. She put us first rather than herself and I know my dad would be like us, very proud of her.

She is one in a million, an amazing woman. We are all just so blessed to have her in our lives.

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Aoife with her mother Mary

Q You've been through a lot in your life. How much stronger are you today?

A I'm a totally different person. I've overcome a lot and learned a lot too. The only way is forward for me. There is no going back and I'm happier now than ever.

It's about living in the moment for me and taking things day by day. Every day I've learned to love myself and accept myself for the person I am.

Everyone goes through hard times in their lives but you can gain strength and peace along the way.

Anorexia had taken over my life for six years and now I control it. I've stepped up and realised my own self worth - that I'm loved and blessed.

Snapshot

Date of birth: February 4, 1993

Place of birth: Craigavon

Previous clubs: Armagh City Boys, Armagh City Ladies, Loughgall Ladies, Newry City Ladies, Glentoran Women

Northern Ireland record: 25 appearances

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