My five-year journey to happiness
Our cover star, top Irish model Alison Canavan, spent 18 years travelling the world and lived in New York for eight of them, but she always felt there was a void she needed to fill. She tells us about how becoming a mum has turned her life around…
Alison Canavan has just turned 38 and lives in Dublin with her son James. Her book, Minding Mum, is a simple but revolutionary concept, getting mums to focus on their own health and wellbeing. We asked her about how her experiences have shaped where she is today.
How it started
I was brought up in Dublin and had a great childhood. I entered the world of modelling at 15 after winning a modelling competition on RTE called Head To Toe. I then represented Ireland at the Supermodel of the World competition in Las Vegas, and went straight to Paris after that. I moved to London full-time to model as soon as I did my leaving and spent the next 18 years travelling all over the world, including eight years living in New York City.
I loved my job, but I always had an internal struggle and a void that I was trying to fill. I never knew what would fill the void, but I certainly tried everything like partying, work, boyfriends, but I was looking in all the wrong places – looking for happiness in external things.
Now I know that true happiness comes from within, from being happy with who you are right here and now, and that can be very hard. I’ve learned that if you’re not happy with what you have today, in this moment, you’ll never be happy with what you want. I’ve switched from saying ‘I’ll be happy when I have…’ or ‘I’ll be happy when I do…’. Instead, I now appreciate everything I have, even on bad days.
Depression and PND
This journey took some time, however, as I have struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life. A few years ago, during my recovery from Postnatal Depression, I decided to get to the root cause of my problems as I was sick and tired of outsourcing my happiness to other people and taking pills for every problem I had. I visited Dublin GP Edmond O’Flaherty, who also practices nutrient therapy, and he took blood tests and sent them to England.
I was diagnosed with Pyroluria, a genetic condition that causes high levels of “kryptopyrroles” in my blood which, while harmless in themselves, bind to B6 and zinc, leaving them unavailable for my body to use. Zinc is responsible for hundreds of biochemical functions, while B6 plays an important role in energy and the central nervous system, and in the making of serotonin (our happy hormone). Through supplementation and a good healthy lifestyle, my life is not a struggle any more. I now realise that waking up and forcing yourself through your day is not normal.
The time I spent running away
Modelling is an industry that lends itself to a party lifestyle, and I found it very easy to run away from my problems. I have always been a spiritual seeker and have meditated for some 13 years, but running alongside that was a selfdestruct button that I often pressed, because it gave me instant relief from my pain. I was in pain and partying was my pain relief, but through the years the lows became lower and so I needed the highs to be higher to try and balance it out.
It wasn’t until I had my son and couldn’t run away anymore that I was forced to deal with my issues. My child needed a healthy mum, and I owed it to both of us to be the best I could be.
I will always say that James saved my life, and he is my angel. He constantly reminds me to be present and check in with myself. I always thought being healthy would be boring, but when I started really minding myself and valuing myself I started to feel better than ever before.
A journey of small steps
My journey has been a series of small steps and what I have realized is that when you try to change too much at once and overhaul your life, you generally tend to fall back into your old ways (which is exactly why New Year’s resolutions don’t work).
I started to implement healthier eating patterns and educating myself on ‘good mood’ foods, and even returned to college. I started to keep a gratitude journal each day, to help me focus on what I did have and not on what I didn’t. I began to meditate daily and, most importantly, began to talk to myself in a respectful way, something I had never done before.
We can be so hard on ourselves and I have a rule now if you wouldn’t say something to a friend, then don’t say it to yourself. I started small by writing out “I am Enough” everywhere and repeating it, but I use lots of different affirmations as I believe they really work and its possible to rewire your brain at any stage of your life, which is really important to know.
Writing down just three different things each day you are grateful for actually rewires the brain, according to the most recent research from Harvard by happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor.
I started to figure out a wellness formula that was working for me and I became excited to wake up each day and got stronger and stronger. I pushed boundaries and tackled my fears. I have tried lots of different work projects the past few years, some of which failed and some of which were successful, but at least I tried and I will keep trying.
Keeping stress levels low
I try and keep stress levels low because stress is our biggest killer. Recently, this has been my biggest challenge. I think we all struggle to find a balance daily and all we can do is our best. The trick is that now I have a pretty full toolbox to pull from, whereas before I had none.
Different tools work on different days. Journaling always helps me to figure out feelings and a quick 10-minute walk always clears my mind.
Eating well and often is a big thing for me as well, because one of my downfalls can be skipping meals when I am busy. Spending time with my son is also one of the most therapeutic things for me after a difficult day a big hug from James always makes things OK.
Mums must be kind to themselves
I think the most important thing mums can do is be kind to themselves. We treat ourselves so harshly and have very big expectations of ourselves (at least I did). We naturally want to give everything we have to our children, but it’s important not to sacrifice your self-care and I think there can be confusion over this sometimes. Self-care enables you to be a better mum, friend, and partner and enjoy your life better. When you mind yourself, you actually have more of yourself to give in every way.
When I started to nurture myself I became a better nurturer. There is a really big difference between being selfish and practicing self-care, and the two must not be confused.
Post-birth support is crucial
I would like new mums to be prepared better for the post-birth part of the journey into parenting. Sometimes, we confuse honesty with negativity and they are very different. If I had had a more realistic expectation of what to expect, I wouldn’t have felt like such a failure when I started to struggle as a new mum. If I had known that many other mums out there felt the same way, I would have been comforted knowing that my case was not isolated and unique.
I think mums need support and encouragement in the early days. Two sayings always ring true to me – “no man is an island” and “it takes a village to raise a child” – yet we have some of the loneliest people living in the biggest cities in the world. You can feel very lonely and isolated as a new mum, so it’s important to join mum and baby support groups locally or online and make connections with other mums going through similar stages of parenting to you.
Communities are also not as close knit as they used to be, so there are different challenges with modern parenting than in previous years. Although I’m a single mum, I’d always presumed I would be married with kids, but my journey took an unexpected turn and now, six years later, I can say that turn was for the better.
I have learned not to judge others because we never know people’s situations, but I have also learned that we all need support, no matter how strong we appear to be on the outside. So mind yourself and mind each other, because we are all in this together!
My book covers what I call “The Full 360”, which is health and wellness from the inside-out and the outside-in. I look at good nutrition, finding an exercise you actually enjoy. Our time is limited, so don’t waste it doing things you hate. If you don’t like the gym, try pilates or yoga or cycling. The options are endless.
Keep a gratitude diary and try some mindfulness, and don’t get overwhelmed thinking that you’ll never have time to do this. If you can scroll on social media for 10-20 minutes a day, you have time to spend at least 10 minutes on yourself. My book is about understanding that you matter and your own feelings, hopes and dreams still count. It’s important not to fall into the trap of I’m a mum now, I can’t do this, because there is a very short story that goes like this: “A Happy Mum = A Happy Child. The End.”