*Fearghal Lawlor. Photograph: Joe Buckley
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, three shuddering blows at different phases of his life certainly shook Fearghal Lawlor to the core but made him the man that he is today.
Speaking openly and honestly for the first time about family tragedies, injury woes, dietary struggles and mental health challenges, the personal trainer highlighted that physical and mental health needs to be worked on daily “like going to the toilet” in order to see results. By sharing his story, Fearghal wants to help people realise that talking, seeking professional help and physical exercise such as going to the gym will be of benefit to people struggling with their mental health.
Ordinarily when one reflects on their childhood, laughter is one of the first memories that spring to mind. However darkness descends with Fearghal’s predominant recollection. “Childhood was gone when my mother passed away when I was seven, I remember being young and then growing up very quickly. My childhood while it was great, my father did everything for me and my sister as a child, I feel like I missed out on a lot of that innocent stuff”.
While Patricia had been sick, her death rocked the Lawlor family home in Ballycar. The moment of his father come in the gate and cars beginning to gather as they were informed of her passing is a vivid memory to this day, “I knew straight away that it was it,” he reflected of being brought into the sitting room.
Counselling sessions that in recent years brought him back in time to deal with the grief, something he was previously unable to do. “I tried to be a protector of my sister and my father at that young age, not that I was running around the place cutting lawns and stuff being the man of the house, I wasn’t but it just hit me that I needed to be everything at once. Being the bold kid in school, I supposed I lashed out, I would have ate a lot of bad foods as a kid, in fairness to my father we always had good food on the table but you’d always be looking for sweets at a younger age”.
“Diabolical” eating habits developed as the years progressed. Typically he didn’t have breakfasts during secondary school but would consume “a big chicken roll at lunchtime”, the next meal would be dinner with regular visits to the shop “eating crisps, biscuits or chocolate, no care in the world about it”. Sometimes after dinners, Lawlor might visit a friend and have a second dinner. “I wasn’t worried about it back then and didn’t portray that I was cared about my weight but I obviously did, I had this front of happiness and confidence which was all fake, I played up that happy jolly guy, I never felt I was fully true to myself for a long time”.
Playing as a hooker with St Senans RFC, the standard weight for someone in the position was in the mid-teens. On the outside, he lived up to the stereotype but inside he was hurting. “You’d be sitting at home, I felt and looked like shit. Not many of my friends would have been overweight, playing rugby it’s fine to be big but going on nights out or seeing the lads buy nice clothes and I’m thinking ‘I can’t wear that’, you get on with it but it hurts you. I see that in clients nowadays of a younger age, I see me in them and I understand it”.
Collisions are commonplace on the field but one knock in a league game in Cork left Lawlor with a crippling year long recovery. “I was in a scrum in the front row, my back was set flat and the second rows whatever it was something gave way, I felt a pinch in my back, being in a game with adrenaline and everything I thought nothing of it, the following day I was lying on the coach went to get up and I couldn’t, it took me half an hour to get up, when I finally did I fell to the floor and it took me another fifteen minutes to get up, I couldn’t stand up straight”.
Following a visit to the doctor and later hospital, it was confirmed as two bulging discs in his back. “I was only nineteen or twenty, at that point I would have been heavy anyway but I was fit. That ruined everything for me, I couldn’t sit on a seat upright for more than twenty seconds so I couldn’t attend college, drive into college, the only comfort I had was lying on the floor so when you’re in that state you’re not exercising, I couldn’t play sport, you fall into this deep hole where you go from being so active to doing absolutely nothing, before I knew it I had a stone and a half put on, from there I reached my heaviest which was eighteen and a half to nineteen stone, that wasn’t a good time because I developed this horrible mental state”.
For six to eight months he was “laid out properly” and unable to do many tasks that people take for granted. “My father used to put my shoes and socks on for me, when I was getting dressed I would have to give him a call to come in to throw the pants up to me or whatever”.
“My mental state suffered massively at that point, I got further and further into a hole, then my childhood trauma started to kick in”. Having found a love for sport and going to gym, not being able to do either because of injury was “soul-destroying and heart breaking”. Actively seeking a solution, he attended several medical professionals with varying methods, the words of a physiotherapist ‘there comes a point when you have to grit the teeth, get at it and start stretching’ led to a breakthrough.
Stretching as painful as it was become more frequent and at this stage weighing nineteen stone, the then LIT student began watching his diet, the first step being to stop having tomato ketchup. “It was such a small thing and it was really hard. I started stretching through the pain, coming off the pain medication some bit because it doesn’t help your head, started to walk, watch the food and notice I was feeling a bit lighter and a bit better with my mobility and movement, then my head started to improve because I was able to do a little bit more, then it just clicked and everything started to work for me, I guess it just snowballed from there”.
A constant supporter throughout the recovery was his father Ger who was “the biggest part” in the transformation. The kettle would regularly be on the boil in the Lawlor house, more significant than the ketchup, Ferg stopped putting sugar in his tea, step by step he became a new and much lighter man, now weighing between 86 and 89 kg. Work ethic and positive fitness examples were given by his father who cycled 500km in aid of Crumlin Children’s Hospital.
Fuelled by momentum, Fearghal became a personal trainer and for the past five years has been self-employed catering for over 200 clients assisting them to achieve their goals, shed weight and feel better about themselves through Fergs Fitness Your Body’s Solution. In 2013, he began a relationship with Leanne Boyle, one that has brought immense joy. Everything in his life was good until February 16th 2017 when he lost the man that supported him through thick and thin.
“It was a normal night, I came home from training so there was nothing different. I walked past him with a cup of tea at twenty to eleven, came back out and twenty past eleven and found him dead on the chair, that was definitely the hardest thing I’ve been through in my entire life. I performed CPR on him for 20 minutes straight while waiting for the ambulance to come. That was the biggest shock, it was like being by a bus”.
Ger’s death meant that before Fearghal turned thirty, he and his younger sister Áine had buried both of their parents at Fenloe Cemetery. “Being so young you were protected, twenty nine years of age you’re going ‘what the hell’, I thought there would be another twenty years in my father. He’ll never get to see a grandchild if someday I have kids, if I get married he won’t be there. It will be three years this February, people say ‘has it been that long’ but it doesn’t feel like anything to me. Unless you’ve lost someone that close, people don’t understand they can’t because they’ve never been through it”.
Not long after the bereavement, he found himself in a dark place. “my mental health took a hammering, I won’t lie, a faint thought of suicide entered my mind at one point, that’s how dark it got for me but I was lucky. I didn’t do anything because I knew what I had, I had Leanne, my sister, all my mates, my family that I knew were there and cared for me, I knew there was more to life and I owed it to my parents to live it to the full and give myself every opportunity”.
After the months mind mass, Fearghal and Leanne went travelling to places such as Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. “When I came back things got very tough, whatever I had ran away from was all coming into me then, I suffered for a long time. I remember the day I came home, I could feel it building in my stomach, the moment I walked in the door home I just broke down and completely lost it, that kicked off a year and a half period of having to really work on myself, that’s when I decided I needed a counsellor”.
Seeking help was of enormous benefit but the gym in Shannon remained his sanctuary. “The gym taught me a lot about self-disciple, work ethic, that made me want to work on my own mental health to get better for the people around me, I could see myself taking it on Leanne to a point and that wasn’t fair on her, I wanted to work on myself to become a better person for the future for the people like Leanne, my mates and family. The gym was a constant, go in and get a workout in, you know you’re going to work hard for it and that helped me, if I had been overweight I don’t know what I would have done”.
Physical and mental health both require effort, to make the mind stronger he turned to counselling, the same effects for it are to be felt as what the body experiences after a strenuous session. “I’ve done a lot of work to be in the position I’m in both physically and mentally especially mentally, Christmas and birthdays are hard, you just get days that are hard too. I could be walking down the Town Centre and I see a man that has a similar shape or colour hair to Dad and it would hit you, before that would have had in my tears now I smile.
“I’m nowhere out of the woods don’t get me wrong I still have to work and I don’t think I’ll ever be right but you have to learn how to live with these things, you can’t just stop”. He is well aware everyone in life has their own hardship and pointed out that many are worse off but Lawlor is grateful to his support network of friends and family.
Some days are more difficult than others, the road ahead for Fearghal Lawlor is uncertain but those who love and adore him are glad to see him standing strong and tall.
If you have been affected by any of the contents in this article, please contact Pieta House on 1800 247 247.