FOR the last few months, Mark Kearney has been drawing puzzled glances from people he meets on the streets, even from people he has known for years.
He is close to unrecognisable from the man he was on St Patrick’s Day, after shedding almost 11 stone in the space of seven months.
The weight loss came after a religiously-observed diet and the re-introduction of exercise into his life.
When he started the weight loss programme in April, Mark, who lives in Ennis, was 25 stone and nine pounds but when he finished in early October, he was down to 14 stone and 11 pounds, a fairly appropriate weight for his 6’5 frame.
It’s hardly surprising that he wasn’t satisfied with life at 25 stone and he says the weight was draining the positives from him in all sorts of ways. “Being that weight was affecting my whole life. Going in for interviews for jobs [he was then unemployed], it was only a waste of time going in at that weight. Number one, I couldn’t get dressed properly for an interview, I couldn’t get a shirt that fitted me.
“Even socialising, I was very, very conscious of my weight. I was very conscious when I walked into a bar or any social setting that people were looking at me and probably saying ‘Jesus, look at that fella, the size of him’. That’d be going on in your head and you’d be uncomfortable. Any place I went into I’d have to get a chair, I couldn’t stand for any length of time because it was killing my knees. Just getting up in the morning and getting dressed was a nightmare. I often remember pulling the wardrobe apart trying to find one thing that’d fit me.
“My confidence had gone way down, I wouldn’t even look in the mirror. You’d be in a bad oul’ place because of it. Then, in terms of health, my blood pressure was gone through the roof.”
Late last year, he visited a doctor for a matter unrelated to his size, but was told quite clearly that he was well on the way to giving himself a stroke; that it was solely in his hands to change course.
When Mark left the practice, he was far from grateful for what he had been told but the straight talking was the best thing for him. “The doctor said to me he wanted to call an ambulance there and then. He laid it out for me where I was headed and how close I was to it. That was about a year ago and it took me a while to process that in my own head. When I came out I was annoyed, I was saying to myself ‘what does he know about it, who is he to be talking to me like that’. But I knew it in the back of my head the whole time.
“The thing about it was that if I lost the weight, all of this would vanish, it was all in my hands. There was no medical condition I had to deal with. He said to me that I could do something about it, while there were people coming in with blood pressure that was hereditary and they were working hard on it.”
The weight had crept up on him over the years, really kicking in when took on a sedenatry job. Failing to tackle it then was a mistake. “As a young fella I was always big, always heavy, but I seriously started putting on weight when I came back to Ireland. I went to Holland after my Leaving Cert and I did a lot of physical work there, I was working off what I was eating. When I came back to this country in the mid-’90s I ended up working in a factory, literally sitting down all day in a chair, hardly moving for eight hours.
“I was eating the same way as when I was doing all the physical work and the weight started piling on and it’s a gradual thing. I wasn’t thinking about weight, I wasn’t weighing myself, wasn’t watching it. Eventually I said ‘look, I’m getting heavy here, I’ll get to it next week, I’ll join a gym or start a programme’. But it was always tomorrow or next week. Then, one fine day, I was 20 stone. You’re in trouble then.”
When the weight had piled up he found comfort in food, which only reinforced the problem and made it harder than ever to tackle.
“Once you get to that weight it’s a vicious circle. You’re caught, you can’t exercise because you’re not physically able to do anything. You’re there looking at yourself, you’re feeling bad about the way you look and the only thing you can do is eat, you go away and you eat to feel better. What does that do? Piles on more weight, keeps you where you are. You’re in this circle and you’re not coming out of it.”
He says the amount of junk food he ate was massive. He had a weakness for Chinese takeaways which he says are “absolutely lethal”, while he had a sweet tooth that was indulged with chocolate bars at every opportunity.
Deep down, he knew his doctor had told him the uncomfortable truth but he didn’t immediately admit the seriousness of the situation to himself.
“I went away and I was bulling, didn’t want to know it, how dare he talk to me like that, what does he know, this and that. It took me a while to cop on and realise it was serious. I had to have some serious chats with myself and prepare myself for what I was going to do. I just had to keep telling myself that he was right, there was a stroke around the corner.”
What he had been told had punctured a bit of self-delusion that he had used to insulate himself from the reality. “When I was over 25 stone I was telling people I was 19 stone and when you say it often enough, a bit of yourself believes you are 19 stone. I was nowhere near it.”
Because food had become such a comfort to him, he wasn’t very keen on overhauling his diet. However, in the spring, he started doing a bit of research on the options available. One day, he went to an Ennis pharmacy, which marked the beginning of a phenomenal weight loss journey.
“She weighed me and I had put on more weight since I was at the doctor. We had a good chat about it and what goals I’d set for myself. When I was going in, it was in my head that the person I’d meet would annoy me and I would get up and walk out, then I’d say to myself ‘well I tried it and it didn’t work’. But she was fabulous, absolutely brilliant, and when we were finished the consultation, she said ‘when are we going to start?’
“I had no plans of starting, I was just going in getting information and fecking off for myself. But I said ‘sure we’ll start this evening’.”
The diet he chose was quite straightforward and sparse. It consisted of nothing more than a milk shake in the morning and soup in the evening, with only water to drink.
He followed it absolutely to the letter and believes that was the reason he had no ill effects. “You get a DVD explaining everything to you, the shakes and soup give you everything; except calories. I never felt tired, lethargic, sick, never had headaches, nothing. The reason was that I did exactly what they said.”
Having spent years eating anything he felt like in large quantities, the start of the new regime was difficult from a psychological point of view.
“The first two weeks were really hard. I used to have to go to bed because I was thinking about food. You’d be smelling it when it wasn’t even there. Everywhere you looked you’d see food.
“But once the first two weeks were over that all went and it’s only since I’m back on a normal regime that I think it was very easy because I had nothing to think about. I got up in the morning, made the milkshake and went off. In the evening I had the soup and I had no choices to make, it was all done for me.”
He discovered he didn’t have a problem with people eating around him, in fact it was those who were doing the eating who found it uncomfortable. “When I started I kind of cut myself off from everyone, but I realised that was wrong, that’s not reality. I went out and drank water. I met people who were having meals and if lads were going to matches and having food after, I’d drink water. What I found was I was grand but everyone around me had the problem, they were guilty as hell!”
When a little bit of the weight was gone, he was able to exercise in a way that hadn’t been possible at 25 stone. “I bought a bike and started cycling. I joined a gym and I could do stuff in a gym that was going to have an effect. Before, I could hardly walk 20 steps.”
The results were quite dramatic and very heartening for him. “Every week I was going in, getting weighed and losing on average five pounds. I was feeling fabulous. In three weeks, I had a stone lost. Once that happened, there was no going back, two stone, three stone, I could feel it then.”
When he was putting on weight and hit 20 stone he knew he had a problem, but when he hit 20 stone with his weight going in the right direction, it was a really seminal moment. “Once I got under 20 stone ,I could feel clothes fitting well, everything was changing, I felt anything was possible. Once I got under the 20, I changed my goal, I said I could reach 15 stone. The confidence was rising, everything was getting better.”
Close to the end of the diet, he got a job with the Brothers of Charity and he feels there is no way he would have secured it if he hadn’t tackled the weight.
He had a job interview right before the weight loss began and feels he gave a completely different impression at a significantly reduced weight. “Not to focus too much on one thing, but walking into an interview, there’s such a difference. I had gone into an interview with the weight on me and I had a jumper on me that would go down to my toes, it was so big, but it was all that fitted me, it was dirty because I couldn’t wash it. I knew what I looked like going in there, so I had no confidence, no belief in myself. I really wanted to get out of there.
“For the second interview I had a shirt and jacket on me and a pants that fitted me. I had confidence and felt good about myself. It’s amazing what clothes do in that way and the effect the way you look will have on you. I used to say I had no interest in fashion or clothes, I hadn’t because I couldn’t go into a shop and put the clothes on me.”
He feels his experience shows that people who may feel they can’t lose weight can do it.
“I’m not a fitness fanatic, not in any sense of the word. I’ll be out having a few pints at the weekend, I like to enjoy life, but it’s so possible. You can think, I’ve 10 stone to lose, it’ll take forever, but once you make the decision, it can change your life.”