Emma-Jane Stoker-Phelan’s life changed when she saw Max. It was a Thursday and Max, an affectionate French bulldog, happened to be visiting the infirmary where Emma-Jane was staying.
mma-Jane has been living with an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, for over 10 years and was in St. Patrick’s Hospital for five months in 2017. The moment Max, a registered therapy dog with Irish Therapy Dogs, walked into the hospital, he lifted everyone’s spirits, including Emma-Jane.
His presence was an absolute tonic. “The impact he made was incredible,” she says. Luckily for Emma-Jane, Max continued to visit the station every Thursday for the rest of her time there. Max gave comfort and love to the patients on some very dark days. When Emma-Jane, 28, was released, part of her rehabilitation consisted of setting achievable goals that would help her maintain a healthy mental state.
One of the goals she set herself was to register for this year’s Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon. “I had always enjoyed running, but at that time I started taking it more seriously to stay on track with my recovery,” she says.
“It’s a good way for me to stay focused. I can’t run if I don’t feel adequate, so staying healthy is a big driver. [It keeps me] motivated to fuel my body,” she says. It also helps her relax and relieve stress. “Even just being out in the fresh air for 15 minutes makes a big difference to me.
“These small goals keep you focused,” says Emma-Jane. “Those little glimmers get you what you need … It’s not always the big things, it’s the small goals that keep you on the road to recovery.”
Emma-Jane completed her first solo mini marathon and was immediately struck by the encouraging and positive crowd running and lining the 10km course. “It didn’t matter if you walked or crawled,” she says, “everyone cheered you on. It was such an inclusive and enjoyable experience.”
As she crossed the finish line, Emma-Jane realized she was hooked on running and has been taking part ever since. Aside from running, Emma-Jane set another goal to start volunteering with Irish Therapy Dogs. She had benefited first hand from the services provided and wanted to share that experience with others who needed company, love, affection and a dose of dopamine.
She decided to sign her one-year-old Golden Retriever puppy Toby to Irish Therapy Dogs and began training him. He was admitted after his assessment at the age of two. Emma-Jane, who works as a lay minister at Christ Church Cathedral, started taking Toby to the local care homes and the patients beamed when they saw him rushing through the door. “I’ve seen unresponsive patients trying to get out of their wheelchairs to interact with Toby,” she says.
“With the patients we see, he seems to sense when someone is unwell and just stay by their side. “He seems to know what to do,” she says. “He’s just this little angel. Toby will notice when residents are missing from the station and are waiting for them. And when patients look dejected, he gently licks their hands or lays his head on their laps. He is a patient and soft-hearted dog.”
Unfortunately Irish Therapy Dogs services have had to be suspended during the pandemic to help stem the spread of the infection, but Emma-Jane hopes they can resume work soon. On a more personal level, Toby was also instrumental in getting Emma-Jane through tough times.
“It’s a cliche, but he’s definitely my best friend,” she says. “He just knows when things aren’t going well. He’s so intuitive. He is a very special dog and I am very lucky to have him.”
Eating disorder recovery is a long road. It can take years to uncover the root or cause, and even longer to arm yourself with an emotional and mental toolkit to prevent destructive behavior from reoccurring. During the pandemic, many people with eating disorders have found access to services extremely difficult.
Funds and resources were running out to handle the influx of people struggling in the face of a global pandemic. Whilst Emma-Jane is fortunate to have had access to support, she says it is frustrating at how underfunded eating disorder services still exist in Ireland.
“Because so many people had problems [during the pandemic], the resources were getting finer and finer,” she says. “It’s such a crisis at the moment. People try to get treatment but they can’t because there isn’t any.
“It’s totally annoying. I had to wait months for a bed; It wasn’t until I ended up in a general hospital, very seriously ill, that I was able to get a bed. So there is a narrative of “You are not sick enough to seek treatment”. It’s so frustrating that we have to get worse to get better.”
Emma-Jane hopes that funding for eating disorder services in Ireland will improve in the future. Eating disorders are an extremely complex mental illness and can cause those affected to question their self-worth.
Emma-Jane believed her anorexia nervosa left her unable to make a difference in the world. However, working with Toby has helped her develop a newfound confidence and confidence which has opened up a whole new world for her.
As she toured nursing home wards, she saw the benefits that both her and Toby’s presence had for people. And that, in turn, made her feel like she was making a big difference in people’s lives during that one hour a week.
This year she is running the marathon to raise awareness of Irish therapy dogs. The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to many charities that rely on donations from the public, and she hopes this will help raise vital funds for the service.
This year she runs it with her younger sister Kate (18). When she talks about the marathon, she is full of excitement and positive memories. “It’s so comprehensive. There are people of all ages, fitness levels and backgrounds. It’s not about the race, that’s nice,” she says. “It’s an easy run. It’s just fun and there’s a band every kilometer or the fire brigade is there and sprays hoses.”
The last two years, the marathon was virtual due to Covid and lockdown restrictions. But 2022 will be the first time since 2019 that it will be held in person again. “It’s my favorite event to attend because it’s about so much more than just running,” says Emma-Jane.
“It’s about empowering women, building each other up, spreading awareness about the causes we care about. There’s a real sense of community even when you’re walking alone. And every year as you lace up your runners, the crowd becomes more familiar. There are definitely familiar faces and I definitely seem to know more and more people doing it every year,” she says.
She recommends anyone thinking about signing up. “If you’re considering participating, my advice is to start small and set small goals,” she says. “You don’t have to run 10 km on the first day of training.”
She advises having compassion for yourself as some days will be harder than others. “Some days you might find it difficult to even put your running shoes on, but that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
For Emma-Jane, the mini-marathon marks the beginning of a busy summer. She will be married at Trinity College later in the year. Unfortunately, neither Toby nor Max will serve as ring bearers on the big day. “I wish, but that would be logistically too much,” she says, laughing.
And she will also be taking part in a charity skydive to raise more money for Irish Therapy Dogs. “The charity is struggling so I want to be back with a bang this summer and do something exciting.”
The Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon takes place on Sunday 5th June. Register at vhiwomensminimarathon.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/living-with-an-eating-disorder-its-the-small-goals-that-keep-you-on-the-road-to-recovery-41516857.html Living with an Eating Disorder: “It’s the Small Goals That Keep You on the Road to Recovery”