It was about control. Touring with her national team was the most difficult period, she carried her own food to escape the dreaded carbs she was so desperate to avoid.
oife Lennon used sport as a coping mechanism after losing her father to suicide when she was just 13. It offered her the opportunity to do what she loved and not have to face the pain that never went away.
Ten years later, she finally began to face the effects. After losing 10kg in a short period of time, she fell ill while on holiday in New Zealand and soon discovered that she was suffering from an eating disorder.
The Armagh footballer returned home to receive treatment and only then could her journey begin.
“My eating disorder started with soccer, I took one comment as true and started the journey of wanting to lose weight and started extreme exercise,” says Lennon.
“I wanted to control every element of my life, everything had to be perfect because it was a way to protect myself from feeling the pain or the emotions. Instead of sitting around with the emotions, I wanted to run away, so I used exercise, food, and body image to numb the pain of thinking that an image or a certain look would make me happy.
Lennon was first introduced to the sport at the age of six when her father, John, inspired her to play women’s soccer and soccer.
She then represented Armagh Harps and Armagh City in their respective games before wearing Armagh’s colors at inter-county level, while also playing for Newry City and Northern Ireland.
From a sporting point of view, one of her proudest achievements was leading her side in the Champions League against big sides like Benfica and PK-35.
“We started in Division 4 and won every league and then won the Premiership to get into the Champions League,” says Lennon.
“It was just something you couldn’t write, we’ve accomplished so much. We lost a game the whole time. This is your dream, to be captain in the Champions League.”
Lennon was also living the dream on the field with Northern Ireland at the time, but she suffered all the way.
In April 2006, the day before she was first chosen to play for her country, Lennon learned that her father had died.
“I was daddy’s little girl,” says Lennon. “My father was very fond of sports and coached many teams. I went to every game with him, it was really just me and him.
“I’m an only girl and we were always together, he took me everywhere. He basically coached me and developed me into a player.
“Before I lost him, I found out this week that I had been selected for Northern Ireland.
“He was my driving force, always behind me and supporting me.”
In the years after his death, Lennon focused on her various athletic exploits to avoid the questions that lingered in her mind. She thrived in football and women’s football, but deep down, pain and anger nagged her.
“I didn’t really know much about depression and I had no idea what happened to my dad,” she continues.
“We just had to get back to living a life that seemed normal. Football was my coping mechanism and it helped me cope with the loss of my father.
“He raised me and I was just lucky that I was talented in a sport. I could avoid feeling the emotions because I didn’t know how to feel, I didn’t know what to do with them. It was just my way of dealing with it. I loved sports, so I was lucky that I could do sports.
“It could have gone either way, I could have taken a different path, but my path was sport. There are pros and cons.”
Lennon was 23 when she decided it was time for a break, she wanted to travel and explore the world while she still could and she headed to New Zealand to find a new perspective.
The sport was put on hold and although she took up yoga, she found no rest.
“I was so scared of gaining weight that it took away all my performance. I was too focused and driven to look a certain way instead of playing in utter fear,” says Lennon.
“When I was traveling in New Zealand, I asked myself who I am. I didn’t know who I really was without a football. It was the first time I actually started to stop and slow down and be with myself.
“A lot of emotions came up and I had to start asking myself what my life was about and who I was. I learned a lot from it and over time in New Zealand I got weaker and sicker and just felt burnt out and so tired and exhausted.
“I didn’t want to do any sport, I wasn’t interested in it. As time went by, I thought I was gaining weight because I wasn’t exercising. It was a distorted image.
“Whenever it mattered, I was so weak and just knew something was wrong. So when I went to the doctor and explained to him everything I had done, they immediately diagnosed me.
“Over there alone you have no family or friends to get this news. It was the first time I accepted that something was wrong and I just knew I needed help.”
Lennon was diagnosed with anorexia, a condition in which over 20 percent of those affected develop a long-term or chronic form of the eating disorder. And the 29-year-old is still fighting to this day.
She has become an ambassador for Darkness into Light while tackling her own issues head-on. Lennon is also a life coach and with a TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final against Kerry she always has a different perspective to look at life and the games in it.
“I came home and just started to embark on the recovery journey, and I’m still in it,” she says.
“It’s something you have to constantly work through. It’s massive, there’s not enough awareness of it, especially for athletes. Playing at an inter-country level helps me heal now because I’m in a different place than I avoided for a few years because of all the thoughts, emotions and belief systems surrounding the eating disorder. But now is the time for me to face them and enjoy the sport and look at performance now.
“We also have to look at social media, a lot of the things you see there aren’t real. But I’d also like to start a campaign where we can help people be open about how they’re feeling. And knowing who you are is not an image or an athlete, you are more than that.
“There are so many people going through this who don’t have the courage to speak up or lack the support network. It creates that support network, conversations, and places to go so they can be open and vulnerable and share their feelings.
“I’m on a journey. I went through some of the worst days of my life grieving for my father. But he has now set me on the path to wanting to help other people.
“Anorexia shapes me because it shows me that it was just a mechanism to cope with the trauma I experienced as a young girl, but that I now have the strength to process it and grow into who I am really am.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/ladies-football/my-dad-was-my-driving-force-football-became-my-coping-mechanism-it-helped-me-deal-with-his-loss-armaghs-aoife-lennon-41826333.html “My father was my driving force. Football became my coping mechanism. It helped me deal with his loss.” – Armagh’s Aoife Lennon