Sometimes I could pinch myself when I think how far I’ve come. If you’d told me three years ago that I’d be taking a Pilates class, then heading home to cook a healthy dinner, I never would have believed you. For so many years I’d lived trapped behind a mask, and trapped inside a body I’d felt powerless to change.

I had a tough, impoverished childhood and I was bullied at school for being overweight. Then, as an adult, I got bigger still on fried breakfasts, chip sandwiches and Chinese takeaways. Working as a paramedic, married to my wonderful wife, Seonaid, and making sure our son, Niall, had the best start in life, it might have looked as though I’d left my past behind… but my body told another story. 

I was ashamed of my size, yet played the ‘jolly big guy’ at work, never failing to attend to patients, despite the strain it often put on me. After climbing flights of stairs in blocks of flats, I’d always arrive sweating and gasping, my blood pressure sky-high – and I’d just get on with it, never completing a shift without changing my shirt several times.

I found comfort in the fact that those in need always trusted me, and I never let them down. I’d often be asked, ‘How are you the size you are when we never see you eat?’ – and there lay the answer. I never let anyone, not even Seonaid or Niall, see me when I ate five bars of chocolate at a time.

I even had nightmares where colleagues and friends were appalled to learn I weighed over 23st.

In 2016, I was sent to three traumatic incidents at work in quick succession, each involving the death of a child. After 33 years in the job, something inside me snapped and I just couldn’t go on. After a fortnight I tried to go back to work, but broke down in tears in my car. I was signed off, yet I found being home alone, while Seonaid was working and Niall was at university, just made it worse. I became a complete recluse, never leaving the house, terrified of being judged and steadily getting bigger.

The occupational health department at work referred me to a clinical psychologist, who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. I told her exactly how I was feeling, including that I’d started having suicidal thoughts, and she referred me to a psychologist. I started to unravel how I was feeling and understand how years of low self-worth had pushed me to breaking point. At the end of the course, the psychologist used a treatment called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy, to help me visualise the events at work that had left me so traumatised and to deal with the connected feelings.

It was as though I was opening my eyes for the first time. I realised there was no shame in being almost 24st, and that I’d gained weight because I’d used food as a comfort and a punishment all my life. Change felt possible, and just a few days later, I was scrolling through Facebook when a photo of an old colleague flashed up – and she was much slimmer than I remembered. I sent her a message: ‘How have you done it?’ ‘Slimming World,’ came the reply.

Letting go of shame

A few days later, I went to the group closest to my house and, as my Consultant, Sarah, explained how Food Optimising worked, the penny dropped for me. For the first time in my life, I felt ready to change my eating habits. I’d never cooked a healthy meal before and over the weeks that followed, I made pasta dishes and omelettes packed with veg. And for breakfast, I discovered that a big bowl of fruit and fat-free natural yogurt with a Healthy Extra portion of cereal gave me far more energy than a greasy fry-up ever had.

Within a month, I’d lost over a stone, and that wasn’t the only difference. Every week I was spending time in a safe place, where I knew no one judged me and there was no stigma attached to being overweight.

At group, I felt like I could really believe in myself and with each week, I was taking a little more of that confidence away with me.

I began walking every morning, building up from 10 minutes a day until I could do 10 miles. Then I joined a Pilates class and bought myself a bike so I could go for a cycle of an afternoon. All the exercise made me feel clear-headed and energetic. As I carried on Food Optimising and lost more weight, my blood pressure dropped, too, and I was told I’d reduced my risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This January, I took up a temporary role as a teaching assistant at a local primary school, looking after children with additional behavioural needs. Knowing how my emotions had affected me, I could identify with them, and seeing their attitudes change over time was such a rewarding experience.

Now, as I set off for a hike, I feel grateful to be alive. I’ve lost 22ins off my waist and I’m 9st 2lbs lighter, yet the biggest difference in me is that I smile all the time. And as I sit down to a tasty salmon pilau I’ve made to share with my family, I enjoy every mouthful, knowing that good, healthy food helped me to become the man I am today.

*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.