Irish Model Alison Canavan has battled many demons from lifelong depression and alcohol abuse, but an unplanned pregnancy and single-parenthood led her on the path to contentment. Here she reveals how she swapped the glitz and glamour of New York’s fashion industry for a career in wellness—and found spiritual gratitude along the way.
I grew up in Dublin, one of five sisters. We lost our dad 18 years ago, so it’s now a very female environment. Growing up my older sister was the good girl and I was always the terror. I was always in trouble in school, always going against the grain. Tell me to go left and I’d go right. While I was very outgoing in my teenage years, there was always an element of sadness and a sense of low mood. I just didn’t know there was anything unusual about that–I thought everyone woke up miserable and had to push themselves through the day. I now know—because I’ve invested so much into my health—that it wasn’t normal at all.
I started modelling at 15. My mum and her friend entered me into a competition–I was such a tomboy, I’d never have done it on my own. I was never that girl who grew up wanting to be a princess or a model—I was the devil climbing trees and coming home with scraped knees. I ended up winning and going to Las Vegas to represent Ireland in the Ford Supermodel of The World competition. From there I was sent straight to Paris and started my career.
“While I was very outgoing in my teenage years, there was always an element of sadness and low mood. I thought everyone woke up miserable and had to push themselves through the day.”
Before my 16th birthday I was living and working between Paris, London and Ireland. As soon as I left school I moved to London and lived there for about seven years. I did a lot of commercial campaigns—I was the face of Lux soap and did ads for L’Oreal and Organics Hair and then some really fun stuff like music videos for Boyzone and Wet Wet Wet. Then I split up with my boyfriend and I did what I always do–ran away. Instead of dealing with things, I packed my bags and flew to New York for what was supposed to be three weeks. I stayed for eight years.
The American Dream
My life as a model in New York was very privileged. I lived in an apartment on Central Park, went out for nice dinners and drinks every night and had all the things that made up a perfect life from the outside. But things internally were far from perfect. From a very early age, even when we were teenagers and robbing drink from the house, I was always the one who took it one step further with alcohol. Everyone else would take a few swigs from the bottle, but I’d have to knock it back and finish it. Modelling—and the party scene that came with it— gave me the opportunity to knock it back a whole lot more. It was my form of escaping and I very quickly found out that I was very good at it.
Party Ali became a big identity. I never wanted the party to end, I was always the one keeping it going and I could never go home. At the beginning that was fine–I was young and bulletproof. I could go out and party all night then come home in the morning and go straight to work just fine. Everybody was doing it, especially during fashion week shows or when we’d do trips. I could drag myself up out of bed, get through my days and get through my castings as long as I knew I could then go for a couple of glasses with somebody. It was the only time I felt relief—I was basically trying to self-medicate depression with addictions.
I suppose as I got older, those highs needed to be higher and the lows lower and I was peddling, trying to get back to an even keel. And everything just spiraled. It was during my time in New York that I started to become aware that I wasn’t coping. I started to feel really remorseful whenever I got wasted and I’d then be adamant that I was going to change my ways. That was when my relationship with AA started. I started going to meetings, but to be honest during those early days I’d be listening to people’s problems and think, ‘Oh yeah, they’re screwed, I’m grand.’ In hindsight, I was probably just as bad, but I was using their extreme experiences to validate my own lifestyle.
“Drinking was the only time I felt relief—I was basically trying to self-medicate depression with addictions.”
Trying to be a moderate drinker was just as hard for me as quitting entirely. It was like I was never present. I was in my mind the whole time thinking, ‘Ok, I’m going to go out tonight, but I’ll only have one drink.’ Which never happened, by the way. If I went for lunch, especially with people who knew I was struggling with drink or people who had seen me make a complete mess of myself the weekend before, all that would be going through my mind would be, ‘If I have a wine are they all going to think here she goes again?’ In the evening if I had a glass of wine with someone at 5pm they would be chatting and having a lovely time, while I’d be thinking how can I have more, how can I keep the night going so I can have more? I was living in an addict’s mind every night and every day.
Because of the industry I worked in, I could get away with it. Nobody pulled me up on it. I remember saying something really stupid to my sister, something like ‘I thought that everyone drank all the time.’ It’s easy to think that way when everyone that you’re surrounded by lives that kind of lifestyle.
“With all the anxiety that came with living with addictions, I started to need a Xanax to leave the house and get on the subway—otherwise I’d have a panic attack in between tunnels.”
With all the anxiety that came with living with addictions, I started to need a Xanax to leave the house and get on the subway—otherwise I’d have a panic attack in between tunnels. Things started to get so bad that I stopped going out unless I really had to—I’d be paranoid to walk into to Starbucks and get a cup of coffee. It was a nightmare being in my mind. With an addictive personality also came co-dependency and I was extremely co-dependent in my relationship. I’d be ringing 50 times a day, needy as hell—all these behaviours are part of not wanting to be with yourself. You’d do anything rather than be with yourself.
My boyfriend and I finally decided to break up for good and as usual I got on a flight to block it out. I thought I’d head back to Ireland to get my head straight and work out my next steps while spending some time with my family. It was then that I found out that I was pregnant. Now I can joke about the timing of it all and how unbelievable it was, but at the time it was absolutely terrible.
I was blind-sided–I just thought things like that just don’t happen to people like me. I was meant to be married with 2.4 kids by this point. Instead I was back in Ireland at 32 about to be a single mother. From an ego perspective it was incredibly tough. And of course while the modern world has moved on to an extent, back in Ireland—and a lot of other places—an awful lot of people haven’t. An awful lot of people back in your hometown look and judge you and the baby inside you. What made it even harder was the fact that in their eyes I’d been living this glamorous life as a model in America…—but here she is back pregnant living with her mum at 32. I don’t want to say that anyone was happy to see me knocked down, but it was definitely a case of how the mighty have fallen and there were an awful lot of smart comments.
I made some pretty rash decisions and gave up my apartment in New York and basically stopped working. I just felt that I needed to be with my family and couldn’t cope without them. I immediately got healthy and started doing everything I could for my baby. But obviously being pregnant isn’t the same as being sick and I could have been working. Earning money in Ireland is also very different to earning money in New York, so when James was born I was totally broke and had to go on welfare. It was like everything had come crumbling down all at once without—it seemed—me doing anything.
“I was suicidal at points and I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with the baby—that’s something that still makes me feel extremely emotional. How did it ever got that bad?”
Ten days after I gave birth, I was back at work. I was desperate to prove to everyone that I could take care of my baby and provide for him—no matter what anyone else thought or said. I used to say I was so lucky because I could take James to work with me when I’d come to London on jobs. And I just pushed it and pushed it, working until I wound up with really deep post-natal depression. It was probably the most sick I’ve ever been with depression—I was suicidal at points and I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with the baby. That’s something that still makes me feel extremely emotional, to think that it had got that bad. For me that was rock bottom.
The Road to Self-Care
During this period I was in and out of the doctor’s surgery and they started prescribing me all this medication–but because I was breast feeding I really didn’t want to take it. So that was the catalyst for me to start researching alternative ways to try and help improve my mental state.
These days at least people are aware that their food has something to do with their mood. But when I was a younger woman none of that was connected at all. Everything was treated medically in complete isolation. I found out I have pyroluria–it’s a genetic condition which means in times of stress my red bloody cells have a chemical imbalance. From a very young age I would have been very low in B6 and Zinc, so no matter what medication I was on, it was never going to be enough. The wear and tear of the deficiency can lead to a range of mental and physical health issues of which I obviously exhibited.
Aside from improving my diet, I became much more disciplined with my routine. I’ve always craved a spiritual connection and have been meditating since my late teens. I always did angel and tarot cards and worked with mediums and healers—in the past people thought I was batshit crazy, so I’d keep that side of my life hidden. But now everyone wants a reading and my house is all salt rock lamps with my little altar. In my former life I’d go away on week long retreats or do 90-minute meditation classes on a Thursday evening believing that would save me or something. But it would be completely undermined by going out on Friday night and not making it home ’til Sunday.
“Health and balance are not reserved for the lucky few–anyone can do this, you just have to put the work in.”
Now I mediate every single day and every morning I set an intention, write in my gratitude diary and drink a glass of hot lemon water. If my day gets stressful I take time, I breathe and I have a whole set of tools to cope with life. I was on the tube the last week and it was so jammed packed. I could feel my palms sweating and my breath getting shallow. Previously I would have got panicked and had to get out at the next station. Instead I used my breath and my mental focus to say, ‘you’ve done this before, you can do it again.’ It took every fibre of my being to calm myself, but I managed it.
Health and balance are not reserved for the lucky few–anyone can do this, you just have to put the work in. Self-love is probably the most uncomfortable part of the process. When you have never valued yourself and you’ve never been kind to yourself, it’s like you’re embarrassed to give yourself credit—even when people aren’t looking. I have always been terrible at taking compliments, even now it’s still a work in progress. I try and thank people for their kind words and mean it, but in the past there would always be an excuse to counteract their compliments–because I didn’t believe in what they were saying.
“Change is the one thing that nearly all human beings resist, but it’s the only thing we can be sure of.”
As a professional model, people can find it really hard to understand how I could possibly feel that way. I get a lot of emails from people saying, ‘I follow you one Instagram and I thought you were this perfect woman and I can’t believe your story and what you’re really like.’ Sometimes people say that they are shocked that I have something inspiring to say. At first I used to get offended by those kind of comments—what does everyone think I’m an idiot? But now I understand that it can be really hard to get a real sense of anyone through pictures or social media—and I have to keep reminding myself that people will always have a different view of the world, kind of no matter what you do. It’s madness to think you’ll have full approval from everyone all the time and if you have thousands of people following you, they aren’t all going to like everything you do. That’s just the way it is. When I was in my drink haze of hate and medication, I’d think, ‘look at her, everything handed to her on a platter,’ and ‘poor me, I have to work to get through life, good things don’t just happen to me’. So I know what it’s like to be there and how easy it can be to think something about someone else that makes it easier to get through your day.
As one of Ireland’s most successful models, her work spanned commercial, editorial fashion and beauty campaigns.
I don’t want it to sound like the past six years have been all roses. There’s been an enormous amount of disappointment and setbacks even since I’ve been on this path to wellness. Putting yourself back through college when you have a toddler and studying weekends and evenings—there’s nothing easy about that. Trying to make ends meet week in, week out then doubting that you are present enough as a mother is endlessly tough. But the one thing I’ve learnt is that your mindset is everything. You could go through the changes in food and lifestyle, but if your mindset is wrong, nothing else will ever be right.
“Instead of going with the flow, we try and keep things stuck where they are. It’s almost like in the Western world we’ve been taught to jump in the river and swim against the tide every day.”
Life is a series of small moments when you stop and start again. I do genuinely feel that if someone had properly explained that to me when I was younger, I might not have struggled with depression and anxiety to the same extent. It would have given me some sense of comfort. When you’re really depressed and especially when you’re suicidal, you feel like it’s never going to end and that you’re never going to come out of it. Once I learnt through mediation and mindfulness that emotions are transient and that they inevitably pass through I think the penny finally dropped. Any time I’m having a shit day, it is comforting to know it will change. Change is the one thing that nearly all human beings resist, but it’s the only thing we can be sure of.
It’s like when you meet a guy and it’s all lovey-dovey at the beginning. And all you want is for it to stay like that forever. Instead of going with the flow, we try and keep things stuck where they are. It’s almost like in the Western world we’ve been taught to jump in the river and swim against the tide. We think that if we go with the flow, we’ll be out of control or that things won’t go well unless we force them in this or that direction. Yet it only goes well if you jump in and go with it—that’s the only real path to contentment.
There’s a light and a dark side to everything in life. By medicating the negative feelings, as a society are numbing our ability to connect with our instincts. Those negative feelings are a sign–that something in your life is bad for you. If you don’t feel them, how can you ever know and work to make a positive change? I would never want to feel content 100% of the time because it would mean I’d stopped to connect with the more spiritual signs guiding me on the path ahead. It’s just how you recognise those signs and redress the negative feelings that are important.
I ended up writing a book on wellness for new mothers called Minding Mum which was published last year because when I was on my journey of getting well, I suddenly realized that I was doing all this for my baby and that I needed to start doing it for myself. That was a game changer for me. As soon as you have a baby, the whole focus goes on to the baby from friends, family, visitors. But really the focus should all go on the mother–post birth she needs more looking after and if she’s happy and healthy she’ll be a better mother, wife, friend, sister. There’s no mention of the baby in the book–it’s just about the mum. What you need after you give birth and how to look after yourself from meditations to recipes and finding time for yourself.
When I look back at my old life, there were of course amazing moments and so much fun. But overall, the craic was about 10% and the rest of the 90% was a disaster. Everything is consistent now instead of chaos. I’d miss trains, constantly be losing things, bumping into people, losing my way. Every day was frantic and that was all related to my inner disconnection. Now I’m so wonderfully happy, but because of what I’ve been through I know that I’ll never, ever take that happiness for granted—not even for one day.