Steph Golds learned how to drive at 16, realising fast that getting from Annestown to Tramore everyday was going to be easier if she had her own set of wheels.
Unbeknowst to herself, that sense of self-sufficiency and strength was going to be a paving stone for her future as she returned to college in her late twenties to pursue Counselling and Psychotherapy.
“I grew up along the Copper Coast, it was such a beautiful place to grow up with my parents and my older brother. I went to primary school in Dunhill, about three miles away and my close circle of friends are still made up mostly of people who went to school with me there.”
In many ways, Steph’s childhood was a postcard one for rural Ireland, she was a 1998 Irish dancing champion performing in Dunhill village hall, who enjoyed camogie and football, but her heart was firmly with the elegance of the Irish dance.
Against the backdrop of such an idyllic life growing up, however, Steph was quietly battling an eating disorder for most of her teenage years, something which she is only beginning to openly speak about now.
“I wanted to use my experience to help others. I have been there, I understand and I knew that I wanted to study Counselling and Psychotherapy, I wanted more knowledge all the time.”
That thirst for knowledge and that desire to help others brought Steph to Tammy Darcy, founder of The Shona Project and from that grew the Ask Steph initiative.
“The Shona Project is an initiative which aims to inspire, encourage and empower all of the young girls around Ireland to become strong, confident women. The Ask Steph initiative is an anonymous email inbox where anyone can send a concern, or a query through to. All details are kept anonymous and we publish my response to the question on the Shona Project website.”
The questions received through the Ask Steph initiative are common to all teenage girls, spanning a full spectrum from difficulties at home, at school, with friends, anxiety and body image issues.
“Anxiety and confidence are all under the one umbrella, expressed in different ways. Anxiety in teenage boys and girls has increased an awful lot in the last couple of years, but in particular, teenage girls have a feeling of not being good enough either physically or intellectually.”
This feeling of inadequacy is coming from a place of comparison, as teenagers compare themselves to others in their friend circle, or of a similar age.
“Comparison is normal, we all still do this as adults, that in itself is not the problem. The problem arises when the comparison is combined with low self-worth, this can be internalised into a very negative message. This story develops into something which that teenager tells themselves daily until it is ingrained in their personal story.”
Although Steph’s training has taught her to create a healthy boundary between work and personal life, I couldn’t help but wonder whether working so closely with such triggering subject matter could ever make those boundaries difficult.
“When you train to become a counsellor, you do a lot of work over strengthening those boundaries and remembering who you are as a person. That feeds very much into the work I do with young people, it is extremely important that they remember who they are. This natural comparison that we do, it makes us look outwards, social media- a big part of everyone’s lives also looks outwards towards other people. The more time we spend looking outward, we forget the need to look inwards to the things we are good at, the things we like, the people we are, we become cut off from ourselves. The outward comparison means we often forget our own worth, and those talents that are naturally there within you. For some people, this process has been happening for such a long time that they genuinely belief what they tell themselves when they make those comparisons, they can’t see past it.”
Having initially started her educational journey with Social Care followed by Multimedia, Steph returned in her mid to late twenties to study Counselling and Psychotherapy, with specialised training in the field of eating disorders. She is living proof of her belief that by looking inwards, instead of outwards, we realise our gifts. Steph’s natural affinity for helping others, coupled with her extensive training means that whether it is one on one, school workshops, or anonymously through the Ask Steph initiative, she is using her story and her skills to ease the pain of others- to give others the skills to revisit their relationship with themselves.
“An evolving pressure is happening in society, and from what I have seen with some young people, that pressure is self applied, as opposed to being applied by parents or by school. There is a definite desire for a high level of achievement, and while this exists in certain personality types, I think it is becoming just another way for girls to measure themselves against each other. There is another side to this, however. If their world has become too uncontrollable for them to manage, school can be a good channel for that energy, whether other areas of their lives may just be too difficult.”
Although our minds often think of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating when we think of an eating disorder, Steph advised that it is really an eating disorder when someone’s life is consistently being disrupted by any unhelpful thoughts about their body or their eating behaviours. It may not look like the eating disorders we are familiar with, even perhaps presenting with unhealthy habits around exercise and food, but those struggles are often silently battled and bravely borne, with the person desperately needing help.
“Eating disorders affect both men and women, across all ages and backgrounds. As the years went on, I looked back at my own experience and my own eating disorder which dominated most of my teenage years. I got through it, I came out the other side and I have this visceral knowledge of what both sides feel like, I needed to use that knowledge to help. It is the person themselves who needs that help, but it is also very much the onlookers like family and friends, who can so often feel tremendously helpless. I wanted to turn my experience into something positive both for myself and for other people.”
Interestingly however, Steph stresses that an eating disorder is just one way in which inner turmoil can present itself, which is why she works to help people in whom turmoil presents in a range of ways including depression, anxiety, substance addiction to name a few.
“It took me a while to come to terms with my own story, now I can say it is in my past. Some of the stories I hear are so similar to my own, the same age, for similar reasons, a similar personality type-but even though the stories are so similar, it feels very distant to me, which is a good thing. I have distance, time and space between me and that part of my story that I can hold space for those I speak with, and their own story.”
Working on a voluntary basis with The Shona Project has allowed teenage girls to access support, anonymously or through school workshops, given that teenage years are the most common years to see an eating disorder develop. These years are packed with transitions and changes, both emotionally and physically and there are not many who specialise in this field. With a bright smile, Steph tells me she plans to “keep trucking on” with helping anyone that she can. There is a quote by Maya Angelou which says “the love of the family, the love of one person can heal.” The dancing Annestown woman with her blonde hair and bright smile will indeed “keep trucking on,” bringing a wealth of optimism, understanding, care and a safe, healing space into the future.
In conversation with Dymphna Nugent