'It changed the course of my life forever' – Playwright Jacinta Sheerin on the moment she was called 'fatso'

With its jewel-coloured shop fronts and laid-back vibe, Ennistymon is home to a growing population of musicians, artists, chefs and craftspeople seeking life outside the capital. And it’s here that Jacinta Sheerin and her partner, musician Steo Wall, decided to settle after the seaside town cast a spell on them when they visited friends a few years ago. They loved it so much that they decided to put down roots, and are now raising their sons Adam (four) and Felix (two) in the Clare town.

The town’s proximity to glór Theatre in Ennis is also allowing Jacinta (39), originally from Dublin’s Inchicore, the creative freedom to work in theatre outside the capital. Last summer she was announced as an Associate Artist at glór, a scheme initiated by the theatre’s director Orla Flanagan to support professional artists in their work. This gave Jacinta the much-needed head and work space to write her new play which will debut at glór this week. “I am so lucky to have the fantastic team at glór as supporters and theatre collaborators,” Jacinta says. “The quality of life in Clare is wonderful. Ennistymon has so many quality restaurants and coffee shops, fantastic walks, galleries galore, great bars and, of course, there’s the beach – loads of beaches. The atmosphere has really helped me sustain my creativity and writing.”

That creativity will come to fruition when she takes to the stage with her one-woman show, Sweet About Me, which is described as an honest, emotional and warmly funny play about addiction and the road to recovery.

Set in an addiction treatment centre over the course of four weeks, the play introduces a series of five patients with their own stories and secrets. Each is seen through the eyes of 18-year-old Bernadette Fagan who has an eating disorder.

Jacinta has loosely based this fictional story on her own experience of an eating disorder and the issues she herself faced getting treatment for it. By casting a spotlight on this subject she hopes to create conversations about guilt, addiction and recovery. While Sweet About Me draws on her own experience, she says she really wanted to make it a fictional story set in a treatment centre. “It’s a made-up story drawing on my knowledge. I was never in a treatment centre. The message is mostly about mental health and how, when we push down our feelings or we don’t talk to each other, things manifest. The main character is not able to manage her feelings and the only thing she is able to control is her body and food,” says Jacinta.

The name Sweet About Me references both an addiction to sugar and Jacinta’s own journey through recovery, becoming sweet about herself as a person. She was aged just 10 or 11 when the first of two incidents, which she believes had a negative effect on her younger self, happened. She recalls that she was carrying some “puppy fat” and someone called her “fatso”. “I wasn’t aware of being overweight at all until that moment. It made me aware and conscious of myself. Before that I was in ignorant bliss. It changed the course of my life forever. Words are so powerful.

“When I was a teenager, I lost weight – the puppy fat was starting to fall away naturally. Everyone started to comment on my appearance, adults and people my own age telling me: ‘You’ve lost weight, you look great!’ I guess this made me aware of weight again, and how I had to maintain it in order to stay looking well. If I see someone now who has lost weight, I try not to comment. It’s too much pressure and, for some people, it turns into a never-ending obsession with their weight and size.”

For Jacinta, this obsession, which began in her teens but had abated, reared its head again in her early 20s. “I went through a relationship breakdown and it came back full force. I found myself overeating to try and cure the pain.”

The pressure of having to look a certain way in an industry where rejection is commonplace exacerbated her illness. She grappled with what felt like a “never-ending cycle” of starving herself and binge eating and living in shame – while keeping it all secret from her family and friends. “I did keep it hidden. I felt full of shame that there was something wrong with me, having this addiction to food, that nobody else in the world had ever experienced. It was very shameful and so I isolated myself.

“I would have had weight fluctuations over the years but I guess they weren’t huge to other people. I had clothes for ‘big’ days and clothes for ‘smaller’ days. I’d have clothes that covered me when I’d eaten a lot. I know there were times when people would have said I’d got very skinny but then I’d eat a little bit more or think to myself ‘that’s great’. You lie to people – you get very good at lying to people. I was able to not let people know I had it. I was able to keep it a secret.”

It was only after she had sought help and was recovering that she told anyone close to her. “It wasn’t until I got help for myself – through meeting other like-minded people in a formal way – that I started to realise that I’m not the only one suffering from this disease. It’s a very cunning disease and everyone suffers it differently. The first person close to me I told was my friend Maria. I’d been getting help for a while when I told her. I remember the two of us just cried.”

Recovery is something Jacinta describes as “ongoing” and says she still needs to meet those ‘like-minded people’ for support. “For me, I had to give up sugar to be well. That was hard because sugar is such a big part of society – from your birthday cake and desserts – and you have to say no. At the beginning it was really hard for me to say no because I didn’t want to insult people. But then you have to go ‘if I eat this sugar, it will send triggers into my body’.

“Once you’ve had an eating disorder I believe you’re always in recovery. You can forget you’ve had it. That’s why I call it a disease of forgetting. I feel I will always be in recovery and reminding myself that I have it,” she says.

It was writing and drama that helped sustain her through the dark times her illness plunged her into. That love of theatre began when she joined Dublin Youth Theatre at the age of 15 before going on to study drama at the University of Ulster, and complete a masters in drama therapy at Maynooth University.

Her big breakout moment came with the success of her show Waiting for IKEA which started out as a Dublin Fringe Festival play, sold out its run and went on to tour in London and New York. Her TV work includes Love is the Drug, Fair City and the feature film Seaside Stories.

It was in the middle of writing her second play that she felt the need to be somewhere a little bit quieter than Dublin. She had a good friend living in Ennistymon and so, seven years ago, she flitted to Ennistymon temporarily to stay with her friend while she wrote. Her partner Stephen would visit her on weekends. That play – I’m not ADHD I’m BOLD – was well received and the time came to move back to Dublin. But instead of going back to city life, Jacinta stayed and Steo joined her. Their son Adam was born a few years later, followed by Felix, and now Ennistymon is very much home.

While it worried her initially that she may be a bit “out of the theatre loop” if she had a permanent base outside Dublin, the quality of life won out for her and her family. “The pull was very strong. There were lots of times over the years when we’ve asked would it be easier for us to be back in Dublin. Then we’d think there’s so much here for us. We’ve a big group of friends. It was a worry but we’ve made it work.”

She admits that some friends in Dublin initially thought they were “mad” to up sticks and move to Clare. “They’ve been to visit us here and none of them ever want to leave. They think it’s the most beautiful place. It’s gorgeous here. I love going for walks by the sea. We have such moments of gratitude when we see the lads running along the beach and think that this is just the right move”.

The town of Ennistymon itself sounds like a creative’s dream with more and more new arrivals bringing their own unique energy to the area. Lured by the promise of little traffic, no commuting and more affordable housing, Ennistymon is seeing new restaurants, cafés and shops open all the time to cater for the influx of new arrivals.

“All the shops here are different colours – there’s blues and pinks and yellows as you go down the street. Everyone knows everyone and there’s a lovely atmosphere and vibe. Everyone is so nice. There’s a great shop called The Cheese Press. If you look in the window of a day there could be a music session going on. You go in and have your coffee and meet everyone you know – it’s like an episode of Cheers.”

“There’s the locals who’ve been here for years and then there’s the people who’ve come for a week and ended up staying 20 years. People are really accepted by the locals – that’s the kind of town it is,” she says.

The family is renting a property on the outskirts of the town but hope to buy a place in the future. “I would like to be here forever. It makes us happy and fills our hearts with joy to be here,” she says.

As she counts down the days before Sweet About Me has its premiere, she’s hoping that the play will shed light on an area that’s not much talked about. “Hopefully this will touch a nerve with someone. Even if they’re not affected directly, it might give them the knowledge and they can spread it on. A penny might drop for someone. I don’t want to sound like Mother Teresa that I want to cure the world with the play. I just hope it might drop a penny for someone,” she says.

“This affects so many people and it’s a conversation worth having. Years ago I couldn’t have imagined that I’d want to talk about it because I was like, ‘I’ll never admit to anyone that I have this’, but it’s only by talking about things that we can bring light on them,” she says.

‘Sweet About Me’ opens at glór Ennis on March 6 before a nationwide tour. See glór.ie

If you have been affected by an eating disorder, or need information on the issues raised here, contact Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, on 1890 200 444.

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