V is for victory - Vicky Harrison's story of her fight for herself, and her mission to help others battling mental illness.

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V is for Victory

Eighteen months ago Vicky Harrison weighed 350 lbs (25 stone). Five years ago, she was told she’d be dead by 44. And yet...

Next month, Vicky will compete in a Total Warrior 12k. And she’s now training to be a personal fitness instructor with one of the world’s most famous football clubs.

This is a story of transformation - one that the '“before and after” pictures of weight loss and fitness show as immediately astonishing.

Go deeper, and you’ll see a complex and courageous story of mental health, community and of an organization that is changing lives.

Most of all, it’s a story of a strong woman who has taken back control of her life.

If you’d met Vicky as a teenager, you’d have been impressed with her wicked-smart intelligence, wry sense of humor and a seemingly strong sense of self. Despite her generous heart, you didn’t mess with Vic - especially on a field hockey pitch!

Then, as a graduate student and teacher at the prestigious University of Birmingham, Vicky was supposedly at the top of her game. She was checking all the boxes that a smart, hard-working woman should check. The problem was, Vicky was living a lie.

Behind her academic success, and her outward strength were a myriad of mental health challenges, caused by childhood abuse. These challenges were causing alcohol and food dependency, self-harm and other destructive behaviors.

An encounter that changed everything
Years after leaving the University and the subsequent rollercoaster of treatment, Vicky went to a football match at Everton Football Club with her mum Linda. During the match, a team member from Everton’s charity - Everton in the Community - struck up a conversation with Vicky and mentioned “Girls on Side” - a program that helps women with mental illness.

That moment proved life-changing for Vicky. She went home and signed up for the program immediately. From there, she began partnering with a personal trainer who has worked with her to get her fitness up to remarkable levels.

However, this has not just been a physical transformation. This program - and Vicky’s sheer determination and strength - has created an entirely unexpected path in helping others.

(Photos above: Vicky 18 months ago, Vicky beating a Bosu, and with Everton legend Ian Snodin and trainer Katie Sayer.)

Vicky - tell us about “Girls on Side”:
Everton’s charity is Everton in the Community (EitC) which has been around for about 30 years, and “Girls on Side” is their program that helps women’s mental health. It is different because it combines clinical health care with a focus on rediscovering and women’s skills and outlook. They rebuild ambition and self-esteem and help to create new paths for the women involved.

Their approach worked for me. Part of the Girls on Side program was a weekly trip to the Nuffield Gym in Liverpool. When I started, I was 350 lbs, but as I began to exercise again, I realized…..”I’m enjoying this!” So I joined a gym, and all of a sudden I’m losing weight and getting fit. I then began getting more involved with Everton, who are now helping me train to become a Personal Trainer for the program.

One of the best things I’ve bought is a pair of boxing gloves! I joke that they are “Diazepam, made by Adidas!”, they are that effective!

How did you find out about Girls on Side?
Less than two years ago, I was sat outside at Everton’s ground (Goodison Park), it was a lovely day, so I was wearing short sleeves. I didn’t think about it at the time, but my self-harm scars would have been visible on my arms. A campaigner for EitC approached me and started talking about the program. They didn’t hard-sell me on it but gave me information to learn more.

EitC reached out to you, but you still had to take action. Can you remember what made you take that first step of reaching back out to them?
I’m mad about sport - football is my passion, and this organization was connected to that. There was a real power in that.

I knew I had no longevity in what I was doing. Either through accident or intent, I was going to end up dead very soon.

What was it about fitness and the gym that connected with you?
Even though I was doing well at Uni, I was trying to be something I wasn’t. It never sat comfortably with me. On the outside, I was having a great time with my friends but under the long sleeves there were 25 stitches from self-harm.

I now know that exercise can genuinely help negative emotions and behavior, whether that is depression, anxiety or self-harm.

For the first time now, I sit in a gym, and I think “I love this.” I train next to people with eating disorders, with depression, and for some of them, just walking into the building is a success that day.

For me, it’s not being the best and beating people; it’s about what I can achieve and how I can nail my personal best. I would never have had the self-esteem to do that before. I would have said “I’m crap. I”m awful, I need to hide away.” The difference now is that I can make a positive impact - I can help other people.

My trainer, Katie Sayer has been a rock for me. It was Katie that asked me to do Total Warrior.

I used to get out of breath getting to the front door to get the pizza 18 months ago, and now I can beat some of the trainers on some of the challenges!

Look, I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got food in the cupboards - some people are going to food banks, some kids didn’t have Christmas presents this year. I can’t sit here and feel sorry for myself anymore - Everton has been so instrumental in helping me with that.

How important has “mindset” been in your journey?
It’s about turning my experience into something positive. You can’t become a bitter and twisted person - I have tried to think: “how can I turn this around so that I help not only myself but also other people, so they don’t go through the last 30-odd years that I’ve gone through”?

Can you describe some of the women in the Girls on Side program?
They are a fantastic bunch. We have women who have physical problems on top of mental health - things like fibromyalgia or diabetes. We have women dealing with abusive partners, caregivers of autistic kids, mental illness such as psychosis, mania. Yet, they keep turning up, and they keep smiling.

The strength you receive back from the other women is terrific; I can’t let these girls down; however hard it gets for me, I’m not going to let them down. They are going through tough times, and you want to be part of that, be their support network.

EitC has a new project - The People's Place. Tell us more...
Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 in the UK. The People's Place will be a purpose-built mental health facility that will offer help and support related to mental health needs, particularly suicide awareness and prevention. It will be groundbreaking because it will be available to everyone - inclusive of location, ages and gender and will include a gym that will be designed especially for people dealing with mental health challenges.

(Above l-r: Everton in the Community’s “People’s Hub”, Everton’s Goodison Park)

What advice do you have for women who want to change something in their life, but aren’t sure where to start?
Firstly, don’t put pressure on yourself; don’t try to conquer the world overnight. Set small doable targets - that way, at the end of the day you’ll have that sense of achievement with whatever problem you’re trying to solve.

If I’d said 18 months ago that I need to lose 150 lbs and get fit enough to run a marathon, I would have failed. As long as it’s one small step each day, that’s a success.

I told myself: I know what giving up feels like, I’ve done it. Let’s see what not giving up feels like.

Over the last 18 months, how have you confronted the potential for failure, or what people may think of you?

For the first time in a very long time, I have a potential career in front of me. I have that purpose now. Everton is kind enough to give me the skills, and I have the life experience.  

I’ve been through too much in my life - what I’ve battled, what my friends and family have done to help me - to worry about what other people think. There are very few people I’ve come across who’ve had a problem with what I’m doing, and the support has been incredible.

I’m focused on helping to get The People's Place built. It’s going to be a unique place - let’s get it built and start saving lives.

What do you say to somebody who is trying to help a loved one with mental illness?
People dealing with mental health challenges can be defensive - I was the #1 culprit of that. You have to empower the person experiencing the difficulties to seek help. It’s how Everton helped me. They didn’t say “oh look at all those scars on your arm”, instead, they planted a seed with me so that I could take action.

Always be there to listen without judgment. Be a support until they are ready to take action themselves.

Learn more about about EitC or contribute to their programs.

Watch Vicky’s story on Everton’s You Tube Channel

Get more information on managing mental health challenges from:

Mental Health Foundation (UK) and To Write Love On Her Arms (US).