We’ve all had to overcome challenges in our lives, with some going through significantly more than others. But Vivian McKinnon has experienced more than most and has not only faced the difficulties that life has thrown at her but has battled through and become a successful entrepreneur.
riginally from Scotland, she had a traumatic childhood which saw her beginning to use alcohol as a crutch from a very young age. She then began using drugs in her early teens and started living on the streets.
“As a child I had no internal sense of safety and lived on cortisol and adrenaline [stress chemicals],” she says. “At times I would wet myself in response to my mum raising her voice or coming charging towards me. She lived with and later died from mental health and alcohol problems because of her own abusive past marked by a violent and scary childhood, multiple miscarriages and the death of a son.
“There were times when I was a teenager, she wouldn’t let me into the house — even after midnight — and my dad would tell me to go out for a walk until she calmed down. I was always a very anxious child, and my body was covered in dry and broken skin, my mind was on constant high alert and my body told the story.
“When I was eight years old, I was introduced to alcohol, which instantly became a trusty friend as I felt warm, free and accepted. My dad was president of the local miners’ club and mum worked behind the bar, which gave me access to it — and she used to give me carry-outs when I was 13.
“I was a disconnected teenager and always felt I didn’t fit in. But tried so hard to be everybody’s friend as the fear of rejection or being seen as not good enough led to all sorts of rebellious and troublesome behaviours.”
The 51-year-old, who now lives on the Ards Peninsula with her youngest child, started smoking cannabis at 14 and ran away from home a year later. She became pregnant at 17 and married when she was 18 — but the relationship quickly fell apart.
“By the age of 20 my mental health was seriously compromised,” she says.
“I was in a troubled relationship and living in a B&B, which back then were available for people who were experiencing homelessness. So I was living with others suffering with trauma including ladies who were selling themselves to pay for their habits, men who were abusing alcohol and single parents like myself.
“My ex-husband gained entry to the dwelling, beat me up and took our son. But after police involvement I got my child back and lived on the streets for a few nights so I couldn’t be found. I was taking drugs as at that point I was truly addicted to avoiding the pain of the past. Drugs were a really good escape for that. But I was having nightmares, panic attacks and sleep paralysis, which I now know are all the symptoms of trauma.
“Then through the courts I was awarded the family home, so I moved back in.”
Over the intervening years, she was very dependent on drugs, had a near death experience and gave birth to her second child.
But, in a bid to get her life back on track for her children, she began volunteering for a homeless charity before eventually getting a job with them.
“Personally, my mental and physical health took a huge dip to a very dark place,” she says.
“And when I was 28-years-old, I woke up in intensive care after my body and mind had decided that enough was enough as my life had become heavy and overwhelming.
“But when I opened my eyes after being unconscious and on life support, I knew I had two choices — keep going as I was and die or change. So I began challenging my beliefs, exploring and diving into my values, starting to identify my ‘gremlins’ and generally beginning to wake up from the hypnotic trance of choosing others over self that I had been in since childhood.
“Even though I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I was committed to creating a better life, for me and my children — so I signed up for anything that scared me. I walked over 100 miles of the Great Wall of China, absorbed off the Forth railway bridge and jumped out of a plane. It was about challenging every belief I had about myself, other people and the world in general to create the very best version of me and I did eventually start to move more towards pleasure and away from pain.”
But it wasn’t as easy as just deciding to change and Vivian went through many ups and downs before chancing upon an experience which completely changed the course of her life.
The mother-of-three was introduced to flotation therapy through a colleague and while she was reluctant at first to even try the procedure, which involves floating in 25cm of water which is heated to body temperature, she eventually agreed to give it a go and felt utterly transformed.
“After a couple of minutes, my inner critic was silenced,” she says. “I had residual fibromyalgia pain and soreness in my muscles and that went too — I knew instantly that it could help other people, particularly those with addiction and mental health issues. It was a turning point for me — such an amazing experience that I decided to spend the rest of my life helping people to heal from the pain of their past.
“I visualized opening my own flotation center and at that moment understood what an amazing mental health intervention it could be.”
And this is exactly what she did — in 2015, after devoting years to studying and gaining the relevant qualifications, she opened Hydro-Ease, Northern Ireland’s first flotation and wellness centre. She is also the NI regional co-ordinator for SMART Recovery, is involved in research studies into the benefits of flotation and was asked to join the board of the International Flotation Association.
“I believed it [flotation] would benefit everyone,” she says.
“Life is fast and frenetic; we are not supposed to live the way we do and all our social ills and levels of ‘dis-ease’ dictate we need to get back to ‘being’ instead of always doing. I especially believed that those who were living with trauma, adverse experiences and compromised mental health would benefit massively from just stepping off the world for some time to rest, recover and reconnect to the self.”
Vivian’s story is truly remarkable and has been adapted to the silver screen into a film called The Magic Within You, which is being screened at the MAC theater in Belfast on Thursday, September 1, with all profits going towards Extern’s life-changing work with people facing more mental health and wellbeing.
The screening will conclude with a Q&A session with host DJ Cate Conway where audience members will have the opportunity find out more about Vivian’s story and how they can access support and advice on coping with trauma.
“The film came about after a conversation with a local videographer, Travis from Open Owl Productions,” says Vivian.
“My hope is that it will create an open and honest space to initiate discussions around trauma, what it is and more importantly what it is not. My hope is to take it into communities and raise the understanding and impacts of stepping out of your truth.”
Grace O’Neill, fundraising manager for Extern, says the charity is delighted that Vivian has chosen Extern to benefit from the proceeds of this special event.
“As one of the leading organizations supporting people with mental health and addictions in Northern Ireland, we in Extern know only too well the challenges that Vivian and so many like her have faced in their lives.
“One of Extern’s key beliefs is that everybody deserves another chance, no matter what their background, and Vivian’s story is a prime example of how someone can make a positive transformation in their lives. By sharing her story so publicly she is helping to ensure that future generations are able to challenge the impact of trauma and abuse.”
Vivian also hopes that the film will shine a spotlight on mental health and the benefits of flotation — and she would encourage anyone who is suffering, to speak to someone as this is the first step forward.
“There needs to be more float centers, along with a better understanding of what trauma is and its impact on the self, the family and the community as a whole,” she says. “We are in this together and I would like to say to anyone who is suffering: I see you — reach out and if you can’t reach out, reach in, as all you need is with you. You are not what happened to you — you are so much more.”
Tickets are selling fast so to book tickets and find out more about this event, visit themaclive.com For more information on flotation visit www.hydro-ease.co.uk