Out of jail, overweight and under stress


In the final part of our Fix Your Life series, where our panel of experts advise people on improving difficult situations, RÓISÍN INGLEmeets Arthur Nunnikhoven, who wants to rebuild his life after time in prison


ARTHUR NUNNIKHOVEN (55), originally from the Netherlands, left his wife and son in Spain where he worked as a tour guide to find work in Ireland five years ago. The plan was that his family would join him as soon as it was practical. He found a job in the IT industry and things were going well until he was arrested and charged with growing marijuana in the bedroom of his shared house in Dublin. He received a three-year sentence and went on to serve 22 months in Mountjoy, Clover Hill and Portlaoise prisons.

Released from prison 18 months ago, Arthur is currently on a back-to-work Community Employment scheme with Dublin-based organisation Jobcare. He is full of ideas and enthusiasm for starting a new business and while he develops these ideas, he is looking for a part-time job of around 20 hours a week. He is fluent in Spanish, German and English. While in prison he did courses in Spanish and business and is currently studying for a Spanish degree with the Open University.

Arthur says he was treated well in prison but that the experience impacted on his health. He put on weight while there and he has high blood pressure. He suffers from panic attacks, which he believes are a result of being locked up.

“I am working on my weight at the moment. I lost 10 kilos but I still have 20 to go. I have bad arthritis, so the weight doesn’t help with that,” he says. He lives in a shared house with just a small grill and a microwave in the kitchen, so finds it difficult to cook for himself and eat healthily. “I probably eat too many take aways,” he says adding that he has the use of a gym and goes several times a week.

It has been “tough and taken a lot of energy”, but Arthur has maintained relations with his wife and young son and hopes they will be able to join him in Ireland soon.

“I made one very stupid mistake which landed me in prison but I am on a different road now and would appreciate some advice on how to rebuild my life. I am aware that there is a stigma about anyone who has been in prison but I’d like to think people would not judge somebody for the rest of their life over this one thing that happened. I had not been in trouble before and I just want to get on with my life”.


The career coach

Jane Downes

It’s funny, Arthur, but reading about your situation reminded me of something I often tell clients who are in knots of anxiety about a CV or an upcoming job interview: “Would you ever relax, it’s not as if you have a criminal record or anything!” I guess that would be about the most idiotic and inappropriate thing I could say to you right now, eh? And yet, and yet . . . a part of me actually has the perverse temptation to blurt those very words out.

Look, your story is a fairly simple one: you made an appalling error of judgment; you got caught; you paid a heavy price. What makes this story compelling, however, is one deeply impressive fact that lies buried beneath the “headline”: your decision to grow marijuana represents the very last time you put a foot wrong.

How did you react to the shock of being in prison? You studied. What did you do upon your release? You got yourself onto a Community Employment Scheme. What two challenges have been obsessing you over the past while? Setting up a new business and bringing your loved ones to Ireland. This is the behaviour pattern of a man who is fundamentally mature, courageous and – yes – full of integrity. Your one screw-up was the result of, ahem, “entrepreneurial” activity of an irresponsible and illegal nature. Okay. What you need to do now is find a way of being constructively entrepreneurial.

How viable do you think your business idea is? How much thought – and how much “lateral thinking” – have you put into it? Have you refined it to the point where it feels inevitable? Consider getting in touch with your County Enterprise Board to see about obtaining a mentor. I’ve watched those guys work wonders with people.

Your plan of finding a job of 20 hours a week makes total sense, as long as it never becomes more than a stopgap. Did your pre-prison job in computers involve technical support with a Dutch language component? Don’t underestimate how employable English-Dutch speakers are at the moment, and by the way, it does not necessarily need to be a large IT company.

There will obviously be a gap on your CV. I would suggest you explain this in an open but undramatic fashion at interview but show how it has changed you and ensure you have two people to vouch for you at reference stage and that you “look the part” at interview – plenty of smiling to increase the likeability factor. Yes, it will take a certain type of organisation or company to be able to see past this issue. Don’t let rebuffs get you down.

By the way, if there are any employers reading this who would be willing to explore giving Arthur a chance, please get in touch. Arthur, I would lay good money on your mid- to long-term future lying in self-employment, with your ideas and dynamism ultimately consigning your one big error to the place where it belongs: the past. I wish you all the very best.

Jane Downes is the owner of Clearview Coaching Group and author of The Career Book – Help for the Restless Realist. See clearviewcoachgroup.com

The relationship counsellor

Lisa O’Hara

Arthur is slowly rebuilding his life. He has endured much loss due to what happened – loss of his career, loss of health and fitness, loss of personal freedom and loss of the ability to see or contact his family as he might otherwise have done.

Enduring such losses does impact on our self-esteem and confidence and yet he is determined to move on from his mistake and to focus on making a life for himself and his family so they can all be together in the one place. Like any family who are forced to be apart from each other, it can be lonely much of the time and if there is no end in sight, it can feel hopeless. It sounds like his relationship with his wife has stayed relatively strong and she trusts him to do his best.

Relationships that involve moving from place to place will mean loss of a familiar life (home, friends, work, school, family) and it will take a while to settle in. As she will be moving to where he is, he may understandably feel responsible to ensure that they all adjust to their new life.

The transition of moving may go a lot more smoothly if they can talk about their concerns and how they will manage problems if they come up. They will also need to discuss their expectations in terms of roles – Arthur has been on his own and is only tending to his own needs on a day-to-day basis, whereas his wife has taken on the burden of practical responsibility for their son. What do they both expect from themselves and from each other if they are to be together on a permanent basis? If they are clear about this there will be less room for misunderstandings and they can stay close and be supportive of each other.

Lisa O’Hara is a therapist with counselling agency Relationships Ireland (formerly the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services). See relationshipsireland.com

The marriage and family therapist

Owen Connolly

Arthur, you have already had a successful life in Spain being a multi-lingual tour guide and tour manager. When you came here five years ago to what was seen as a booming economy, you must have been disappointed to find yourself at the start of the bust, especially given that you had planned to bring your wife and child here. Clearly this led to desperate measures. You paid the price but did not lose heart as you continued your education in prison and are now studying for more qualifications.

The stress of everything you have been through has resulted in bad eating habits. Weight gain will have contributed to your ill health and high blood pressure. If you are trying to return to your healthier weight, do so under directions from your doctor. The saying “your health is your wealth” should spur you on in the gym.

To be without your wife and son must also be painful, which can contribute to you being disappointed in yourself. Having lots of ideas and no prospect of putting them into reality is also very frustrating.

You have doubts about the future, fearing that you won’t be accepted following your time in prison. This tough process can bring on panic attacks, also being overweight can put pressure on your heart and lungs and can leave you short of breath. Start an exercise called bellybreathing. This type of exercise can reduce the tension in your body.

There are a number of counselling centres that provide low-cost counselling and I would suggest that you attend one. You might find your eating has been comfort eating, which would suggest there may be underlying issues other than just getting a job and not having your wife and child with you.

Being a stranger in an Irish prison system can’t have been pleasant. The separation from your wife and child was also a struggle and the cause of loneliness. You have put all that behind you now and have been exercising your management skills working in Jobcare. By all accounts you are making good progress. Perhaps prison may have you led you to looking at your life differently. Get all the help you can.

Owen Connolly is a consultant psychologist and marriage and family therapist in private practice in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. See counsellor.ie

The nutritionist

Elsa Jones

Arthur, congratulations on losing 10 kilos so far, that’s fantastic progress. To lose the remaining weight I would suggest that you adopt a “Low-GL diet”, which will keep your blood-sugar levels balanced. This really is the key to long-term weight management and overall health and vitality.

In practice, this means reducing the amount of sugars and fast-release carbohydrates in your diet. Start by replacing white bread, cereals, rice and pasta with wholegrain varieties, and limit carbohydrates to one quarter of your plate at meal times. A balanced plate should consist of 25 per cent protein, 25 per cent carbohydrate and 50 per cent vegetables. Avoid eating foods high in sugar, such as cakes, biscuits, soft drinks and chocolate.

Make sure to include a portion of protein with every meal and snack. Protein can help balance our blood sugar, significantly reducing cravings for starchy and sweet foods. Sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Ideally, focus more on vegetable sources of protein such as nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. (See elsajonesnutrition.ie for recipes). Protein can also be classed as a “good-mood food” because it provides the building blocks for brain chemicals which control mood, alertness, concentration and regulate sleep.

As you are prone to panic attacks, I would strongly recommend that you avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both rev up stress hormones in the body and contribute to feelings of anxiety. I know you are limited to only a microwave and grill but you can still eat healthily. Cod, salmon and eggs can easily be cooked in the microwave along with baked potatoes, which can be served with side salads. I will send you on recipes and meal ideas to suit your cooking requirements.

Eat three meals per day and keep healthy snacks such as nuts and fruit to hand so you have no excuse when temptation strikes.

Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy Are You? on TV3. Elsa offers individual consultations. See elsajonesnutrition.ie

Arthur's reaction

“Lisa, you were absolutely right about my situation and I will follow the advice, thank you. Owen, I appreciate your insights, and yes, it is very frustrating if you are capable of doing things but you dont have the resources to do them. Your advice was really helpful.

“Elsa, many thanks for all your good work, it was such important advice which will improve my health problems and also my diet. Jane, I was very emotional after reading your feedback. I really hope that there is some luck for me behind the dark clouds, thanks to all of you for this amazing reaction.”

Tips for all: on well-being

Drink more water. . . or at least read Your Body’s Many Cries for Water: A Preventive and Self-Education Manual for Those Who Prefer to Adhere to the Logic of the Natural and the Simple, by Fereydoon Batmanghelidj

Eat a variety of foodsFor protection from illnesses such as heart disease and cancer you need foods that deliver a mix of nutrients and minerals. Aim to eat different coloured fruits and vegetables.

Relax for 20 minutes a dayThis will go a long way to reduce blood pressure and reaction to stress. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Breathe slowly in and out of the nostrils, breathing deeply into your abdomen.

Get activeAerobic activity, such as running or cycling, not only burns calories but also increases your metabolism and can keep it elevated for several hours after a workout. Exercising aerobically for as little as 20 minutes, three to five days a week will make a big difference.

Get more sleepLack of sleep changes your hormone levels and capacity to metabolise carbohydrates, so less sleep = slower metabolism. Studies have revealed that deep sleep results in cell repair and cell growth, which will speed up the metabolism and burn calories. Aim to sleep for at least eight hours.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you have any advice for Arthur? Send it to fixyourlife@irishtimes.com