Dubai: An Abu Dhabi-based Irishman remembers his father telling him as a child that he should become a teacher.
“It’s a noble profession, where you can help people and make a difference,” his dad had said.
Today, the 44 year old can safely claim he has done his father back in Northern Ireland proud.
A Grade 4 teacher, he has made a mark for himself not just at the British curriculum school where he works in the capital, but way beyond as well. And this, while he has assiduously worked on himself too, fighting years-long anxiety and bulimia on his own, the lessons of life he has gathered enabling him to emerge on the other side.
We’re talking about Liam Kelly, the man behind the highly popular Worried William series of children’s books, whose messages many consider are invaluable.
Ask him if the books are autobiographical, and he says, “In a way, perhaps.”
Ahead of the impending launch of his third book, Kelly says his relocation to the UAE in 2016 did wonders for him. He feels it unleashed his potential as a teacher who could not only reach out to others but also teach himself to heal from the scars of his troubled past.
“You see, I had a phenomenal childhood with the most loving parents and two siblings. I did well in school, both in academics and sports, and had many friends. But something inside me wouldn’t let me be happy. I would get upset about the smallest of things, and dwell on them longer than I should. Yet, I would not show it to anyone as mental health was not a subject in the public domain as it is now,” he reminisces.
He says this image of perfection that he portrayed to everyone, including his own family, was a big mistake.
“I would worry about everything. For example, if there was an upcoming test, I would play the many scenarios of its outcome over and over again in my mind, till it sickened me. But I felt too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it to even my mum, because I did not want to let her down,” he says, adding that he knows now that he could easily spoken to her as she was always there for him.
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As the young boy grappled with “anxiety” as we know it today, things only got worse. From the age of 13 till he was 35, he battled bulimia, an eating disorder, which made life miserable for him.
“When I was 13, it was a very painful memory that triggered the problem. Seven years earlier, I had been called by my teacher to spell out the word ‘look’ to the class. But as I walked to the front of my class, I could hear one of my classmates commenting on the red T-shirt I wore. He said it was ‘tight’. Everyone in the room was laughing and that kept ringing in my head. When I had to spell out the word ‘look’, I could barely manage a stutter,” he recounts.
Being the kind of person he was, he never forgot the incident and never spoke about it to anyone either. A more serious problem awaited. He resorted to bouts of overeating, followed by purging, which only made him feel more terrible.
“For years, this became a pattern for me and I had no idea I was dealing with an eating disorder called bulimia. On the face of it, everything seemed normal to everyone around me, but every time I would purge, with tears in my eyes, the pain in the face that would look back at me from the mirror over the sink was unbearable. This will always stay with me, but I am thankful it also inspired me to set myself free at one stage,” he lets on.
Kelly says the turning point came when he was attending a concert in Dubai. “That night, I was not able to purge, and I actually found myself asking a friend for help. Over the next hour, I spilt my whole story and I realised how much better that made me feel. I suppose that was the beginning of my healing process,” he says.
Kelly, who has done his Masters in Neurosciences and Psychology, understands the importance of timely and professional intervention for mental health issues fully well now. He recalls when he was a teacher back in Ireland, he decided to write down his feelings and emotions, because he was unable to communicate them verbally with anyone. And that is how he began to write his first book.
But how did the title ‘Worried William’ come about?
“I owe to a little girl called Macey who was in my class in my first school year in Abu Dhabi,” he says.
As the story goes, when Kelly was telling his students about his life story and yet-to-be-titled book, he sought suggestions for a name. Little Macey then came up with a cruncher: “Will Liam ever stop worrying?”
“It was an eye-opener,” says Kelly, still moved beyond words.
Liam was short for William and his first book was promptly titled Worried William. But when it was re-released, the second book was titled just William, a conscious break from the stigma of the ‘worried’ boy that he was. The third to be released soon, both in English and Arabic, is titled William Kelly. There’s also ‘The Wonderful Woodles & Doodles of William’ coming up, giving a new twist to Kelly’s childhood practice of doodling in his school books as a means of ‘mindfullness’.
He feels by sharing his experiences as a child and adolescent, he can help other children and prevent them from making the same mistakes.
“There are many kids out there battling all kinds of issues. The pressure of social media makes them constantly worry about how they look and what they must be seen to be doing. So it is extremely important to recognise the danger signs and deal with them,” he concludes.