John: “Hi. I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.” People in room: “Welcome John.” Mary: “Hi. I’m Mary and I’m a drug addict.” People in room: “Welcome Mary.” Paddy: “Hi. I’m Paddy and I’ve a gambling addiction.” People in room: “Welcome Paddy.”
Áine: “Hi. I’m Áine and I have depression.”
There is panic in their eyes, trying to look anywhere but at you, without trying to make it obvious. They don’t know what to say. They need to get out of this room now, get away from this person…
Now, all of that is a little bit exaggerated. Not everybody acts this way when a person confides in them that they have a mental illness. In fact, the few people I have told have been very supportive and always knew how to act around me – normal! But for a long time I was too afraid to tell anyone how I was feeling, I suffered in silence, because society as a whole made me feel like this wasn’t something to talk about.
Thankfully things have changed. More and more people are succeeding in “breaking the stigma” and they are speaking out about depression and other mental illnesses. If you break your leg you go to the doctor right? And everyone will see you on crutches for weeks after, you can openly moan about the pain and the inconvenience it’s causing. If you have depression, it is also something that needs to be looked after, something people need to be able to talk about. Just because you can’t see the physical effects doesn’t mean it’s not an illness like any other.
I could use this blog to tell you a number of facts and statistics about depression, facts that anyone can look up if they want to know more about it. Or I could follow in others footsteps. A number of famous people have spoken out about their mental illnesses. I’ve heard people who have read Marian Keyes’ books comment that she couldn’t be depressed because of the fun and humour in her storytelling. Niall Breslin has spoken out about his battles and started a blog titled “My 1000 hours”, now rebranded “A Lust For Life“, a method to help people find ways of dealing and managing their mental illness. I believe a key direction to help people understand and accept mental illness, is not just to continuously repeat the facts and figures, but to tell the story of what it’s actually like to live with it. So, I’m going to explain depression through my eyes, by telling you my story.
So here it is.
It’s hard to pin point when exactly it all began. I remember back ten years or so when I first went to college. A new, exciting life, meeting new people, trying new things – a world of new possibilities, or so they say…it wasn’t exactly like that for me!
I remember socialising at night. The first few months were fun, lots of fun. But gradually I noticed instead of throwing shapes on the dance floor, I’d gone to spending half the night locked inside a toilet cubicle. First, I’d be fighting back tears. I’d no idea why! I was having a good night when I’d suddenly feel the need to cry, feel the need to be alone. Then I started finding it hard to breathe, and the panic attacks began. When I managed to overcome this, I’d wipe away my tears, re-do my make-up, put the smile on my face, walk out and pretend all was okay, that I was having the time of my life. Really, I was counting down the minutes until it was acceptable to go home, and I nearly always found an excuse not to go to the house party that followed the nightclub.
Slowly, I began to exclude myself more and more without realising it at the time. I’d rather stay in bed for the day, lock myself away, rather than go shopping with the girls. I would get irritable if someone came home when I had the apartment to myself, as it was effort to have to speak to anyone. It’s not that I had a problem with them, I just didn’t want to talk to people. I wanted to be alone with all the thoughts that swirled around in my head. So I’d go back to my room. After weeks of doing this I began feeling like I didn’t belong. I hated the thoughts in my head. For example a common one was “Why didn’t they like me”.
Negativity consumed me!
It then began to impact my studies. I found myself having to sit at the back edge seat of a lecture hall, a quick exit… If I sat anywhere else I felt uneasy, panicked and I couldn’t breathe or concentrate. At this stage, not only was I not going out as much at socialising, always having an excuse why I couldn’t go shopping etc., but now in lectures I managed to exclude myself even more from friends, as I wasn’t able to sit near them. If all the seats at the back were gone I skipped the lecture. Over time, I found it too hard to get out of bed at all to attend lectures. It was easier to stay in bed all day in my pyjamas, not to see or talk to anyone. But yet, when I did meet people, I’d keep the smile on my face, pretend all was great and keep lying that my world was good. That was college life for me!
Then came America…it started off great! It was new, exciting, fun, and busy. All was good again.
But over time that changed too. I found myself staying in bed again, making excuses why I wouldn’t go here or there with friends. Work was my only stability, as no matter how bad things were I always went to work and did my job. It was my one & only normality. Apart from that, my bed turned into my best friend. So one day I decided to do something about it, determined to change myself. If I’m to be honest, my next comfort became a bar stool. Any excuse day or night, when I wasn’t working, I was always meeting someone in the bar, having a laugh, a great old time. I’d show myself that there was nothing wrong with me. I could sit in the bar and have a laugh with anyone sitting next to me. Really, I just found myself plummeting into a much darker place then I previously had been in, unable to control the spiral and no idea how to stop it. I was still putting that smile on my face. Nobody knew, but deep down behind the smiling eyes I couldn’t wait to get home, cry myself to sleep, eat away my upset and hope that tomorrow would be better.
Eventually enough was enough! I couldn’t carry on the way I was. I was 25, yet feeling like I didn’t want to go on, hoping and praying that when I closed my eyes each night, it would be the last time I‘d do so. Something really did need to change!
I decided to move home, maybe then I would be normal again… Nope, that didn’t work either! Looking back, it was very naive of me to think moving home would suddenly make me okay. I still couldn’t admit to myself what was going on, even though deep down I knew depression had taken over my life.
When I moved home I remained to stay in bed, locked myself away, barely spoke to my family, as I still didn’t want to speak to anyone. I was more alone and deserted than ever. At least in America I was putting that fake smile on my face and pretending, living a lie! At home I didn’t need to do that. I could be cranky, irritable, moody, crying 30 times a day…after all it was my family, and they’d love me either way. Except did they? I started having those doubts again “Did they like me?”…my own family!
That was my breaking point I guess. I knew I had to tell somebody but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to upset my parents, them knowing I was feeling this way. I didn’t want people looking at me differently. I didn’t want sympathy. I didn’t want to hear someone tell me to cop on, pull myself together, that there are a lot more people worse off than me, to snap out of it. But finally, I stopped thinking and just let it all out. Once again, barely able to breathe through the tears, I told my family how I was feeling, the low place I was in, and how I felt I’d lost control of everything. And after that, it all slowly began to turn around. The weight was lifted off my shoulders. I’d finally talked to someone.
It’s been a long road since then. I still have my bad days where I want to lock myself away but my family and friends know those signs now. They know the fake smile to the real smile, the teary eyes to the smiley eyes, the times I need a push to the times I need some space. I went to the doctor with the support of my parents. I began counselling and have become aware of my triggers. I stopped comfort eating and started exercising and socialising again. I got involved in a new course, determined not to let the same thing happen as last time I was in college and attended all lectures, not sitting by the door. I’m working in a job I love to go to every day. I cut negative things out of my life. I started getting an interest in things again and have continued to pursue them.
I still have a long way to go. My depression is something I need to be aware of, know the signs of and I have to try and make better decisions to help manage it. But one thing is for sure, the best thing I ever did was talk. Telling someone, anyone, can help if you ever feel in a similar situation. It took me far too long to learn that the first step to tackle it was to talk to somebody about it. I am lucky my family and friends are so supportive. However, a few years ago, I wish I was aware of the numerous options available where I could have talked to someone when I wasn’t fully ready to tell my loved ones.
Here in the office Olive has told me how she helped start up a private Facebook page called EasySpeak. She set this up so people would have somewhere to turn to when they are feeling low, when they need help. The organisers of this listen to people confidentiality and give advice on who they can speak to in their area to get the needed help and support. If only I knew about EasySpeak or the likes back then.
I think it’s great that high profile people are speaking out about their demons and how they overcame them. People like best-selling author Marian Keyes, senior hurler Conor Cusack, rugby analyst Brent Pope, DJ Nikki Hayes and The Voice coach Bressie. They have opened up and gone public with their battles. However, I do feel like the normal, everyday, mother, businessman, student, and teacher, whoever it might be, need to share their stories too. It’s not an easy move to make but we need come together to break the stigma that some people in our society still have. Everyone needs to realise that it’s okay to feel this way, help is out there and the first step is to speak to somebody about it. We all need to help each other and be there for each other when needed.
My counsellor asked me an interesting question one day – Was I afraid of my depression coming back again? It made me think and the answer was no! I have learnt how to identify my triggers and how to cope with them if they raise their ugly head. I know going through life my depression MIGHT reoccur time & time again, but it may not, so what’s the point in worrying about it and letting negativity consume me once more. I reached an unimaginable low point in my life and with hard work, determination & support from the people around me, I have got myself back on track, something that didn’t seem possible three years ago. If I managed to do that once, I can do it again. Also, this time around people are now aware of my mental illness, so it will be much easier to reach out if I need help.
I might be battling my demons for the rest of my life, who knows. But I’ve decided to wake up every morning and say today is going to be a good day. I’m now in a job I love, one that I look forward to getting up out of bed each day to go to. I keep myself busy. I have hobbies in the evening. I’m part of two great voluntary organisations. I’ve found a new network of positive people through blogging. I have close family and friends that I can turn to on the days I need a boost. I will be okay! No more hiding or pretending anymore. My secret is out. Now everybody knows.
Note: This post was written in support of Mental Health Week 2015 which takes place from the 5th – 11th of October, including World Mental Health Day on the 10th October.
Ireland has begun to challenge the stigma of Mental Health. For example, last January, people were nominated to share their first Facebook profile picture and nominate more people to do so. This was to help raise funds for Mental Health Ireland by donate €4 to Mental Health Ireland through texting MHI to 50300 as you shared your picture. Darkness into Light attracted thousands to raise awareness of suicide in our country. Colour Runs appeared in numerous venues over the country to raise money for Aware. Ireland is starting to reach out and listen.
If you need someone to talk to you can call these helplines:
Samaritans 1850 60 90 90
Aware 1890 303 302
Console 1800 247 247
1Life 1800 247 100
Other websites which may help
And many more…
Also check out all of the above on social media platforms.
#MentalHealthWeek #Dignity #BreakTheStigma #SafeTalk #WorldMentalHealthDay #Awareness