It’s difficult for me to identify the start, the middle, the end of my journey into, through and out of depression. The start I am sure is rooted in the DNA determined before I was even born, in the way my life was when I was young, in how I, Grainne, interpreted all the things that happened, or that didn’t. The middle is roughly the sum total of the experiences I have had from childhood, and there is no end. Our mental health journey continues as long as we do, and its legacy is around for generations to come.
My early family life was as perfect and as imperfect as anyone’s can be. We had stuff, like all families have stuff. There was no major trauma, I had a mum and dad who each faced their own struggles but who loved me and who did their best and I had two sisters who were amazing. Deirdre, a tom-boy and feisty as hell with it, she protected us from bullies and scary things. Ciara was our golden child, she was the image you will see in your head if you picture the perfect wee girl, she literally had golden hair and golden skin.
The first significant event in my mental health was that I took an overdose at age 13. This would devastate my family, fracture my relationship with my mum, and somehow give me the message that asking for help was not going to work. Things were very different then, it was 1984. Without a doubt things have changed now. A 13 year old admitted to a&e will not have his or her stomach pumped and will be offered help. This is not to criticise the care I was given, I was attended well and I did have a psychiatric appointment. There was however, no support offered to my family, to me, on how we would go forward after this event. We have a long, long way to go in terms of reducing stigma and changing attitudes, but my experience is that things are moving and they are moving in the right direction.
I would go on to discover academic success, alcohol, spending money, relationships, as ways of distracting, self-medicating and soothing, for a while, the sense of dread that I carried with me everywhere. I thought that this was part of the human condition, that everyone felt this. It would be as a 36 year old woman, under the care of an excellent GP, that I would learn that this was anxiety. I was a well-educated lady, I could have told you the Oxford Dictionary definition of anxiety, but in terms of my own experience, my brain and my emotions were completely disconnected.
By 36 I had a beautiful 8 year old daughter, I was paid well for my job, I travelled internationally, I owned a 4 bedroom semi-detached house and I drove a sports car. And I was living my own personal hell. All of these things that I used to distract and soothe, they worked for a while. Increasingly however I battled ever present anxiety and low moods. I was conflicted, I wanted to be with people and I pushed them away, the effort of keeping my mask in place was becoming more and more difficult to sustain, I drank more, my behaviour become erratic, I was lonely, I knew I needed help and I wanted to ask for it. But I was terrified, terrified of what would happen. The truth was, if I stopped pretending to be the smart woman with the career, and the car, and the travel and great social life, who would I be? I had no idea.
On the 12th March 2007, that all stopped. That was the day I just stopped pretending. I will never forget it. I woke up and I started to get out of bed, to battle another day and I started crying. And I surrendered, finally, to the awfulness that had been growing inside me.
That day I received my official diagnosis of depression and a diagnosis of anxiety would soon follow. I would go on to discover that I was pregnant with my second beautiful baby, I would lose the career, the house, the car, the image, my spark, my will to live. My amazing mum asked me to move home and my mum and dad cared for me and raised my girls for the next 3 years. In spite of the difficulties that me and my mum had, difficulties that had been cemented by that overdose, mum was my main support. She never once told me to pull myself together, she understood. I worked part time and I had some days that were ok. My family and my closest friends are the people who were there and can bear witness to those days that were not ok. I can tell you that I had given up, there was no light in me, I existed but there was no joy and I did not believe I would ever get better.
Early 2010 brought yet another suicidal crisis for me and this time there was a new and awful thought. I felt I could no longer go on. I was worried that my beautiful youngest girl would not be ok without me and as my thoughts took a terrifying twist, I confided in a close friend that I was having thoughts of harming my child as well as myself. That friend made me an appointment with my GP and came with me to ensure that I confided these thoughts. My GP listened to me calmly and seemed sure of what to do and that I could be helped. I was referred to the primary care liason team where I would receive excellent care, again they reacted calmly and with confidence that I would be ok. I received all the support necessary and I began counselling at Zest with a gentleman called Gary. The professional help that I received within both the statutory and voluntary services would be pivotal to my recovery. The ongoing support I received from my family would be pivotal to my recovery. What happened next, I believe was essential to my recovery.
I went for lunch. I went for lunch with 2 friends. Meraid and Rachel. Two friends who never gave up on me. And believe me, it is not easy to maintain a friendship with someone who is experiencing depression. I believe it was Stephen Fry who has said it is one of the most difficult and most noble things to do. In the course of this lunch 2 suggestions were made to me. One was that I could do something about where I was and how I was feeling. The second was that I should go off and do the Psychology degree I had chatted about for 15 years. That day I started to contemplate that my recovery was something I could take into my hands, and I started to give shape to what a life after depression might look like. I started looking for things that I could do myself, to help myself. I have found that these things are the simplest and yet the most difficult things to do. They are concerned with how I spend my time, what I do for work, what I do with my spare time, what I watch on tv, what I do for exercise, what I eat, how much I sleep. It is nothing that we haven’t been told is good for our health before, I discovered that in order for these things to help, I have to actually do them! Do them repeatedly. Change my habits.
4 years later and I can say, without reservation, that my experience with depression was the greatest gift I have ever been given. These were the worst years of my life and I wish never to repeat them. When you lose everything however, the one thing that is able to happen is that you can completely start again. I have constructed a life that is specifically designed to protect and maintain my recovery. There are things I have gained, including a new way of thinking, a new career, new friends , a first class honours degree in psychology, a place on a PhD programme and the humility to ask for help when I need it. There are things I have uncovered, including my sense of who I am, my self-worth, my optimistic nature and my passions. There are things I have lost including my need to please everyone, the need for it all to be perfect always, fear, and of course, depression. I have bad days, awful things happen and I have days when I flounder. Just like everyone else. But what I always have now is the belief that I can cope with whatever comes my way and all the new skills I need to do that.