Last Week I listened to broadcaster Olivia O’Leary talk about her experience of depression at the age of 24 on RTE Radio. At about 10 minutes in, she said something that made me need to lie down. When she realised she needed help, Olivia contacted her sister who brought her to a “terrific psychiatrist” and here’s where I needed resuscitation:”he used to take me out sailing”… “and god we had great fun”. Olivia O’Leary went sailing with her psychiatrist. This sentence just about summed up my entire experience of growing up in Ireland. Aged 24 she got the best and most personal treatment available and she recovered.
Since the interview went out Olivia O’Leary has been lauded for her bravery and praised for raising awareness. You know the script. We’ve heard it a lot lately. Beautiful, successful people are queueing up to tell us all about their struggles and how if they can reach just one person then it’s been worth baring their soul. But you know how I feel after another inspirational interview, I feel worse. I feel inadequate. I feel that I’ve failed. Because guess what, I’m still unwell. I am not at the height of the glittering career I thought I had in front of me. I am surviving. I am alive. I’ve been “battling” mental illness since I was 11 years old. I thought I was an angsty hormonal teen, a misfit. I wasn’t. I was horribly intensely unwell. And 30 years later I am still not in full control of my mental health. And I have realised why. I thought I wasn’t brave enough. Not strong enough. But that’s not it. The real reason I’m still here dreading every single day that comes to me is simple. I never went sailing with my psychiatrist. I wasn’t rich enough. I wasn’t connected enough.
By the time I had done my Leaving Cert I had managed to fix myself to such a degree that I achieved all A’s and B’s in my exams and had my pick of college courses. That ship however didn’t sail either. I hadn’t the money to take up the offers and aged 17 I can only say I spiralled into a mental fugue that worsened until I was in my mid thirties. By the time I sent myself to college I couldn’t even hold a conversation with another student. My most vivid college memory is hiding in the ladies toilets with a bottle of vodka, vomiting from stress and washing it back down with the alcohol because I had to go to a meeting with my thesis supervisor. I got an A. I have an Honours Degree but no college friends. No happy stories to tell. That’s what mental illness really looks like. It sucks the life out of you and leaves you covered in your own vomit.
For thirty years I have pushed myself through depression, severe anxiety, 2 and a half suicide attempts, and an eating disorder. Hi my name is Niamh and I’m a bulimic. I did not go sailing with any psychiatrists. I saw a counsellor who told me to go for walks and avoid cheesy food. Given that I can’t drive and hate cheese that advice wasn’t exactly top drawer. I have spent 30 years working on myself. I’ve walked, I’ve cried, I’ve done yoga, I’ve cycled, I’ve taken my medication ( the drugs do work), I’ve painted, I’ve worked, I’ve written poetry, I’ve been tattooed, I’ve drank, I’ve given up drink, I’ve shaved my head, I’ve run thousands of kilometres. But I’m still sick, unwell, mentally ill. Call it whatever you want, the words don’t bother me.
So when I see people like Olivia O’Leary or Niall Breslin telling me how to get better, I get mad (no laughing at the back) and I feel compelled to listen to angry rap music until I calm down. I cried when I watched Bressie speak at the Lovin Dublin Live Show about his experiences with depression. Everything he said resonated. #JeSuisBressie and yet….. Bressie has become a much-needed advocate for mental health issues. We need reform, we need cash injected into services. We need education. There’s no arguing against that. What we also need are the opportunities for people to reach their full potential in this great country of ours. Not just the chance to make a viral video. Real chances. Education access for everyone. Jobs. Homes. Reasons to stay alive. The idea that somehow exercise and a chat will save your life is just demoralising. I could walk 500 miles and back and still be me. It’s like running away from a hump on your back. Would you tell me to go for a walk if I told you I had breast cancer. Would you tell me to join a running club or pick up that phone. No you would not. #JeNeSuisPasBressie Because quite frankly these wellness campaigns, however well-intentioned, are making it too easy for our governments and health executives to dodge their responsibilities. It’s easy to back a popular campaign fronted by good looking successful men and women. It’s a lot harder to actually bring about real change in real people’s lives. People like me, who have never gone sailing with their psychiatrist.
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