Might As Well Live

IMG_20160413_130322 I wrote the following piece a number of weeks ago when I was feeling really bad.  Not mad but really scared and panic-stricken.  I needed help. Not because I was feeling unwell but because I had a situation I couldn’t handle without outside help. What I got was verbal abuse and rejection.  Sometimes suffering from depression and “being crazy” are not an illness. Sometimes they are a reaction to circumstances and how people you treat you. The pain of being rejected and badly treated over and over again by the same people manifests itself in the anxiety and fear and other physical symptoms specific to me that have caused and been caused by whatever depressive illness I have. People I never expected to help me stepped in and saved the day. Strangers  offered help. My Twitter posse stopped me from losing all my chill.  My lovely kind friend couldn’t have done more for me. I didn’t intend to publish this piece. I haven’t blogged since I went viral. It didn’t suit me.  But I’m certain others suffer the same. Sometimes you think you’re depressed. They even tell you that you’re crazy. This piece should be called “It’s Not Me It’s You” because sometimes  you are not mad. It’s other people.

Something really good happened to me recently.  Amazingly good. I still haven’t taken it in. But as I tap this out, waiting for kick off in Paris where Ireland are about to play Sweden in #Euro2016,  I’m fighting to stay alive.  I am struggling to take each breath. My chest aches constantly. When I sleep I’m having rambling, anxious dreams and when I wake up from them in the early hours my heart is fluttering wildly and it feels like I’m about to die. My limbs are heavy. It is an effort to lift my arms. My fingers feel to big for this keyboard. When I walk I’m wading through a huge wall of heavy water. Sometimes it’s hot and sometimes icy cold. I cannot eat. When I do eat I can’t keep it in. My stomach is liquid. Today I spent 10 minutes locked in the bathroom vomiting up a sandwich I had forced myself to eat. I am however still alive.

Something really good happened to me. But the bad thoughts are back. They are clamped to my brain with long invisible claws that I cannot prize away. Something good happened but the people I wanted to be happy for me are not. They are silent. I fall back into the abyss of bad memories their silence creates. I am watching the ball go up and down the pitch in Paris and I feel nothing except my heart pounding too fast underneath my left breast.

Something good happened but I am having suicidal thoughts. I am not suicidal. I do not want to die. Thinking that I could ever leave my family makes me howl. My whole body wants to shut down. It’s both trying to protect me by taking away  my energy to  leave the house, and kill me with the physical symptoms it is imposing on me. I have been here before. I know I won’t be beaten. It is 20 years this year since I last gave in to the bad thoughts and tried to die. I refuse to do that now even though this creature on my brain is crushing me, twisting my chest.

Something good happened to me and if you meet me on the street this week, I will smile and make you laugh and complain about the rain and wonder about Brexit. You will not notice that it hurts for me to breathe. You will not notice that I want to cry. I will go home and help with homework and put on washing and watch the news and tweet. Be kind to the people you meet. There are others like me.

Something good happened but today is a bad day. Maybe tomorrow I will wake up with no pain in my chest and a lightness in my brain. Maybe tomorrow will be the day. I might as well live.

Olé Olé etc…

Drowning Not Sailing.

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Cartoon of the two Niamhs by my mother, circa 2012

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.

Copyright 2016 myindoorvoice.wordpress.com

 

 

When Leaves Attack

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My oldest child pointed out in conversation the other day that she will be 15 this summer. While that in itself is a reason for pause, because clearly I’m now old, what really stopped me dead was the vision I suddenly had of myself at that age. I remember 15 far too clearly for comfort so I try not to think about it much. 15 was the year of the leaves. The year the leaves attacked.

Think Jaws the movie and you’ll be half way to understanding. I wasn’t Jaws by the way, that was the leaves. I was the daft girl on a rubber boat. With no paddle. I’m not sure what triggered the leaf terror.  There was no horrific leaf experience but gradually over a period of a few weeks from September of that year and on past my 15th birthday I became utterly petrified of leaving the house when I knew I would have to walk past leaves on the ground. I was in Third Year in school and the path there and back  was a leaf-lined Hell. Living in one of my city’s leafier suburbs had never been less attractive to me. I had to map every step of the route according to where I knew the enemy lay in wait. And if it rained just forget about it. I held on to walls. I clung to railings. I once hid in a phonebox. I HID FROM LEAVES IN A PHONEBOX. In  January and February alone of that year, I missed 6 weeks of school and dozens more besides.  I bunked off at every opportunity I could. I sneaked home to hide in bed or I hid in various corners of the town devoid of leaves or people who would know I should be at school. The graveyard was a good spot. The misery and pain of such an existence lead to my first suicide attempt. At 15. Only my Rasputin-esque stomach prevented me from dying or doing permanent damage to myself. I spent 24 hours vomiting from the tablets I took but at least the leaves hadn’t won. However it didn’t feel like a victory at the time.

Now, as an adult who has struggled with poor mental health for most of my life I still think of that year as one of the worst. I am shaking even writing about those bastard leaves. The nasty wet smelly puddles of weeks-old horsechestnut leaves outside the house at the traffic lights. The bouncy stacks of dry leaves piled up looking so gorgeously Autumnal outside the church across the road. But who knew what lay beneath them? How was I supposed to walk?  When I think about how I felt that year I have no explanation but then you can’t rationalise mental illness. I wish I’d known I was unwell. I wish I’d known I was severely depressed and suffering from extreme levels of anxiety . I just thought I was weird. A freak . I cut myself off from all my friends at school and convinced myself they were all talking about me and laughing. I wonder now why nobody noticed that I was visibly in the throes of a breakdown. I blamed myself at the time of course. I told not a single soul so nobody offered to help me. But what did my parents think I was doing? Rebelling? My teachers, who would make sarcastic comments when I did show up in school, did they not notice an intelligent student slowly falling apart? I was a  good girl, slowly dying, because of leaves. But nobody noticed. Things are different now I’m told. I really hope this is true.

The leaf madness arrived gradually but it left me overnight. One morning the following October I woke up and simply knew it was gone. The sky was blue outside my bedroom window and I got up and went to school.

Copyright 2016 Neev.ie and myindoorvoice.wordpress.com