I’m attaching a link here to a speech the Irish musician Bressie made earlier this week.
It’s a powerful and wise speech from one so young. I wish I’d had his intelligence, and his understanding of an illness that can cripple, even kill, you when I was his age. I’m braving family sorrow and perhaps misunderstanding to tell my very personal story. I don’t mean to hurt them, I’ve done enough of that in my lifetime but – if it helps one person to reconsider a suicidal thought, or to seek the help that IS out there to help defeat their depression, it will have been worth it.
In 1990 aged 29 I made a serious suicide attempt. But I was obviously meant to live, or perhaps I didn’t really want to die because I survived, despite my best effort of roughly sixty paracetamol and two slashed wrists - done with a ridiculously tiny blade from a ladies razor, I cut so deeply I later needed surgery to repair tendons. I remember the night of that attempt vividly and it will stay with me forever. I’d made the decision after another, for me, painful day at the office. I couldn’t cope with a one-line letter of enquiry from another department. I remember the signature on that letter – hell, I remember the guy’s pay number – 25183!
Of course, the letter wasn’t the problem. The problem was my perception of it, and my inability to move beyond a standard query that was routinely sent every six months and equally routinely ignored by my department. I hadn’t been well for about a month and had gone to my GP who prescribed a mild anti-depressant and a week off work. My beloved mother had been diagnosed with, and operated on, for lung cancer six months previously and was undergoing radiotherapy at the time. I was deeply deeply worried about her. I was living alone in a flat and my then boyfriend, now beloved husband and father of my boys, would come and stay every weekend.
I will never forget my fear and how my soul cried out at the unfairness of Mam’s illness. When I went to visit her in hospital the day she got the diagnosis she held my hand, both of us filled up and she said,
'Poor Evelyn. My poor old pal.' It still breaks my heart to think how in the midst of her anguish all she thought about was how it affected me and all of us. She was sadder for us than for herself. Now I'm a mother myself and I understand exactly what she meant - you cannot bear to see your children hurting. You want them to live, laugh and be happy. Mam's recovery after the op seemed to go ok, she got an infection which slowed down the delivery of her radiation therapy but all seemed on course, mind you, treatment then was nowhere near as advanced then as it is now.
I think I may have had a premonition of my mother’s impending death. I adored her, she was my best friend and the one to whom I told everything. I couldn’t talk to her at such a difficult time in her life and buried my feelings from her. She knew I was depressed, it is an inherited family gene, but nobody knew how bad I was, least of all me. I thought this feeling of constant greyness, of being physically weighted down, of no hope, no joy, no anything, would last forever. I finally went to the GP in March 1990 and she started me on a mild anti-depressant and gave me a cert for work. But two months later I felt no better, despite being back in work and trying my best to live. I couldn't bear it any longer and on April 25 1990 I decided I would die. The peace that came to me with that decision was wonderful. It was the calmest I had felt for over six months.
On the way home from work that evening I called into a local supermarket to buy a bottle of vodka. I had the rest of the accoutrements ready at home – that’s me, always organised. There was a big queue at the off-licence in the supermarket and, I swear, the most inefficient shop assistant ever. I couldn’t stand still; I huffed and puffed, tutting loudly – this is totally out of character for me. I finally said in a strained tearful voice that sounded nothing like me,
‘I’m never ever coming into this shop again’ and walked out in a temper. I’m sure they were devastated at the loss of my custom! But I now think that that shop assistant in her inefficiency probably saved my life. Vodka on top of everything else would have sealed my coffin. I actually never did go into that shop again - so I’d now like to thank that lovely lady.
When I was still alive fourteen hours later I knew I had to get help before my poor landlady found me. So I called my Dad. My Dad, about whom I had given out for twenty of my twenty nine years, but who was always there when I really needed him. Dad came to the flat and was, I am sure, horrified by what greeted him. He did all the right things, contacted the GP who called to the flat and then he drove me to Beaumont Hospital where my stomach was pumped and my wrists bound. Actually, one funny thing in the midst of it all, after a couple of hours my wrists started to hurt like hell as the paracetamol left my system, and I asked in this wavering foolish voice,
‘I know this sounds ridiculous, but can I have some pain relief?’ It was ridiculous and they couldn’t give me anything until my liver function test was back.
I will never forget the hurt and worry in Mam’s and my beloved sisters’ eyes when they came into the hospital cubicle to see me. In case I never vocalised it girls, I apologise to you all, again and again, for causing that pain.
I was taken to the operating theatre the following day where a young surgeon, named Michael, said - with a marked lack of empathy,
‘I bet you feel rather foolish now, don’t you?’ I turned my head from him and was comforted by the hand of a beautiful theatre nurse, she glared at him and stroked my face
I was extraordinarily lucky in that I didn’t damage my liver (us Walshies have the most resilient livers in Ireland – another inherited gene!). I was in Beaumont for a week before being transferred to St John of Gods Psychiatric Hospital in Stillorgan. I stayed there for three months. I still get deeply upset when I think of the pressure this put on my parents at a time when they needed all their strength to battle Mammy's illness. I know I was ill too - and an irrational mind made me think that in dying I was solving a problem for everyone, not causing them more unbearable stress. But still…………
I came out of hospital in August 1990 after great care, talk therapy, learning Cognitive Behaviour Skills and getting medication right. I had initially sworn I wouldn’t return to my public service boring office job; but over the course of my treatment I was persuaded that the financial security it gave me probably outweighed my unhappiness in it – plus the unfortunate stigma that was then attached to mental ill health meant my was perceived as being less attractive. I returned home to live. Mam had been getting headaches and pain radiating down her neck which she thought might be migraine. However in September 1990, the evening before I was due to return to work, my sister Louise, our beautiful gentle angel nurse, arrived home with news from the consultant. Mammy had an inoperable brain tumour and he felt she would not survive more than six months.
To say we were all devastated is an understatement. We all finally went to bed, but I met Mam in the kitchen at 4am the following morning. We looked at each other, into each beloved face , each trying not to cry for the other, for the self that was facing losing everything.
'How will I stick it,’ she said. ’How? I have so much I want to do. I want to meet all of your babies. .All of them. So many. I have so many of ye, how many of them would I have had? It's so unfair'
She was the age I am now and it is only now that I feel I am starting to live the life I want for myself. I held her hands and we cried.
'Accept it Mam. There is no fear of death if you simple accept it.' I said, remembering the calm I felt when I had made my own death decision.
Acceptance wasn't in Mam's nature and by God, she battled that illness with every fibre of her being and tried to live each moment she was well to the full. We cried together again that night, hugged and told each other how much we loved each other. Mam died in March 1991, after a tough six months for everyone, particularly my Dad – who loved Mam beyond reason. Mam can never be dead for me, for any of her children, nor for her grandchildren, for we have kept her alive for - and of course she is in each and every one of us, and them. But Dad was left alone. Poor Dad, he loves us all – but never ever with the intensity that he loved Liz Walsh. (He’ll kill me – or sue me, don’t tell him he’s on D’Interweb!)
I struggled on and off with depression for the following two decades. Medication helped at times, indeed I was on long-term medication for over ten years. I was lucky, I went on to have two wonderful sons, and the joy of the company of two beyond belief step-daughters - and they all are the very breath of my body. I never attempted suicide again although I admit there have been times when I would become fixed on the idea as a ‘well I can always….if it gets too bad’ – but I couldn’t leave my babies, they needed me more than anyone ever had. I could not have done that to them, leave them bewildered and angry at my sudden absence.
I have been frustrated at times by the public mental health system in this country. If you are suicidal you need help NOW! Not with an appointment six weeks away. I felt I wasn’t in a financial position most of the time to pay for visits to private psychiatrists or counsellors, I mistakenly regarded this treatment as self-indulgence. How irrational is that thinking! If I had cancer or some other disease that was slowly killing me and making each day impossible to get through I would receive all sorts of help from the health services. Or regard all other bills as unimportant until I got the help I needed. Depression is a cancer of the spirit, the soul if you choose to call it that - as well as being physically debilitating; and the sooner money is pumped into the system and society regards it as a priority the better a society we will become. Happy people are productive people – it’s a no-brainer.
If you are depressed find someone you can talk to about how you are feeling – you are not ‘a moaner’ ‘a quitter’. If you are reluctant to talks to family or friends find a counsellor, ring the Samaritans or some one of the many helplines out there, writing down how you feel is extremely cathartic. It was through starting to write that I started to heal. You may well be reluctant to take anti-depressants but sometimes a little chemical kick is necessary to start you on the path to recovery. One thing I have learned, more so since I started to write – is you should never ever assume you know what is going through someone else's mind. Don’t be quiet out of fear of worrying or bothering someone else, people do love you and will give you the support you need, at the first sign of difficulty do the right thing - look for help, it is out there for you.
I was only hospitalised once more for depression in the Hampstead Clinic in Highfield Hospital in Whitehall. That was two and a half years ago and I was very lucky to meet a wonderful psychiatrist there – Jean Marie Nangle, who, I think– ‘got’ me. More importantly I met an incredibly empathetic nurse called Michelle, if there were more psychiatric nurses like Michelle there wouldn’t be the need for half as many psychiatric beds – she’d help prevent return visits. Both these women were instrumental in bringing me to where I am today, medication free, well, and much attuned to my mental and emotional needs.
I decided to avail of early retirement from my hated office job, despite initial resistance from some -and within a year had myself off all medication. I am very aware of my illness and of my tendency to irrational thought if depressed, it’s a bit chicken and egg, the thought makes you feel depressed and if depressed the depression feeds the irrationality. I keep myself mentally fit. I do the things that make me happy – working with children, reading, writing, learning, walking and gardening, spending time with my family. We’re lucky in that we’ve cleared our mortgage and while we’ll never have the ‘stuff’ that seems so important to most of the world we’ll never have huge debts again. Above all I appreciate every breath I take. I use mindfulness a lot, sitting quietly concentrating on the breath going in and out of my body, being present in the moment and gently drawing my wandering mind back to that moment. It is a good discipline for a busy mind.
I was lucky enough to become involved with performance artist Natasha Davis’s production ‘Internal Terrains’ http://www.natashaproductions.com/ in the Project Arts Centre in April 2013. I met people from every walk of life who were also involved, all younger than me - all with extraordinary tales to tell, all lovely people. Over the course of the fortnight leading up to the show Natasha gently drew our stories from us and then weaved them into her work which explores body, memory and identity. Don’t ask me why her work works, I’m not bright enough – but work it does. The whole experienced empowered me hugely. I realised that, like me, many people are wandering around bewildered or hurting at some level-not all the time obviously- when really what matters is this very moment – caring for each other and this moment, now; because we haven’t the faintest idea what’s coming next. The most important thing we have to do in any day is breathe. A baby knows that instinctively - how on earth do we move so far away from it as we grow?
This has been a very difficult piece to write and it has been many years in the brewing. But my demons are, if not exorcised - then at least accepted, and told that they can no longer dominate my life. One cannot forget, but one can learn to live with the memory of and feelings of powerlessness about certain things, can learn to acknowledge the bad stuff but not let it colour everything in one’s life grey.
Thanks for reading – if you feel this piece might help someone you know who is hurting please, please share it. Keep well, smile, love each other – I love yiz anyway. Remember – one step at a time and above all BREATHE!!