About the Make a Ripple campaign
This series of blog posts are part of the See Change Make a Ripple campaign, an initiative to help end the stigma of mental health problems by sharing experiences and building public understanding. If you’d like to tell your story, you can visit the Make a Ripple stories portal. If you’d like to write a longer piece like the one below, you can contact a member of the See Change campaign team email@example.com or on 01 8601620
I spent years screaming. Silently screaming, inside myself, desperate for someone to hear that silent scream and understand the pain I was in. I was overwhelmed with fear, anxiety, panic and abject sadness that were beyond my ability to explain to anyone. I didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to me or why I had changed so much. You see, people used to call me Giggles as a child because I was always laughing. Then the laughter stopped.
I was just twelve years old when I had what I now know to be a panic attack in my friend’s house one evening. We had had great fun at a junior disco and all was well one minute then, like a slap across the face, I was hit by a wave of nausea and panic, lost my breath and began and shaking uncontrollably. Life changed in every way possible from that moment onwards. Gone was happy, giggling Jules replaced by a withdrawn, miserable, exhausted ghost of a girl who was entirely apathetic to life. As if the misery wasn’t bad enough I didn’t understand what was happening to me so I was terrified.
Neither did my parents who were at the ends of their tether as well. They were strong for me when I was utterly weak and brought me from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, looking for answers. We were told it was attention seeking; it was in my imagination; it was ME (chronic fatigue syndrome). Certainly depression or mental illness were never mentioned at the time. This was the late 1980s and Ireland in that time didn’t associate mental illness with little girls from happy homes. God we were clueless.
My teenage years are a blur of misery, dark days, tears, loneliness and the contemplation of suicide over and over again. I was lucky that most friends stuck by me though I was not much fun to be around a lot of the time. Nights out regularly ended prematurely with panic attacks resulting in my dad having to come rescue me and as we grew older I couldn’t partake in the disco or pub culture because I suffered panic attacks in crowded or enclosed spaces. Life was a long struggle.
I decided after school to move to London and while it was tough, I got help from a hypnotherapist and managed to go to college and turn my life around. I had a great few years where I enjoyed college and enjoyed something of a social life (though certainly nothing like that of your average student’s). I then found a job and worked for two years in London and had great fun and a wonderful social life. There were lows but less frequent and I was enjoying life a lot.
On returning home in 1997 I settled back into a social group of old school friends and their other mates and these people, along with my family, have been at the core of my support network in recent years. There were tough times. After a break up in 1999 my friends staged an intervention to explain they could no longer handle my dark moods but at this stage nobody had ever mentioned depression. It was only during a visit to my GP in 2000 – 12 years after I first became ill – that he broached the subject with me and suggested I try anti-depressants. When he explained what depression actually entailed – much more than mere sadness – it was like a light bulb coming on in my head. It made such clear sense to me. Of course I was depressed. Finally, I had an answer to the emotional turmoil I had been in for all those years. The tablets helped initially and for a while life was good and the mood lifted.
2001 however was a terrible year for me. I faced several personal crises and it all became too much. As the year progressed I began drinking more and more to numb my pain, was losing weight (at one point I was under seven stone), I was self harming (physical pain was better than the emotional pain for me) and I was fighting with those closest to me. I was so frustrated that nobody seemed to understand my pain but looking back now how could they have understood when I didn’t understand it myself?! By the week of 9/11 I was at utter breaking point. Emotionally spent, tired beyond belief, drunk or hung over every day, self harming regularly and wanting to close my eyes and not open them again. Let me be clear. I did not want to die. I just could no longer face living in the pain I was in.
I was admitted to St. Patrick’s Hospital on 19th September 2001 and this turned out to be the greatest turning point of my life. I was under observation 24/7 for the first 9 weeks there and through this it was realised that I was not only depressed, I was also having manic highs. I am bi-polar. And so I had a full diagnosis, finally.
Being diagnosed bi-polar was a huge relief in one way and traumatic in another. Initially I thought: I don’t want to be bi-polar, I don’t like it. Then I thought, even through my hazy brain, if I was asthmatic or diabetic I wouldn’t be ashamed, why on earth should I be ashamed of this? It helped that my parents and most of my friends were of the same opinion. No one judged me for it, no one walked away. They, as did I, felt the illness was simply part of me, part of who I am and not something to hide. I passionately believe that this is an attitude that we need to work on as a society though.
So, twelve weeks were spent as an in-patient in therapy sessions, occupational therapy, seeing my doctor, finding meds that suited me and beginning to piece my life back together. It was a really awful time and I am lucky. I have amazing family and a wonderful circle of friends most of whom really came through for me. There were difficult times in some friendships but over time we have repaired these too. You see, mental illness doesn’t just affect the ill person but those around them too and everyone needs a little understanding.
I have often heard that depressed people are selfish. Maybe that is true. However, from my point of view, that selfishness is justifiable. I can only speak for myself but I know that it took everything I had to keep functioning on the most basic level day to day when ill. I had to focus what little energy I had on keeping my mask of normality on and getting on with daily chores. I had nothing left for taking care of others and had I focussed my energy on others I know it would have left me suicidally exhausted and depressed. I understand that sounds terrible and makes me feel guilty but it is my truth.
The road to recovery, for me, was a long one. It took a long time to find the right combination of medications that suited me before I reached a point where I felt well, calm and stable. I remember saying to my fantastic psychiatrist that it had been so long since I felt normal that I wouldn’t recognise it. She assured me that I would – and she was right. As I pottered about the house one day it happened, I just felt it: “I feel normal”. No low, no high. Calm. Happy even. The relief and emotion of that day were amazing. It had been 16 years since I had felt really well and wow, it was fantastic.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing since then. I spent another period in hospital in 2008. That time the typical signs were back but I initially tried to ignore them. I was drinking, over spending, self-harming, comfort eating and desperately unhappy. Thankfully St. Patrick’s were wonderful again and I overcame the low. I experienced a major manic episode at the end of 2010 which we managed out of hospital with great support from my parents and doctors. This was very tough on us all – and very frightening as we are more used to dealing with me depressed rather than high – but we got there together, again!
I have been attending a wonderful therapist for the last two years and this has been crucial in turning my life around. I have worked on the self-esteem and self-confidence that had so badly been eroded by my illness. I have revisited some very dark moments from the past which I probably wanted to avoid but I now see I needed to go back to in order to move forward. I have a long way to go but this therapy is a great support for me and I really feel it is of huge benefit for my life. I haven’t self harmed for a very long time and never touch alcohol these days and don’t want either to be part of my life. I am stronger and happier without them.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in Julie’s story, or if you need to speak with someone, click through for a list of organisations that can help
See Change understands that there is a complex multiplicity of perspectives on mental health problems and the experience of being unwell. See Change encourages the publication of material that promotes understanding of mental health problems, the experience of being unwell, and recovery. The opinions expressed by contributors to the Make a Ripple campaign are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of See Change, funders, or partner organisations.