Thursday 8 December 2016

'Fear of my illness allowed it to control me completely' - Barbara Brennan on being manic depressive

Published 12/05/2015 | 02:30

Barbara Brennan came close to death
Barbara Brennan came close to death

Coming close to death made Barbara Brennan take control of her life, and made her realise that having a mental illness did not mean a life without hope

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My name is Barbara. I'm 33. I'm an artist, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a friend and a manic depressive.

I started getting sick when I was about 12, but nobody knew it was happening. Everyone assumed it was the usual hormone changes associated with becoming a teenager. I wound up in hospital a week after my 14th birthday after trying to take my own life for the first time. I didn't remember doing it - it was a bit of a shock actually, but a bit of a relief too. I just couldn't take the pain and the pressure anymore.

When I was finally well enough to leave the general hospital, I had to go to a special unit in a psychiatric hospital because I was under 16. I thought it would only be for a couple of days - maybe even a week or two. It was nearly four months. Full of medication, fear and trepidation, I went home and spent some time "resting" before I had to go back to school.

Of course, I couldn't have known about the rumours going around about me while I was out. I had missed half the school year by the time I made it back - everyone had different stories as to why I had been missing. Cancer. Brain Tumour. Heart attack. Depression. I don't know which one hurt the most. I wasn't strong enough to tell the truth. I didn't know how to say the words I had been labelled with. I lost a lot of friends that year. I had a few that stuck by me, but in general, we didn't talk about it. We somehow found a way to push it down, step over it, skirt around it.

I left school after 5th year -between the heavy medications I was on, and the huge stigma that had attached itself to me, I didn't make it to school regularly enough - and when I did, I just wasn't able.

Sixth year in a new school, it was like a new lease of life. I clawed my grades back, I made a few new friends, I dyed my hair poppy red for the first time. Things were starting to improve. The new year brought possibility and hope… and all of a sudden, depression.

Like a loud bang, I hit the ground harder than I had before. I remember being brought by my parents to meet a specialist for the first time. I was terrified. Hushed tones were spoken and lots of private conversations had. It went on like that for years, with admissions to psychiatric hospitals in between.

I dropped out of life sometime during those years. Constant medication, fear and ignorance will do that to you. After a long period of nothingness, I started to improve. I wanted life again and needed something to help me hope. I went back to college and did a portfolio course to try and kick start my passion for art again. I had a great year. I was creative, I was happy, I was healthy. I was the best I'd been in years. Somewhere along the way though, I got lost.

I didn't understand it because it had never happened like that before. I was elated! So elated in fact, that I didn't understand consequences anymore, and didn't need to sleep at all.

Nobody could keep up with me. I became a raging alcoholic, a liar, and eventually, a recluse. I ended up in hospital by the autumn.

Another couple of years filled with illness followed. It's a general haze and I don't have many memories of that time, but the ones I do are too hurtful to speak about.

Being finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder made things clearer certainly, but it didn't make things any easier.

Living most of my life in fear of my illness allowed it to control me completely.

Like a bully at school, my illness tormented me, beat me senseless, and left me struggling to breathe on a daily basis. I forgot how to function. I forgot who I was, and how capable I am.

I couldn't understand the normal things, or deal with anything more than dressing myself and eating. I was medicated so heavily sometimes that even they became a problem. The fog of medication eventually became so heavy that it clouded my vision and my mind beyond reach.

After being out of work and education for so long, I had talked myself into believing I wasn't good enough anymore. Having mental illness meant that I was like damaged goods. I found it difficult to go back to college, or even go for job interviews - because, now that I had lived with mental illness, I was different. Special. Broken.

I watched a movie recently with a narrative that was so alive to me when it said: "Most days are unremarkable. Most days begin and end with no lasting memories in between. Most days have no impact on the course of a life…"

A Monday in November changed the course of the rest of my life. On this day, I was put on life support after being found by my brother and sister. I had finally lost the 15-year battle with mental illness and all that goes with it. I couldn't take any more pain, or watch my family suffer any longer. I saw my two-year-old niece, and knew that I loved her too much to bring my mental illness into the rest of her life. Enough was enough. I decided that killing myself as the best thing I could do for my family, and for myself too.

After a week of being kept alive by machines, I started to wake up. Boy am I glad they didn't have a power cut that week! As part of my physical recovery, I had to learn how to walk again because I had such problems with my legs after being unconscious for so long. I was horrifically underweight. I could hardly breathe from pneumonia, and my throat was in tatters from the tubes that had kept me alive, so I had no voice. Desperate to be alive, I finally started my journey into recovery.

Today, I am healthy. I am well. I am very much alive. I'm seven years fully off medication, and I've managed to keep wellness and vitality in my life.

Today, and everyday, I want to speak out about the stigma around mental illness. If I had not been so frightened of what was happening to me, had I gone for help earlier, had I understood how much I actually could do for myself, my mind boggles at how different my life would have been. And how the lives of my family, and all my friends - who spent hours and days praying like crazy that I wouldn't die, or end up a vegetable - would have been had I never got that sick in the first place.

For years, all I saw was a future of terrifying sadness and illness. Now, because I came so close to death, I live every day like it is my first and last. I understand now that my life is my own, and only I can be responsible for it.

It's not up to anyone else to fix me. It's not the doctor's job, or my family's, or my friend's. It's mine. I have finally learned how to deal with stress and worry. I eat properly for my own body now. I sleep properly. I spend time with people I love, and who love me. I get help when I'm not managing as well as I would like. I deal with things as they come up - and face up to every small thing - instead of burying it and allowing it to fester and grow inside me like a nuclear time bomb.

I have learned to treat myself in a way that any good friend would, and that I am a good person who deserves all the best chances in life - just like everyone else.

If I knew half of what I know now about mental health and illness, I need not have wasted half my life, and all my growing years in hospitals, on heavy medication, and in fear of my own illness. I may have a disability, but I AM able.

I am young. I've had severe mental health problems, and I don't care who knows it. I am proud to stand up and talk about it. I hope that one day soon, mental health will be addressed fully, with compassion, and without prejudice, stigma, fear and ignorance.

* Barbara is an ambassador for See Change, the national stigma reduction partnership. The organisation runs the annual Green Ribbon campaign to get Ireland talking about mental health in May. For more details, see www.greenribbon.ie

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