Thursday 8 December 2016

Ali Rochford: Gateway to health

Ali Rochford talks about an organisation that offers unconditional support when the going gets tough

Joy Orpen

Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30

Ali Rochford
Ali Rochford

There was a time when Ali Rochford (36) hated herself so much that she seriously contemplated taking her own life. But that's in the past. Today she is a well-functioning member of society, doing what she can to help others.

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Ali believes the dark clouds began to gather momentum when she was about 16. That's when she first experienced eating problems. "I began to have difficulty swallowing," she recalls. "It was as if my body was rejecting nourishment. I became obsessed with weight and started skipping meals. Then I cut out dinner altogether. I effectively starved my way through the Leaving Cert."

And even though she was emaciated, Ali didn't see it that way. So she didn't welcome interventions by those close to her. Putting pressure on her to eat more food didn't have the desired result. "I only became more determined," she admits. "It's better if we are allowed to figure out for ourselves what we need."

However, there was one person who managed to retain her trust. "I was able to talk to him because he didn't give out to me for not eating, and he never told me what to do," Ali says. "At the time I thought I was fine. I was thin, but wasn't that the plan? I felt everyone else was against me, although I know now, they were just afraid and desperate to help."

Three years down the line, Ali began to eat more normally. She ascribes the turnaround to her friend. "The acceptance I got from him really helped. He never put pressure on me, he really listened to me and accepted me as I was." However, Ali believes that because she still hadn't dealt with the underlying issues causing the eating problems, they expressed themselves in other ways.

"I had been good academically at school, but at university I found it hard to even get out of bed and I began missing classes," she explains. That only added to her sense of failure. "I thought I was lazy and that brought on feelings of self-hatred. Other people seemed to get on well at college, so I felt I was emotionally weak. And because I had never suffered any terrible traumas in life, I felt doubly ashamed, because I didn't think I had a reason to be unwell."

Nonetheless, Ali struggled on and spent eight years at college without graduating. Then she really fell apart. She was prescribed antidepressants; when they didn't work, the dose was repeatedly increased with no improvement. "All I wanted to do was sleep," she remembers. "I wanted to take away the pain by ending my life; and I didn't want be a burden on other people anymore. Then I hated myself for not even having the courage to end my life," she says with a tremble in her voice.

In 2009, Ali was admitted to hospital. "I was kept safe, but that was all," she says. Around this time she met a doctor who realised that, in her particular case, prescription drugs weren't helping her cope. So he advised her to very gradually wean herself off the medication. "It took years for my head to clear," she says.

Soon after, Ali joined the Gateway Mental Health Project in Rathmines, Dublin. "At that time, I was still very isolated and would push people away," she recalls. "I hid from my friends because I was worried that they would find me as despicable as I found myself. I felt I had nothing to say anymore. But when I went to Gateway, things were very different.

"No one ever questioned me, except to ask me how I was; they just accepted me for who I was. There were no mental-health practioners, just ordinary people who'd had experiences like mine," Ali explains. "It was hugely important to be with people who were open and able to empathise. Some of those were well on the road to recovery, and that gave me hope. It was such a comforting place to be."

Gateway runs a drop-in centre twice a week where people can come and have a chat with others who have had similar experiences. Information is available about community and counselling services (which are not provided by the organisation). Other activities are offered, including training in Wellness Recover Action Planning (WRAP).

Mary Ellen Copeland, an award-winning mental-health activist in America, devised this programme following a good deal of research, and her own - and her mother's - experience of living with severe bipolar disorder. The programme was originally intended to help alleviate mental-health issues, but is now used in all kinds of environments, such as hospitals, schools and prisons, to benefit a whole range of people, seeking wellness for any number of reasons.

Ali is now a WRAP trainer, who very definitely practises what she preaches.

"Through this I learned to take back control of my life," she says. "Things started to happen when I began to steer things for myself."

She soon learned that she didn't have to be perfect; that it was OK to feel depressed or anxious at times. But she also learned that there were ways in which she could lessen the impact of those episodes, and that she might even reduce the number of incidents, by taking very good care of herself. "I manage my mental health on a daily basis," she explains. "I see counsellors and doctors as needed. I meditate, I listen to music, go running, eat nourishing food and I keep a journal. I cry, I talk to other people with similar experiences and I do things that make me happy. All these things are in my WRAP plan, and I check it regularly. It helps me to notice when I'm not doing so well, and reminds me what I need to do to turn things around."

And while Ali is immensely grateful that she found Gateway, she is concerned about the future for valuable community resources like this. Other similar projects have not been so lucky.

"Gateway celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. It used to be part of the Rathmines Community Partnership, but since the Government decided to close down, not just our partnership, but several others, we will now be moving to Mental Health Ireland," Ali says, explaining that Mental Health Ireland is a national voluntary organisation representing about 100 organisations. "Funding for these partnerships has been cut by nearly 50pc over the last five years. I'd urge communities to be on the alert and not allow any more cutbacks in funding," she says.

Finally, Ali is immensely grateful to all those who waited so patiently for her to return to good health, and these include her very special mum, her brother, close friends and the people of Gateway.

For more information, contact the Gateway Mental Health Project, tel: (085) 752-1220, or email gatewaymentalhealthproject@gmail.com or see the Gateway Mental Health blog, projectgateway.blogspot.ie

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