Life Mental Health

Thursday 18 September 2014

'My husband didn't ask for this, and I'm in it for the long haul'

Families suffer too when a loved one is battling a mental health issue – but there are many different ways to cope

Graham Clifford

Published 09/10/2013 | 05:00

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Constant support: Catherine and Liam Howe at their home in Kilkenny. Dylan Vaughan
Highs and lows: Mary and Jack O'Mara;
Kara Madden

It's estimated that one-in-four of us will experience some form of mental health problem in our lives – and if we do it's likely to be our nearest and dearest who'll be there to help.

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In homes across Ireland families and friends must first digest the unsettling news that their loved one has a mental illness – before dedicating their lives to protecting that person and trying to help them maintain a good quality of life, despite their difficulties.

It's undoubtedly an exhausting challenge for even the most dedicated of carers. Depending on the type and severity of the health problem in question communication can be severely limited.

The ripples of mental illness can be felt by everyone in a family and the traditional stigma attached to health problems of this kind in Ireland complicate matters further.

I spoke with three carers who explained how looking after a family member with a mental health problem has affected their lives.

THE CARERS

Catherine Howe from Kilkenny has reached out to other carers of loved ones with mental illness.

"Liam and I met in school as teenagers. In 1985 we were married, lived in Cork and our two daughters were born there.

"As the years went on the signs started to emerge that something was wrong. We moved back to Kilkenny and he had a job as an electrician before things went downhill.

"It started off with depression, lack of self-esteem, tearfulness. During his highs Liam, now 51 and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, could do anything.

"I came home one day and he had an auctioneer in the house valuing it, he got it into his head that we should sell our home.

"I was working as an office administrator but had to stop to care for Liam. He's had Electroconvulsive (ECT) Therapy and on occasion would be in hospital for up to 10 weeks. There's always the fear of suicide.

"When he's in hospital I'm on my own at home. My daughters are away in college and that can be tough. When he gets out I'm expected to do the same work single-handedly as a team of nurses and doctors have been doing together.

"It's difficult but we get through it. My girls are my world and only for them I don't know what I'd do. Here in Kilkenny we've started a support group for those who care for people with mental health issues.

"As for Liam and I, we'll live one day at a time. He didn't ask for this and I'm in it for the long haul."

* Kara Madden from Cork had to make her son homeless so he could get help with his schizophrenia.

"The first four years after Thomas was diagnosed were the hardest. My marriage broke down and then I was told my son had paranoid schizophrenia. At the time there was very little support out there, it was horrendous. Someone in the hospital shoved a leaflet at me with the contact details for Schizophrenia Ireland – they helped, but there was only so much they could do.

"Thomas was in and out of hospital, cannabis-use had a large part to do with the onset of his condition. He was clever enough to talk his way out and then he'd be back in again – a revolving door.

"I even had to make him homeless once so he could get back into the system.

"He's 27 now and is doing really well. For the last four years he's living independently and is in employment based training. You never say never with this condition though.

"I think the best thing I did was accept I couldn't change everything and let go of the reins a bit. Once I did that he reacted well to having his own responsibility and I could live again. I played hockey and kept busy.

"Carers of people with mental health issues need to make sure they look after themselves because if they become unwell that's no good to anyone.

"I'm currently on a Dublin City University-linked course on caring and next month we're launching a scheme called Cork Carer Connection where we provide details of support groups.

Mary O'Mara from Limerick has been living in the shadow of her husband Jack for nearly 50 years.

"He did lots of the upholstery in Bunratty Castle you know. He was very talented and had an unbelievable sense of humour but sometimes he'd go too far with silly pranks.

"We married in 1965 and I'd say I first noticed the swings in his mood within the first month.

"He'd spend every penny we had – I had more jewellery than Elizabeth Taylor but gave it to a local jewellers for safe-keeping for fear he'd sell it all.

"The kids loved him because when he was high they thought he was great fun – on his downs I'd keep him in the second sitting room and they wouldn't really see him.

"We had three children, two boys and a girl, and I'd have to send them to the shop with a list when they were only nine or 10. Eventually in 1986 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but it took years to get his medication right. He's steady now but there's always the risk of an episode.

"For years I had no support, sure nobody understood it. You live in the shadow of people with bipolar.

"Thankfully I got involved with the girl guides and for the last 36 years have worked with them as an instructor, that kept me going at times, listening to the funny stories of the children.

"I could never make friends because you couldn't trust him not to embarrass you in front of them – it was a chance I never took."

If you need support caring for a loved one visit ww.carersireland.com or www.caringforcarers.ie

Irish Independent

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