Life Mental Health

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sharing my struggle with mental ilness has really helped

Fiona Kennedy iis urging fellow sufferers to reach out to family and friends for help, for love and support and most vitally, a listening ear.

Fiona Kennedy

Published 27/05/2014 | 02:30

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Fiona Kennedy’s battle with mental illness has been made easier, thanks to the love of her family and friends, and their willingness to listen.
Fiona Kennedy with husband Ronan and their children Donnchadh (6) and Muireann (3). Photos by Andrew Downes
Fiona Kennedy’s battle with mental illness has been made easier, thanks to the love of her family and friends, and their willingness to listen.

Mental illness thrives on secrecy and isolation, says Fiona Kennedy. She is urging fellow sufferers to reach out to family and friends for help, for love and support and most vitally, a listening ear.

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I HAVE clinical depression, and as of a few days ago, after some two years of ongoing evaluation by a psychiatrist, a formal diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). These are heavy, powerful, stigmatising labels, labels no one wants to be landed with. But I was, and although this may seem strange, I was glad to hear it.

So why am I writing about this? Throughout the month of May, See Change, the national movement to change minds about mental health, are running their Green Ribbon campaign, a campaign which aims to break down the stigma around mental illness simply by encouraging conversation. Historically, and sadly all too frequently even now, mental illness is something that's been kept a secret.

It's considered by some to be shameful, a sign of weakness, something to hide away and ignore in the hope that eventually it will go away. But here's the thing – it isn't, it doesn't, and it won't, not without help.

Back when things first got really bad for me, we were utterly clueless as to what was going on. I'm not sure the term post-natal depression had ever crossed our radar, and certainly nothing as complex as EUPD.

Mental health just wasn't a topic of conversation, full stop. Mental illness was something that happened to other people.

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It took a long time to even realise I needed help, never mind ask for it. In the beginning there was only medication. It was another year before I thought about therapy, and it wasn't until after the birth of my daughter in 2010 that we sought psychiatric help.

In all of that time, through all of that struggling, trying and failing to live a normal life, I kept it quiet.

I didn't really know what was wrong with me, depression had been talked of a lot but, to be honest, I wasn't convinced it was a real illness and I certainly wasn't prepared to accept that that's what was happening to me.

My husband knew, obviously, but the rest of my family only had inklings of what was going on. I said nothing to friends. What I didn't realise, and what I see so clearly now, is just how much this compounded an already difficult, almost-impossible situation.

It was when I was in hospital in February of last year that I first decided to let people know what was going on, mostly because I had no idea how to explain my five-week absence, and I hadn't the energy to be creative with excuses. My first foray into letting people know was a text to a select few. Then, when I was feeling braver, a post on Facebook. The response I got blew me away.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of support and positivity that came my way – calls, messages, visits – I was amply supplied with chocolate and reading material, as well as the occasional shoulder and Kleenex. I'd done it. Everyone knew.

That's not to say it wasn't hard the first time I actually spoke to someone once they knew. It was. I was incredibly nervous and I wasn't sure how they'd be with me. Would they look at me differently, or treat me differently? Would they be wary of me? But, for the most part, I found that people took their lead from me. They asked how I was doing. On a good day, I might feel like expanding on things, and they listened. On a bad day, I'd more than likely change the subject as I found and still do find it hard to admit to feeling low, and they go with that.

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Listening is so simple, yet so powerful. There's no need to offer a solution, more often than not there isn't one anyway. Platitudes certainly don't help. But just listening, or even just asking how someone is doing, and genuinely meaning it – don't ever overestimate the difference that can make.

Humour also helps. It really, really helps. The language used to talk about mental illness is so cloaked with fear that it can be overwhelming, and for me at least, humour (the more irreverent the better) is a means of breaking that fear.

My stay in the hospital is affectionately known in my house as my 'loola holiday'. We joke about my being 'proper mental'. Some people may find this incredibly offensive – for me, it's another way of fighting back.

Mental illness is incredibly difficult to live with, both for the person affected and those living with them, but it's made so much worse when it's kept hidden. It thrives on secrecy and isolation.

Something worth considering is the fact that keeping a mental illness hidden from family and friends actually denies them the chance to help, show support, and demonstrate how much they care.

Keeping it hidden lays the foundation for the walls that mental illness builds around people, for the damage it can do to relationships. When it's out in the open, acknowledged, talked about, it loses some of its power.

It was a difficult decision to take a chance and tell people, but it's one that I don't regret for a second. What's been most interesting about this for me is that the more open I've been, the more open others have been in return. People have told me how they themselves have struggled, and still struggle, with depression and other issues. These are people I would always have assumed were absolutely fine and getting on with their lives with no bother at all.

We're able to support each other now in a way that wasn't possible before, and that's wonderful. Something else to come of all this is that a conversation about mental health is now normal for me and those close to me. It's not a taboo subject, something to be danced around and avoided at all costs. It comes into the conversation, and then we move on.

It doesn't define me, not by a long shot, but it's part of me, a part that can't be ignored, any more than diabetes or asthma could be ignored.

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But I want to come back to something I said earlier – that I'm glad I have these labels. Believe me, I'd rather I didn't, that there was no need for them, but there is. I realise that this won't make sense to a lot of people, but for me, there's reassurance in knowing what I'm contending with. These labels mean there is a reason why I think and act as I do, that it's not all my own fault, and now that I know what that reason is, I can work towards managing it.

I've been slowly, slowly getting to grips with depression over the last few years, but kept hitting a roadblock when medication would stop working, or my mood shifted dramatically, again for no apparent reason. Now I know what that's about too, and I can again start to take back some control.

I know there will be days when I will struggle again. I've been warned to expect further episodes of depression and that's something I really don't like to think about.

There's a long road ahead in learning to manage EUPD, but I'm well on my way. I'm hopeful that it won't be as hard as it has been up to now, because I'm not struggling on my own any more, and I know what I'm up against.

I would urge anyone who is having difficulty with their mental health to find someone they trust to talk to. Professional help is so important. I'm lucky to have a GP who knows me well and a counsellor I trust completely, as well as a very supportive husband, family and friends. For now, I also have to take medication to help control my illness. But, as I've been told many, many times, that's only half the battle.

The rest is up to me. And for me at least, talking about it, allowing people to know what's really going on, that's the other half of the battle.

Mental illness is a terrible burden to carry alone, no one should have to do that. Start small. Start with someone close. You might just be pleasantly surprised at their reaction.

Fiona blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers and you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScattered. Fiona is also an Ambassador for See Change – the national movement to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time

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