Health

Saturday 12 July 2014

Getting stronger after depression

Imagine feeling like you're about to lose everything -- to be at absolute breaking point. For 300,000 depression sufferers in Ireland, every day can feel like this. Find out how two inspiring women rebuilt their mental health...

Exercising her demons: Gillian Roddie stays in shape

More than 300,000 people suffer from depression in Ireland every year. Many hit rock bottom, and wonder if they will ever feel 'normal' again. It can hit anyone. Mann Booker Prize winner Anne Enright has talked of her breakdown, suffered when she was working in TV.

Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair's press secretary, hit rock bottom back in 1986 when he was 29. He has said that, in the end, the experience has made him a stronger person and more able to deal with his challenging job.

"I was taken to the limit, really close to losing everything, at absolute breaking point. It was, in many ways, the worst thing that has ever happened to me, certainly the scariest," he said. "But in other ways it was the making of me."

Those are words that Gillian Roddie, now 27, can only agree with. She was 22 when she was diagnosed with depression.

"I had my first, small breakdown in May 2002," she says. "I was at Trinity College Dublin studying Zoology, and it was coming up to finals.

"A family member was having an operation, and there was a lot of stress from the exams. I had a fight with someone, and ended up lying on the floor, just wailing."

Gillian didn't get help at that time. She picked herself up and took her finals. Then, buoyed up with success, she went off to Hawaii for the summer.

"I was working in a lab at the University of Hawaii, and I was scuba diving. It's a beautiful island and it was a wonderful job, but I was still waking up crying every morning. Something was not adding up.

"So, when I got home I went to my GP. She diagnosed me and gave me an antidepressant, Effexor XR75. I remember feeling so relieved. I had a name for it. I was not going crazy, but had something that other people had." Her euphoria was short lived, however. That evening, while chatting to other scuba- diving instructors, a friend mentioned that some of his relations were depressed.

"He said, 'I wish they would just shut up and get on with it'. That was when it hit home. I realised, 'this is something that carries huge stigma'."

Back in Dublin, Gillian then started a Phd at DCU. Living away from home, she felt lonely. She wasn't enjoying the work, and was finding it hard to make friends with her colleagues.

"One day I started crying in the lab. People didn't know how to cope. How could they?" she says.

When her grandmother died, Gillian sank so low that she went to her doctor in despair.

"I felt I wasn't worthy of existing. It was such a low point. I didn't know how to carry on. I couldn't understand what was going on in my head," she says. "I'm a gregarious person, always the life and soul.

"You feel idiotic trying to explain how you feel. You say, 'I feel so low', and people say, 'you will get over it', or 'you will be fine tomorrow'. Those phrases are like stabs to the heart.

"My GP told me, 'the darkest hour of the night is the one just before the dawn'. It was the truth. That was my turning point. She changed my drug to Lexapro, and I had cognitive behavioural therapy. I talked to one friend who understood, and I did a lot of thinking -- I then decided to change my life."

Her biggest change was to give up the Phd. "That was heart wrenching. I felt like such a failure. I've always been an achiever. My parents didn't put on pressure, but they were proud when I did well.

"But I talked to them and they told me, 'we don't care what you do as long as it makes you happy'. Having their support stopped me feeling guilty."

Soothing effect of sea

Gillian left science altogether and became a retail manager in Brown Thomas. She moved from Finglas, and now lives near where she grew up in Sandycove along Dublin's coast. "The sea is magic. It soothes my soul."

Eventually, Gillian moved back to science, and has just completed a Masters at Trinity. She is off her medication, has survived a painful break-up and is happy in a new relationship.

Part of her recovery is due to physical exercise. "In 2004, I went to the gym to help increase my strength. I began to gain confidence, and to lift weights. If I'd had a bad day, the gym instantly made me feel better.

"I began to read about it, to work to a programme and to take care of my diet."

When a friend urged her to compete as a lifter, Gillian was sceptical. But she gave it a go. And at her first competition, the National IDFPA (Irish Drug Free Powerlifting Association) in Castleblaney, she won the women's unequipped championship, setting a new national record, a new EU record and two world records.

These days, Gillian monitors her emotional state. "I had to stop making decisions based on what other people expected," she says.

"I've learned to make myself happy. Some people do not agree with the lifting, but it puts a smile on my face. It makes me feel alive and keeps me active. I feel on top of the world."

Jenny's story

Jenny (her name has been changed) suffered from anxiety and depression for almost seven years. And she eventually regained a fulfilled life with the help of a support group.

It all began when she was 18, and married with a baby. "I had a panic attack and thought I was dying," she says.

"I was consumed with the idea of death, and developed a phobia around it. My GP said I was suffering from anxiety and depression. He prescribed antidepressants, but I hadn't a clue what depression meant.

"No one took the time to explain what was happening to me, or to find out why it was happening.

"I didn't tell anyone what was wrong," says Jenny. "I was afraid they would think I was crazy. I was taking 16 tablets a day, but I got worse. And when I was 22, I could not take anymore. I began thinking compulsively of suicide."

Jenny found herself in a psychiatric hospital, being watched 24 hours a day. She assumed that hospital would 'cure' her, but when she left there, the cause of her anxieties had still not been addressed.

"My poor mum was frantic. She was desperate to find me help. She persuaded me to go to a support meeting with the mental health organisation GROW. I didn't want to go but for her sake, I did. And it was brilliant.

"My husband and family were supportive, but they did not understand me at the time. It's easier to relate to people who have been depressed themselves. I had stress management and counselling, too, but the support meeting was my turning point. That evening started my recovery."

Within two-and-a-half years, Jenny came off her medication. She learned, through GROW's 12- point plan, to think with her brain rather than her feelings. That has made all the difference.

"I had another child, earned to drive and went back to work," she says. "Before my breakdown, I never thought I was good enough. I'm a much, much stronger person now."

Dr Michael Corry, a psychiatrist who founded www.depressiondialogues.ie, despairs at the way depression is treated in Ireland.

The problem, he believes, is that depression is commonly categorised as an illness, and is too often treated with drugs, without the underlying causes being investigated.

"To me it is not a disease," he says. "It's an emotional experience arising from the difficulties of living.

'Happiness is an inside job'

"It could be the loss of a loved one through death or separation, it might be sexual trauma or bullying, or it could be financial setbacks.

"By calling it a disease you are alienating people from an emotion that should be explored. Happiness is an inside job.

"You can give depressed people pills to help them sleep, or an antidepressant to give them a kick start, but the emotion is telling you that there is something in your life that needs sorting out.

"To give solely medication, which numbs the emotion, is ethically wrong," he says.

"It just isn't appropriate. It's like saying, 'you are Prozac deficient'."

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