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Thursday 21 August 2014

Conor Cusack: Depression nearly killed me – yet now it's become my friend

Published 31/10/2013 | 01:55

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Conor Cusack: "I have seen the effects and damage that suicide has on families. It is far, far greater than anything endured while living and helping a person with depression."

I STILL remember the moment well. It was a wet, cold, grey Friday morning. I rose out of bed, having had no sleep. Panic attacks are horrific experiences by day; by night, they are even worse.

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I had loved and excelled in school but it was the same with my hurling, it was the same with my friends, it was the same with my family, it was the same with the people of Cloyne, it was the same with life – I had lost interest in all of them.

They say something has to crack to allow the light in. That morning, I finally cracked. All my strength at keeping up my pretence had gone. I curled up in the corner of the building and began to cry.

Physically, I was in perfect health. I was diagnosed as suffering from 'depression'. I had never heard of the word before.

I was sent to see a psychiatrist. I was 19 years of age in a waiting room, surrounded by people much older than I was. Surely I am not the only young person suffering from depression, I thought to myself.

The psychiatrist explained that there might be a chemical imbalance in my brain and prescribed a mixture of anti-depressants. Something deep inside me told me this wasn't the way forward. As I walked out, a group of people in another room with intellectual disabilities were doing various things. One man had a teaching device in front of him and he was trying to put a square piece into a round hole. It summed up perfectly what I felt had just happened to me.

I now stayed locked in my room all day, only leaving it to go to the bathroom or allow my mother bring me some food. The only time I left the house was on a Thursday morning to visit the psychiatrist.

Depression is difficult to explain to people. If you have experienced it, there is no need; if you haven't, I don't think there are words adequate to describe its horror. I have had a lot of injuries playing hurling, but none of them come anywhere near the physical pain and mental torture of depression.

It permeates every part of your being, from your head to your toes. It is never-ending, waves and waves of utter despair and hopelessness and fear and darkness flood throughout your whole body.

You crave peace but even sleep doesn't afford that. It wrecks your dreams and turns your days into a living nightmare. It destroys your personality, your relationship with your family and friends, your work, your sporting life – it affects them all. Your ability to give and receive affection is gone. You tear at your skin and your hair with frustration. You cut yourself to give some form of physical expression to the incredible pain you feel.

I was now on about 18 tablets a day and not getting better. Medication was ballooning my weight to nearly 20 stone. I was sent to see another psychiatrist and another doctor, who suggested electric shock therapy, which I flatly refused.

My desire for death was now much stronger than my desire for living, so I made a decision. I had been contemplating suicide for a while now and when I finally decided and planned it out, a strange thing happened. A peace that I hadn't experienced for a long time entered my mind and body. It was as if my body realised that this pain it was going through was about to end and it went into relax mode. I had the rope hidden in my room. I knew there was a game on a Saturday evening and that my father and the lads would go to that and my mother and sister would go to Mass.

It would solve everything, I thought. No more pain, both for me and my family. They were suffering as well and I felt that with me gone, it would make life easier for them. How wrong I would have been. I have seen the effects and damage suicide has on families. It is far, far greater than anything endured while living and helping a person with depression.

For some reason my mother never went to Mass. It was a decision that saved my life.

The following week, a family that I had worked for when I was younger heard about me being unwell. They told my mother they knew a clinical psychologist working in a private practice who they felt could help me.

I had built up my hopes too many times, I wasn't going through it again. My mother pleaded to give him a try.

After meeting Tony, I knew this was what I had been searching for. He looked at me with his warm eyes and said: "I hear you haven't been too well. How are you feeling?" It wasn't even the question, it was the way he asked it. I talked and he listened intently. Driving home with my mother that night, I cried again but it was tears of joy. I knew that evening I was going to get better.

I had to face up to memories I had buried from being bullied quite a lot when I was a young kid. It was raw and emotional, revisiting those times. A lot of my identity was tied up with hurling and it was an unhealthy relationship. The ironic thing is that as I began to appreciate and value myself for being me and not needing hurling for my self-esteem, I loved the game more than ever.

I came to realise that depression was not my enemy but my friend. I don't say this lightly. I know the damage it does to people and the lives it has wrecked and is wrecking, so I am only talking for myself.

How can you say something that nearly killed you was your friend?

I believe depression is a message from a part of your being to tell you something in your life isn't right and you need to look at it. It forced me to stop and seek within for answers and that is where they are.

Now I am very comfortable in my own skin. When I fall into old habits, my 'friend' pays me a visit. I don't push him away or ignore him. I sit with him in a chair in a quiet room and allow him to come. I sit with the feeling. Sometimes I cry, other times I smile at how accurate his message is. He might stay for an hour, he might stay for a day. He gives his message and moves on.

Many, many people are living lives of quiet misery. For those people who are currently gripped by depression, either experiencing it or supporting or living with someone with it, I hope my story helps.

There is no situation that is without hope, there is no person that can't overcome their present difficulties. For those who are suffering silently, there is help out there and you are definitely not alone.

Everything you need to succeed is already within you and you have all the answers to your own issues. A good therapist will facilitate that process. It is an act of courage and strength, not weakness, to admit you are struggling. It is an act of courage to seek help. It is an act of courage to face up to your problems.

The real you awaits within to be found but to get there requires a journey inwards. A boat is at its safest when it is in the harbour but that's not what it was built to do. We are the same.

Your journey in will unearth buried truths and unspoken fears. A new strength will emerge to help you to head into the choppy waters of your painful past.

Eventually, you will discover a place of peace within yourself, a place that encourages you to head out into the world and live your life fully. The world will no longer be a frightening place to live in.

The most important thing is to take the first step. Please take it.

This is an edited extract from Conor Cusack's blog

Irish Independent

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