News Brendan O’Connor

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Let's get it out of our heads that therapy is just for daft Yanks

The kind words of a stranger set Conor Cusack on the long road to recovery from depression

Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00

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SUPPORT: The late Donal Walsh, centre, with Munster players Paul O'Connell, Dave O'Callaghan and Luke O'Dea

Conor Cusack was offered Electric Shock Treatment before he was offered counselling.

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In the 21st Century. In Ireland.

This is just one extraordinary aspect of the extraordinary tale told by this extraordinary man from Cloyne last week.

It is hard to sit down and read Cusack's blog, or to watch his interview with Miriam O'Callaghan, without being very moved. As much as the incidents that he relates are very moving, it is, as they say, the way he tells them.

Being articulate is one part intelligence, one part subtlety, one part courage, one part clarity and one part poetry. And Cusack has all of those things, in his heart and mind. And the funny thing is that he might credit much of that to therapy.

Cusack's theory on his depression is slightly different to the usual take we hear. Cusack believes his depression was a symptom, a signal from his subconscious, from his soul, that something was wrong, that something was buried deep down in him – in his case childhood bullying. And his breakdown and depression warned him that he needed to resolve this issue, because it was causing a fissure in his psyche, a crack in his soul that was in danger of opening him up and swallowing him. And all it took to start that healing, after months of psychiatrists and 18 tablets a day and offers of ECT, was for him to sit down opposite another man and for that man to say kindly to him: "I hear you haven't been so well. How have you been feeling?"

But it was a long road to get to that simple point.

Now that Cusack has come to the point he is at, where he is largely well, he is able to view his depression as a helpful friend, one that reminds him to look after himself, to deal with things, to live what he calls an authentic life. Some people are born like Cusack. Unless they live an authentic life, the neuroses and the niggles and the lies and the things they've buried fester inside them until they explode.

Indeed, Cusack would probably argue that we all have things in there that we could do with dealing with. Cusack might argue that he is one of the lucky ones, because he was forced to deal with his demons. Cusack might argue that anyone walking around who hasn't cleaned out their closet with therapy is a ticking time bomb. Ask anyone who has had therapy and they will probably tell you that they think everyone should have it.

Cusack's discussion of his depression and how he dealt with it is both important and controversial. It is controversial for an Irish person to admit to therapy in the first place. Therapy has a bad name in Ireland. Say therapy and people

think of something trivial, comedic and self-indulgent.

We think of Woody Allen on the couch musing about sex, or some pampered Californian type. You can be guaranteed that some people will have dismissed the clarion call that Cusack gave at the end of his interview with Miriam O'Callaghan on Prime Time as "therapy speak".

"I promise those people that are in that terrible place, there's a place within them, it's a place of peace, it's a place of joy, it's a place of love, it's a place of hope and it's waiting for them to rediscover it," he said. "And it's within their grasp. They've all the skills and all the abilities to be able to get there. And the thing about it, Miriam, is these people, they'll emerge stronger people. They'll emerge people that are living their life from the inside out, independent of other people's opinions; they're living their life fully and freely. They're going to not be frightened of this world any more, they're going to be embraced by it. They're going to look at challenges and difficulties and take them all on. And somewhere along the way, I'll get to meet those souls, souls on the road less travelled, and I'll look forward to that. Embrace the journey, start the journey."

There is also always the suggestion around therapy in Ireland that it means you have no friends. Why would you need to talk to a stranger if you have good friends? But of course that is the beauty of therapy – that you can talk to a stranger. And every young man in Ireland who is depressed or suicidal would benefit from talking to the right stranger – someone who doesn't know who you are or who you are meant to be, or any of the straitjackets that people who know us for years put on us.

Yet therapy is very difficult to access in Ireland. You might get lucky and get some through a charity like Console, or you might have money to go privately. But it is not something that is offered urgently and as a matter of course in the health system. As Conor Cusack's tale shows, in Ireland, it can be easier to get pumped full of pills and offered ECT than it is to get to sit opposite someone who will say: "I hear you haven't been well. How have you been feeling?"

Those words started a process in Conor Cusack that had him off medication in a week. Cusack's rejection of the medical model as not suitable for him is controversial too, but note that Cusack has been careful to say that medication does work for many people.

Cusack's speaking out was important in another way too. In his piece in this paper today he talks about the quiet, steady support he got from his team-mates when he went back to training, and he talks about the GAA as an engine for change in the culture of how young men relate to each other.

He's spot on. All over this country there are men who are bonded hugely over sport. Not just in GAA, but in rugby and soccer too there are bands of brothers, men who know each other intimately and back each other up instinctively.

While there is huge latent support in these groups, and these lads will always be there for each other, there might not always have been a culture of talking too much about your feelings among these bands of brothers. Everything tended to be buried under the bonding of slagging or quiet manly back-up.

In recent years that culture has started to change. Look at how Munster and Irish rugby players got involved with Donal Walsh and his message. And look at the culture of more openness in the GAA pioneered by guys like Cusack.

If the apparatus of these ready-made huge national movements can be mobilised to change the way young men in trouble relate to others, and to enlighten the male culture in Ireland, it could alleviate a lot of desperation.

And if we could simultaneously develop a culture where therapy was recognised as an often urgent and invaluable intervention rather than something for daft Yanks, we could make the world an easier place for young men like Conor Cusack was.

If Conor Cusack's depression forced him to confront a few things, perhaps his talking about it could encourage the rest of us to confront a few things.

Sunday Independent

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