Sunday 22 September 2019

'A light bulb went off in my head' - man (56) tells of serious mental health issues after childhood abuse

From the age of 14, Paul O'Rourke stumbled through the Irish psychiatric system, his symptoms spiralling until he finally found the key to helping himself

Paul O'Rourke near his home in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny with his dogs, Patsy and Stephen. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Paul O'Rourke near his home in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny with his dogs, Patsy and Stephen. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Arlene Harris

Paul O'Rourke believes that learning to help yourself is the most important lesson in life. At 56 years of age, the Kilkenny man has had more than his fair share of troubles after an abusive childhood led him to serious mental health issues and more than one suicide attempt.

Hospitalised on several occasions, the father-of-four believes that the turning point in his life was when he realised that the only person who could make his life better was himself - and from that moment on, he dedicated each day to figuring out how he could improve his state of mind, both for his own sake and his loved ones'.

Featuring in a new photography exhibition (launching on October 25), which aims to give people with mental health issues the opportunity to portray their lives through images, Paul relives the dark place he was in before seeing the light.

"My situation was very hard and I believe my mental health problems started when I was just 10 years old and had to deal with abuse," he says. "It [mental illness] wasn't recognised as such back then, but it manifested throughout the years and I was actually brought to hospital when I was 14 by my father, who didn't know what else to do - I wasn't troublesome or violent, but there was just something not right with me.

"Looking back, I know I wasn't an ordinary kid and wasn't always present in the moment - I could go to a hurling match and would have no idea what happened when it was over. But no one had any answers and I was just passed from Billy to Jack, as doctors put different labels on me. I was given medication [for depression] at 14, but I didn't take it and, instead, just carried on as best I could."

From his first psychiatric assessment as a teenager, Paul "stumbled" through the next 15 years, being diagnosed with various conditions, such as depression, borderline personality disorder and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

He says he also kept many symptoms hidden, as it was too painful to reveal everything he was feeling, and as he got older, the only way to relieve the pressure was to get drunk.

"Drinking helped me to forget the past and release the pressure in my head, but I was very unhappy. I used alcohol a bit like a tranquilliser," he recalls.

"I also used to self-harm and work too much [as a welder and fitter] so I would wear myself out. But after a while, I ran out of energy and just couldn't cope - I began to unravel and the dam of pain I had been hiding for years just burst, and, after going to see my doctor, I was told that I needed to be admitted for a while.

"I was allowed to choose whether or not I went into hospital and I decided of my own free will to go - this was a real eye-opener as I discovered that there were lots of other people like me.

"My head was so bad that I was in there for four months and put on medication but, as soon as I came out, I went downhill again. This happened again and again, and the cycle was like a carousel of me going in and out of hospital - nothing was working."

Paul entrusted his partner, Gemma, with his innermost thoughts, and she did all she could to help him but ultimately concluded that the only person who was able to help him back on his feet was himself.

"Gemma has been amazing and I don't know what I would have done without her or the kids," he says.

"But I was causing so much pain for her and everyone else in the family and I just didn't see it at the time. I would be admitted for three or four months and they all had to carry on in the real world and cope with the trail of destruction I left behind me - it was totally unfair.

"Over the years, I tried to take my own life several times and, each time, I was brought back and doctors would try to help me to get better - but it took me a long time to realise that no one could do it for me, I had to be the one to make it happen.

"After I was discharged for the last time four years ago, I sat at the table and said to myself, 'This isn't working - what can I do now?' And it was as if a light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly realised that it had to be me who made the change."

So Paul started some research of his own and came to the conclusion that the reason nothing was working was because he wasn't on an equal footing with those who were trying to help him - this, he believes is key, to regaining control.

"I was always receiving support from everyone but wasn't giving anything back," he says. "I figured that most of the services put people like me in the centre of a circle with everyone around them offering help.

"I knew I needed to get myself out of the circle and into the link with the others. So now, when I visit the doctor, I will ask him first how he is and how his family are doing, so we are on the same level when he asks me the same thing.

"Being mindful really helps and I know that I need to take time out every day, so I get out into the woods and walk the dogs.

"This allows me time to think and process things slowly at my own pace. I make plans for the future but take things one day at a time - I am where I am today by taking baby steps.

"I asked my doctor to take me off medication and he agreed as long as we did it slowly - it took 18 months, but I got there because I was part of the decision process. Taking control of my life is what it's all about."

Paul now helps the charity Shine by co-facilitating workshops and supporting others in a similar situation to where he once was.

"These days, I try to put myself in other people's shoes rather than my own," he says. "Of course, I do have sad days, but that's OK, as we all have sad, bad and angry moments, as long as we don't go to extremes - and I have had to teach myself how to do this.

"Getting involved with mental health groups has also helped me to understand more about what was going on with me and given me the opportunity to help others who are going through the same thing.

"My advice to others would be to know that they will get through it in the end - it doesn't last forever and these experiences are all just part of life's journey."

* Professor Jim Lucey will launch the See Change 'Look Beyond' photovoice exhibition at 6pm on October 25 in Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

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