Wednesday 26 June 2019

Finding the light

Even though she is a high achiever, Sophie O'Donoghue knows what it feels like to be depressed. She tells Joy Orpen that one of the major problems she faced was feeling unable to talk openly about what she was going through

Sophie O'Donoghue is now a volunteer 'supporter' for those completing Aware's Life Skills online programme. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Sophie O'Donoghue is now a volunteer 'supporter' for those completing Aware's Life Skills online programme. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

A few years back, if you checked out Sophie O'Donoghue's social media posts, you would have known for certain that she was having a ball. After all, she was doing what most upwardly mobile, intelligent young women her age were doing - getting a good education, while having a brilliant social life. And, in this, Sophie was no exception.

After all, she came from a happy home in Celbridge, Co Kildare. Throughout school, she excelled at sport, playing hockey and football; she also played camogie for her county.

Not surprisingly, Sophie was awarded a sports scholarship to Maynooth University, where she did law and business studies. That was followed by a course in legal compliance, which eventually led to her current position with a life-insurance company, overseeing their legal compliance and data-protection responsibilities.

However, it hasn't all been plain sailing. Six years ago, when she was 18, Sophie began to feel weepy. The waterworks could begin at any time, in any place. She was baffled by this seemingly inexplicable development. "I had nothing to complain about," she volunteers. "I had a great family, great friends and a great boyfriend. I had my scholarship and a part-time job, so I had no money worries, either."

Nonetheless, her social life was being seriously affected by her low mood. "I remember getting all dressed up to go out with my friends," she recalls. "We'd go for pre-drinks, where photos would be taken of us having a whale of a time. But then the tears would start bubbling up, and I'd have to leave and go home." Nonetheless, as soon as she could, she'd post lots of photos on social media, giving the impression that she was having an absolute ball; meanwhile, she was already tucked up in her bed.

It would seem that embarrassment was a major issue for her. "Just a few years ago, there still was a great deal of stigma around mental-health issues," she explains. "I thought only older, more adult people went through this. So I felt really ashamed that I had this 'problem' that couldn't be spoken about openly. I was also ashamed, because, on a practical level, there was no obvious reason for my unhappiness. I knew there were people out there who were a lot worse off than me. There were students at college who had money problems, or a parent who was very ill, and yet they seemed to cope. So why couldn't I, with all I had going for me?"

In 2012, about a year after Sophie's tears first began to flow, things deteriorated even further. "I had never felt so lonely. It was as if I was trying to claw my way out of this deep, dark hole, but I kept slipping further down into the abyss," she says. "It was so difficult not being able to pinpoint what exactly was wrong with me. So I became less motivated and began missing days at college. Eventually, Mam took me aside and we talked for about two hours. As a consequence, I went to a counsellor. And good as that was, I was still crying and still struggling to get myself to college. In fact, things were getting worse because I began withdrawing from my friends. I slept a lot, and I stayed in my room as much as I could."

Some time later, Sophie went to the doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. "I started on a low dose, which was very gradually increased until I was taking the correct dose for me," Sophie explains. "Eventually, I noticed I wasn't crying so much, which had been a major issue for me."

Around this time, she came across Aware, an organisation that provides support for people affected by depression and bipolar disorder. "I still wasn't comfortable talking about my problem," she says. "So I was relieved to be able to chat to someone at Aware online. I didn't even have to give my name or age. They have lots of case studies of people who have experienced anxiety and depression. That really helped me understand that I wasn't the first person to go through this.

She adds: "I also learned that what I was going through had a name - I was clinically depressed. When they told me that other people had come out the other side of depression, I realised that I could too, and that gave me hope. Aware opened the doors for me. After that, I began to recover slowly, day by day."

One of the contributing factors in Sophie's journey to recovery was reading Me And My Mate Jeffrey by Bressie (Niall Breslin), which recounts his own honest experience of acute anxiety. "He was the first young person I came across who was opening up about his own mental-health issues," says Sophie. "Because he was young and had gone through similar things, I could relate to him."

Last year, Sophie was slowly weaned off her antidepressants by her doctor. Now she can manage quite well without the pills. But she's adamant she couldn't cope without a good deal of awareness about her own, very individual, mental and emotional processes.

"I have come to understand that everyone has good and bad days," she explains. "Thanks to my own experiences, I now have the tools I need to help me cope when I am feeling down. For example, if I'm feeling depressed, I write out five things that are positive in my life, and that helps. The gym is also important, as physical exercise releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings. When you go to the gym, do activities that get a sweat going. Or take the dog for a really brisk walk for half an hour. Exercise can transform your life."

For the past three years, Sophie has been a volunteer 'supporter' for those completing Aware's Life Skills online programme. She mentors small groups of individuals living with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. She liaises with them regularly, helping them understand their individual experiences, and encouraging them to set positive goals that will assist them in moving into a more manageable way of living.

Sophie now believes no one should have to hide the fact that they have a mental-health issue. "It's OK not to be OK," she says. "I didn't think there was any hope for me, but I managed to find my way out of that deep, dark hole, back into the light. You just have to be patient."

Aware is currently recruiting volunteers for their services to those who are experiencing depression, bipolar disorder or other mood-related conditions. Qualifications and experience are not required, as training, support and education are provided. For more information, contact Aware, tel: (01) 661-7211, or see aware.ie/volunteering

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