Sunday 18 November 2018

To hell and back: 'She just sobbed and sobbed and all I could do was hold her in my arms'

Rebecca Fitzpatrick's teenage years were punctuated by depression and despair. However, she tells Joy Orpen, thanks to the supports she got from family and health services, she is now flying high, emotionally and academically

Rebecca Fitzpatrick, left, with her mum Caitriona. Photo: Darragh McSweeney
Rebecca Fitzpatrick, left, with her mum Caitriona. Photo: Darragh McSweeney

Even though she is only 19 years old, life for Rebecca Fitzpatrick has, so far, been very tough. At one point, things got so bad it seemed that she and her family were living in a nightmare.

Rebecca is the younger of Caitriona and Declan Fitzpatrick's two children. They live in Carrigaline, Co Cork. Everything went like clockwork until Rebecca left the shelter of primary school.

"The first year at secondary school in 2011 wasn't easy," she explains. "Suddenly, I found myself among people I didn't know, with loads more work. Although I have a couple of really good friends, making new ones wasn't easy."

In the initial stages, Rebecca managed to muddle along, dealing with the additional workload and social pressures. But as she progressed through the school, her emotional and mental health deteriorated, slowly but surely.

One of Rebecca's main problems involved her academic expectations. "I'd been a high achiever in first and second year," she explains. "In third year, the pressure around the Junior Cert got too much. The night before the final exam, I self-harmed. It seemed easier to have a physical pain than an emotional one." Rebecca had just taken her very first step, on what would prove a perilous journey.

"Throughout 2013, she was moody and cranky," says Caitriona. "But even though she was difficult and stuck to her room, she always did her homework and she showed up for soccer. We were concerned, but we thought it was just normal teenage hormones. Boy, were we wrong."

In the spring of 2013, Puzzle, their beloved cat, died. Rebecca was devastated. Some months later, her dad and brother got her two adorable kittens to cheer her up. But she hardly reacted at all. "Her total lack of excitement really upset me," says Caitriona. "At that moment, I knew there was something seriously amiss with our little girl." Nonetheless, Rebecca soldiered on as best she could for the next year or so. However, at the beginning of 2015, it became clear she was in deep trouble.

"We'd just got though Christmas," Caitriona remembers. "I was in my bedroom when Rebecca came in, crying hysterically. Through the flood of tears, she said, 'I can't do it any more', and when I asked her what she meant, she said, 'I can't live any more, it's too hard.' After that, she just sobbed and sobbed. And all I could do was hold her in my arms and tell her we would sort it out."

Caitriona took Rebecca to their family doctor the next morning. Having talked to her patient at some length, the doctor then prescribed antidepressant medication. Following several visits to the concerned GP, Caitriona and Declan were told - with Rebecca's knowledge - that she was self-harming. They were stunned and puzzled. They had seen no sign of any injuries, even though their daughter frequently wore soccer gear.

As the teenager's condition continued to worsen, she was referred to the Child, Adolescent and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Cork, where she was seen by a psychiatrist and a psychologist; she also had cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and was prescribed appropriate medication. Initially, Rebecca went fortnightly, and then weekly. But even so, things deteriorated so badly, members of the service were contacting her on a daily basis.

Rebecca confirms their fears were well founded. "My brother Robert walked in on me on at least on one occasion when I was on the verge of ending it all," she says.

"So, we couldn't leave her alone for even one minute," says Caitriona. "Declan and I took turns staying awake at night. I'd spoken to her school; even the [school] bus driver was looking out for her. My sister, who is a prison officer, told us to empty her room of anything that might be used to self-harm."

Nonetheless, in spite of all these precautions, Rebecca did manage to do serious harm to herself, and ended up in A&E. "We were literally living in a nightmare," says Caitriona. "It was so hard to admit we couldn't keep her safe from herself. I couldn't come to terms [with the fact] that our child was broken."

In March 2014, Kieran, Declan's brother, died in his sleep, following a heart attack, at the age of 61. "He'd had a very special bond with the kids," explains Caitriona. As a direct consequence, Rebecca fell even further into the abyss. So, while Kieran's month's mind was being conducted, she was being admitted to Eist Linn (Listen to Us), the CAMHS inpatient unit in Cork. She was 16 at the time and remained in the unit for over five months. Apart from school work, Rebecca's highly supervised days were filled with group and individual counselling and therapies of various kinds.

She says every precaution was taken to ensure the well-being of the young residents. "There was nothing there that we could use to harm ourselves. We were checked every half-hour throughout the night," Rebecca says. It proved to be a healing environment for Rebecca, and by the end of that summer, though still desperately frail, she was discharged. She returned to school part-time, where she was given immense support.

In spite of all the challenges, Rebecca is now busy at University College Cork (UCC), studying psychology and philosophy. "I'm still on medication and I still suffer from some depression and anxiety," she volunteers. "I have been told I have traits of emotionally unstable personality disorder. Having a diagnosis, means I have a starting point at least, from which to work. I feel much more in control of my life and am really enjoying the degree. I also work at weekends in a fast-food outlet."

Once Rebecca turned 18, she was referred on to adult services. Soon after, Caitriona was invited by Aware to attend a programme for people who are living with a relative who has depression or bipolar disorder.

"We went and we told our story," says Caitriona. "We did a six-week course in dialectical behaviour therapy. I learned many ways in which I could interact with Rebecca more effectively. It was so enlightening. It was extremely important that Declan do the course as well. He got a lot out of it.

"Rebecca is really flying now," Catriona adds. "She loves being at UCC, and only today heard she had got top marks for a recent essay. I am so incredibly proud of her."

For Aware's Relatives and Friends Programme, see aware.ie/services/relatives-friends-programme

To contact the Aware Support Line, which operates from 10am to 10pm, 365 days a year, freephone (1800) 804-848

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