Tanya Sweeney on depression: 'To the outside world things looked peachy but I was barely able to leave my bed'
Last weekend was what they like to call a ‘full-on one’.
I went to the cinema with a friend’s five children, took them to the playground, went to the theatre, hosted a brunch, met with family, held court at a dinner party, hit the sales, did some writing, and even managed a sneaky Netflix binge.
As is the way in these social media-saturated times, the evidence is all over Facebook for all to see. Smiles, thrills, craic, dance, gaiety, song.
I don’t look like someone with a mental illness, but looks can be highly deceiving. No doubt anyone at that dinner party had any inkling that a few months ago, I was barely able to leave my bed.
The last thing you’re likely to see in those happy, smiling photos from last weekend is a person on mood-altering medication. We have very firm ideas of what depressives look like (they’re certainly not smiling, surrounded by small children), and even firmer ideas of what ‘meds’ do to a person’s life (the way some tell it, I should be a zombie hanging on to the last vestiges of sanity, my creativity and thirst for life long gone).
No doubt people have seen photos of me whooping it up at festivals, parties and other shindigs and thought I am overstating my depression, or currying attention.
Here’s the truth: anti-depressant medication may sound scary, but because of it, I am able to get up and go about my day like someone who hasn’t been diagnosed with depression. It doesn’t make me abnormal, a druggie or dysfunctional: quite the opposite, in fact. It gives me a chance at a ‘normal’ life.
But at the outset of the year, things were very different. Crippled by career-induced anxiety and what felt like permanent exhaustion of the soul, it felt easier to stay where I was, at the bottom of a metaphorical well, than go to the prescription counter at Boots.
But thoughts have a very funny way of shape-shifting and becoming evil, convincing you of a new and different truth. When your mind starts telling you that you’re a failure, that you’re unlovable, and that you’re too tired to go on living, it can be very persuasive and very hard to argue otherwise. The mind is capable of great things, but it never tells you things can get better.
To the outside world, things looked peachy. I had a great family, devoted friends, an apartment in Ranelagh, a quip for every occasion on social media.
I was not, to the casual observer, a candidate likely to go Off The Grid. But then, people rarely do look like that. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
After a bit of trial and error, I’ve now become adept at seeing the black cloud of depression from a few miles off. I rarely let it get to the point of upending my life before I seek out help. But I’m the exception, not the rule.
In the past, I volunteered at a charity designed to help those with depression and anxiety. Despite the not-for-profit sector’s best efforts, the public system with regard to mental illness has been left sorely lacking.
People would ring the charity’s helpline, desperate to find a way to get through to their unwell children, partners, siblings or friends. They understood that they were up against a mammoth task, but they were also perplexed to find that the services available for those with mood disorders and/or suicidal thoughts, at least outside the private health sector (and with the exception of the incredible Pieta House) were insubstantial.
I know from first-hand experience that within the overstretched public health sector, there is little consistency of mental health care. People who have finally plucked up the courage to get help for their mental health challenges (and in some cases their mental health emergencies), haven’t found the support they need. People I know who have been afraid of taking their own lives have walked themselves into an A&E waiting area in a panic, only to be met with a system that doesn’t quite know what to do with them.
Adding insult to injury, there’s still an insidious public idea that people with depression are indulgent, attention-seeking wallowers, and that folks should just snap out of it and find something else to do other than worry and ruminate. People, if only it were that easy. There’s another tack in the PR campaigns of certain health organisations that’s every bit as unhelpful. To ask people to reach out to others. Earlier this month, a teenager was lauded online for talking a suicidal stranger off a bridge on the Liffey. It was incredibly commendable of him and a heart-warming story, not least in a city where many might look the other way. Yet this overriding narrative, that a neighbour with a cup of tea to hand is strategy enough, is misleading.
A friendly ear and an arm around the shoulder are certainly welcome, not to mention helpful… but Ireland needs a mental health strategy that makes people feel safe and well, not like they’re at the foot of yet another slippery mountain to climb. There’s no point encouraging people to open up, if there is no one to open up to.
There’s every chance that, in disclosing this information, you might think of me differently. As a whinger or someone with (shriek) a history of mental illness. But you know what? That’s absolutely fine. Someone has to stick their head above the parapet and come out of the proverbial closet in a bid to open up this dialogue. We pay plenty of lip service to depression being just like having diabetes or a kidney problem... and one day, maybe it will have little stigma surrounding it, just like any other condition.
In the meantime, I’ve a couple of parties to get to. Better, for now, living through chemistry.
If you are struggling with depression, you can contact the Aware support line: 1890 303 302