Wednesday 22 November 2017

I knew that I had hit rock bottom when I was found blacked out on waste ground

Vicky Kavanagh, who has coped with depression and family tragedy, says that talking can really help.

Back from the brink: Vicky Kavanagh took charge of her problems and confronted her anxiety. Photo: Dave Meehan
Back from the brink: Vicky Kavanagh took charge of her problems and confronted her anxiety. Photo: Dave Meehan
John Meagher

John Meagher

Today is Blue Monday -- the date some psychologists believe is the most depressing of the year and in which vulnerable people are most at risk of suicide. Depression can hit people at any age as Vicky Kavanagh's compelling story shows.

The Dubliner was 16-years-old when her mother first tried to take her own life.

It would not be an isolated incident. For the remainder of her teens and right up to the end of 2012, Vicky estimates that her mother, Gloria, attempted suicide more than 20 times.

And, more often than not, it would be Vicky -- her youngest daughter -- who would discover her unconscious body.

"I didn't understand it at the time, but my mother was diagnosed by her GP as suffering from severe depression. At 16, I knew very little about mental health and thought that depression was something that happened to other people. But I soon learned that that it is something that can happen to anyone."

Vicky -- a journalist who works in RTE's news and current affairs department -- is well placed to talk about mental health because she struggled with her own demons while trying to come to terms with her mother's problems.

"It was incredibly hard to deal with," she says. "I was very upset and angry towards my mother. I'd think 'Why do you want to leave myself and my sister? How could you do this to us?' But then you learn that when you're staring at the void, rational thought goes out the window."

Vicky's memories of that first overdose are lucid. "I felt such a sense of panic," she says. "I remember being in the ambulance with her as we she was rushed to Beaumont Hospital and she flat-lined twice. At the time, I thought we were going to lose her."

Like many people struggling with severe anxiety, Vicky started to drink heavily. "I would try to be with her 24/7 during the week and my sister, who had a job, would look after her at weekends. So when Fridays came around, I just wanted to escape from there and I would keep drinking until the Sunday."

Unsurprisingly, considering her absenteeism, her school performance started to suffer greatly. "My life was spiralling out of control. I simply couldn't handle the stress and the very thing I thought was helping me cope -- alcohol -- was the depressant that was making me feel even more helpless. But with alcohol so ingrained in Irish society, drinking to excess can feel like the most obvious thing in the world to do."

Like her mother, Vicky came close to ending it all on a handful of occasions. "I won't lie -- there were times in which I considered taking my own life and when you're in that place it's so hard to think straight. You feel as though everyone else would be better off if you weren't around."

Vicky reached rock bottom when she was found, conked out, on waste ground in a housing estate. "Looking back, I was very lucky that I came out of that period unscathed," she says. "I shudder to think what could have happened to me when I was drinking so much that I lost control."

This was the moment that Vicky pledged to take ownership of her problems. "I had no other choice but to confront the anxiety head-on," she says.

"The very best thing I did was to talk to people I trusted. I know it's a cliché, but internalising stress never helps. A trusted friend or a good counsellor can help you see the wood from the trees. Also, I tried as best I could to look beyond myself, to see that there were other people who needed me, not least my mother."

But while Vicky found there were many people who were willing to offer a supportive ear and sound advice, others were quick to display their ignorance about mental health.

"Word got out in school about my mother's overdoses and this person came up to me and straight out said she was crazy and should be locked up. It was the only fight I've ever been in in my life."

But she also had to deal with the unhelpful views of some. "One of them actually said to her 'Pull yourself together -- why are you being so weak?' In a way, they were trying to encourage her, but it's absolutely the wrong way to go about it.

"There is this myth around mental health that only weak people get it. It only shows the ignorance that's out there -- as did the comments from people who would say to me that she was an attention-seeker. That hurt me because it diminishes the pain that somebody is going to get to the point where they would actually take an overdose."

It was the support of her friends that helped her pull through. "It's moments like that when you really know who your friends are," she says, "and there were some who fell by the wayside along the way".

Vicky believes her mother has been in a better place this year and has, herself, found ways of dealing with any anxiety that comes along. "Talk about it," she says. "There are lots of empathetic people out there. And Reach Out has a great online resource for young people who feel like they have no one to turn to."

Reach Out is a youth-oriented charity designed to help 12 to 25-year-olds manage any mental-health issues that might come their way. Vicky is a de facto ambassador for the agency, and feels that while more and more of us are having a conversation about mindfulness, there are still many bridges to cross.

"It's still a stigma," she says. "No doubt about it. Even the fact that I'm happy to go public and talk in a personal way about issues like depression and suicide make people say condescending things like 'You're so brave.' Why is it brave? We've all got a mental as well as physical side and if someone broke their leg they would no problem talking about that, would they?

"I suppose it says something about Irish society in that it is still considered 'brave' to talk openly about something as important, to each and every one of us, as mental health."


Irish Independent

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