Conor Cusack: Depression is a friend, not my enemy
The brother of Dónal Óg Cusack shares a powerful blog post about his experience with depression
I still remember the moment well. It was a wet, cold, grey Friday morning. I rose out of bed having had no sleep the night before. Panic attacks are horrific experiences by day, by night they are even worse.
As I drove to work on my trusted Honda 50, a group of my friends passed in their car heading to college. They all smiled and waved and looked so happy. I smiled and waved and acted happy.
I had loved and excelled in school but it was the same with my hurling, it was the same with my friends, it was the same with my family, it was the same with the people of Cloyne, it was the same with life, I had lost interest in all of them. Losing interest in people was the worst.
Where once I would have felt sadness at seeing my friends heading to where I had always wanted to go, I now didn’t. Something much larger, deeper, darker had taken hold of my mind and sadness, despair, hopelessness were not strong enough to survive alongside what I was feeling.
They say something has to crack to allow the light in. At about 11am that morning, I finally cracked. I couldn’t do it anymore, all my strength at keeping up my pretence had gone. I curled up in the corner of the building and began to cry. One of the lads working with me came over and he didn’t know what to do. I asked him to take me home.
The GP called to my house and prescribed some sleeping pills and arranged for me to be sent to the hospital for some tests.
I spent a week there and they done every test imaginable. Physically, I was in perfect health. I was diagnosed with suffering from ‘Depression’ or in laymans terms, that awful phrase ‘of suffering with his nerves’. I had never heard of the word before.
I was sent to see a psychiatrist in my local day care hospital. I was 19 years of age in a waiting room surrounded by people much older than I was. Surely I am not the only young person suffering from depression, I thought to myself. There was a vacant look in all of their eyes, a hollowness, an emptiness, the feeling of darkness pervaded the room.
The psychiatrist explained that there might be a chemical imbalance in my brain, asked me my symptoms and prescribed a mixture of anti depressants, anxiety and sleeping pills based on what I told him. He explained that it would take time to get the right cocktail of tablets for my type of depression.
I had an uneasy feeling about the whole thing. Something deep inside in me told me this wasn’t the way forward and this wasn’t what I needed. As I walked out a group of people in another room with intellectual disabilities were doing various things. One man had a teaching device in front of him and he was trying to put a square piece into a round hole. It summed up perfectly what I felt had just happened to me.
I now stayed in my room all day, only leaving it to go to the bathroom. I locked the door and it was only opened to allow my mother bring me some food. I didn’t want to speak to anybody. The only time I left the house was on a Thursday morning to visit the psychiatrist. When everbody had left to go to work and school, my Mother would bring me my breakfast.
I cried nearly all the time. Sometimes she would sit there and cry with me, other times talk with me and hold my hand, tell me that she would do anything to help me get better, other times just sit there quietly whilst I ate the food.
Depression is difficult to explain to people. If you have experienced it there is no need, if you haven’t, I don’t think there are words adequate to describe its horror. I have had a lot of injuries playing hurling, snapped cruciates, broken bones in my hands 11 times, had my lips sliced in half and all my upper teeth blown out with a dirty pull but none of them come anywhere near the physical pain and mental torture of depression.
It permeates every part of your being, from your head to your toes. It is never ending, waves and waves of utter despair and hopelessness and fear and darkness flood throughout your whole body. You crave for peace but even sleep doesn’t afford that. It wrecks your dreams and turns your days into a living nightmare. It destroys your personality, your relationship with your family and friends, your work, your sporting life, it affects them all. Your ability to give and receive affection is gone. You tear at your skin and your hair with frustration. You cut yourself to give some form of physical expression to the incredible pain you feel.
You want to grab it and smash it, but you can’t get a hold of it. You go to sleep hoping, praying not to wake up. You rack your brain seeing is there something you done in your life that justifies this suffering. You wonder why God is not answering your pleas for relief and you wonder is he there at all or has he forgotten about you. And through it all remains the darkness. It’s as if someone placed a veil over your soul and never returned to remove it. This endless, black, never ending tunnel of darkness.
I had been five months in my room now. I had watched the summer turn into the autumn and then to Winter through my bedroom window. One of the most difficult things was watching my teammates parade through the town after winning the U21 championship through it. That was the real world out there.
In here in my room was a living hell. I was now on about 18 tablets a day and not getting better but worse. I was eating very little but the medication was ballooning my weight to nearly twenty stone. I was sent to see another psychiatrist and another doctor who suggested electric shock therapy which I flatly refused. It was obvious to me I was never going to get better. My desire for death was now much stronger than my desire for living so I made a decision.
I had been contemplating suicide for a while now and when I finally decided and planned it out, a strange thing happened. A peace that I hadn’t experienced for a long time entered my mind and body. For the first time in years, I could get a good night’s sleep. It was as if my body realized that this pain it was going through was about to end and it went into relax mode. I had the rope hidden in my room. I knew there was a game on a Saturday evening and that my father and the lads would be gone to that.
After my Mother and sister would be gone to Mass, I would drive to the location and hang myself. I didn’t feel any anxiety about it. It would solve everything, I thought. No more pain, both for me and my family. They were suffering as well as I was and I felt with me gone, it would make life easier for them. How wrong I would have been. I have seen the effects and damage suicide has on families. It is far,far greater than anything endured while living and helping a person with depression.
For some reason my Mother never went to Mass. I don’t know why but she didn’t go. It was a decision on her part that saved my life.
The following week, a family that I had worked for when I was younger heard about me being unwell. They rang my Mother and told them that they knew a clinical psychologist working in a private practice that they felt could help me.
I had built up my hopes too many times over the last number of months that a new doctor, a new tablet, a new treatment was going to help and had them dashed when he or it failed to help me. I wasn’t going through it again. My mother pleaded to give him a try and eventually I agreed. It was a decision on my part that would save my life.
After meeting Tony, I instantly knew this was what I had been searching for. It was the complete opposite of what I felt when I was being prescribed tablets and electric shock therapy. We sat opposite each other in a converted cottage at the side of his house with a fire lighting in the corner. He looked at me with his warm eyes and said ‘I hear you haven’t been too well. How are you feeling’. It wasn’t even the question, it was the way he asked it.
I looked at him for about a minute or so and I began to cry. When the tears stopped, I talked and he listened intently. Driving home with my mother that night, I cried again but it wasn’t tears of sadness, it was tears of joy. I knew that evening I was going to better. There was finally a chink of light in the darkness.
Therapy is a challenging experience. It’s not easy baring your soul. When you sit in front of another human being and discuss things you have never discussed with anyone, it can be quite scary. Paulo Coelho says in one of his books that ‘A man is at his strongest when he is willing to be vulnerable’.
Sadly, society conditions men to be the opposite and views vulnerability as a weakness. For therapy to work, a person has to be willing to be vulnerable. Within a week, I was off all medication. For me, medication was never the answer. My path back to health was one of making progress, then slipping and making progress again. It was far from straightforward.
I had to face up to memories I had buried from being bullied quite a lot when I was a young kid. Some of it occurred in primary school, others in secondary. It was raw and emotional re-visiting those times but it had to be done.
A lot of my identity was tied up with hurling and it was an un-healthy relationship. The ironic thing is that as I began to live my life more from the inside out and appreciate and value myself for being me and not needing hurling for my self esteem, I loved the game more than ever. I got myself super fit and my weight down to 13 and a half stone.
I made the Cloyne Senior team and went on to play with the Cork Senior hurling team, making a cameo appearance in the final of 2006. It is still one of the biggest joys of my life playing hurling with Cloyne, despite losing three County finals and an All-Ireland with Cork. Being involved with the Cloyne team was a huge aid in my recovery and my teammates gave me great support during that time.
I went back to serve my time as an electrician. I went to college by night and re-discovered my joy of learning. I work for a great company and have a good life now. I finished therapy in 2004. I have not had a panic attack in that time and have not missed a day’s work because of depression since then.
I came to realise that depression was not my enemy but my friend. I don’t say this lightly. I know the damage it does to people and the lives it has wrecked and is wrecking so I am only talking for myself. How can you say something that nearly killed you was your friend? The best coaches I have ever dealt with are those that tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. You mightn’t like it at the time but after or maybe years later, you know they were right.
I believe depression is a message from a part of your being to tell you something in your life isn’t right and you need to look at it. It forced me to stop and seek within for answers and that is where they are. It encouraged me to look at my inner life and free myself from the things that were preventing me from expressing my full being. The poet David Whyte says ‘the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s’.
This is an ongoing process. I am still far from living a fully, authentic life but I am very comfortable now in my own skin. Once or twice a year, especially when I fall into old habits, my ‘friend’ pays me a visit. I don’t push him away or ignore him. I sit with him in a chair in a quiet room and allow him to come. I sit with the feeling. Sometimes I cry, other times I smile at how accurate his message is. He might stay for an hour, he might stay for a day. He gives his message and moves on.
He reminds me to stay true to myself and keep in touch with my real self. A popular quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is ‘a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step’. A correct translation of the original Chinese though is ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet’. Lao Tzu believed that action was something that arose naturally from stillness. When you can sit and be with yourself, it is a wonderful gift and real and authentic action flows from it.
Many, many people are living lives of quiet misery. I get calls from people on the phone and to my house because people in my area will know my story. Sometimes it is for themselves, other times it is asking if I would talk to another person. I’m not a doctor or a therapist and anyone I talk to in distress, I always encourage them to go to both but people find it easier at first to talk to someone who has been in their shoes. It is incredible the amount of people it affects. Depression affects all types of people, young and old, working and not working, wealthy and poor.
For those people who are currently gripped by depression, either experiencing it or are supporting or living with someone with it, I hope my story helps. There is no situation that is without hope, there is no person that can’t overcome their present difficulties. For those that are suffering silently, there is help out there and you are definitely not alone.
Everything you need to succeed is already within you and you have all the answers to your own issues. A good therapist will facilitate that process. My mother always says ‘a man’s courage is his greatest asset’. It is an act of courage and strength, not weakness, to admit you are struggling. It is an act of courage to seek help. It is an act of courage to face up to your problems.
An old saying goes ‘there is a safety in being hidden, but a tragedy never to be found’. You are too precious and important to your family, your friends, your community, to yourself, to stay hidden. In the history of the world and for the rest of time, there will never again be another you. You are a once off, completely unique.
The real you awaits within to be found but to get there requires a journey inwards . A boat is at its safest when it is in the harbour but that’s not what it was built to do. We are the same.
Your journey in will unearth buried truths and unspoken fears. A new strength will emerge to help you to head into the choppy waters of your painful past. Eventually you will discover a place of peace within yourself, a place that encourages you to head out into the world and live your life fully. The world will no longer be a frightening place to live in for you.
The most important thing is to take the first step. Please take it.