My Health Experience: Running on road to recovery

A counsellor’s common-sense approach meant it was easier to identify things that were causing stress

Gavin Macarthur, trail running near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Gavin Macarthur, trail running near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 10:59

I was put on strong anti-depressants in 1998 when I was in my mid-20s and I went from 12 stone to 19 stone in seven months. I was not drinking at all during this period. I was eating normally. The drugs affected my metabolism and slowed down my body clock.

It was as if I was sleep walking. I had gone to a GP looking for help and I was prescribed drugs, with zero supervision. There was no other remedial action taken. Coming off the drugs was a horrible experience. I have struggled with my weight since.

Even when I came off the medication, it was a constant struggle to stay below 17½ stone. At one stage I swam and played a lot of rugby and I managed to get down to 15 stone. I am about 5ft 10in and I am 12 stone again now, which I would call my normal weight. It took a long time to get there.

I am a medical anthropologist by training. I don’t like the term “depression” – I think of it in terms of “mental health management” or “mental health hygiene”, putting the emphasis on the positive.

I studied at NUI Maynooth and later taught there in the anthropology department. I also worked over the years in Tanzania doing research.

Relying on alcohol
As a schoolboy in Sligo I sprinted and played rugby. I was probably about 10½ stone when I did the Leaving Cert. I did rely on alcohol, like all people with mental health issues. I would have used alcohol as a pressure valve or as a crutch.

There were times when I was in a permanent state of stress and fear. It was an underlying problem. My normal intake was eight to 12 pints in a night. I would go to the pub after work at 5.30pm. It was a way of avoiding issues – and it was also great fun.

I used to smoke, about 10 a day. I smoked more when I was drinking. I was always a healthy eater, not a fry every morning kind of person. And I did eat fruit and veg, but cheese was the basic problem. I could eat a block a day.

My contract in Maynooth ended in 2008 and I was unemployed for nearly a year. I had put off finishing my PhD. I was out of work and still trying to finish it in 2009 and I was still not dealing very well with mental health issues.

Around this time I was referred to the Sligo Mental Health Services. I did cognitive behavioural therapy. I was put on mild antidepressants but it was made very clear that my use of the drug would be monitored and I would also have counselling. I was on the medication for a year. The therapy really worked for me.

I had had counselling before but this was radically different. The counsellor had a common-sense approach. She got me to identify things that caused stress in my life and then to do what I could to change them. Instead of seeing great big insurmountable problems, I had to strategise.

As a medical anthropologist it was not just ironic, but perverse, that I had such a poor grasp of this.

Falling into a pattern
I went back to Tanzania doing research on a contract basis in August 2010 and I was elated to be working again – but I fell into a pattern of working long hours and drinking regularly. It was difficult to exercise and I went back up to 17½ stone.

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