‘If I reach the end of the day and haven’t fallen apart, I consider it an okay day’
The more we discuss depression, the easier it becomes for sufferers to seek help and find a means of coping
Shirley Hennigar at home: “I’m not ‘fixed’ and never will be. I can only learn how to handle my Black Dog when he visits.” Photograph: Eamon Ward
More than 450,000 people in Ireland suffer with depression at any one time. Given this large number and last week’s Green Ribbon campaign – featured on irishtimes.com, which highlighted the issue of people living with a mental illness – one might think it is safe to assume that everyone is comfortable talking about this common condition. Not so. Although times are changing for the better, there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues.
However, the more we discuss depression, the easier it becomes for sufferers to seek help and find a means of coping.
Shirley Hennigar from Shannon, Co Clare, has been living with severe major depressive disorder (MDD) for 20 years and, at times, has felt utter despair. But she believes it’s very important to speak out about depression, which will affect one in 10 of us at some point in our lives.
“I was 23 when I was diagnosed with severe MDD,” says Hennigar (44). “I had brought my son to be assessed by a psychologist on the recommendation of his Montessori teacher and after answering questions about home life, pregnancy and relationships, I broke down. I’d reached rock bottom and was in a desperate and pitiful state.
Some people refer to depression as the ‘Black Dog’ they’re trying to run from
“I was a shell of the determined and wilful person I used to be and didn’t even realise just how pathetic and scared I had become until I was shown compassion. When that psychologist empathised with me, I felt really listened to for the first time, and locked-away emotions and secrets came pouring out with my tears.”
After this outburst, Hennigar was referred to a psychiatrist to discuss ways of dealing with traumatic issues from her past. She was prescribed antidepressants and put on a waiting list for counselling. But after months of waiting to be seen by a counsellor, she lost hope in the system and tried to carry on without help.
However, her feelings continued to spiral downwards, particularly after her first marriage ended. And over the years, despite, as she says, having a wonderful family and home life (she is now married to Cathal and has three grown-up children), depression still held her in its vice-like grip.
“Despite having a beautiful and healthy family, being content with my job [a health and safety officer], and having amazing friends, I was utterly hopeless about my future, indifferent to my present and haunted by my past,” she admits.
“Most of my adult life consisted of a large amount of voluntary work, which I had been passionate about, but now I started to feel overwhelmed by all aspects of it and life in general.”
The mother-of-three had been running a dog-rehoming venture, volunteering for the Order of Malta and playing a weekly musical gig with her husband. But her disorder caused her to feel stressed by the very thought of these commitments, and by early 2016 she had ceased involvement in everything other than her job.
For the most part I was on autopilot, standing at the edge of a hole – the medication just enough to keep me from falling in
“Some people refer to depression as the ‘Black Dog’ they’re trying to run from,” she says. “Over the past number of years I have relied on medication and on Cathal for comfort. I had a few minor bouts of depression and one severe episode. I went to my GP a few times – who, thankfully, is understanding and supportive – and we tried increasing the dosage and changing brands of medication.
“This would provide enough of a pick-me-up to keep me going another while and I had interspersed days of great moods where I felt joyful and grateful, but also days when I wished I could cancel living until the following day.
“However, for the most part I was on autopilot, standing at the edge of a hole – the medication just enough to keep me from falling in, but not enough to pull me away from the edge. I was coping, but only just about.”
As time moved on, Hennigar tried to ignore the ever-growing symptoms of MDD by concentrating on her work, taking up cycling and sleeping as much as possible. But she couldn’t hold back the tide, and in January of this year was hospitalised.
“As my Black Dog matured and grew stronger, he pulled me further down into a blacker black,” she says. “My body was in the darkest place, deep down in a vertical tunnel. People could still see the autopilot me, going about my day wearing my mask of fake smiles, while the real me screamed inside where nobody heard. It hurt so much and I was emotionally drained, mentally shattered, full of self-loathing.
“I was hardly functioning at all; I’d lost every bit of hope and had no fight left in me. I was hollow, I ached everywhere and didn’t even feel I had the energy to breathe – I was feeling suicidal. The nothingness of sleep was all I yearned for.
“My Black Dog was robbing me of my identity, my sense of belonging, my sense of being and my sense of presence in my own body.
“So on Friday, January 13th, 2017, a psychiatrist assessed me and checked me into the psychiatric hospital from his office. Cathal and I stopped off at home for some personal belongings and within 20 minutes of arriving in hospital I was in a bed, having swallowed the pill they gave me and was fast asleep.”
For the next few days the Clare woman remained bed-bound as she came to terms with the fact that she was in a psychiatric ward and would remain there for four weeks until she was well enough to return home.
We were all different, with different problems and all under the one roof, with the same goal: to get better and go back to our lives
“I felt initially that I didn’t belong on a psychiatric ward and just observed the patients talking to themselves, others screaming at nobody, and some who couldn’t butter their own toast, and I wasn’t sure I really needed to be there,” she says.
“But as time went on, I realised I did. My sickness was damaging me, as theirs was damaging them. We were all different, with different problems and all under the one roof, with the same goal: to get better and go back to our lives.
“I felt very alone for most of my stay in hospital. I wasn’t lonely, but alone emotionally and mentally. But I also felt a massive sense of relief because I was in a place that didn’t require me to wear my mask. I could allow my facial expressions to reflect how I felt. For the first time in so many years the real me was on show and it was unbelievably liberating to let my true mood have its day. It was okay for me to just be.”
Shirley began to write a blog from her hospital bed, initially just as a means of releasing her own emotions, but eventually she decided to publish it as she realised that so many other people were also going through the same thing.
“Many people have their own Black Dog and, like me, they don’t let anyone see him,” she says. “So I decided to take mine for a walk. I introduced him on my Facebook page, calling the blog ‘Coming Out’ and hoped it wouldn’t blow up in my unmasked face. But the reaction was the best medicine I could have received. People were very accepting and understanding, and messages of good wishes and encouragement came pouring in.
“Many people introduced their Black Dog too, either publicly in a comment on the blog, or to me in private messages. I realised the community of Shannon was behind me and I was far from being the only one suffering.”
Hennigar was discharged after a month in hospital. Although it was difficult at first to get back to her regular life, she has taken things one step at a time and, with new medication, regular visits to her psychiatrist and a slot on the waiting list for therapy, she is hopeful for the future.
I can only learn to change how I handle my Black Dog when he visits
“It’s too early to see if my treatment has worked – while the medication has most certainly helped, only time will tell if it’s doing enough,” she says. “I’m taking each day as it comes and like anyone else, with or without depression, my general mood can differ from one day to the next. How I feel the instant I wake up is a reliable indicator of how the day will go for me.
“If I reach the end of the day and haven’t fallen apart, I consider it an okay day. But I’m not ‘fixed’ and never will be. I can only learn to change how I handle my Black Dog when he visits.
“I’m still off work but starting to rebuild my strength, I’ve returned to cycling, and although I’ve lost fitness and condition, I know with training I will get it back. My husband and kids are loving and supportive, my friends are in constant contact and life is good.
“So, I do now, at least, see hope for the future again.”
Follow Shirley Hennigar on facebook.com/shirley.hennigar/notes
If you or somebody you know is in mental distress:
- Contact the Samaritans free on 116 123 for round-the-clock support.
- Contact your local GP, a family member or friend.
- Visit yourmentalhealth.ie for nationwide listings of support services.