Hilary Fannin: My tough days are fleeting. Not everyone is so lucky

How walking can help destigmatise an illness that used to be shoved to the back of the cupboard

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


We stood in the late-registration queue under a pale, determined sun. The line was deep, populated by men and women in sturdy walking shoes, corduroy trousers and canvas hats.

Some were propped on hiking sticks that looked like ski poles. Many in our slowly undulating ranks were tethered to yapping little dogs on extendable leads, dogs that briskly circumnavigated their owners in order to sniff each other’s bouffant bottoms.

They trotted around and around, trussing up their patient masters at the ankles.

Everyone in the line looked awfully kind; they also looked like they had had their breakfast: porridge and blueberries probably, maybe with a sprinkling of goji berries.

I had had a black coffee and most of a banana and a half-eaten biscuit that I had found washed up in my fridge next to an uneaten bag of mulching lettuce.

I haven’t really been on top of things recently, haven’t quite been hitting the mark.

The man behind me with the ski poles was telling his companions he had taken an anti-inflammatory that morning to quell his joint pain.

A woman with delicate ears, pinkening now under the strengthening sun, was saying the distance we were about to walk was similar to a day’s Camino hiking. Then the talk turned to their shared experiences on that pilgrims’ progress.

It is best done alone, apparently; you make new friends that way. The woman glowingly described witnessing virtual strangers popping each other’s blisters at the end of each day’s trek.

(My recently digested banana rioted. I’d pass out if I had to endure blister-popping intimacies. I think I’ll scratch the Camino from my bucket list. I don’t want any new friends. I just want to get to a point in my life where I remember to buy the cornflakes.)

Raise funds

We registered, received our T-shirts and map, set out on the seafront path and began to trace the outline of Dublin Bay, step by step.

I walked on that St Patrick’s Day morning (sun: who could have predicted that?), with more than 1,800 people, the 16 ribboned miles from Dún Laoghaire to Howth to raise funds for the national charity Aware, which provides support for people (and their concerned loved ones) who experience depression or bipolar disorder.

I walked as an antidote to a gentle abhorrence of Paddy’s Day. I walked to clear my head, to snap the circularity of my current concerns.

I walked because I can, because walking and breathing and watching solemn shelducks and highly strung herons pick their way over Sandymount Strand is a gift and a privilege, and because I’m lucky that, for me, one or two tough days are simply that, a couple of days of softening biscuits and the dull echo of worries that will ultimately pass. Not everyone gets off so lightly.

Aware receives more than 13,000 calls a year from people looking for help and support to deal with depression.

The charity’s online lectures have each received more than 200,000 views.

It has reached out to 28,000 school students with its Beat the Blues campaign, and runs life-skills programmes countrywide, attended by thousands who want to live with more positivity and less anxiety.

In the 30-plus years of its existence, Aware has facilitated countless support groups across the country, and the work continues and grows as the demand for it continues and grows.

Coming out of the cupboard

It was heartening to see the number of men and women (and dogs, of course) who took part in the walk, hiking through salubrious suburbs, past delicate houses with telescopes trained on sea views, through sloping parks littered with crash-helmeted toddlers on plastic scooters.

They put one foot in front of the other, destigmatising an illness that, in previous generations, was shoved to the back of the cupboard along with the cooking sherry.

My sister was standing outside our local butcher’s shop, holding a banana, when I passed by with three miles left to walk.

“Wow,” I said. “A banana. You really shouldn’t have.” She joined me for the final leg of the hike. Everyone needs support from time to time.

The Aware support line has a new Freephone number: 1800-804848. The line is open to people experiencing depression or bipolar disorder, and to relatives or friends who are concerned for a loved one. Available seven days a week, 10am-10pm

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