After years of self-harm, my life has changed so much


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:This time last year, if someone told me I would be heading to Australia, I just would not believe it, relates RUTH O'DOHERTY

In October 2010, 19-year-old Ruth O’Doherty from Belfast gave Irish Timesreaders a horrifying insight into living with depression. She outlined a shocking catalogue of suffering which began around the age of 11 or 12 when she started to cut herself. At 13, she took an overdose and explained that every single day when she woke up, she wished she had not.

Appalled at the suffering she caused her much-loved family, Ruth predicted that she would always need the anti-depressants she was first prescribed at the age of 13.

Fifteen months after she told her story in a desperate attempt to put the spotlight on depression and highlight the need for better mental health services, Ruth, now 21, is off all medication and no longer harms herself. Yesterday she flew to Australia, feeling nervous but full of hope for the future. Here she explains how things changed.

I STOPPED harming myself over a year ago because Ivor Browne asked me to stop. He said: “Can you not do that any more?” It probably seems silly, but it just seemed so simple. I had started cutting myself when I was 11 or 12, but for Ivor it really was that simple. He wanted me to stop.

I did think about cutting myself once since I met him. I had had a horrible day at work. Everything went wrong. I had to walk home and I got soaked in the rain. And then I realised that I had forgotten my house key.

I actually got a blade. I wanted to cut myself but I did not do it. I told myself you might feel better for half an hour, but then you will feel terrible. I always knew even when I was doing it that it did not help me.

My life has changed so much that I can hardly believe it myself. When I told my story in The Irish TimesI was a bit taken aback by the reaction and all the attention from television stations and people who identified with my story. But I was glad that people were talking about depression because there is such a stigma attached to it.

Ivor Browne read my story and he got in touch to say that he thought he could help me. One of the first things he said to me was ‘I want you to come off all tablets’. I thought he was mad. I had been on anti-depressants since I was 13. I was 19 when I had my first consultation with him. I said no. Basically he said if you do not take my help, I cannot help you.

On the way home, I said to my parents there is no way that I can do this. The tablets were my big safety net, but I did not want to be accused of not trying everything.

Ivor is in his early 80s, but he is so cool. He is technically retired, but he still has a clinic. He is a good person. He is not a typical doctor. It sounds stupid, but you know he cares. It is not just a job. I think the first few times I found him a bit scary, but – and I know this sounds strange and I don’t believe in that sort of thing – there was something spiritual about him.

I had to start cutting down after the first visit. I saw Ivor about once a month and after every visit I had to reduce the dose. The withdrawal symptoms were horrible. I was so nauseous. I started hearing things. I heard people saying my name even though there was no one there. I smelled things that were not there. I could not stop shaking. I was paranoid and anxious. I think I coped pretty well for the first two or three months, but the lower the dose was, the worse it became.

I started to realise that I had been on medication for so long that I was in a haze which had lasted for years. And then when I came off them, it was as if the clouds just parted. It wasn’t like, “Now I am off them, life is fantastic,” but on the medication I did not know what my own thoughts were and what the tablets were making me think.

It was scary getting to know myself when I came off the tablets. I am 21 now. And it’s weird to not be in a haze any more and to wake up and find that my head is really clear. When you are on anti-depressants you feel that you don’t have control. I told my family many times that I felt drunk.

When I was coming off the tablets I was in a very pressurised job with challenging sales targets, which I found difficult to cope with. I talked it over with Ivor and he helped me and got me to take control of the situation by using different coping mechanisms and encouraging me to find ways of dealing with things.

He plants a seed in your head, but it is up to you. He gives you the confidence to figure things out. When I have a problem it can take over my life, but Ivor told me not to let the problems at work take over. He made me see it in proportion.

If I had just left, I would have been lazing around all day. That would definitely have got me down. But it was a difficult time. I used to feel sick at the thought of going to work. I would be shaking in the car on the way in.

I eventually left because I got a temporary job – and that’s all I needed because I am going to Australia. I am flying out this week for a year. Of course, Ivor suggested it – planted the seed.

During our consultations, Ivor made me confront things that I had pushed to the back of my mind. He gave me the psychotherapy which I had needed all along. I feel that if I had got that years ago I could have had some sort of a normal life. I missed out on so much.

From the age of 11, my life was just ruined by one thing after the other. I would be trying to get my head around one thing that happened when another thing happened. It was just a traffic pile-up. Ivor used to say, “You have had a terrible time.” It was good to hear someone agree that it had been terrible rather than telling me to look on the bright side.

There are a lot of things that I still cannot bring myself to talk about and a lot of things that still need to be resolved. But I feel more capable of living with what happened in the past. He opened a gate for me. It is still not possible for me to trust people, apart from my family. I still panic all the time. I am still paranoid about people letting me down, but it does not rule my life now.

When Ivor suggested Australia, I thought he was nuts. In Belfast, there are constant reminders of the miserable time I had. If I turn a corner I may see someone I don’t want to see. Things still have a hold over me. We were talking about it one day and he said, “Would you not go somewhere else?” He asked did I have any family abroad. I said I had a cousin in Australia. He said go there then. I remember he took my parents into the room and said, “I think she wants to go to Australia.” We went for coffee when we left the clinic and we just laughed at the idea of it. But I started to think that it might be brilliant. If I stay in Belfast, nothing will change.

My flight is booked for this week. To be honest I am terrified. I told my dad that I am afraid of being attacked or being raped or kidnapped. You do hear about awful things happening to people who go away. My dad said things like that could happen in Belfast.

I know I will be really, really upset when I am going. It sounds like I don’t want to go but I do. This is something I have to do. I need to get away. I don’t feel as if I am running away. I have been here all my life and I hated so much of my life.

This time last year, if someone told me I would be heading to Australia, I just would not believe it. It would not have been an option, I know if I had not met Ivor this would not be happening. I would never have come off the tablets. I would either be dead or in a ward. Most likely I would be dead.

It is going to be hard for my family when I go away. We are really close. My mum has said to me, “No matter what you say, I love you so much. You are part of me.”.

I don’t want to be lecturing anyone reading this. It annoys the hell out of me when people say I had depression, but life is wonderful now. Life is good today, but I cannot think about the past or the future. I have to take every day as it comes.

In conversation with Marese McDonagh