I feel as if I've beaten cancer of the mind


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE: STEPHANIE McDERMOTT: I’m a mental ill health survivor, and so proud to be one

I’M A SURVIVOR of depression and manic episodes. I’m told I’m probably bi-polar but the label does not bother me. It’s what I’m feeling inside that counts. It’s a relief to write these words. I’d shout it from the rooftops if I could.

What’s stopping me? The stigma that comes with suffering mental ill health, that’s what. If I was a cancer survivor I would not be afraid to talk about it. It’s good to talk about your life experiences – it helps you deal with them. My mental ill health experiences have been defining periods in my life. They’ve shaped who I am.

In some ways I feel as if I’ve beaten cancer of the mind. If you look up the thesaurus for the word “cancer”, alternatives like menace, pest, blight, bane and corruption are suggested. I’m drawn to the word bane as a description. Fighting racing thoughts, delusions, sleep deprivation, grandiose ideas and losing touch with reality have been the bane of my health.

So has soul-destroying depression which leaves you feeling so empty, with the feeling that you have nothing to say or contribute to a conversation. I like to think of a lady’s handbag as a barometer of how I’m feeling. When I’m depressed I can’t think of anything I’d like to carry with me in a nice handbag.

When I’m well, it’s full of goodies. Make-up? Check. Of course I want to look good. Mirror? Check. Good to have a peek every now and then and ensure you look okay! Notebook, pen and diary? Essentials when I’m well. When I’m not well I feel fat and ugly (medication has often left me bloated, so there was no illusion when I looked in the mirror). The itch to write and record life? Non-existent.

I take pride in the contents of my handbags now. They are a physical reflection of my state of mind. I’m a very happy, positive person who embraces life. I know in fact that I embrace it more because of what I’ve been through. You can’t help but gain perspective about the important things in life when you’ve been as sick as I was in my early 20s.

At a stage when I should have been enjoying the heady rush of life post-college, with the world at my feet and a job secured in the US, I was wandering the halls of my local psychiatric hospital – a woman possessed by inner demons, the demons of mania and loss of self. I was told afterwards I was prayed for at my local church. I must have been really sick then, I thought.

Drugs were used to sedate me. In the end they didn’t work and my parents gave permission for electroconvulsive therapy to be used as a last resort. It seemed to work, but the crash after the high was horrific – what comes up must come down. I had depleted all the physical and mental reserves I had in the manic flight I was on and I was burned out, a shipwreck. I’d gone from being at the top of the house with the roof off to being in the basement with no windows, a dark scary place.

The crawl back to myself I compare to climbing a very high mountain. I use the words “back to myself” very purposely, as I literally had to find myself again. I did not recognise myself. I did not feel like me. I did not look like me. Depression had seeped into my soul and I had to will myself to live.

It was one day at a time and the destination back to who I really was seemed never-ending. Getting out of bed was a real struggle. Eating was my only refuge during the day. Apart from that, all I wanted was for night to fall so I could cover myself with my bed sheets again. Sleep was my escape. I hated waking up to face the empty feelings I had all over again.

A combination of gentle persuasion and tough love, from my mother in particular, steered me back to full life again. Regular visits to my GP provided an opportunity to muster up some words to try and articulate how I was feeling. I would come away from those visits with nuggets of wise words I would cling onto to help me.

My doctor acknowledged that I was at the bottom of the valley, but made clear his conviction that I would one day reach the top of the mountain again. Someone else believed I could recover. I started to believe it myself.

The days when I wanted to die became fewer. Gradually over time I started to feel more and more like myself. The panic attacks stopped. I started taking an interest in current affairs and nature again. I was able to pay attention to what my friends were saying. I could laugh again.

Not being able to laugh nearly destroyed me, in and of itself. I had lost my ability to laugh. Me, who used to derive such joy from the silliest of jokes. Where was the girl who could talk to anyone? She was slowly emerging from the basement and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve battled through this journey a few times now. The ascent into madness and the accompanying rapid descent into a personal hell – how else can you describe the all-consuming feeling of emptiness and sadness that is the scourge of depression?

I know now what I need to do to keep the roof of my house intact. It comes down to a few fundamentals – ensuring I get sufficient sleep each night and switch off my ever-active mind with “time-out” activities such as yoga, walking, reading and meditation. In other words, leading a balanced life.

Above all my mantra, in agreement with Shakespeare, is that sleep is nature’s balm. I’m convinced I can stave off bi-polar tendencies by adopting this approach. It’s not always easy. Life can get really stressful sometimes and there are times when I, like anyone else, need a little bit of extra help.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m well aware of that. There are plenty of people who don’t recover as well as I have. I’m privileged to have an incredible network of family and friends around me who have literally loved me back to life. At one stage, I chose to live because of the love they had for me versus the lack of love I had for myself.

We need to talk, though, about mental ill health. We need to make it easier for mental ill health survivors like me to talk without feeling shame or concern about what others may think.

We need to celebrate the achievements of someone like me, and countless others who have overcome mental ill health to go on to live full and happy lives.

It will provide inspiration and encouragement for those who find themselves in a similar situation. We need to adapt a more holistic approach to treating mental illnesses.

I’m a mental ill health survivor, and so proud to be one. If the stigma attached to mental illness was not there, we would have far more people, like me, returning to full health. It is up to each of us to remove that stigma by talking.

There is nothing to be ashamed of. Above all, when you become mentally unwell you lose any sense of purpose. I regained my purpose by saying to myself that when I recovered I would try and help others going through something similar.

Hopefully by sharing my story I am helping others to open up and talk about their experiences. The more we talk, the more mental ill health survivors we will have.