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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 16 September, 2014

Opinion: I have a vision – I want to live in a world where depression is understood

Back at the beginning, the last thing in the world I wanted to accept was “that” label. In my mind, depression was something older people suffered from.

Belle Ryan

MY BATTLE WITH depression started five years ago. That said, it feels like I’ve been battling the Black Dog for decades. I have been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). In short, I have a worry problem. I know I’m not unique in that regard, as I’d imagine the majority of the population of Ireland have some kind of worry problem.

Five years ago I was a young successful primary school teacher. I had a permanent job. I had just bought a wonderful Georgian cottage. I had the most amazing family and an exceptional network of friends. I had it all. None of these things, however, were strong enough to stave away depression. Slowly but surely things started to slip away.

It started with something so simple. I had had the summer off from school. I went back that September and embraced a new class. Ordinarily I would have welcomed this challenge, but, that year, things were different. I started questioning everything I was teaching my class. I ignored the fact that I had an honours degree, I chose to forget that I had excelled during my HDip year and that I already had three years of successful teaching under my belt. I chose instead to worry about whether I was planning my lessons correctly, if I was teaching the right way, if the children in my class were happy. This was my initial trigger. What followed afterwards was a tsunami of worries. I was not prepared for what was about to hit. Nobody was.

I worried about everything 

Before I knew it, I was over analysing absolutely everything, I was worrying not just about school, but about everything. I worried about my family. I worried about my newly acquired mortgage. I was worried that I would be single forever, I worried about worrying. My brain was so busy worrying that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t interact with other human beings. Unbeknownst to me, I was building a protective shell around myself.

Everything and everyone scared me. The thought of interacting with other humans terrified me. I was in absolute turmoil on the inside, and truly believed that my exterior demonstrated the same. I chose hibernation as the safest route and I retreated to my family home. It became my safe house. I went from being a confident, bubbly, happy-go-lucky 25 year old, who had everything going for her, to an empty corpse. I was on zombie mode on the outside, catastrophising mode on the inside. I saw no way out. I saw no future for myself.

I was feeding my depression 

I know now that I dealt with things the wrong way. Instead of slowing down, I did the opposite. Instead of taking time out, I took on more responsibilities. I basically did everything I shouldn’t have done. I thought I was fighting depression, but instead I was feeding it. Depression seeps into your every pore, encompasses your body and soul, robs you of your personality, steals you of your enthusiasm, and leeches you of any love for life. It is very reluctant to loosen its grip, no matter what you try; be it the route of psychiatry, psychology or alternative therapy. Your brain is so powerful, it is both amazing and scary.

Back at the beginning, the last thing in the world I wanted to accept was “that” label.  In my mind, depression was something older people suffered from. I imagined depression caught hold of people who had gone through serious life traumas. I figured its victims had little support from family and friends, or were in an unhealthy financial situation. I was a world apart from any of these things. I had nothing worth complaining about, it seemed.

I saw no way out

At the time, however, I saw absolutely no way out. I saw no future for myself. I no longer wanted to exist. Thankfully, the reason I am still here today, is that I had the wherewithal to know that if I decided to do something rash to try escape the hell hole I was in, I wasn’t just ending my life, but I would be devastatingly changing the lives of my precious family. I had seen how suicide destroyed people’s families before, and I will be forever grateful that something inside me, deep down, registered this and sense prevailed.

Some people are very aware of their mental health. If they are feeling overwhelmed in work, they might take a few days off. If they are in an unhealthy relationship, they might take time apart from their partner. Women, in particular, find it easy to confide in their close friends. People are making more time for meditation, mindfulness, exercise and nutrition. I fear it is those of us that fail to do above that succumb to depression’s wrath.

I decided I was going to fight back. I did everything in my power to beat the blues. I took time off work. I took time away from life. I went to my GP and took prescribed medication. This didn’t work, however, as I had left it too late; I was too low. I then went to a psychiatrist. She prescribed me a myriad of pills to drag me up out of the deep dark hole I had found myself it. Whilst these tablets worked initially, they only did so on the surface. I had been off work for six weeks. I felt guilty I had missed so much term time, and I rushed back. What I didn’t realise, was that I hadn’t gotten to the root of my problem. I hadn’t even heard of GAD, and I certainly didn’t know how to prevent it happening again.

I have recurrent lows

That marked the first of five times that I have suffered a depressive episode. I have been low every winter for five years. I don’t suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have recurrent lows. With each winter, the same worries resurface for me. I also concoct new ones to keep me on my toes. I can worry about almost anything. I worry about worrying. It can be relentless. I haven’t enjoyed a Christmas since 2009. I have missed the same friend’s birthdays every year. I have missed my Christmas party every year. I missed out on months of bonding with my goddaughter because I couldn’t communicate with adults, not to mind little people, full of the joys of the world.

I am caught in a vicious cycle. I want to get off this cruel rollercoaster, but it is proving very difficult. I have been hospitalised twice in St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. The doctors and nurses in there have literally saved my life on both occasions. I will forever be grateful for their interventions.

Despite all that has gone on, I have volunteered with the charity “Aware” for over four years now.  When I was low, I would have given anything to connect with someone my own age, who had gone through something similar and who had survived. Two years ago, I made a hard decision. I had spoken at a number of events for Aware. They liked that I was young, and I didn’t mind talking about what I had been through, and the struggles I still faced. I decided to share my story on a wider scale. I googled “How to Set up a Website”, and thus began Believe with Belle.

Helping young people with depression 

With “Believe”, I strive to offer information and support to young people who suffer from depression. When I set out on this road, I told myself, that even if I helped one person by sharing my story, it would be worth it. I effectively told the world something I had been afraid to admit to myself.  Since then I have amassed over 4,000 supporters on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been very fortunate that some fantastic people from across a wide spectrum of Irish society have given up time to be become Believe with Belle ambassadors.

My ambassadors include Irish and Lions Rugby player Seán O’Brien, Model Holly Carpenter, YouTube Sensation BriBry and many more young successful Irish people. The fact that these inspirational people support my cause really symbolises just how present depression is in today’s society, and how crucial it is that we work together to fight it. I later went on to share my story through Walk in my Shoes. I look forward to volunteering with Peita House and Suicide or Survive in the future. Any money I raise is pumped back into these aforementioned charities. There is no need for me to set up a new charity – fantastic ones already exist. I believe there should be a united front. One army, fighting depression.

I am happy to be able to say that I have accomplished my goal, time and time again. Through my work with Aware and www.believewithbelle.com I have given advice to sufferers and supporters alike. Sometimes, an email of encouragement is enough. Other times, I recommend people seek medical attention. I am not a doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a counsellor – what I am, however, is survivor. I have beaten depression time and time again.

Believe in your future

I have not given into depression. I have not let it beat me. Even if it rears its ugly head every winter for the rest of my life, I thank my lucky stars that I have a break from it every spring and every summer. Some sufferers aren’t even afforded that luxury, and suffer in silence for years with no break from the Black Dog.

I have a vision: someday, I want to live in a world where depression is understood and accepted. Instead of brushing it under the carpet, I want depression to be the carpet, and for us to trample all over it. When I am low, I feel like I am a lone warrior, devoid of armour and with an empty ammunition sack. I feel like I am facing a mammoth army, with a wealth of resources. I feel like that army is hungry to bring me down. I want us warriors to come together; I want us to make an army and fight the Black Dog together.

Believe in life, believe in help, believe in your future and believe in the people who will be a part of it.

Belle Ryan is a 30-year-old primary school teacher. She is a sports fanatic, and plays hockey, tag rugby and cricket. Her work with Believe with Belle has earned her ambassadorial honours with Aware, SeeChange and Walk in my Shoes. Her charity and volunteer platform won her the title of Miss UN Ireland 2013, and she travelled to Jamaica last September where she was crowned Miss UN Europe 2014. She is represented by Andrea Roche Modelling Agency. You can contact Belle through her website or on Facebook or Twitter

Helplines:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

  • Console 1800 201 890 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Aware 1890 303 302 (depression, anxiety)

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: Free online tool offers help to teens and adults with depression

Read: ‘I stopped self-harming, the thoughts of suicide are gone and I don’t judge myself’

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