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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 5 December, 2019

'I'm less hard on myself now': TV presenter Elaine Crowley on finding hope with chronic depression

Elaine was first diagnosed while she was in college.

Source: Aware/YouTube

THE REALITY OF producing and presenting a TV show everyday, Monday to Friday, is that you’re never really off. And if you happen to be someone whose mental health needs a little extra TLC, that can be demanding. 

While Elaine Crowley now realises that clinical depression is a full-time, chronic disease that for her requires medication, sleep and a generous helping of self-kindness, it wasn’t always that simple.

Growing up as one of 10 kids in Cork, the Virgin Media Television presenter had a happy childhood but looking back, she was a little more sensitive than her siblings:

I was sandwiched between two sisters and I probably wasn’t as effervescent as the rest of my siblings. I had a wonderful childhood but maybe I did take things to heart more than them.

After all, Elaine adds: “When you have 10 kids, there are so many to keep track of – you just make sure they’re healthy and fed, that’s all you can do!”

After she completed her Leaving Cert at 16 and opened her results on her 17th birthday, it was off to Dublin a few weeks later, and the adjustment for Elaine was hard: “I was so young moving up there. I didn’t think I’d miss home as much as I did. I was lonely, I missed my family, I was so homesick. I wasn’t very happy.”

Although her experience of college was “fine – but just fine”, Elaine says that when people say you make the best friends of your life in college, that never really happened for her, bar two close male friends she still loves dearly to this day.

‘My dad always knew something was up’

While she was at college, something else significant happened – she fell out of a routine. “In college, I was making my own hours. I know now that sleep is so important. I was struggling then and I didn’t know how to mind myself through it.” 

And then during her final year, she broke her ankle for the second time. After that, Elaine found it hard to go back to college. She thought she’d fail her exams because she’d missed so much. It didn’t take long for her family to realise something was amiss.

My dad knew what it was, my sister knew what it was, but I thought I’d be grand. I’d tell no one, I’d take the tablets and I kept that way for years.

In fact, Elaine distinctly remembers driving with her sister when she warned Elaine that her depression might flare up again and that it could be chronic. “I got really angry – I said ‘I’m not going to be one of those people, I’m going to be fine’.”

Call it parental intuition, but her dad saw the severity of her depression years before she fully came to terms with it herself:

My dad always knew something was up. He died when I was 23 and before he died, he said to one of my sisters, ‘keep an eye on Nainsey’, that was what they called me.

However, it wasn’t until she was 36 that Elaine realised she would benefit from the support of a psychiatrist. At that stage, she had tried a lot to manage it – going to the gym, and “every alternative therapy going”. Although these things did make her feel better, Elaine says that “for me they didn’t solve the whole problem.”

elaine2 Source: YouTube

Things weren’t helped by the fact that she worked in showbiz, which by its very nature, can be a superficial business in which you sometimes need to keep your guard up: 

You’d meet someone and you feel that you can talk to them over a drink and spill your guts to them and then you’re their casual dinner conversation the next night.

Elaine says that it was a bitter pill to swallow: “You’re going through all of that shite and you’re paranoid enough as it is, then you’re thinking you’re being talked about – and it turns out you are!” Some people became her bedrock, including the late author Emma Hannigan: “you’d have trusted her with your life”, says Elaine.

‘Solving the whole problem’

When the time for therapy did come, Elaine had been up and down for years, with both her family and social life suffering. At the age of 36, she had gone through a bad bout and though she had seen a few counsellors before, her GP gently suggested that it might be time to see a psychiatrist:

I’d come to the realisation that it wasn’t going to get better. I was mortified – I thought they’d throw me in the looney bin after one session. But it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Her psychiatrist was “absolutely amazing”, and made her realise that it was normal to feel this way. She explained that Elaine’s baseline is dysphoria (a state of unease) so it will always be present.

Sometimes this can be difficult to come to terms with for someone who doesn’t have a clear “reason” for feeling depressed, as Elaine explains:

Some people have a situational experience of depression, maybe triggered by a bereavement or a situation at work. They go into it and go out of it. For me, it’s a full-time, chronic disease to do with the level of chemicals in my brain – that was eye-opening. 

For Elaine, it was incredibly helpful to take her experience of depression out of the context of something that happened to her or something that she caused to happen. Though this doesn’t always mean she’s at peace with it, it makes things a lot easier to process.

A ‘furiously paddling duck’

“I’m on daily meds for the rest of my life”, says Elaine. While some people in her situation may figure they can just come off these, she warns how dangerous this can be: “For the love of Jesus, don’t do that or you might end up right back into the slump again.”

Elaine3 Source: YouTube

Though she’s having a slump now, she’s doing her best to “keep on swimming”. She’s coping with pressures at work and her mum’s cancer diagnosis: “I’m a bit like the duck, the feet are paddling furiously underground but I’m keeping my head above water.”

Before this, she would be in “utter despair”, but now she knows that it will pass: “This time of the year coming up to Christmas, people might be feeling that same despair but it will pass. It is vitally important to realise that.”

I’m still here which is very important. I’ve managed to keep some of my friends (but not all) and I have a family who I adore and who love me back. I’ve gotten through some really god awful times that I’ll never talk about because they’re too raw.

The most important thing? “I’m resilient, but I’m also less hard on myself now. I’m a little kinder to myself.” Elaine urges that if you do do something wrong, don’t live with the guilt and let it gnaw through to your soul, and don’t listen to people who you wouldn’t take advice from.

She adds: “December is such a tough month and I want people to remember this – you will get out if it. You will. You will.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 or email supportmail@aware.ie (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Does Elaine’s story feel familiar? Cadbury have partnered with Aware this year to bring you the Resilience Series – stories from the people you admire about their experience managing their mental health. If you could do with a little support with yours, please call 1800804848 or email supportmail@aware.ie. There’s a glass and a half in everyone.

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