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Opinion: I had a great life, friends, business - and I was paralysed by depression

“Panic attacks can be a sign of depression and mental health issues and I couldn’t believe it was happening to me” – Niall Harbison on fighting two battles; illness and stigma.

Niall Harbison

TELLING PEOPLE YOU suffer from mental health issues like depression or panic attacks is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

It took me 10 years to figure out that I suffered from depression and what was happening to my body. I’d had serious panic attacks in my mid-20s and at first they were mild and I could laugh them off.

In later years they got so serious that at first I presumed they were a heart attack and that I was on my way out. Shooting pains across my chest and the inability to breathe as your head starts spinning are a horrible combination. I can best describe it as that moment you think you are about to hit an animal on the road in your car. With the animal the fright lasts for two seconds but a full-blown panic attack can give you that feeling for a couple of hours and wipe you out for days.

“I told myself: I’m not ‘one of them’”

Panic attacks can be a sign of depression and mental health issues and I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I had a great life, travelled the world and had my own business. At that time, I felt the exact same stigma that the vast majority of the population have – I thought to myself: “isn’t being depressed just for crazy people and sure, don’t I have great friends, a house and a car… I’m defo not ‘one of them’.”

Although my depression is mild enough it does hit me like a fog at times. Sometimes it means spending three or four days in bed and not being about to physically move. Scared when anybody knocks on the door. Turning the phone off. Not even able to open the curtains and certainly not wanting to meet people.

One day I’ll be leading a meeting of ten people in work followed by watching football with friends with not a care in the world but when the fog hits the next day I’ll be scared to walk down the street thinking everyday is watching me and that somebody is about to jump around a corner and attack me.

Although I manage a couple of companies and 20-plus staff, there are times when it hits that I don’t have the ability to put a plate into the dishwasher or to charge my own phone.

“All you can do is crawl under the covers”

No matter how many times you experience depression it just doesn’t get any less scary and all you can do is crawl under the covers and block the world out. It comes in many shapes and sizes but that has been my world for the last decade of my life.

At first I had a great solution because I was able to self-medicate. Booze, for me, was the perfect antidote to feeling depressed. A few pints when I saw the signs approaching and I’d be grand. I could stave off the attacks and calm the nerves.

This technique worked for a few years but as the attacks become more frequent, so did the drinking. Soon I needed four or five pints a night to calm it down. A bottle of wine here, a gin and tonic there.

Before you know it you are having a glass of white wine with breakfast on a Sunday morning.

At that stage, not only are you suffering from panic attacks and depression but you are also displaying the first signs of alcoholism.

Shutterstock-200399855 Source: depression via Shutterstock

The good news is that there are better solutions. Medication works really well and talking to counsellors worked even better for me. I am in a better place now, although I do take a tablet every single morning.

The big problem is that with mental health issues, you are fighting two battles. The illness is a beast to take on – but not as big as the stigma that you face. I wasn’t able to tell a single soul for two years. I eventually found the courage to tell a girlfriend at the time but it was another year before I could tell my very best friends. Longer still before I could tell some family.

“Huge taboo”

In some ways I am incredibly lucky having my own business because I am my own boss and I certainly wouldn’t fancy having to broach the subject with a manager in a professional situation. Even though one in four people will suffer with mental illness in their life there is a huge taboo around the subject.

Nobody wants to say that their brain isn’t functioning as it should, or worse, have people use that Irish saying when talking about you that, “He is suffering with his nerves.”

We’ll show off a broken leg as a badge of honour and get our friends to sign the cast but mental illness is seen by many as a failure. I see it in people’s faces when I tell them for the first time. The pity. The fear and not knowing what to say. They want to dance around the subject and there are many that put you in the “crazy box”.

I’m lucky because I have a positive outlook. I can take three days in bed and get up more positive than ever once the fog lifts. It only affects me about five per cent of the time now and I know what to do to make it pass quickly.  Although it has taken ten years and much soul-searching to get here I feel in control.

“Trying to educate people”

I can see how people slip into a darker place though especially with nobody to talk to. It’s been great seeing people like Bressie and John Murray talking about it openly and trying to educate people. It is the main reason I wrote such an honest book and tried to share my own experiences without hiding anything.

See, with mental health everything can look perfect on the outside. The body can be fit and healthy and people can appear to have a brilliant career and all the trappings of success – but you have no idea what is going on inside people’s heads.

If one person reads the book and identifies with the issue and seeks help to get it fixed, I’ll be able to pat myself on the back.

Depression isn’t great but nor is it the end of the world – what it needs is more awareness and people talking about it and sharing experiences.

Niall Harbison is an entrepreneur and has just published Get Sh*t Done via Penguin, available from any good book shop or online here.

If you would like to speak to someone, consider these numbers:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634

  • Console 1800 201 890

  • Aware 1890 303 302

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie

  • Childline 1800 66 66 66

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About the author:

Niall Harbison

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