Campus.ie's Amy Ryan spoke to Maria about her struggles with the stigma and treatment of mental health in Ireland.
Note: This article recounts one mental illness sufferer's experience with antidepressants. While she did not find them to have the desired effect, this does not mean that other sufferers should not keep up with their medication. If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, please consult your GP or a mental health professional before making any changes to your medication.
As Maria walked down the laneway towards me, she seemed confident. She is an old friend, we had often spent time talking about the struggles of anxiety. She suffers, every day.
“You look beautiful” I said. She has the perfect figure, tall and slender.
“Stop! I’m after putting on weight since I last saw you.” She was never good at taking compliments. But anxiety can affect you in many ways. It can cripple your confidence.
“It retarded me, mentally and physically. I couldn’t talk to people or hold conversations. I couldn’t live my life.
“If I had to go out, I would be building myself up for about an hour. I was terrified, trying to get myself together just to go outside.”
Her anxiety led her down a rocky road to alcohol abuse from an early age. She didn’t know how to cope with it. “I started drinking at 13. By the time I was 18, I used to drink a bottle of raw vodka or whiskey every day.”
She also began to abuse prescription medication, taking relaxers to ease her anxiety which was heightened by her alcoholism. She finds it difficult to recall events in her life accurately, she said It’s a bit of a “blur.”
At age 20, her life began to fall apart. Her addiction was causing cracks in the family home and her parents were desperate. She was dragged “kicking and screaming” to the acute mental care facility. Her family hoped that they could give her the help she needed. But Maria found the experience quite traumatic.
“I don’t feel that people in crisis are helped when they enter the mental health system. You’re just brought in, highly medicated, stuck in a bed and can’t go anywhere. You begin to go insane overthinking how you have arrived at this point.”
She felt that it was difficult to recover in the acute mental health unit, surrounded by other patients who were very ill. She felt frustrated with the care she received from her psychiatrist. “He told me that I could die by the age of 22 if I didn’t stop drinking and abusing the medication. But he said that and then dished me out all these highly addictive tablets.”
Maria was diagnosed with a wide range of mental illnesses, ranging from a personality disorder to ADD to addiction. With this long list of labels, came an equally lengthy list of medication to treat them.
“The side effects from these drugs are worse than the problem itself. They were ruining my life.
“It’s senseless that they are supposed to treat your symptoms but one of the side effects of the medication are suicidal thoughts? You start to feel like a burden because you can’t do anything, your head is gone.”
Maria described the difficulties in finding support outside of her family because people don’t understand mental health in Ireland. She said that she would be reluctant to tell people about it.
“There’s a stigma still attached to it here in Ireland, they don’t see you as a normal person.”
Maria has been sober for four years now. Her life “completely changed” when she began to turn to alternative therapies and she began weaning herself off the medication. At 23, she fell pregnant. This milestone turned her world upside down.
“My life completely changed after she was born, for the better. It gave me purpose which I didn’t feel I had before.
“That is when I said I had to change now for good. I was so determined to change my lifestyle. Having my little girl pushed me to get better even more. That’s what kept me going and haven't looked back since.”
Maria is 26 now and her daughter is 3 years old. She is currently studying a Neuoropathic Nutrition diploma in the College of Naturopathic Medicine. She hopes to open her own clinic some day to help others who need it.
“Mental illness doesn’t characterise you, anyone can suffer at some stage in their lives.
“I was very ashamed about being in a psychiatric unit but I’m not now. When I look back, I’ve seen so many people who’ve been in the same situation.
“I’m a better person now after being through all this, I’m a lot stronger.”