GROW helped give me back my life
WHEN ENNISCORTHY WOMAN EILEEN MURRAY WAS DIAGNOSED WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER, SHE THOUGHT IT WAS A LIFELONG SENTENCE. SHE TELLS SHEA TOMKINS HOW MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT GROUP GROW EMPOWERED HER TO REGAIN CONTROL, AND HELPED TO PUT HER ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
EILEEN MURRAY had been living a perfectly normal life. She had experienced a very happy childhood, avoided the turbulence that can often accompany teenage years, and graduated with an arts degree from University College Cork. In 1979, she took up a teaching post at the FCJ Convent, Bunclody, later married, and had three children - it was the life she had always dreamed of. Then, in 2005, the world that she knew started to fall apart.
'I lost my capability to live an ordinary life,' says Eileen. ' The best way to describe it is to say that I couldn't cope. Decisions became very difficult for me. Any mother could say, "What will I cook for the dinner tonight?" and be tearing her hair out. But for me it was a really deep-set indecision, I wouldn't know what to cook, or what to shop for. My husband thought I was going mad. To make a shopping list I would pace around the kitchen table for between an hour and three hours. In that time, I might have only written two items on a piece of paper. It's very difficult to explain to people that have never experienced it.
'I was out of work for a while. I could barely get by from day to day. I couldn't decide what to wear when I got up in the morning. That might not sound terribly life-changing or distressing, but it was a situation where I could stand in front of the wardrobe and my husband would get annoyed with me and tell me to just pick something. I wasn't able. Every part of my day brought terrors. Every decision.
'I ended up in a supermarket one day and eventually rang my sister-inlaw. I was there for three hours with a shopping basket on my arm and managed to put a loaf of bread into it. Other than that, I was absolutely lost. I walked around the supermarket and I know people were looking at me. But I was there for three hours. After my phone call, my husband came home from work. He knew I had broken down.'
Eileen suffered a very serious stroke in May, 2007, from which she almost died. She recovered quite well physically over a period of about six to eight months. She had been prescribed anti-depressants before the stroke but any medication she was on, she was quickly taken off. The doctors in Beaumont Hospital didn't know what had caused the stroke, and there was a real worry around what kind of medication she was taking. Stopping the medication allowed the depression to become deeper. Eventually Eileen was hospitalised, for three months initially, a period she regards as the worst time of her life.
'When I say I couldn't function, I couldn't do the simplest of things,' she says. 'I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't put my feet on the floor and stand up. I couldn't eat, sleep or take care of myself physically in the sense of washing or getting dressed.
' The thing that distressed me most of all was that I couldn't look after my children. At times I was catatonic. I was unresponsive. For weeks and weeks I just lay in bed and people who knew me despaired for me. Eventually my psychiatrist hit on a medication that was able to help me. After three months, I was discharged from hospital and I seemed to be really well, on top of the world. That was Christmas 2007, and my children remember it as the Christmas when they got absolutely everything that they could ever wish for. I didn't realise that is was the high of bipolar depression. I hadn't been diagnosed as bipolar at that time. The high lasted about a month, and then I completely crashed again. It's so difficult to describe, as I had three beautiful children and everything to live for.
'I have experienced different types of physical pain down through the years, very severe pain, like the pain I experienced when I had the stroke, but I would say now that the psychological pain of depression compares with nothing else. It is the worse pain a person can experience.'
After this period of elation Eileen crashed again, and ended up back in hospital. Over the following period of sixteen months, she was in hospital for eleven of them. She thought her life was over. Everything that was important to her, she couldn't do anything about it. She wanted to get back to work but there was no way that she could. She wanted to look after her children, but she couldn't. Her biggest fear was that they would be taken away.
'When you are in hospital you meet with a team of professionals, sometimes daily,' she explains. ' There's a psychiatrist, possibly a psychologist, a social worker and a nurse that works in the community, anything up to seven people. I was in such a state that I couldn't talk - which is very unusual for me. I couldn't string thoughts together. When the social worker was there I saw it as a threat. I don't mean that as a negative thing towards the person but I was so ill-at-ease that I imagined things happening, and a decision being made, and that I would lose my children. So I often didn't speak when I'd meet with my team, because I was afraid of giving away the real situation.'
It was during this time that Eileen first heard about an organisation called GROW, a support group for people with mental health problems. After she was discharged from hospital, she made a New Year's resolution never to go back, never to leave her children again, and made the brave decision to attend her first GROW meeting. 'I went to the GROW meeting, at a time when I was feeling very low. I couldn't speak. I just sat there, but when you go for the first time they encourage you not to speak. Just listen. GROW is all about changing your life by taking small steps. It helps you to change three things, negative thinking, self-talk - people that are depressed will say they are worthless - and the third is the change of relationships. When you start to change how you think about yourself, you will start to relate differently to others. In your life, your relationships will improve. I can tell you for a fact that this works.
'I was given a task to come back the following week, to the next GROW meeting. I went back. Some of the tasks I was given, I remember vividly. I was told to combat isolation. I wasn't working. I lived outside the town. If I wanted, I wouldn't meet a single soul from one end of the day to the other. That's what I wanted. I wanted to become invisible, so that nobody knew about me. I felt ashamed. I shouldn't have, it's only an illness. There is still a stigma in society towards mental illness but it is improving. At one of the meetings I was asked to text a friend and arrange to meet for a coffee. That might mean nothing to a person that leads a normal life - it was huge to me. I was terrified, afraid to meet anybody. I thought how, "How can I impose myself on anyone?" I was such bad company.'
After the GROW meeting that night, Eileen received a text from a friend. She had started ignoring texts from friends, stopped replying. This went on for years. However, she texted her friend back and asked if she would like to meet for coffee. Eileen also decided that rather than stay at home while her husband was at work and the kids were at school, she would go to a coffee shop every morning on her own. She started to do it religiously. Now she says O'Brien's coffee shop was like a lifeline for her, because it helped her to break out of her own jail of isolation.
'I joined GROW in January, 2009. I had been diagnosed bipolar by then, but had not found a therapeutic treatment. It took almost another year. I started to believe that I could recover about three months after I joined. I was still having highs and lows. My medication suits me really well now - though it took me years to find it.'
Eileen returned to teaching in September 2009, after being out of work for two and a half years. She has never looked back. She stresses the fabulous support she received from her principal and her colleagues and that being back at work has been a huge part of her recovery. During the next school year, she will teach a mental health module to Transition Year. Though mental health is not on the curriculum, Eileen feels it should be taught in every second level school, enabling young people to feel comfortable to talk about their mental health. The World Health Organisation recently issued research which highlights that 75 per cent of those with mental health problems first show signs between thirteen and eighteen years of age.
' Three things helped me to recover,' she says, 'even though I started out with a belief that I would never recover. First, there is GROW. I feel I would never have recovered without it. GROW empowers you to take back control of your life. Secondly, was my own resourcefulness. I worked very hard to recover. And number three was my doctor, and my medication. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar I thought it was a lifelong sentence. It is not a lifelong sentence - you can recover.
'People should reach out to organisations like GROW because they don't realise how much support is out there. The people that provide the real support are fellow sufferers.'