'My mind was like a battle zone all day every day. It was horrendous'
One in four people will have a problem with their mental health at some point in their lives, and Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe. Yet there is still a reluctance to talk about depression, anxiety, stress and other issues affecting mental health.
Ray Treacy knows only too well the importance of opening up about mental health as he battled through many years without talking about the condition which was eating him up inside.
Originally from Limerick, he moved to Dublin when he was 18 to find work. Although he didn’t know it at the time, there was a history of mental illness in his family – so when things began to get on top of him, he did what his relatives before him had done and kept it bottled up.
“One of my grandparents was an alcoholic, other family members had eating disorders and nervous dispositions and my godmother committed suicide a few weeks after I was born,” he says.
“As a young man, I knew nothing of this because no one talked about it – it was as if there was a magic carpet under which Irish families were expected to hide their problems. And in hindsight I can see that I was developing mental health issues myself, but wasn’t aware of it because it wasn’t something which was ever discussed.
“In my teens I had obsessive thought patterns, but didn’t recognise that at the time. I had racing thoughts which seemed to go around in loops and would carry on for days. I thought everyone was the same and just tried to get on with my life. By 18, I had moved to the city, was living in a flat and holding down my first job. Life was good and initially I really enjoyed the freedom until I realised that there were no clean clothes in the drawers, no hot meals waiting for me at home and I had to manage my own money.
“I started drinking a lot, but it was no more than my friends. But while I was outgoing, I was also needy and didn’t realise that the drinking masked a lot of underlying problems, like low confidence, loneliness and neediness. These feelings were difficult, and self-medicating with alcohol was a crutch.”
Ray, who is the eldest of five, carried on drinking to try and drown out the thoughts in his head, but when he was in his early twenties, he sought advice from his GP.
“I went to the doctor when I was 22 to tell him about repetitive and worrying thought patterns which made my head feel like a tumble dryer,” he recalls. “He diagnosed OCD and prescribed medication – but although I was pleased to have an explanation and a solution, it didn’t work so I kept on drinking.”
Continuing to mask his feelings, Ray got married to Christine, bought a house and became a father – but he continued to drink every day to try to quell the feelings of loneliness and despair.
“By the time I was in my late twenties I felt lost, alone and haunted,” he says. “My thoughts were darker and I had a lot of mood swings. I was drinking heavily and had my first hospital stay when I was 32 in a treatment centre in order to dry out. But I kept sneaking out to buy alcohol so was asked to leave half-way through the six week programme.
“However, a few weeks later, by some miracle I stopped. I just decided that enough was enough – it was so unfair on Christine, who had no idea that she was signing up for this. So I joined a 12-step programme and for the first time I felt a feeling of fellowship with others who knew exactly what I was going through. This really helped me and I haven’t touched a drop since.
“But my head wouldn’t leave me alone and as I was no longer using drink to self-medicate, it wasn’t long before I sank deeper into a hole with a black dog for company. I went back to the doctor and was diagnosed with major depression.
“I tried so many self-help books as well as meditation and mindfulness – then I tried hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and did two master’s degrees, joking to my wife that I might do a PhD to become Dr Treacy. She didn’t laugh and I don’t blame her as I was difficult to live with as I became more isolated and detached.”
Ray, who has two children – Kevin (23) and Aoife (14) – had a serious episode ten years ago which resulted him spending several months in hospital.
“When I was 40, I couldn’t take any more – my internal scaffolding collapsed and I had a nervous breakdown,” admits the 50-year-old. “There were no triggers and nothing I could pinpoint as the moment it all fell apart, but I slid into serious depression which resulted in me spending six months in St Patrick’s Hospital, during which I spent two months wanting to die – I dreamed of it and planned it as I saw it as the only way to get out of my broken head.
“It’s difficult to explain what it is like, but my mind was like a battle zone all day every day. It was horrendous – hell on earth. I have a true understanding of what people feel like when they commit suicide as I tried to end my life twice while I was in the hospital and will never forget my poor family rushing in each time to be told what I had done. My son was 12 at the time and my daughter only two. The doctor told my wife that I was the sickest patient in the hospital – but there was still hope.”
Thankfully hope prevailed as Ray, who works as a public servant, slowly pieced his life together and started to get a little better every day. His ‘nervous breakdown’ happened 11 years ago and shortly afterwards the father-of-two was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication which helped him along the path to recovery.
“In my early 40s, my diagnosis became bipolar disorder and I think it’s pretty accurate,” he says. “I was given medication, which I am still on, to help with moods and sleep and to keep away the night terrors which used to consume me.
“I also play some sport, walk my dogs, play music and write some songs of my own. I watch my weight, try to live a simple life and be available to those I love. My wife has been an incredible support to me over the years, as has my mother, who used to come up from Limerick on the train to visit me when I was in hospital.
“So with the help of my family and friends, along with my psychiatrist and support groups such as See Change, I slowly but surely got better and continue working at it every day.
“Then in 2014, I was asked to become a See Change ambassador to share my experience so it might help others.
“My advice to anyone going through what I did is to get medical help, talk and talk some more to find the best support available – and don’t give up.”
Having experienced mental health issues herself, Barbara Louise Brennan, See Change programme coordinator, agrees that communication is key; she says the Green Ribbon campaign, which encourages people to end mental health stigma, should help everyone to be open about thoughts and feelings.
“There is an assumption that you need to be an expert to talk about mental health, but the reality is, you don’t,” she says. “Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to let someone know that you are there for them and simply listen.”
The facts: Who are See Change?
⬤ See Change is a national partnership working to change minds about mental health problems in Ireland.
⬤ Funded by the HSE National Office of Suicide Prevention, the partnership is made up of over 100 organisations and 60 ambassadors who work to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems and challenge discrimination.
⬤ Statistics from the impact report published following the 2018 Green Ribbon campaign show it helped almost eight in 10 people feel more comfortable having a conversation about mental health with someone they know.
⬤ 71pc said that they have heard more family and friends talking about mental health, with 68pc saying that they have heard more open conversations about mental health amongst their colleagues following the campaign.
⬤ For more information or expert advice visit seechange.ie
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