depression will help break the taboo around mental health' Irish Leighton tells Anna Moore how she spent years suffering from depression, but kept it hidden until treatment helped her and she decided to bring it out into the open Irish, 59, who has three grown-up children, runs her own carpet and rug retailing business. I've spent most of my life hiding the fact that I suffer from depression. At first, when I was younger, I didn't really understand that the episodes I had of feeling black and just totally unable to do anything were signs of depression, or that it was a treatable condition. I just felt it must be me. After my first child was born, I did seek help from my GP and started taking antidepressants, but I still didn't want anyone to know about it. Mental health wasn't really talked about then and I didn't want to be a burden to anyone. I also didn't want my children to suffer the stigma. It was only three years ago, with my children grown, that everything changed. I reached such a low that finally I agreed for the first time to go into a hospital for treatment - something I'd always been too frightened to do. That was when I finally let my family and friends know where I was and why. I wish I'd taken both steps years ago. Looking back, it's easy to see how not recognising the problem and then hiding it made things so very hard. Growing up as the eldest of three children, I was an anxious child and a moody teenager. Tiny things would upset me and I had no patience. I used to get so angry, feel so dark, without really knowing why. I found the best way of coping was keeping busy. From a very young age, I almost became two people. On the outside, I could smile at people and be nice to them, but inside I felt quite different. Being able to put on that good front may have been one of the reasons I discovered, in my twenties, that I had a natural flair for selling. I worked in telesales first and then became a rep for a food company. My interior and exterior world continued to be different, though. At work, I was bright and motivated, but at home alone, I often fell prey to a very different set of emotions altogether. Depression is so difficult to describe. When it comes on, it's hard to make myself do anything - to get out of bed, brush my hair, clean the house. I stop being able to sleep. I'll become super-sensitive to noise and lie in bed all night - maybe dropping off for 20 minutes, then waking again. My mind will be racing with bad things - all the things in my life I wish I'd done differently. The main feeling when it gets bad is that I just can't make myself do anything. I can sit at home, behind a door, and cry and cry. Anything else feels like too much effort. From a young age, I almost became like two people. On the outside I could smile, but inside I felt different Despite this, I met and married my first husband, Robbie. He knew about my moods and accepted them as part of me, but we never really sat down and talked about it. We married when I was 25, and soon after had our first child, a son, followed three years later by another son and finally a daughter. I stopped working to be a full-time mom, but without my job, I had no structure. The old feelings of not being able to do anything returned. Soon I wasn't bothering to get dressed in the morning. One day, I had to take my eldest son, James, to the GP and when the doctor asked how I was feeling, I just burst into tears. From then on, I had years of taking antidepressants, feeling better and trying to come off them, and then after a while getting down again. Eventually, and perhaps not surprisingly, my marriage broke down. At times, I came close to suicide, but the thought of my children, who were then aged 12,10 and nine, always held me back. When my GP wanted me to go into hospital for treatment, though, I always refused. It was three years ago, with my childrencoping with depression
grown, that I reached a final low. Looking back there were a lot of triggers. I had remarried, but it wasn't working and we divorced. Both my parents had died and I missed them so much. I had a successful carpet business, but flooding had destroyed our unit and everything in it. I'd been getting lower and lower over time, and the flooding was the final straw. One evening, I went to bed with a pile of tablets, planning to take the lot, when the phone rang. I don't know why I answered, but it was my brother. He said, "Hi Irish. Thought I'd give my sister a ring... What's wrong?" I cried and cried, and he pleaded with me to ring the doctor right away. I got off the phone and called my GP. He saw me and booked me into a psychiatric hospital. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was admitted to the hospital and it was such a relief. I didn't have to pretend, or be nice any more. For the first time in my life, I felt I was supported. I was given sleeping tablets and slept at last. I was put on new antidepressants, and went to exercise classes, cookery classes and painting classes. I did things I'd never done before. Back home, people were slowly finding out where I was and hardly believing it. They didn't know how to react. I stayed in for 10 days before I was discharged. At last, everyone knew I was ill and there was no more pretending. That made my recovery so much easier. Some of my friends, both long-term and more recent, were a special help. One friend in particular came round to do my nails and arranged a hair appointment, another took me to a plant nursery, because she loves gardening, and arranged for me to go there twice a week and help out. I found that so therapeutic. Some people, it's true, reacted badly. I've heard that there were comments about me going to a "funny farm", which made me angry. Lots were surprised - they had no idea. The best response from other people is kindness, but not pushiness. I'm not always in the right frame of mind to talk about my feelings, but knowing people are there, asking me how I'm doing, really helps. I look after myself much better now. I still run my carpet business, but I only work four days a week. I don't push myself too hard AM I SUFFERING FROM DEPRESSION? According to mental health experts, these are the main symptoms associated with depression. We all experience many of them from time to time, but if you are experiencing any of these over a period of months, it's advisable to talk to your GP about it. 4- Changes to your sleeping pattern - sleeping all the time or hardly getting any sleep at all. + Feeling tired and lethargic. + Changes to your eating habits - eating more junk food than you usually would or losing your appetite altogether. + Getting easily irritated by small things that would usually go over your head. + Feeling very emotional and crying very easily. 4- Losing interest in the things you previously enjoyed. 4- Drinking more alcohol than usual. •S- A loss of all your self-esteem and self-confidence. + Seeing the glass as half empty. and, on my day off, I'll sleep in late, maybe go to the shops or visit the nursery. All three of my children have been wonderful. When I came out of the hospital, my eldest son, James, who's a photographer now, came to see me. He said, "Mom, when I think back to our childhood and how you coped with us kids running around, always wanting things, I don't know how you did it. You're my role model." For me, that meant more than anything, w&h IF YOUR FRIEND OR RELATIVE HAS DEPRESSION, YOU CAN HELP THEM BY DOING T^r cOLLOWING. •' Encourage them to seek help - perhaps from their GP, a helpline or even to speak about their feelings. Be encouraging. You may not understand why they are depressed, but telling them to "pull themselves together" will not help. Reassure them that it's possible to do something to improve the way that they feel. Sometimes just being there for a person can make a huge difference and will show them that you care. -'- Support them in practical ways, for example by helping with housework or going with them to the shops. Helping someone with depression can be quite an emotional burden at times. Don't feel you have to do it alone. If possible, try and share responsibilities with other friends or family members, or get in touch with local organisations that may help. For info, call the Depression and Anxiety Group, 011262 6396.