Last year a group of us met every week for 8 weeks to learn about the art of radio documentary making.
We were all in the process of recovery from mental health challenges. We told each other about some of the dark times we’ve experienced and how we got through them. We played music, shared our favourite tunes, drank tea, chatted and most importantly listened to each other. There was huge power in telling the stories and in being heard. We found each other’s stories incredibly inspiring.
Over the weeks we recorded interviews and music and worked together with documentary maker Leeanne O’Donnell to make 4 short audio documentaries that captured the essence of our Recovery process. We are sharing them in the hope that they might help others who are having a hard time.
The Recovery Stories Project is a Cork Mental Health Services initiative. It is a collaboration between Open Dialogue in Bantry and 49 North Street – a space for creativity, recovery and wellbeing. The 2017 group was co facilitated by psychologist Aine Herlihy, Kevin O’Shanahan (Clinical Nurse Specialist in mental health and Arts) and documentary maker Leeanne O’Donnell. The project has also been supported by Healthy Ireland.
The Bull in the Field
Trauma is piercing, if you have a traumatic event in your life your mind is pierced. In a bull-ring you’ve got the bull fighter and the bull. The bull is a strong animal but it dies eventually through piercing. When your psyche is pierced you can’t just put a bandage on and wait for it to get better. Life was going well up to about 6 years ago when I went through a stressful period at work. I experienced a lot of corporate bullying which affected my health and eventually I had to leave work, and that’s how I managed to get involved in Corks mental health services. I was out of work for a year and had a lot of gp attendances and I was suicidal by the end of that year. The doctor suggested that I see a psychiatrist. Up until that time I’ve rarely seem a doctor, been to a councillor or a psychiatrist, I’d always believed that mental health was just something people imagined, thinking why don’t they just get a grip. Any mental unwellness I felt before I had that traumatic time was related to alcohol, hangovers, depressed through alcohol. I was drinking a lot alcoholically and it was Monday morning blues and thinking “urgh! I have to get out of bed” but this time it was different the physical aspects made it difficult, having heart palpitations for 3 weeks at work has been a domino effect on everything since I’ve been out of work. The biggest problem for me was that I was such a great employee there, that this would happen to their best employee and that has been proven with reviews I’ve received over the years, and that this would happen to someone with such integrity at work. It’s been hard to deal with stuff that I’ve never expected to have myself. You can say take your stumbles in life and turn them into positivity, and that’s fine to say, and to do that takes a lot of time.
I’m not kissing ass because I’m in a room with 2 HSE employees, but I have had great help from a variety of stuff that the West Cork Mental Health Services provide over the last 5 years. The National Learning Network provides a focus group in Clonakilty which is a yearlong rehabilitation course for people who have had traumatic experiences and I love that. I have benefited but I have to say unfortunately mental issues are not a broken leg. They just don’t fix in 6 months or 6 weeks, whereas the unfortunate thing is no professional I’ve seen that has said ‘do this, do that and you’ll be fine in 6 weeks’ time’. What I do know is that I had a regular life while I was working and then progressed into isolation and when you isolate yourself your head tends to doubt everything you do, and even though I’m a very difficult person with other people, I do appreciate being around other people and certainly positive people, I love engaging with people who have a sense of purpose.
When I compare my stories to other people I feel like a fraud. I haven’t recovered from cancer which takes a lot more balls than I would have, and so I feel like a fraud. However at the end of the day we all have our own stories and what I’m sharing in comparison with other people seems trivial, but it is still my issue that I have dealt with.
The man who came back from Valhalla
You’re all wrapped up in your own little world and your own little problems and you’re kind of going “aw poor me” sometimes, well that’s what I think “poor little me” and then you hear someone else’s story and you think “aw jesus, they’ve been through hell” and you’re here to discuss it and articulate it in such a fantastic manner. No matter how bad a day you’re having people around makes a difference.
I felt at 38 or 39 that I didn’t want to die that particular type of cancer it was a particular type of cancer in your 50’s and 60’s, you could see the look of horror in the doctors faces and everything I said “I’m not ready to die” so I think what you do in this life will echo in eternity so I said I was going to fight this every inch of the way. My desire was to stick around for my little girl until she turns 18 and if the cancer comes back worry about it then, and stick around for my wife and that was it.
Music got me through it, a lot of music, a lot of good friends. For each stage like the denial there was a different soundtrack to that it could be anything really metal to something really heavy that would blow the windows off your house, the neighbours might never talk to you again but it played a key role in my recovery even to this day. After the surgery a lot of people I probably mentioned before that don’t realize the mental recovery that’s needed as well. Which music played a big part in as well, and in this group I didn’t realize how many musical people there were and it’s after motivating me to get back into playing.
Some days you just can’t get out of bed like the other day I couldn’t get out of bed because of pain and some days you just feel awful know matter what it’s about but I guess the whole big thing is that you’re alive, that you’re here, that you’re given a second chance and don’t waste it. I even feel guilty that I couldn’t get out of bed so I’m going to do this and that today or climb up the ladder and paint that little bit, when you can’t physically or mentally do it. I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of that but my little girl was the driving factor for that and the fact that the consultants said that there was nothing they could do for me and that I’m going to die so their sending me home, and I suppose I’ve proven those guys wrong. Which is a bit childish but nobody can put a best before date on you so besides keep going for my little girl and for my wife was for myself as well to prove that no matter what is thrown at you that you don’t lie down and die, that you get up and fight another day. Life isn’t fair and you can lie down and give in or it’s just getting up and taking what life throws at you and know that there’s a little bump in the road but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My wife is German and used to work in a hospital in Germany so she contacted her old boss so if it weren’t for her if I didn’t meet her I was dead. I had the surgery in Germany and got the tumour out and proceeded with radio chemotherapy which they didn’t offer in Ireland or the surgery. So I went back into work after it which was in May or June, and they were looking at me very strange and I told them “there was nothing wrong with me I feel fine this is where my head is at I like working”. Then I got back on the plane and went back to Germany again where they scanned me and did all the tests and told me that the cancer is gone. So I said “Great, no operations to be set up” but they said they still needed to operate on the cancer cells from the chemotherapy and so I said “Okay, let’s do it” and I felt like a Viking going off to Valhalla sat there that morning in the operation said I was doing this for my little girl and my wife and just to stay alive because the diseased tissue, the cancer could come back again and very aggressive. So I said “ok” and so I did it and had a few post-op complications like the lymph node in my chest started leaking so I was losing 2ltrs of fluid a day. So they put two tubes inside me, one on each side of my ribcage and I couldn’t move, I had tubes all over me and instead of three weeks of being intensive care I was there for three months where I had to learn to walk again and eat again, that was humbling. I’d see a lot of people moaning about first world problems and there I was trying to learn how to walk again.
I eventually made it and came home in September 2016, was very sick and ended up in hospital again. It’s been a journey and been very grateful of the small simple things forget out your money and your houses and cars. Forget all about that because you can’t take that with you when you go. It’s about living every day even if you can’t get out of that bed, there is still something that you can learn or find value in it. So I guess it was a good lesson in life, so you take things day by day, and maybe I say to myself that this happened for a reason, because before I was just got around here and got around there you know, I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that just pressure pressure pressure. Or pay this off and do that and maybe some higher power was saying that this guy can’t drive 300km a day to work five days a week and so something had to give so maybe it was fate that this was some kind of lesson that had to be learned that it’s not all about money or work or putting food on the table, it’s the smaller things in life that make a difference and when I got ill it was that that drove that home. That was probably another motivating factor to experience those things with the people who you care about, so I guess indirectly that was another motivating factor to enjoy the small little things.
Some days my head isn’t right and I don’t see that and yet I should, I should go back to that simple mantra and throughout the illness that was one of the key things, what I’d give to look at the birds in the trees or see the rabbit run through the field or that leaf drop off that old oak tree or that fish grabbing that insect about the river, and I have seen many of those since I’ve recovered and I’m just so grateful for it.
Dancing with Debussy
The first record I ever bought I loved so much which had other pieces on it such as Debussy La Mer, along with many others. I think it was the sheer expressiveness of the music that there is a huge climax that it slowly builds up to and them slowly drifts away. You feel as though you could dance to that music because you can feel the shapes in your body as you hear it being played and that was something I adored at the time. It takes you into that euphoric world then brings you back again and I still connect with that.
I realized I had to actually change my attitude and change my life because of the kids, to actually try and keep them and give them the best life I could. I had to try and get over it so I read a book I can’t remember the name of it. It was about dealing with depression and I read it, made notes in the corners, underlined passages, all sorts of things. All because I knew I had to change my outlook, I had to try and pick myself up for my kids. My son and daughter, they’re worth a lot more than a mum giving in and trying to kill herself every so often, it’s not fair on them. So I had to improve. I did everything I could to try and cope and I was just beginning to do that and I was doing quite well for quite a number of years before the cancer and my husband deciding to leave me.
The combination of the 2, my husband leaving me at the same time as the cancer treatment, In Britain there is this stained glass window that was smashed by followers of Oliver Cromwell at the Reformation, but the parishioners loved it so much that they put it all back together again and put it up in the window again, It feels as though my life is like that now. Totally abstract, whereas before it had been a picture, but none the worse for that it’s just a totally different design, and it was important for them to have their stained glass window and the parishioners now value that more than some of the other windows, because it took so many people to put it back together again, and it has taken a lot of people to help me be put back together again after that double blow.
I feel that everybody around me, all the medical staff, the charity staff, all these people, friends and family both near and far, my sister who kept ringing me up and talking to me at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to help me through the night. All sorts of people, Samaritans helped me, all these people put so much work into helping me to become whole again. After that I felt that I cannot let them down, people have put so much work into helping me through this cancer and it was something else to hold on to, to get through it. Even that girl who was serving teas and coffees when I was getting the chemotherapy she would always remember what I wanted and knew my name. It was once every 3 weeks and yet she remembered everyone, she was a treasure. Other people around the neighbourhood, helped enormously or just offered little things, like one would often invite me around for tea and to make sure I ate something bless her, it was wonderful being a part of a family for an evening. So many people have just done little things and yet it made a tremendous difference, and it would be disloyal to just throw it in people’s faces to actually give in to a moment’s hell. So many have done so much that to them it might only be little things, but to me it’s major and it did make a huge difference.
The cancer has enabled me to see how important the little things are and what seemed like the big picture doesn’t really matter. It’s the little things that bring joy everyday and make the difference, and what I value most now are people and their love and their care. I determined when I was diagnosed with cancer that if I was going to die which I’m not going to do so soon, I’d have to leave behind a legacy of love and kindness, not of bitterness and fear. When you get that diagnosis you suddenly realize how beautiful the world is, the wonderful shades of green in the trees, how much the waves on the beach sparkle and dance, and you suddenly think this world is so beautiful let me enjoy it while I can. The other day we caught the spring colours of the leaves coming out and the mayflowers and I thought Yes! I’m alive to see it. Be grateful.
The Blues Guy
So I will attempt to tell you some of my mental health difficulties. I experienced having nightmares as a kid, which were very uncomfortable and I got very upset as a kid. When I was 14 I moved to Australia with my parents, and it was very adventurous and exciting moving to a new country, where I started school and got offered an apprenticeship as a carpenter. Unfortunately I got involved with drugs at a very early age of 15 or 16. I finished up work and moved back to Ireland when I was about 19 and got offered a job in Cork as a barman. At that time I was either 19 or 20 and had a severe love for drugs where I developed an interest in music where I was involved with a blues band.
I remember one evening with my mother she asked me if I would go to the hospital, and I said yes and I went into a psychiatric unit where I spent 3 weeks there. I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and I didn’t really know what it meant, I didn’t know what I was doing there. Back then it sounded like I might as well have said he had had cabbage for dinner. It only now in my 40’s it means something. They’re just titles, they’re only words these things like schizophrenia or depression, you still have to learn to understand yourself and that comes with living and a sense of maturity I think. Being told you have paranoid schizophrenia at a young age of 24 you think to yourself “no, I don’t” it just doesn’t register.
I came out of the psychiatric unit and continued to take drugs. I was under the wing of my dad at the time, working for him doing odd jobs. I went back up to Dublin and looking back now it was a bit of a haze, continued to do odd jobs, trying to get work and playing a bit of music. When I was in my early 30’s I was advised to stop smoking, which I did. I managed to stop taking drugs. People were warning me to stop smoking because it was it was affecting everything, I got in trouble with the police, I was in trouble with money, it was affecting how I lived my life. It was making a mess of me and so I just stopped and I knew it was a conscious decision, I knew it was damaging me with not just my health but also financially, my family and friends and people I was hanging around with. I attempted to stop and I just stopped. I was told that mental health and cannabis just don’t mix just liked oil and water, and it just clicked and I knew I had to stop.
I’m not about 14 years off of the drugs but the paranoia was really intense. I got involved with GROW which is a mental health programme which is very beneficial and still is. The paranoia was so intense I got counselling for it and it worked, it eased it. I hear voices but not so much these days. The friendship and the understanding of people that can relate to you is a big thing. Particularly with the paranoia and the anxiety and the voices, people can understand and they can relate to you. Just being involved and getting out not just with GROW groups but just being involved in your community or just having a supportive family, I live alone though but I would still have supportive family and friends My health is a lot better than when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. I manage mental health, I live with a stigma of it but there is a lot of awareness about it. I’m coping and getting along nicely and take each day as it comes. I suppose my hope for the future is to give back to those that help other people which I think I’m doing in some ways, helping other people.
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