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Bernie Mc Carthy at home in Dunsallagh. Photograph by John Kelly.

Breaking the mental illness taboo

WHEN Bernie McCarthy thinks about it, she knows that she has the unflinching support of her family and a wide network of friends. Still, her 14-year stand-off with bipolar disorder, manic depression, including bouts of self-harming and severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), is an often isolating existence.

Those close to her are well aware of the Quilty woman’s mental health issues but, for a passing acquaintance, it’s a shock. Bernie is not someone whom you would ever link with depression or its assorted impacts.

In recent weeks, Bernie completed a 17-week counselling programme with Pieta House in Limerick. She found it trying and emotional but is delighted that she stuck with it.

“You’d come out and, while it’s a relief, it’s also really draining. You’d be so tired after it. You’re like ‘did I just say all those things?’ Things came out that nobody knew, only me and my counsellor. But you feel better for it,” Bernie reflected candidly last weekend.

Her GP, Dr Billy O’Connell, recommended that she seek help from Pieta House. Bernie went to Limerick for an initial appointment and within a fortnight she met with a counsellor, whom she met every subsequent Wednesday.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life was walk in that door the very first day. Even to ring the bell … I was so nervous going in but the minute you walk in, it’s like you’re inside at home. From that first day, we clicked. You’re told that whatever you have inside you, throw it down on the floor. It’s not going to move out of the room. The only condition they have is if they think you’re a risk to yourself or to others, they’ll break the confidence. Other than that, whatever goes on in the room stays in the room,” she explained.

Her father’s death

In tracing how she reached this point, Bernie points to the death of her father, Martin.

“Fourteen years ago, my father died. I was the baby of the family and I was his pet. It started then but it took a couple of years to find out what was wrong with me. I was up and down. They were saying it was part of the grieving stage but finally I did a spell in the acute unit in Ennis and that’s when they found out that I was bipolar. That means you have no serotonin levels. You’re either in really good form or really down. There’s no in-between. You have to try and get an in-between but it’s very hard.

“When you get down, it’s very hard to get back up. I was put on a lot of medication. I could go for six months and I’d be fine. They told me then that what I have is a masked depression, that I can hide it. I hid it from my family for years and years,” she recounted.

“I go to the Stella Maris in Lisdoonvarna as well, every two weeks. They went from the bipolar diagnosis to manic depression because it had gone so out of control. A psychiatrist and his team come there. I’ve been going there for a good few years now. They’re very good up there. I’m on 18 tablets a day. If I miss a night, I’m wide awake and I over-think everything. I’m never going to be off them,” Bernie feels.

Living with the knowledge that things were not right, while trying to give the impression that everything was grand, conspired to create a feeling of loneliness.

“You can’t explain your depression. People won’t stop you in the street and ask ‘how are you feeling?’. If you had a broken leg, they’d ask ‘how are you?’ It’s still a massive taboo. People are afraid to ask you in case you’d get upset. It’s an illness. I have to live with it. I will always have it. I just have to try and keep myself safe. If somebody stops me in the street and says ‘how are you feeling today?’ I might cover it all up and say ‘I’m grand’. But when you go home, you’d say, ‘that was nice that somebody asked me how I was,” she says.

Very close to her mother and five siblings, Bernie has discovered that minding her grand-niece has been a huge help in somehow dealing with her illness.

“Even though I always knew I had the support, you get into a lonely place and you think you have nobody. It’s like it’s dark. You don’t want to get out of the house. You get up out of bed because you have to but there are days you don’t want to. I’ll get up out of bed mainly for Lexi every day. She’s only three years of age but she has been my saving grace.”

Until about April of this year, Bernie felt that she was coping reasonably well. However, bit by bit that sense of hope slowly eroded.

“Probably about seven or eight months ago, things went bad again. It totally spiralled. You’d kind of feel iffy for a few days but I’d be good at pulling myself out of it again. But this time I was constantly crying. I’d go to bed crying and wake up crying. Then you’d put on a big happy face for everybody else. But it was getting worse and I was self-harming up to two or three times a day.”

“I went up to my own GP, Dr Billy. He’s so, so good to me. We tried different medications and injections. As I said, he suggested Pieta House.”
Her daughter caught her self-harming on one occasion and Bernie has since opened up to one of her nieces.

“Meg realised it one day. I promised her I’d never do it again. For a finish, the person I told was my niece, Nora Lynn.”

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Adding to her distress is the reality that OCD has virtually taken control of Bernie’s life.

“I’ll sit here and I’ll count the decorations on the Christmas tree and clean, clean, clean. It has been with me so long and it has got worse over the past six months. The OCD has gone totally out of control. I would hoover up to five times a day. I would mop floors up to five times a day. They finished their dinner here and the plate is whipped,” she explained.

“It’s crazy. They’d be sitting here watching telly and I’d say, ‘lads, I’ll do a bit of hoovering. I’ll be quick.’ Then I’ll come back 10 minutes later and do it again. It’s a routine. If I’m standing out the back of the house, I’ll read and count the number plates. If there are birds sitting above on the wire, I have to count them.”

You sense that Bernie would love to defeat her OCD but she can’t seem to best it.

“OCD can control your life and it has taken over. I have to count clothes on the line. That’s all part of the head spinning. I have to try and learn to relax. I have this thing that if I sit down in the middle of the day, people are talking about me. I have to constantly keep going, keep cleaning. If I don’t have the curtains open in the morning, I think that people will say I’m lazy and in bed.”

She has attempted to ignore her OCD urges.

“I have tried it. But if I stop myself going for the hoover, I’d get a pain from shoulder to shoulder, a sick nervous pain. One side of my head is telling me one thing and the other side is telling me something different. To me it’s easier to do it. It’s all to do with the depression. I’m sleeping but my mind is still going at the rate of 90.”

Poignantly, when Bernie was talking to her counsellor in Pieta House, it emerged that her own welfare was not her primary concern.

“I was asked in Pieta House, ‘what did I think of Bernie?’ I do not like myself. I’m here for three reasons; my two kids and my mother. The kids are 18 and 21 now. They’re not going to be around forever. So I have to try and start learning to be here for myself. I come across confident and great craic but behind closed doors, people don’t realise what goes on.”

She accepts that one of the keys to her recovery is increased self-esteem.

“Maybe I’ll get there. I was told in counselling that it should be me number one because if I’m not looking after me, I can’t look after anybody else. Hopefully, down the line, I can come back and say ‘I’m up there but right now, I’m far down the pecking order. Right now I can’t see it happening but maybe …”

Bernie loves following Kilmurry Ibrickane. Football is one of her passions in life but even at a match, her OCD follows.

“I just love the football. Even if Kilmurry aren’t playing, I’ll go and watch somebody else play. But I could be at a match and I’d count the 30 players. It takes control of everything. If I know there’s a match at 1pm, I have to have everything done. Coming home, I can’t stop for a drink because I might have only hoovered twice that day. I’ve missed weddings, parties and an awful lot of things.”

Bernie feels for her mother, Patricia, who she is very close to.

“Going back a good few years, I wrote my mother a letter. I’m very, very close to my mother but I had to write her a letter explaining it. It was the only way I could tell mom without her getting upset or worrying about me. I have three sisters and two brothers and they are very, very good to me. It was easier to tell your sisters than it was the boys but gradually they got wind of it.”

Speaking out

Speaking publicly is a brave move but Bernie did it to highlight the help Pieta House have given her and to hopefully help others in some way.
“If I thought I could save someone’s life by talking about mental illness, of course I would. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. I was for a long time and that’s why I hid it so well. If somebody knocked on my door, my door would always be open and whatever would be said would be in private. I’m no counsellor but there needs to be more talking.

“A percentage of people would probably be shocked that I have been so sick, so low and so down. I’m doing this for other people and to highlight that there is help there. Only for I got the help 17 weeks ago and only for my doctor, family and friends, I would be dead,” she believes.

“For a long time I was embarrassed about it. I had this thing in my head that people were saying ‘pull out of it. What can be so bad? We all have an off day.’ But when you’re down so low, there’s a dark, dark tunnel there. It’s only now after 17 weeks I’m beginning to see it. Pieta House brought me from rock bottom,” Bernie, a woman of admirable fortitude and candour, concluded.

In 2015, Bernie plans to hold a fundraiser in aid of Pieta House, whose services can be viewed on www.pieta.ie. Pieta House in Limerick can be contacted at 061 484444.

By Peter O’Connell

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