#IAmAReason, And So Are You

When I was 21, I had a really exciting opportunity to live and study in Vienna for a year. I was thrilled at the prospect – a year away by the Danube felt like a real adult step.

Fast forward nine months and it was a very different story – a story that I’ve never really considered sharing, but seeing as €12 million is expected to be diverted from this year’s mental health budget, I feel it’s time to add my voice to the masses screaming out in protest.

That was without a shadow of a doubt the most difficult year of my entire life. Everything crumbled around me and, without wanting to sound dramatic, I did too. I have always considered myself very upbeat and positive. I’d get down, sure. Who doesn’t? You just get back up again. But during that year away, I suddenly found myself 1000 miles from home, and even in the busiest of rooms, very, very alone.

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Looking at Facebook you’d have thought ‘Well, isn’t she having the time’ and it definitely seemed that way. I was any other Erasmus student away in the sun – smiles all around and making loads of new friends. In reality though, if I wasn’t out and forcing myself to be in that moment, distracting myself by trying to have a good time, I was in bed, binge watching TV, basically numb, unable to talk to friends or family about how low I was feeling. What was the point? They were back at home too. They’ve their own stuff. It would be really selfish to offload onto other people when they can’t do anything. They can’t fix it, I told myself. No-one can. I’m fine anyway. I’m failing my classes, but I’m fine. I’ll be fine. It will all be fine.

If I wasn’t out and forcing myself to be in that moment, distracting myself by trying to have a good time, I was in bed, binge watching TV, basically numb, unable to talk to friends or family about how low I was feeling.

Not a thought process I’d recommend considering I’ve some of the most wonderful, caring and considerate people in my life. I did everyone who loves me a disservice because if it was them, I know I’d want to know regardless of distance or the problems they were facing. But perspective is a funny thing, and while I’m now in a position to look back and see these things, at the time, I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t. I didn’t have the tools or the head space to see things from a different angle because it felt like I was drowning and that was all that I could feel – it was everything, entangled in my every day, all I woke up to and fell asleep to. Things got very dark for me despite the cemented smile others saw in pictures.

By the time my final exams were drawing closer, things only got worse. Any coping mechanisms I’d developed weren’t working anymore. I was feeling increasingly anxious and I desperately wanted to press the red ejector button and just go home. In the midst of this crisis, I ended up sending a long email to my university and they urged me to seek someone to talk to, and to hold tight for the meantime.

Mental health protest - HeadStuff.org
Recent protests against mental health funding cuts, image source

The fact that my university back home now knew what I was going through was somewhat of a relief, so I pulled myself together and worked up the courage to seek out the student counselling services in my host university. As I sat down with my counselor, she asked “So why are you here?” and the floodgates opened. Someone was listening, a professional, someone who could help, so I let all of the pain and devastation out. When I finished, she looked at me and I looked back at her hopefully. And with somewhat of a shrug, she said “There are three weeks to the exams. What do you want me to do about it?”

I was drowning and that was all that I could feel – it was everything, entangled in my every day. Things got very dark for me despite the cemented smile others saw in pictures.

It was as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. The wind went clean out of me. I stammered, ‘”I- I don’t know. Counsel me?” She turned, took a piece of paper and as she wrote, said “Here is the name of a 24 hour pharmacy. They’ll give you some medication.” She handed me the slip of paper. Another gut wrenching kick in the stomach.

She opened the door and slack-jawed, I left. Outside I stood in shock. I’d just opened up, practically begging for help, in floods of tears, and here I was 20 minutes later with a quick prescription and a swift “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.” It wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t what I needed.

Needless to say, the remaining few weeks didn’t pan out too well,and as soon as I could get out of there I did with such glee that it bordered on mania. For the remainder of the summer, I tried to get on with things, to ‘get over it’ and to not let that year defeat me. Looking back, I shouldn’t have seen things that way – it had nothing to do with being defeated or weak. I was just tired, mentally exhausted, and not myself. By the time my final year of college loomed, I knew that I couldn’t do it. There was no actual way that I would get through that year without failing academically or doing myself more harm. So I took a year out. A challenging, laborious, agonizing year, but I was in survival mode. It was the right decision and the following September I returned to university with a new vigor that I had lost in the years before.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have seen things that way – it had nothing to do with being defeated or weak. I was just tired, mentally exhausted, and not myself.

It’s important to note that even though a year out helped me in a lot of ways, the only reason I was able to cope and finish my degree was because I sought counselling. In fact, I have recently gone back to counselling for different reasons and for me, it has been the best decision of my life. Better than throwing out that Von Dutch hat I mistakenly bought when I was 13 and impressionable. Better than taking my mother’s advice and starting to buy good quality shoes.

And yet, when I went for counselling in UL, there was a 5 week waiting list – such was the demand. When I sought counselling in Cork earlier this year, the waiting list was 2 months long because it’s a charitable service – you pay what you can afford. You can see the problems already.

Mental health protest - HeadStuff.org
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It takes a lot of courage to go to professionals and say “How’s it going, yeah, I’d like to have a bit of a chat with one of your lovely staff weekly, if possible. I just need a bit of support because things can be a bit tough sometimes, you know?” Waiting lists like these cause vulnerable people to go even longer with much needed support. Waiting lists like these shouldn’t exist for mental health services.

Waiting lists like these cause vulnerable people to go even longer with much needed support. Waiting lists like these shouldn’t exist for mental health services.

Don’t get me wrong, the fact that there’s even a service whereby you pay what you can afford is great, but it also suggests that most mental health services in this country are unaffordable. And they are. We’re talking 60 quid upwards at least for a counselling session. And if you were to choose counselling as your way of being supported instead of – or in addition to – medication, ideally it would weekly. And I can’t afford that. Could you?

The news that Health Minister Leo Varadkar intends to divert funds from the mental health care packages promised in the last election is an absolute punch in the face and yes, you should be outraged. Blind with fury. You should be even angrier that last week’s Dáil debate about this very topic had a TD attendance of approximately 40%. Out of 157. I may not hold a seat in Leinster House, but am I wrong to think this issue deserves the attention of all elected representatives?

Leo Varadkar - HeadStuff.org
Leo Varadkar, image source

Without the support I was able to source and receive since that dark year, I’m not sure where or who I’d be today. And this is just my experience. This doesn’t factor in those who cope with other mental health issues or illnesses, or people affected by suicide, which in Ireland, is a lot. I’m sure we could all do with a bit of help every now and then.

So speak up. And talk. And shout. And roar. And petition. Attend demonstrations like those that happened countrywide last week in response to the cuts. Walk from Darkness into Light all over the country this weekend in aid of Pieta House. Donate if you can. Get involved. And make this a priority. Because I am a reason. And there’s a fair chance that you are too.

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