Conor Cusack on depression: ‘I was fuelled with medication to the point that I didn’t know day from night and reality from unreality’
As a teenager with mental health issues, Conor Cusack found the Irish psychiatric system dehumanising and ineffective, but in psychotherapy he found a safe space to express the emotions he had suppressed for years
Published 02/03/2015 | 02:30
For some, it’s the first time they have felt the safety that coheres with their need to be able to share a part of their previously silent, inner worlds – worlds they are the sole inhabitants of.
American poet Maya Angelou, said, ‘There is no greater agony than the bearing of an untold story within you’. To witness these people embracing their vulnerability and seeing the relief they feel after expressing their story and hidden pain, which is invisible to the naked eye, is always a humbling and sacred thing to share with another human being.
Recently, after one of these talks in a community hall, Derek, a man of 72 years, approached me when the place was almost empty. He had waited until all the others had left. I can understand why he waited until the others had departed: Derek carries within him the fears of a previous generation, where people that exhibited any form of emotional distress could be locked in an institution and fuelled with medication, never again to be seen in public life.
There is a lot of support and awareness being created nowadays for young and middle-aged people, but the older generation seems to be forgotten about amidst the fresh conversation around the emotional wellbeing of our people.
Derek told me how he had began to experience depression about six months ago. Like most people, he suffered in silence. His days were slowly becoming ones of quiet desperation. To add to his difficulties, his true love, his wife of 45 years, passed away only recently.
This all led Derek to the point where he felt the only way out of his suffering was to end his life. A week before, he took his shotgun from his shed and walked down to the river bank near his home. To use his words, “As I wrapped my lips around the barrel of the shotgun and placed my finger on the trigger, my pet dog came rushing into view and the thought flashed through my mind ‘Who will look after the dog when I’m gone’.” It was enough to snap Derek out of his suicidal frame of mind and give him a reason to live.
Derek’s story reminded me of going through the Irish public psychiatric system as a teenager. It was a system that was cold, impersonal, dehumanising and ineffective for me. I was spoken to and not with; little or no authentic listening occurred. Psychiatrists put an intellectually sounding label on me, but that did little to reflect the immense depth, complexity and vastness that existed within me. It offered little validity to my story or to the wisdom of my symptoms.
I was fuelled with medication to the point that I didn’t know day from night and reality from unreality. A psychiatrist wanted to pump electricity through me in the ‘crazy’ idea that it would help me to deal with the issues I had in my life. I still wonder as to how a vulnerable 19-year-old, whose life was in chaos and who felt so isolated, still had the dignity to tell this guy to go ‘f**k’ himself and his electro shock therapy.
I am not against medication. Everybody finds their own solutions, and whatever works for them and whatever they are comfortable with, is all that matters. Medication can help in certain situations to alleviate some of the physical symptoms that arise from a person’s emotional challenges, but it’s my belief that medication on its own is not the most effective solution in the long-term.
I got to know another patient of these services at that time, an elderly man named John. We shared a common bond, like soldiers that have fought in a battlefield. But our war was internal, both of us fighting our own individual war – inwardly suffering but united in our grief and sense of hopelessness about our lives and our future.
John was a warm man. He lived alone, having been abandoned by his family many years before due to his emotional difficulties and the immense stigma that existed in his youth around these issues.
I remember clearly when I called to John’s house for the first time. I had left the psychiatric system and was working with a psychotherapist (a word that could never do justice to the man) who, through unconditional love, was creating a safe space where my vulnerability could find expression and I was finally able to express what had been de-pressed within for years.
It was a summer’s evening with a blue, cloudless sky, the type you love as a hurler. As I drove along the secluded road home after another therapy session, a wonderful, profound feeling flooded through my body. It was the first time that I touched on that place that exists in us all, that place that houses our real selves, a place of pure joy, love, hope and peace that encourages you to go into the world and live your life from the inside out; to see yourself through the authentic lens of yourself, as opposed to the false eyes of others.
It was the first time in many years that I felt I was going to regain my wellbeing. I was so ecstatic that I drove to John’s house to hug him and tell him that there was a way out of his darkness. The vibrant peace I was now feeling could be his peace, the hope I now had could be his hope. I knocked on his door but there was no answer. A neighbour came out and my heart sank when she told me he had ended his life a few days before. I sobbed uncontrollably.
John had nobody, only a ‘hope’-less psychiatric label that left him feeling disempowered and fatalistic about his life. John never got to experience the wonderful things I have discovered about myself and this world we inhabit over the last 13 years; the powerful freedom that flourishes when you pull back the veils of illusion and see the world anew from the solidity and sanctuary of your own real self; where new possibilities come alive that were previously only full of dead landscapes; where you dissolve the old cages that confined you in an unlived life.
The journey home to your real self is full of rewarding but difficult learning. It’s the road less travelled, but in the words of Robert Frost, ‘The one that has made all the difference’. We have neglected the sacredness of our inner worlds with tragic outer consequences. Never before has it been so easy to connect with others through technology, but the greatest challenge for us is to connect more deeply with our real selves and the inner worlds we so often flee from.
No matter how technologically advanced our world becomes, the cravings of the human soul, spirit and heart will never change: the inward yearning of each human being to be valued and appreciated for their own unique and sacred presence; the desire to love whom we want to love and to be loved, the deep longing for unconditional belonging; the craving to remove our masks and be who we really are and not the false image we portray to the outer world.
The aspiration to be free to live our own lives and not those of our parents, teachers, religions or communities, will always dwell in the heart of each of us. There is no pill or psychiatric label that will ever satisfy those human needs.
We will look back in a few years time with horror at the current solutions we use for people experiencing emotional difficulty. This includes over medicalisation; the shamefully inadequate training for our GPs, who are often the first port of call for a person in distress. It includes the lack of emphasis in our educational systems that affects students’ awareness of valuing themselves – this will far more determine their effectiveness in their personal and professional lives than their knowledge of geography, maths, physics and so on.
Within the GAA and the Gaelic Players Assocation (GPA), a new breed of warrior has emerged among inter-county hurlers and footballers. These ‘Warriors of the Light’ are bringing visibility to issues in our communities. By sharing their stories, and with immense support from the GPA, they have shattered the cultural caricature of pity that people with wellbeing difficulties have been characterised with.
They are empowering fellow players and their influence is rippling out beyond the GAA field to the wider communities. The days of the strong, silent man are over: the real strength now is in embracing your vulnerabilities. These players are illuminating the path so others can emerge from the darkness of depression, anxiety and addiction, through projects like the award-winning #wewearmore campaign.
Niall Breslin is one of those. Niall and I have worked together, and one of the most interesting events was when we spoke at the Mindfield arena at Electric Picnic last August.
I have never had any difficulty with public speaking so I was quite relaxed, but Niall was not. I could see the anxiety build in him as the time to go on stage neared. By the end of our talk, the arena was bulging with people outside unable to get in. It reinforced our belief that there is an urgency in our country for more open discussion of these core issues of the human experience, and to see real change.
After witnessing Niall’s anxiety, and considering how often he puts himself through it with all the events he partakes in, my love for him has soared. My1000Hours has come about through his incessant pursuit of developing ways for people to empower themselves to manage the challenges they are experiencing.
I look forward to journeying the challenging road ahead, the road less travelled but the one that will make a difference for all of us.