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How we discovered love really was the best medicine

In a special feature for Valentine's Day, three people tell us about the special care that helped them cope with illness. By Lee Henry.

‘He believed in me and was there to keep me well’

Paula Matthews, (39), from Comber, is director of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival and author of the poetry collection The Shadow of Me. She says:

M y husband Darren and I had our children, Jamie (8) and Issy (6), two years and one month apart. When Issy was born, I remember telling the health visitor that now I had something to compare the first birth to, I was sure that I had been affected by postnatal depression the last time. She didn't look very surprised.

It's a funny thing, but I don't have the sharpest memories of that period in my life.

It's easy to cover up the cause of these things, by telling people that you have baby brain etc, but really I was detached, not present in the room, numb.

I should have gone straight to my doctor when that vagueness set in, but at the time I was just unable to ask for help. Fortunately for me, my husband Darren, (40), was watching out for me.

Darren is a pianist. He directs music for First Holywood Presbyterian and also works with homeless people in the Salvation Army.

He is a very sensitive and astute person, so he made sure I was looking after myself.

There were a couple of times when he came home in the evening and all I had eaten all day was a digestive biscuit, so he started phoning me to remind me to eat. He knew I wouldn't seek help from the doctor, that I'd shut down, so he rang the GP himself. I'd be at home, not well but hiding, the phone would ring and it would be the GP returning Darren's call. I'm not an authority on these things, but I think that I was probably at high risk of postnatal depression because I'd experienced a fairly recent trauma and then we had a difficult birth.

I have come to understand the concept of re-traumatisation, memories that you don't want coming back and impacting on your mood.

Darren and I had planned to get engaged on November 11, 2005 for my 28th birthday. Darren's brother Geoff was ill with cancer at the time and we wanted him to be part of our nuptials if at all possible. Meanwhile, my dad, Fred Williams MBE, a social worker and disability campaigner, had been in hospital with what we thought was minor heart trouble and had returned home with limited concerns. We had dinner the night before my birthday and went to bed as normal. Early the next morning, when it was still dark, I heard my mum, Obe, shouting for help. It was the sort of cry that told you the whole story but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my dad lying stone dead in his bed.

We ended up burying my dad and not really mentioning the engagement, living in a nightmare instead.

A week later Darren turned 38 and we were having a sombre birthday tea in the house when he received a phone call to say that his brother, in Liverpool, had suffered a stroke. He died a few days later. I remember praying that I wouldn't have to look at another dead body again because I was just so shaken with the horror of losing two young men so close together. That November was just one long wake for us. We got married one week before Darren turned 40 and hadn't really talked about having a baby, but when we managed to pull off the wedding without it deteriorating into a weepy, and Darren had the realisation that his 30s were now over, we decided to be positive about life and started a family. I'm so glad we did, our children have made our life so much richer and have given a lot of hope to our family after a period of despair.

Jamie was born in August 2007 in the Ulster Hospital. It was a difficult birth and went on for hours. In the end I had an emergency Caesarean. The staff managed us well, however, and we left hospital just under a week later with Jamie in good health.

There are things about postnatal depression that are very hard to talk about. When a child is born, it should be a happy, joyous time, but if you get depressed you miss out on that, and you feel guilty about it. You feel like you are a bad mother. I was detached from people. I wanted to sleep all the time. I didn't want to get out of my pyjamas. I hated washing my hair. I was always late for work.

I talked baby talk all the time because I had little else on my mind that I could share. My sleep patterns were awful, but with Darren's encouragement, this was when I began to write and that seemed to help to heal me.

Darren's constancy has gotten me through many things in life, this included. He kept me well, as I have mentioned, and he stuck around, which some people might not have done. The most incredible thing he did was to believe in me. There I was in this very downward state, and Darren was telling people I was a talented writer, and I really believed him. In the end, I did speak to the health visitor and doctor, but I am very sad to say that I suffered in silence for far too long and allowed myself to lose a big chunk of my life to a very treatable illness.

I can only explain this by saying that I felt ashamed of being mentally ill and I deeply regret that now."

Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is the province's only festival of its kind with a programme of over 200 events. From poetry workshops and film screenings to knitting and performance art, the group aims to tackle stigma one conversation at a time. Visit nimhaff.org/ for more details

‘Margaret has helped me cope with cancer’

Gary Vint, (63) lives in Newtownards with his wife Margaret, (69). They are both retired and have two children, Christopher (39) and Andrea (34). He says:

My wife Margaret has been at my side since we got married over 40 years ago.And she was, of course, with me on the day, four years ago when I was matter-of-factly told that I had lung cancer and it was incurable.

I had had a persistent cough for weeks that wasn’t clearing up despite a course of antibiotics and it was Margaret who convinced me to go to the doctors.

I was sent for an X-ray and after lots of tests told the grave news that we didn’t want to hear.

But we have coped and got through the last few years thanks to the love and support of my family and especially Margaret.

There is no cure for what I have but Margaret will never let me give up and think ‘woe is me’. She keeps me going and gives me a reason to get up each day.

This illness is terrible and does horrible things to your brain. It changes your mood and who you are as a person.

I know I am a pig to live with but her love and patience gets me through. She understands it isn’t me it’s the illness and she cheers me up every day. Laughter is so important when you are dealing with something like this.

I simply don’t have words for the love she has shown me — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year she is there for me. I couldn’t do without her.

We do everything together and last year I wanted to give something back to Cancer Focus which has been wonderful to me so I set about doing a marathon by walking a mile a day every day in May. Margaret was my biggest cheerleader. She went out walking with me every day — even when I didn’t feel like doing it she got me out and we raised over £1,500 for the charity.

I have affectionately dubbed my illness ‘Jamaica’ so when I’m talking about it I am not using horrible words in front of the grandchildren.

There is no remission for me — unfortunately — and we don’t know what lies ahead and this is a difficult journey. Margaret has 100% made this easier for me to cope with and to come to terms with. She is the love of my life and I have so much to thank her for.

Without her support and that of my children and grandchildren I don’t know if I would get through. They say laughter is the best medicine and I definitely believe that to be true as you need a lot of laughter in your life if, like me, you have cancer — but you also need a lot of love.

Love has pulled me through and with Margaret’s love and support I will just keep taking every day at a time.”

‘My mum has been a great support whenever I need it’

Erin Burnett (18), from Belfast, is author of the Christian children’s book Liza’s Avenger. She lives with her parents Ruth (46) and Duncan (51), and sister Ailsa (15). She says:

My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) first became apparent aged 11, when I started at Victoria College. I have a form of OCD referred to as Pure-O, meaning that all my obsessions and compulsions are purely mental and therefore not apparent from the outside.

Pure-O does not involve the usual depictions of OCD, such as hand-washing and hoarding. Therefore it is often difficult to identify. The obsessions come in the form of abhorrent and involuntary thoughts.

As a child this was highly distressing and made me feel like a despicable person. Depression was a knock-on effect. For years I kept my struggles secret and became withdrawn.

My mother Ruth is a very down to earth and caring person. To the amazement of my friends, we never seem to argue over anything.

She has always been an attentive mother and always attended sports days, piano recitals and other events, no matter how dreadfully I performed. She maintains a brave face, but it has been tough on her. She has always been a great support, by offering a listening ear whenever I need it.

Every mother worries about their children, but she especially worries about me because she never knows what my mood will be like one day to the next. She feels helpless because she cannot make everything better.

One day, when I was about 13, I couldn’t bear keeping the constant anxiety and depression that the intrusive thoughts were causing secret anymore, so I spoke to her and ended up getting quite upset.

Immediately she took me to an emergency GP appointment and that was the start of a long journey toward getting help. I was referred on to a counsellor, although I was so embarrassed about the nature of my issues that it took me a long time to properly open up. The counselling wasn’t that effective because we were dealing with the symptoms — depression and anxiety — rather than the cause of my issues, the OCD.

Eventually, when I was about 16, I had a one-on-one with a GP who was able to identify OCD-type symptoms and get me referred to CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services). I had CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) through CAMHS, which has been very effective.

The therapy alongside the antidepressant sertraline, which I can take now as an adult, are effective in treating my OCD symptoms. And, after finding an OCD support group online, I remember the sheer relief on discovering others out there with the same experiences.

My Christian faith also helped me realise how broken and vulnerable I really was.”

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