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The Belfast woman with a phobia about seeing herself in the mirror... and how she's finally putting the painful past that caused it behind her

Published 08/04/2016

Helping hand: Irene Blanchard is also nervous about having her photograph taken and could not look directly at our camera
Helping hand: Irene Blanchard is also nervous about having her photograph taken and could not look directly at our camera
Challenging issues: Roberta Richmond, the founder of East Belfast Community Counselling Centre

Irene Blanchard tells Ivan Little how a debilitating fear made her terrified of catching a glimpse of her own reflection or having her photograph taken, and even left her feeling suicidal.

An east Belfast hairdresser has to drape towels and sheets over the mirror before Irene Blanchard will sit down in front of it.

And the ritual has nothing to do with bad hair days.

For 51-year-old Irene simply can't cope with seeing her own reflection and she doesn't have any mirrors in her home. She's also wary of having photographs taken.

Which is why she banned cameras and mobile phones from her wedding. And why she has no record of a meeting with Prince Charles in Belfast last year during a Royal visit to the offices where Irene works with a counselling service who help people with mental health issues.

For Irene, even an appointment with an optician is a nightmare because the shops are always filled with mirrors.

"They know me in Specsavers and they usher me to the back of their premises to a place where there are no mirrors," says Irene, whose phobias which date back two decades are the upshot of years of abuse in her past when she was constantly told how ugly, worthless and useless she was.

"It got so engrained that it became my belief system," says Irene, who was so desperate and so desolate that she tried to end her life 18 years ago. "I truly believed that everyone around me would have been better off without me."

Irene undertook extensive research to find out the "best way" to kill herself and she would have succeeded if it hadn't been for a fortuitous visit from a relative who found her after her suicide bid and summoned help which saved her life.

But Irene is fighting back against the legacy of her painful past. And she's hoping that the victory could soon be at least partially complete because she's making plans to pose for a picture when she graduates from a mental health recovery coaching course, soon.

Sorting out her own personal dilemmas so that she could help other people through their crises has been a major challenge for Irene, who says: "I've had to do therapy of my own and one of the first things was to get a small mirror which allows me to look at just a tiny bit of myself."

Irene was reluctant to go into too much detail about the horrors in her past. But she says: "The abuse I suffered had nothing to do with my own family, but it was a struggle getting out of it. I felt victimised and degraded.

"I live now on a daily basis using the techniques of cognitive behaviour therapy, using coping mechanisms to help me get along. For example, if I go into a restaurant I like to see the door and I like to sit at the end of a row and not the middle."

But despite her own difficulties, Irene resolved a number of years ago to throw herself into counselling and befriending in east Belfast and her own experiences have given her empathy for other people and an insight into their problems.

Irene joined the East Belfast Community Counselling Centre (EBCCC) in October 2011, a year after it had been started up by Roberta Richmond who saw a yawning gap in provision for people who needed assistance.

Roberta says: "At the time there were at least four community counselling organisations in west Belfast and I was able to get funding for a pilot project in the east of the city which is an area of high social deprivation."

Irene says: "I'd been off work for about 10 years with my own mental health problems and I'd gone through statutory services but I decided it was time to take charge of my own destiny.

"I'd been walking the walls with the amount of medication I was on. I made up my mind to come off it and go down the community route instead.

"I did everything from self-esteem classes, to book reading classes to writing classes and then I did some voluntary work for an advice centre which led me going to the law centre to get some qualifications for myself."

Irene then started looking around for a job and answered an advertisement for a receptionist for what was the fledgling East EBCCC, but her role quickly evolved into more of an administrator's job.

Roberta says: "Irene had come to us as someone who had suffered mental illness herself. And we quickly realised that she has superb organisational skills. So we put that together with my experience as a counsellor and it has been a really terrific combination."

Irene says: "I think my determination to assist other people was a result of my finding it so difficult to track down anyone to help me or understand me. I was in a box that I couldn't get out of."

Irene is not a fully-fledged counsellor herself because of the mental health issues in her past, but she is involved in life coaching and befriending people in need, as well as managing the EBCCC office, its volunteers and developing any new services.

And she's a walking, talking and upbeat example of how people can come out the other end of very dark tunnels in their lives. "I'm there to walk alongside people and I tell my 'befriendees' that it is possible to cope, but it's a matter of getting all your ducks in a row," she explains.

An increasingly significant part of the EBCCC work revolves around victims and survivors of the Troubles. "Many people in east Belfast don't always see that they have suffered as a result of the conflict," says Roberta.

"One man told me how he couldn't sleep at night and was constantly anxious, but he didn't know why.

"However, he later revealed that his home was in an interface area and it had been shot up and attacked with petrol bombs. That was normality for him."

Suicide prevention is another major priority for the EBCCC, who have six staff and 30 counsellors on their books. "Suicide is never far away," says Roberta. "East Belfast regularly has one of the highest suicide rates in Northern Ireland. We like to think that we are making a difference, but sustaining the service is an ongoing battle. "

And Roberta says that the implementation of welfare reforms would create another spike in demand for their counselling services.

"That really worries me," says Roberta. "The cutbacks haven't fully kicked in yet, but there are a lot of people who are terrified about what they will mean to them down the road."

For Irene, there's a sense that mental health generally is not taken seriously enough by the authorities. "I am not undermining physical disabilities, but I think that mental health is treated like a poor cousin.

"It's a hidden illness and people can't see it and tend to brush it off. Daily life is more than a struggle for some people

"Even the criteria for getting help, thanks to welfare reform, is such that it really excludes people with mental health illnesses. And that is a big concern, given that so many have historic issues because of the Northern Ireland conflict and what's that done to people.

"And the problems are not always obvious on the outside for people who are suffering trauma on the inside," says Irene.

"Sometimes they can experience meltdowns in unusual surroundings, like the man who had been hurt in a bomb explosion during the Troubles and had a crisis in a bakery after smelling the marzipan.

"Mental health here needs to be understood more, especially because of the Troubles."

The waiting list for help from the EBCCC, based in the east Belfast network centre at Templemore Avenue, is so long - more than 200 at the last count - that the organisation have decided to tackle the backlog head-on by offering counselling at a price.

Officials know that time is often of the essence for people who are in urgent need of counselling and Irene said she often lost sleep at night worrying about having to keep them waiting for an appointment.

And that's why the organisation has set up a service called Thrive, a private social economy project where people can get into counselling quicker than they would in the normal run of things.

"There are people who are, fortunately for them, in a position to pay for services in other sectors like physiotherapy and we thought that what we offer is of such a high standard that this was an opportunity to do what it says in our mission statement and increase access for all to counselling," says Roberta.

And the spin-off is that the money raised by Thrive, who have offices in Bloomfield Avenue, goes back to the EBCCC charity, to increase their services for people who can't afford to pay.

Irene says that she knew how difficult it was for anyone to seek help in trying circumstances.

"It's hard to pick up the phone or walk through our front door.

"People who come to us are among the bravest folk I have ever met. They know it's not going to be easy," adds Irene, who can still remember the anger she felt all those years ago when her attempts to kill herself failed.

"But I'm not angry now. Things have turned round for me tremendously and, though I can't be the person that I used to be before my own mental health difficulties, I can be a new person.

"I have had to recreate my life and hopefully my role in the counselling service is one that now reaches out to other people and speaks to them and helps them.

"I know the place where they are.

"No-one can say they are never going to have another mental health problem, but at the end of the day I have my own coping mechanisms and I am a lot stronger than I ever was."

Belfast Telegraph

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