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'Being bipolar ended my teaching career, but gardening helps me and also allows me to help others'

Published 15/11/2016

Garden therapy: Geraldine with three of her children
Garden therapy: Geraldine with three of her children
Difficult times: Geraldine today
Geraldine with daughter Anne as a youngster
Catherine Zeta Jones, who famously spoke about being diagnosed with the condition

When former teacher Geraldine McCoy from Toomebridge found out she had a mental health issue, life became a struggle. Now a Big Lottery backed community gardening scheme means she can help others with the condition as well as herself. By Karen Ireland.

Mum-of-five Geraldine McCoy from Toomebridge had to give up her beloved teaching career and struggled with family life after a crushing diagnosis of bipolar disorder when she was 32.

While the condition affects up to one in 100 people in the UK, it is still stigmatised and often misunderstood, despite the fact that high profile sufferers such as Stephen Fry and Catherine Zeta Jones have spoken openly about the condition.

Bipolar disorder often goes undiagnosed for years, and sufferers experience a rollercoaster of emotions which have a huge impact on their lives, their family and friends.

But mum-of-five Geraldine, who found solace in gardening and crafting, believes talking about mental health problems can have positive effects.

Geraldine was a primary school teacher when she started experiencing mood swings; one day she felt full of energy, the next she would slump into depression - to the point she couldn't get out of bed.

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder meant Geraldine (49) had to give up her beloved career, after which she struggled to control her condition.

It's only in recent years that the Toomebridge woman has felt she has control of her condition and is able to play a positive role in the community again, thanks to volunteering with TIDAL in Toomebridge.

And, due to a recent £177,950 boost from Big Lottery Fund's People and Communities programme, the group will now be able to develop a community enterprise - with Geraldine to the fore of the initiative.

As a young woman Geraldine was a confident person, with a talent for sports. But as she juggled her busy work and family life in her early 30s, it became clear something was wrong.

She recalls: "I couldn't see it at the time, but in hindsight it all started after my fourth child was born. I started to feel highly energised, almost hyper and I felt like I could succeed at anything, which meant my ideas became too big, too quick.

"I would get frustrated with people who weren't as productive as me, say things out of character and have intense mood swings. Without medication, support or any understanding, it got worse. There were days I'd be in bed with the curtains closed and I wouldn't answer the door.

"The highs and lows went on for a couple of years before I was diagnosed."

When Geraldine received the devastating news that she was bipolar she plunged into deeper depression and had to give up work.

"It was 17 years ago and I still get emotional thinking about leaving my teaching career," she says. "I loved my job - I loved being able to teach children and I took a lot of pride in it, so it was a real disappointment to leave it. But I have five beautiful children and when I left teaching I dedicated the next few years of my life to my kids, who were all under 11 years old.

"I didn't really understand what was happening to me and I didn't have very good coping mechanisms. I couldn't do things as well as I used to - even making simple decisions like what to buy in the supermarket for dinner became a huge task."

Geraldine's husband Kevin and children Anne (16), Paul, (22), Caoimhe, (24), Ciaran, (26) and MaryKate, (27) are all very supportive.

"Kevin has been great. I couldn't have got through without him and he provided stability for me and the kids. They are all doing very well in their lives; I'm so proud of them and they are proud of me."

Despite her strong family relationships, Geraldine missed the busyness of work so she taught herself to craft wood and started gardening. Two years ago she got involved with TIDAL, where she helped out in the office and now volunteers in the garden and crafting area. The experience is helping to improve her mental health and allowing her to use her teaching skills again.

"This is the first time my bipolar has been easing," she adds. "My mood will still go up and down and my bad days can last for months, but I don't go as deeply into my depression as I used to. Being committed to TIDAL has stopped me going into my usual pattern of isolating myself.

"Now when I'm depressed I will push myself to get out of the house and I come to the garden - I can still have my own space and not talk to anyone if I don't feel like it - but the important thing is I'm out of the house and I've got people around me if I need them, and I'm doing something productive. If other people can experience this at TIDAL too, then we are changing lives."

The new project funded by Big Lottery Fund will allow TIDAL to expand its support to local people with the community enterprise, and Geraldine will be involved as a volunteer. Meanwhile, Heritage Lottery Fund and Waterways Ireland have also provided funding to renovate the disused Lockkeepers cottage and Quay area which will be used for the Big Lottery-funded community enterprise facility.

Geraldine says: "When you change one person's life, there is an enormous ripple effect. With this new project we are going to be able to improve the health and wellbeing of the whole community. A safe community space will be created where people can talk to other people. I'll be able to spend more time with people in the garden and help them talk about their mental health."

"When I don't feel depressed my creative side comes out and things that I see in the garden inspire me. The other day I was looking at a carrot which was being attacked at the root and making the top wilt and become unhealthy so we used an organic remedy to save it. I saw it as a parallel in my life - there is something below the surface in me which is making me unwell. It's not just medical treatment which is helping me cope better - the natural remedies like gardening, crafting and helping others are also a great healer."

Belfast Telegraph

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