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'I suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia but running has given me confidence'

When Downpatrick woman Penny Lees suffered a series of miscarriages, the trauma led to struggles with her mental health. She tells Una Brankin how jogging and the love of her family have resulted in her shedding two stones and rebuilding her life

Published 08/01/2016

On track: Penny Lees enjoys a cuddle with daughter Lily Rose
On track: Penny Lees enjoys a cuddle with daughter Lily Rose
Penny Lees

Penny Lees (38) is a silversmith from Downpatrick, where she lives with her husband Jon, a civil servant, and their three year-old daughter, Lily Rose. Penny has a 16-year-old son Stephen from a previous relationship. She says:

I was about 20 years old when depression first struck. Living away from home in Scotland and in a very bad relationship, I didn't want to admit to anyone what was going on, as I felt ashamed.

Feeling isolated and withdrawn. I couldn't concentrate, I didn't sleep and totally lost my appetite. I had no interest in my studies or even work. In my darkest times, I thought about and even tried to harm myself. Eventually, though, I came home to Northern Ireland in April 1999 - something I should have done long before - when I became pregnant and fearful for my child.

Although I have suffered relapses several times over the years, I have always recognised the signs of depression and tried to deal with them myself. The reason for coping on my own was that feeling of shame. But I was lucky as, when my son Stephen was quite young, I met Jon, who's an amazing and supportive man.

Jon and I got married in 2006, but early in our marriage I suffered a miscarriage, and there was more heartbreak to come. About six weeks after my first miscarriage, I had an ectopic pregnancy. Jon and I wanted to have a child together but, due to complications as a consequence of the ectopic pregnancy, we had to undertake an invasive form of IVF known as ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection). Sadly the treatment failed in 2011, leaving us both heartbroken. It wasn't until 2012, when I found myself unable to deal with my ongoing depression, that I sought medical help for the condition which had plagued my life for so long.

Then I was diagnosed with reactive depression. Unfortunately, I hadn't dealt with the trauma of miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy which acted as a trigger to my depression. It was only when I received a medical diagnosis, though, that I realised exactly what I had been suffering from for all those years.

I believe the miscarriage and subsequent years of trying to get pregnant, without any success, really accelerated the depression. Although I hid my condition, it just got worse, especially at more stressful times.

We had started trying for a baby quite soon after we got married - it must have been around two years without success. In early 2008, we began investigations into why things weren't happening for us. The diagnosis came back as 'unexplained infertility', which was worse. If we had a reason, I felt as though we could have dealt with it, we would be able to overcome it.

I then took an 11-month course of fertility drugs with visits to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for monthly scans. Jon and I would get our hopes up every month but then with nothing happening, they would be dashed again. In the middle of 2010, we were put on the waiting list for ICSI.

This was an emotional time for us both as a couple. It affected us both, but Jon was totally supportive throughout. I was so hopeful that the procedure would work despite the stress, months of hospital visits, injections and then surgery. What was possibly worse was the two-week wait until we could test to see if it had worked.

I was totally devastated when it failed and felt that it was my fault; that I failed my husband. It was extremely hard on us both. Our families and friends were having babies all around us and we just couldn't. While I was extremely happy for them, on the inside I was falling apart.

At the time I couldn't cope. I buried all the pain. We did go for infertility counselling but it's hard to explain how you feel. It is really hard to grieve or explain that loss, as you have nothing tangible to grieve over. We were lucky, though. With the support of our family, we managed to attempt a second cycle of ICSI, which was successful - and we had Lily Rose.

But the years of trying for another baby had taken their toll and I had masked all the pain. Because I hadn't dealt with it all, it just hit me one day.

In May this year, I had a second miscarriage which was more devastation all over again. We weren't expecting it and the sadness at suffering another miscarriage was such a cruel blow I had to leave work. We didn't discuss my depression with the family - we just explained it as I was unwell. The most recent miscarriage affected me to a greater extent. Before it happened, I was looking forward and we had plans. I had been slowly putting the past behind me.

When my depression took hold again I felt quite worthless, as though I had no purpose anymore.

I find it extremely hard to leave the house and I shy away from any form of social gatherings. Sleeping is difficult and I am overcome with sickness for days if I have to go anywhere.

It wasn't until 2013, after Lily Rose was born, that I was prescribed anti-depressants as previously I was undergoing fertility treatment. The medication works to help keep my moods a bit more stable but they don't help much with the panic attacks and agoraphobia. I'm waiting to see the mental health team to give me coping strategies to help with this. I have to force myself to go out.

Then, this summer, my daughter - at two and a half - asked me, 'Mummy why are you so sad?' That broke my heart. I decided that I had to get better for my family.

I'm not the fastest in the world but I decided to give running a go. And I heard that exercise helps with depression. Having taken part in a few of the Race for Life runs for charity I decided to give proper running a try.

I got a flyer for a Born2Run 10k race - but got cold feet. But I was determined to take part in an event so I entered the first of the Belfast Telegraph Run Forest Run/Born2run 10k events at Minnowburn. Jon and Lily Rose came along too and cheered me on. They were there at the starting line and managed to get to several different locations round the course to help me through.

At first I was scared, I thought that it was just for those amazing elite runners, not for someone like me.

I felt sick the day before and the morning of the race I was so nervous - but that went when we started to run. It took me one hour, 20 minutes and two seconds to complete the course, with my hubby and Lily Rose cheering me on. They were at the finish line and Lily Rose ran up to me on the Mary Peter's track and helped me cross the finish line. It felt amazing - I had achieved something and it gave me the confidence to enter another Born2run event at Gosford.

Despite being very ill in the run up to the race and scared to be out in public again - I went. This time I crossed the finish line at one hour, 13 minutes and 22 seconds, and my two faithful cheerleaders were there to spur me on again. Buoyed on by the events, I decided to go for a third race and entered the Loughgall run. Again, I'd been ill for the previous few days with fear and anxiety at having to leave the house, but I gave it my best. I finished the 9.5km race (shortened due to flooding) in one hour and 12 seconds. Jon and Lily Rose were there in the wind and rain encouraging me to cross the finish line. Again, I felt like I had accomplished something - I'd beaten my time in each race.

I love the Born2Run races - they are for every type of runner. Faster runners stay at finish line to cheer all us rookies on and their encouragement really helps. Now I'm preparing myself for the next race. Born2Run races are helping me to get better.

Physically and mentally, running has been amazing for me. It's not about the time I do the course in, but crossing the finish line. I feel that I can accomplish something now; that I can succeed. I still get extremely ill in the days before an event, but when I start to run it feels great, my focus is the finish line.

The organisers and team of marshals are amazing, cheering all the runners on. And Born2Run races have given me the confidence to join a gym. Now I believe in myself - it has even given me the confidence to consider starting my own business. I'm looking to the future again. Physically I've lost weight, over two stones - with the help of Slimming World to get the food side right - and I sleep better, too.

I've really been bitten by the running bug, so my next goal is to do either the Ards or Lisburn half marathon this summer. I intend on doing the remaining Run Forest Run/Born2run events - the next one is in Mount Stewart - and a few of the other events. Long term I want to come off medication and start up my business.

Belfast Telegraph

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