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'Life went into freefall after my boyfriend died in crash'

On World Mental Health Day the 68-year-old retired nursing assistant from Londonderry tells of her battle against mental illness from her teens. She is a mother-of-five and has nine grandchildren

I was born in Drumahoe, Co Derry, in 1945, one of a family of 12. There were six boys and six girls.

We grew up in a small house in the country and had to move several times. I remember there were six of us in one bed with three at the bottom and three at the top. I quite often woke up with a toe in my face.

I didn't have a very happy childhood.

My father worked hard as an inspector in the Admiralty but life was still tough. I did well at school but we didn't have the money for me to go college or university.

My mental illness began when I started to work in a local shirt factory when I was 16. I found the conditions very cramped and the noise of the machinery gave me a pounding headache.

I couldn't sleep at night because all I could hear was the noise of the machines. I had a nervous breakdown and was referred to a doctor in Belfast and received treatment.

I changed jobs when I was 18 and started to work in a cafe in Altnagelvin Hospital. That was nice and quiet and I enjoyed the company of the other girls but I continued to be ill and had to have my medication reviewed.

I was in a relationship for about a year-and-a-half and it was serious. We saw each other every day.

Because he lived in the Waterside and I lived in the country he bought a scooter so that he could pick me up from work and bring me home.

The second time I was on it with him, we were going to get fish and chips for my father and we crashed and he was killed.

I still don't know how it happened. It was devastating, just an awful, awful experience. My life just turned upside down.

But it was around this time that I met my future husband.

We went out with each other and I got pregnant. I did not want to be with him and, in fact, went away to England but I was persuaded by my family to come home and eventually marry him.

It was a very unhappy marriage. I had to go to the women's refuge to escape it and my mental health suffered throughout. Eventually I could take no more of the marriage and walked out of the family home and set myself up in a flat on my own. That marriage was a nightmare but from it I have five fantastic children and nine grandchildren.

When I left my husband I started to rebuild my life and got a job as a care worker. I then was proud to work as a nursing assistant in Altnagelvin, specialising in the care of patients with mental health problems, where I worked for 17 years.

My mental health has continued to suffer over the years but I have learnt to cope better and have the support of my children and Praxis Care. Unfortunately I had to leave my job when I was 65 because I took lung cancer. I had three-quarters of my lung removed but I didn't have to have chemotherapy.

I'm doing well now. I still live on my own and see my children and grandchildren every week and I am involved in the local choir.

Praxis Care has been a great help by providing regular contact through their floating support service. They came to my rescue. Some things get me down from time to time but I haven't been on medication now for years.

I think you teach yourself how to cope. There is light at the end of the tunnel and I think people need to believe that and not turn to drink or drugs. I always know that Praxis is there and they have really helped me.

Just this week they took me and three other people in our estate for a meal.

It was out of the blue and I just loved it. It just lifted me. They take us on days out, wee things like that really help.

Giving a helping hand

Praxis Care is a major service provider for adults and children with a learning disability, mental ill health, acquired brain injury and for older people, including those with dementia.

It provides a range of supported living services to people experiencing mental ill health.

These include home response domiciliary care, and a day activity/drop-in and out-of-hours service that offers individuals help in planning and management of their social routines.

A volunteer befriending scheme helps reduce isolation and boosts wellbeing of people with mental health difficulties.

The charity is based in Belfast and can be contacted on 90234555.

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