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'Mental illness is hard enough and very lonely - I've no idea how people are able to cope on their own without a support network'


Staying strong: Julie McCullough

Staying strong: Julie McCullough

Philip Magowan

Julie with one of her cakes

Julie with one of her cakes

Philip Magowan

Close family: Julie McCullough with husband Gary and their son Lucas

Close family: Julie McCullough with husband Gary and their son Lucas

Philip Magowan

Staying strong: Julie McCullough

Life changed dramatically for Julie McCullough 10 years ago when she gave birth to her son Lucas. Not only was she coping with the stresses and strains of motherhood, she was also battling cruel post-natal depression and past behaviours which had niggled at her since she was a teenager - and were slowly spiralling out of control.

Julie, now 41, who runs the Vanilla Cake Company, lives in Banbridge with husband Gary (44), a sales representative, and their son Lucas.

"When I had Lucas I had severe post-natal depression," she recalls.

"I was completely overwhelmed and even simple tasks such as getting out of bed and getting washed and dressed became too much for me, never mind looking after a newborn."

Julie says her saving grace in the early days was husband Gary who took over the running of the house, and her devoted family - her mum Ruth and two sisters, Ruth and Lindsey.

"Old behaviours I would have had growing up such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) came back only much worse.

"I was constantly counting things, double and triple checking everything and repetitively saying the same words over and over again. I was having panic attacks and couldn't go out in public. I wouldn't leave the house."

It turned out Julie had something more serious than a case of the baby blues.

After a referral by her GP, she was assessed by a psychiatrist and had to attend the psychiatric unit at Craigavon Hospital where she spent several weeks before being diagnosed with clinical depression.

"I am very lucky in that I have a very supportive family and they just took over and worked out a rota around visiting me and looking after Lucas," she says.

"Gary was, and to this day, is amazing. He took on all the roles in the house, looking after the baby as well as working and visiting me.

"He never missed a meeting and was always at the hospital when I needed him. I don't know what I would have done without him.

"Mental illness is hard enough and can be very lonely at times. I don't know how people cope on their own without a good support network."

Despite her need for specialist medical intervention, Julie's family were concerned.

"Being in the hospital was a very worrying time for all of us. I thought I had my issues under control and that I understood myself, but this had spiralled out of my control and I really needed help."

Following her stay in hospital Julie was put on medication which she says stabilised her and allowed her to begin to function again.

Her psychiatrist also recommended she go for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

"Along with the clinical depression, I was told I had OCD and I had a borderline personality disorder. A lot of people think this is schizophrenia but it isn't, it is completely different.

"My psychiatrist thought I would benefit from CBT so I was referred for sessions at the Banbridge Therapy Centre.

"In total I went for the sessions for about a year-and-a-half and it completely turned my life around," explains Julie, who around this time set up her cake making business with her sister Lindsey.

"CBT is a talking therapy. Unlike regular counselling the therapist works with you throughout to give you tasks and goals to achieve. They are there with you throughout your journey supporting and encouraging you."

The first few sessions enabled Julie to explain how she was feeling and to talk about her life so the therapist could get to know her better.

"After a few weeks they start to give you tools to help you overcome your fears and anxieties.

"For example, with me, one of my problems was that I was having completely irrational fears.

"I was worried about leaving the house in case I would have an accident in the car.

"I kept thinking that something bad was going to happen and that I would knock someone down in the car. I would also have panic attacks about going into a shop.

"My therapist worked with me to go through steps to look at what the worst thing was that could happen, if I got into the car, and how unlikely it would be that I would hit someone and pull them along with the car - which is what I kept thinking would happen.

"She gave me coping mechanisms for working this out in my head and steps to take to understand things logically."

Julie says the new way of thinking was a big turning point for her.

"Medication works with the chemicals in the body but the talking therapy helped me understand things better and equipped me with the tools I needed to help myself."

She explains another example of CBT: "I was frightened of going into a shop and couldn't cope with standing in a queue and people in front of me blocking the aisle. I thought I was stuck there. The CBT taught me this wasn't the worst thing either- that, if it did happen, it wouldn't last for a long time. I was taught to just test myself to go into a shop and stay there for 20 seconds. That was enough just to show I could do it. Steps such as that helped me to transform my life.

"CBT isn't easy. It is challenging and they tell you from the beginning that you have to do the work. It is not just about an hour of sitting talking to someone about your issues and them sitting quietly and listening.

"They talk things through with you stage-by-stage. Then you have to go away and manage them step-by-step on an individual basis."

Julie reveals that she has been using the techniques ever since to help her cope with everyday life.

"I've used them over the years to help me to function, along with the medication. Before I wasn't even functioning 50% of the time, but now I can lead a pretty normal life. I get up and I run a business every day and I'm a wife and mother. I am there for Lucas and can help him with his homework. I make a priority in my life for family time.

"At the beginning when we started the business, Lindsey and I were working crazy hours. Now I prioritise my time.

"I've learnt through CBT to manage my time better so I know now that I am going to be busy at the end of the week with cakes and I take it easier at the start of the week.

"If I am tired or struggling a little, I know to ask for help. I can read the signs better now. I know my triggers and I understand things better."

Julie explains that she needed to pull on every resource she had learnt over four years ago when her beloved sister Lindsey died from breast cancer in 2013.

"Everyone has to deal with bereavement in their lives, but having a mental illness makes it exceptionally difficult as you can go back down further.

"It was a very difficult time. She was my sister and my business partner and we were so close, but I used all the coping mechanisms I had learnt through CBT and it did help me get through such a tough time."

Such was Julie's success with CBT she has encouraged others, including her mum, to go for it.

"My mum was diagnosed with bipolar when she was 21 years old. Back then all they really did was use medication. She did have electric shock therapy which is old fashioned. I have told her to ask about CBT as the results are fantastic.

"I think more people should think about talking therapy in conjunction with medication. They really do make all the difference and it made my life so much better."

The success of the therapy was such that Julie has requested she be referred to be seen again.

"I have hit a bit of a dip with my depression and can feel things slipping a little.

"I know the triggers now and, more importantly, I know to ask for help.

"The therapy was a huge success for me and I feel like I could benefit from a refresher and go through it again.

"I know that my mood has changed. It may be a hormonal change, but I want to have CBT again so I can relearn techniques to apply in my day-to-day life.

"There isn't as much of a stigma now as there used to be about talking about having a mental illness compared to years ago.

"And more people are opening up and speaking from the heart which helps others and gives them the confidence to speak out too. If I can help anyone by telling them about my positive experience with CBT, I will.

"It not only helped me feel better and helped me cope with tasks I had difficulty with, it gave me my confidence back.

"And every task I accomplished I felt better about myself and felt like I was on the right track.

"There is a lot of positive reinforcement."

Famous faces who suffer panic attacks

Singer Ellie Goulding: the 30-year-old admitted in 2013 that she was suffering from panic attacks which made her afraid to venture outdoors. She said that prescribed medication and CBT helped her overcome the debilitating anxiety.

Emma Stone: the 28-year-old La La Land actress first suffered an attack in childhood. Now she says therapy and her career as an actress has helped her overcome when anxiety strikes.

Amanda Seyfried: the US actress (31) who starred in Mamma Mia and Mean Girls says she has battled anxiety all her life and can still feel overwhelmed on occasions. She copes by taking time out of her busy work life and focusing on the positive things in her life.

LeAnn Rimes: the 34-year-old American singer had treatment in 2012 for severe anxiety and stress. The pressures of fame were said to cause her extreme distress and self-doubt.

Belfast Telegraph