'My self-loathing got so bad I didn't even want to speak my own name'
In a searingly honest piece, AWARE Volunteer Cliona McCarney (22), a former SDLP Youth chairperson who works for the NHS Confederation in Belfast, reveals how she fought a private battle with depression - and urges other people dealing with the same condition to talk to someone.
Work? A headache? Cramps? Babysitting again? Which excuse hadn't I used for a while? I'd used all of them, and more, a lot recently. I was tangled up in a web of my own lies as I struggled to come up with yet another excuse for why I couldn't meet a friend for a coffee. Depression. The darkest, most terrifying time of my life. The truth is that I couldn't bring myself to face anyone - I could hardly face myself in the mirror. I've always been a bit of a control freak, but at this point, my whole life was spiralling out of control and I felt powerless to stop it. I am 20 years old, and I have never felt so low in my life.
Let me circle back a little bit. It was late summer in 2014. I'd just returned from an incredible summer in America and on the face of it, I had the whole world at my feet. I had spent my summer with the most extraordinary group of people I could've ever imagined and I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. That's the trouble with finding your happy place. You don't always get to stay there, and sometimes it's far from real life.
Nevertheless, I returned home excited and optimistic, full of plans for the future. I wasn't due to start back to my part-time job for another four weeks and was still a couple of months away from starting back to Queen's University Belfast. I was bored. I went from living at 100 miles an hour to doing nothing and I couldn't cope with it. The excitement and optimism I felt soon turned into pressure, pressure to achieve and succeed, I felt the weight of a thousand expectations on my shoulders, so heavy I could have sworn they were blocks of concrete.
Things went from bad to worse, to worse again. Most days, I felt like I was watching myself from a distance and felt disgusted at this lazy, unmotivated disgrace that I felt I'd become. My self-loathing increased on a daily basis to the point I didn't even want to say my own name, because I felt that it represented failure. If I thought these horrible things about myself, I dreaded to think what anyone else thought of me.
At this point, I'd started back at university. I'd gained a lot of weight due to my cycle of not eating, binge eating and not eating again. I didn't want anyone to see me. I didn't want to see myself. The hardest part of it all wasn't the crying or the feelings of emptiness and despair, it was the dishonesty. I was quite literally living a lie to everyone in my life. The effort of having a chat on the phone with my best friend exhausted me to the point I felt I'd just run a marathon.
It was just before Christmas time when I realised things would have to change. I knew I couldn't live like this anymore. The sadness and the feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders was literally killing me. It took every bit of strength that I possessed to convince myself that it would be a bad thing for that to happen. That sounds melodramatic and maybe it is, but that was the point I'd gotten too.
I went to my GP and for the first time, I faced up to the true extent of the problems I was having. It took me several attempts to make an appointment. I waited in the call queue for what felt like hours and then I hung up in fright when I heard a voice. Even when I eventually made it through to reception, I refused to tell the woman the nature of my problem, saying it was a check-up I needed about my asthma.
A couple weeks later, I faced my doctor and I told her I couldn't be sure that I would keep myself safe anymore and she needed to help, to help me to help myself. She prescribed me my first course of anti-depressants and they absolutely knocked me for six. Again, this was around Christmas time when I would ordinarily be rushing around, busy, but I felt so lethargic I could barely stand up. On Christmas Day in our house, everyone mucks in to help get the dinner out and dishes done, but I physically couldn't do much more than plonk myself on the sofa. I was aghast with despair, but mainly frustration. I thought that opening up, taking this medication would make me feel better, but so far I was almost worse.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I fought the demons inside my head every day that told me I was beyond help and not deserving of it either. I took a deep breath and counted to 30 inside my head. I began to trust that if I could make it through the next 30 seconds, then the next, that I could will myself onwards.
Fast forward a few months. I had finally opened up about what I was feeling to the people closest to me. A very lovely friend had helped me make some decisions and defer my exams at university. I continued with my medication. I stood down from my political roles to allow myself time to heal. The support I received from within my political party is something I'll never forget. I took things day by day and always remembered that I had survived 100% of my very bad days so far, and that was a track record I was proud of and bloody determined to keep. With the support of my friends and my truly magnificent family, I put myself together again.
Two and a half years later- I'm me. I'm Cliona. I'm not perfect. I don't always like myself and sometimes I get bad days, sometimes they turn into bad weeks and I start to panic, but now I know that it will pass. I survived the worst time of my life and I think my best days are still ahead of me. I'm working in a job that I love, trying to give a little back to the health system that helped put me back together. Depression isn't a cop-out response to a bad day. It's an illness that can be debilitating and life destroying. Mental illness is no less of an illness.
It's been a long journey, and I don't know when I'll be finished with the journey, if ever. But the one thing I can say, with every confidence, is that it's worth every single step. I am stronger now than I ever have been. I hope that by sharing my story, that it will help other people to seek help. AWARE does amazing work, please never suffer in silence the way I did, you are worth seeking help for.
If you are struggling with depression, you may find the group support offered by AWARE useful.
Siobhan Doherty, chief executive of AWARE, says: "Depression is a serious illness that affects thousands of people in Northern Ireland. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
"AWARE would urge anyone with depression to seek help, just like Cliona did. We have a network of 23 support groups throughout Northern Ireland that those with depression and their family and friends can attend. The groups are completely free of charge, with no appointment needed. These groups have been described by many as 'lifesaving.'
"The prevalence of mental illness is 25% higher in Northern Ireland than any other region in the UK. Last year, AWARE reached and supported more people than ever before. We delivered our services to almost 30,000 people and supported upwards of 4,000 people through our support groups."
Go to www.aware-ni.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, for more details. AWARE can also be contacted by phoning 028 9035 7820 during office hours.