NI mum Patricia, who suffered from debilitating anxiety, on how she's now taking part in a pageant and working to help others
Co Londonderry mother of two Patricia Mullin (28), who suffered from debilitating anxiety that left her barely able to function, is now taking part in a pageant and working to help others. She talks to Leona O'Neill
A Co Londonderry mum who suffers from debilitating panic attacks, which have rendered her unable to leave her home or even be alone, has spoken out about her ordeal to show others that 'true strength comes from within'.
Twenty-eight-year-old single mother Patricia Mullin lives in Limavady with her two sons, Jake (8) and Ethan (3).
She says she first started having panic attacks shortly after her older son was born nearly nine years ago.
"I had my first panic attack in 2010," she says. "I fell pregnant with my first child when I was 18 years old. He was born just as I had turned 19. In hindsight I was awfully young, but I somehow mustered through.
"After I had given birth, my mum took me home to where they lived in Tamnaherin (near Derry) to help me when he was small. I then left home and moved into my own home.
"One night the panic just hit me right out of the blue. I can remember just sitting there in my house and all of sudden just thinking, this is it, I'm dying. Jake was around three months old at the time.
"I had just finished breastfeeding him and I got this rush. I felt that something was just terribly not right.
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"I can still remember every sensation that I felt that evening. I can remember holding my son and suddenly feeling like I had to sit him down before I fell down with him," Patricia adds.
"I got him in his seat and I could feel my heart was thumping, I was dizzy, sweating, I felt as though all I could hear was the blood rushing through my veins, I couldn't breathe, I could barely see and all I could think about was - is this how I die? Is this what's happening? Am I dying?
"It was total and utter panic.
"I called my mum and she talked to me, totally calmly for 30 minutes. I was thinking to myself, what is wrong with this woman? I'm dying here and she's just talking away like everything's normal. After a while she said that if I was having a heart attack, I'd be dead by now.
"This was true, of course, and my mother then explained a little bit about what happened to me - that it was a panic attack."
Patricia says that for the next few years she suffered one debilitating panic attack after the other.
She got into a cycle of panicking about the next panic attack coming, which only added to her stress.
"That first panic attack was only the beginning and things just got worse and worse," she says.
"I was afraid of everything, I was afraid of being alone, I was afraid of the dark, I was afraid of leaving the house, crowded places and quiet places.
"I swear I was afraid to breathe at times in case I somehow did it wrong. I was afraid of embarrassing myself by panicking in front of someone.
"I went to the doctor time and time again, medications were given and referrals made, but I was still in this vicious cycle.
"I was afraid of the panic so then I brought on the panic trying to stop the panic. The insomnia at times was horrendous, I was hardly sleeping for weeks at a time.
"It got to a point where I didn't want to be on my own, so I had to have a friend with me all the time. I could never be on my own. I was afraid to be on my own, basically in case I dropped dead and there was no one there for my son.
"Then I went to a counsellor for a kind of talking therapy. She was amazing and we talked things through, about why these things were happening and then somehow I wasn't as afraid of it anymore and I started to pick up.
"When you are able to understand what is happening with your head and your body it's easier to manage.
"For the first time in two years I was able to go out and about again, I started cooking and cleaning again and I would even go as far as to say I started to enjoy life again. I always had anxiety but it was more manageable than it ever was."
But things didn't settle for long. As soon as her second son Ethan was born, Patricia felt herself slipping once again.
"This time, I told myself, would be different," she says. "I knew what was coming, I could deal with it and I had been there before. But I was wrong.
"This time was worse and it hit me all at once. It was back with a vengeance. It completely overtook me. At 3am one morning it got so bad that I lifted my two boys up out of their beds and drove to my mum's house.
"Every fibre of my being told me I needed to go there, I needed to be safe. It was the only place, in my mind, that I knew I'd be alright.
"I needed help and I needed someone to save me. My mum settled me that night and the next day she called the doctor. Things were so bad I couldn't sit, I couldn't stand, I just cried and I cried and I couldn't stop myself. I couldn't eat without vomiting. I hadn't eaten or slept for a couple of weeks and I just lost it.
"Only for my mum opting to take care of me I would have been hospitalised at this point. The doctors said I had some kind of nervous breakdown and prescribed diazepam every few hours just for a few days.
"That allowed my mind to stop racing and allow me to sleep," Patricia adds.
"Those few days are a blur to me now, but it was just what I needed. I just needed the love of my mother to assure me I was safe. I was able to relax. She talked me through how I was going to pick myself back up again and reminded me that my boys needed me and there it was, the thing that I could hold onto to keep me up, my boys and their beautiful smiles.
"I got some counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and once I had that, it made such a big change.
"That was the last major incident I have had when it comes to my mental health. But don't get me wrong - I still lie awake some nights, I still have panic attacks when things get overwhelming, but having my kids and seeing myself in their eyes, makes me want to fight and live every single day."
Patricia says that she battles with anxiety every day but now, with support, a disorder that was once all-consuming is now manageable.
"It doesn't ever really go away," she says. "You just learn and those around you learn to deal with it better. And then it isn't such a big issue.
"For others on the same journey as me, I would urge them to get help.
"Make your doctor listen to you, whether you have to sit there six days a week from morning to night. Make them understand how you feel and what you are going through.
"With anxiety it can feel like you are not really living. Because you are stuck in that cycle of sickness and worry, you don't feel you are worth it and that can bring in a depressive side of things.
"I was so lucky, my mum saved my life. If I didn't have her to go to that awful night, I honestly don't know what I would have done. I was genuinely at my wits' end."
Patricia is taking part in this year's Miss Shining Light Pageant, which is a special competition to raise awareness about mental health issues. All proceeds from the event will go to Me4Mental, a non-profit charity dedicated to helping those in crisis.
"This is a really special pageant," she says. "I am a finalist and I cannot thank the directors - Jennifer Taylor and Emma Brolly - enough for allowing me to be a part of this.
"It makes me truly believe that there is hope that this stigma around mental illnesses and its sufferers might actually go away.
"If we as adults could see the world through the innocence and unjudging eyes of a child, imagine the difference that would make.
"To my children I am mummy, I am a person, I am loving, kind, caring and above all I am there for them when they need me."
She adds: "They don't see my baggage and they don't care that mummy has bad days because they know that mummy loves them."
Patricia says that she still battles with her anxiety and panic disorder, but that with help and support, and the love of her family, she is forging ahead.
"My story isn't a wonderful success story, it's a real story," she says. "It's a story of a girl turned woman with children who struggles a lot of the time to just smile. Some days are amazing, some days are hard, other days are terrifying, just like the very first time again.
"But I hold on to each good moment, I cherish every hug and kiss with my boys. I am grateful for the life I was given. I feel I was put here to show that true strength comes from within.
"Truly brave people are those who make no secrets about who they are.
"I will stand tall from now on. I hope that even just one person can read this, whatever stage they might be on their journey, and that they can use a little bit of my strength and find it within themselves to stand tall, or to talk to someone and ask for that help.
"I promise them life does become beautiful again.
"If all of this amounts to even one single person being saved, helped, even given the spark to carry on, then it has all been worth it."
A charity night of music and jiving for Me4Mental is being held in The Bushtown Hotel, Coleraine this Saturday. The Miss Shining Light Pageant will be held in the Waterfoot Hotel on Saturday, September 14