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Michael Morrison: Drummer in early Snow Patrol line-up Shrug among people sharing mental health stories

 

Right balance: Michael Morrison
Right balance: Michael Morrison
Michael with his wife Liz
Overcoming anguish: Alan McDowell
Getting support: Rebecca Dempsey believes people should find professional help and not suffer alone

By Linda Stewart

One in five people in Northern Ireland show signs of a possible mental health problem and there are significantly higher levels of depression here than in the rest of the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Linda Stewart talks to three people about their experiences.

'I'd a psychotic episode ... that's when I really started to  struggle'

Civil servant Michael Morrison (44) was the drummer in early Snow Patrol line-up Shrug when he experienced a psychotic episode and was later diagnosed as bipolar. He is now married to Liz (51) and they live in east Belfast with their dog, Tibbs. He says:

I was born with a visual impairment and have 6:60 rather than 20:20 vision. I went to mainstream school though, at Campbell College, and seemed to cope fine.

I suffered a bit of social anxiety in my teens, but it wasn't until I was at university (in Dundee) that I realised the full extent of my eye condition, which was very difficult. I was fine in school but in large lecture theatres I was finding that I couldn't see a thing and I found myself really lost. I really started struggling in university - I made it to third year and that was when I had the psychotic episode.

When I was in third year I made a commitment to really up my game and started organising my files and going to the library a lot and began feeling really confident. The band was also starting to get record company interest and I felt like nothing could stop me. In hindsight, though, I had become 'hypomanic' and it soon escalated into full-blown mania. My behaviour became bizarre and unpredictable and my poor flatmates had to contact my parents and try to explain what was happening.

In 1996, I was taken home and had a one-night hospital stay. I thought it was all over with - a 'blip', you know? So I went back to uni the next year, but then, in 1997 I found myself in hospital in Dundee for three months between September and December.

I recently came across notes which my dad had made at the time and it was pretty harrowing stuff. They were trying all sorts of medication to try and placate me but it wasn't working.

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Michael with his wife Liz

I would be wide-eyed, chain smoking, singing songs and going up to people and staring in into their eyes thinking I was the second coming - it was really far-out stuff. It was particularly difficult for my mum to deal with.

Then we tried new medication (Olanzapine) and I started to come down and was able to be taken home by Christmas. I'd missed a lot of university by now and realised I'd likely be home for good. The band needed to keep going of course and I guess the manager had to make a decision to get another drummer.

I came straight back here and spent about five years living with my mum and dad. I did an IT course geared for people with disabilities and then got a job on an internet helpdesk working for BT, then NTL (Virgin). I joined the civil service in 2002.

I did have another episode shortly after starting the civil service and was in hospital for maybe two months, but since then I've learned to manage the condition and haven't been hospitalised since 2003. I still have ups and downs but I haven't had any manic episodes, although I've had a few periods of depression.

I have to take medication - to this day I take antidepressants every morning and a mood stabiliser at night. It knocks you out when you take it or you're up all night if you don't. It makes me feel completely exhausted. But it's getting the balance right, knowing to take the medication regularly and at the right times.

After university, I played guitar in my dad's wedding band over the years, and I really enjoyed it - it was a bit of extra pocket money, too. But after the band finished gigging, I stopped playing completely for about five years. I played drums recently in a blues band for a while and got back into it.

I'm really into drumming again - I got myself an electronic drum kit and practice every day. Maybe one day I'll get into another decent band - who knows? Having bipolar disorder doesn't exactly suit the rock 'n' roll lifestyle though, and to be honest I'm grateful not to be involved with doing stadium tours.

My sister facilitates a bipolar support group which I sometimes attend. Occasionally you encounter people's parents there trying to grasp what has just happened to their kid who has had an episode. I'm seeing how my parents must have felt 25 years ago and it's kind of heartbreaking, because you know they're in for a long haul.

With a condition like bipolar disorder, you do pick up some insight along the way and hopefully come to know your limits and, from experience, how to look after yourself. I gave up alcohol a couple of years ago, for instance, having previously tended to self-medicate.

Life can be stressful - you need to learn what triggers you and what to avoid."

'I felt really detached from everybody and everything... I was just in my own world of turmoil and terror'

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Overcoming anguish: Alan McDowell
 

Alan McDowell (57), from Banbridge, who has a background in sales and marketing, has battled with anxiety and depression for some years and is now campaigning for PIPS Newry and Mourne and CAUSE. He says:

My mental illness lasted for approximately six years. I became so low and was in such anguish and distress that I experienced five hospital admissions. I could no longer work and found it incredibly difficult to function.

I can only describe this period as being in a very dark hole with no glimpse of light. I did not know what to do to get relief and those medical staff who were caring for me struggled as well.

We tried many different configurations of medication with little effect. The ongoing anguish and negativity impacted on my confidence and self-esteem and I frequently felt suicidal.

I just wanted some relief from the mental pain, a break from the darkness, an end to cyclic negative thinking. Tranquilisers like diazepam and lorazepam had little effect and I longed for sleeping tablets to get a couple of hours break.

Sleep was very patchy, with the agitation being so severe that I couldn't rest in bed. In hospital, I paced the corridors up and down. In my distress, I felt detached from everybody and everything. I was in my own world of turmoil and terror. This was a horrendous time for my then wife and late elderly parents.

When I wasn't in hospital, it was left to them to care for me. They constantly lived in fear that I might take my own life. I received a lot of support from a lovely man called Ken, who ran the OT woodwork workshop at Holywell Hospital. He was very patient and encouraging, and I felt he understood what I was going through.

However, the darkness was never far away, and I relapsed on a number of occasions.

My depression and anxiety were triggered by a traumatic period in my life. As time elapsed, the intensity of this experience lessened and very gradually, I started to recover. It was very slow and was two steps forward, one step back.

As time progressed, I was able to avail of one to one counselling that became more effective.

Very, very slowly I started to get glimpses of light and a bit more energy to do things. Gradually, I started to gain a bit more confidence and was able to do a few more simple tasks.

Today, life is a whole lot brighter and I experience enthusiasm and passion again.

Looking back, I feel my experience of having mental ill-health has made me a stronger person. I now appreciate the simple things in life like being able to laugh and smile again. To those people who are currently experiencing mental illness, I am living proof that you can make a good recovery with the correct help and support.

I advocate two fantastic mental health charities who are at the coalface of supporting those who are experiencing mental ill-health and those who are carers of a loved one with mental illness, PIPS Newry and Mourne and CAUSE. I firmly believe that with the right help and support, everybody experiencing mental ill-health can make a recovery and manage this illness very effectively going forward."

For more information, contact PIPS Newry and Mourne at 3026 6195 or www.pipsnewryandmourne.org. Contact CAUSE on 0845 603 0291 or visit www.cause.org.uk. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline on 080 8808 800

'I did often feel that life wasn't worth living because I felt that this was going to be my life forever'

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Getting support: Rebecca Dempsey believes people should find professional help and not suffer alone
 

Rebecca Dempsey (28), from north Belfast, works in product development and lives with her partner Ruth (31), a social worker. With the help of her GP and AWARE, she is managing anxiety and depression. She says:

I would have swung between feeling very, very anxious and then periods of feeling depressed. I had very low self-esteem at school and I would have felt very under pressure. I was basically a perfectionist, very anxious and feeling that I wasn't good enough for anything, inside and outside school.

I didn't want anybody to know. I didn't know what it was and because of that I kept it secret for many years.

Unfortunately it did get very bad. I wasn't suicidal, but I did often feel that life wasn't worth living because I felt that this was going to be my life forever.

I found it very difficult to maintain relationships, both friendships and romantic. It took me probably the guts of a year to do something about it - I kept making GP appointments and cancelling them.

AWARE (a depression charity in Northern Ireland) came into our school with a Mood Matters programme and those symptoms they were talking about when I was sitting there listening, they sounded like me. But I didn't want to admit what I was suffering from. About a few months after that, however, I went to the GP.

I wouldn't say everything was fine and happy afterwards, but the weight was lifted off my shoulders and that was a really big step.

I was put on medication, which did help, but the best thing for me was counselling. I was referred to Holy Trinity for 12 sessions which were just a revelation to me - understanding why I was thinking the way I was thinking and learning coping mechanisms.

My problem was that I was missing all these signs and getting more and more anxious, and I'd get to the point where I couldn't feel anymore because I'd used up all my energy. I would come home from school and want to get into bed.

It was basically things like recognising when you're being a perfectionist or if I was doing something called catastrophising where I'd jump to the worst scenario. That's what you're doing - thinking about your situation and realising that it's your thoughts that make you feel the way you are and not a reality. Your brain can just run away with thoughts that are completely exaggerated - it's all symptoms of anxiety.

I did the AWARE programme Living Life to the Full. It was like the counselling but it was also a kind of support group with other people that feel the way you do.

It's like people sitting in a diabetes group - there is no difference between mental and physical health and you shouldn't feel like there is a difference or that there is something wrong with you for having poor mental health.

It's not something that you have to live with forever. People who are feeling what I've described can get help - there is so much help out there and you don't have to go through it alone.

Getting help and speaking out is the key - it's vital. If you sit and suffer alone, you will only feel worse."

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