Strabane mum who set herself on fire says life is too precious to waste
Exclusive: Inspirational story of one woman’s triumph over depression
Four years ago mother-of-two Caroline Donaghey was so consumed with crippling depression she set herself on fire in an attempt to end her own life.
Today she wants others battling the darkness of depression to hold on, reach out a hand and know that someone will be there to take it.
The 49-year-old lives with the scars from the incident every day. She suffered third and fourth-degree burns, her face had to be reconstructed, all her fingers were amputated and she had to learn to walk and talk again.
The Strabane woman has battled mental health problems for as long as she can remember.
“I’d always suffered from depression, but I didn’t know what it was,” she says. “From around 13 I felt different.
“My sister got very ill with meningitis. She was a beautiful girl — she just beamed and brightened every room she walked into.
“The illness left her in a wheelchair and my mum, dad and myself became her carers.
“I think the illness my sister had maybe triggered something. I wasn’t doing well at school. I started to get very paranoid around people. I would spend most of my days in the school toilets. The fear of being around people was just too much. It was like a social anxiety.
“You didn’t get much help back then for mental health problems. I was told I was lazy and just needed a good kick up the backside.”
At 13 a doctor prescribed Caroline anti-depressants but, she says, her mother flushed them down the toilet because she did not want her to take them.
The then youngster struggled to navigate her teenage years while battling building anxiety and depression and hiding her turmoil from those closest to her.
By the time Caroline reached her mid-20s, her sister’s condition had started to deteriorate, leaving her struggling to communicate and being fed through a tube inserted into her stomach.
Colette eventually died in 1998 after a procedure in hospital. The family was devastated and the tragedy compounded Caroline’s depression. But there was some hope on the horizon.
“A few years after my sister died I had a baby girl and called her Colette, after my darling sister,” Caroline says. “Her arrival lifted my mum and dad’s spirits.”
After she split from her former partner, she left Strabane to start a new life in Derry.
“A time later I met a Belfast man and got married,” Caroline says. “We had a little girl a year later, Claire. Before she was born they discovered a brain anomaly in a scan. When she was born we discovered she had a tumour.
“I was trying to stay strong and it was very stressful, but I kept on for everyone. Thankfully, she was given the all-clear a year later, just a month before Christmas.”
Unfortunately, her marriage broke down and her sister’s passing, worries over her daughter’s ill health, dealing with depression and trying to keep her family afloat took its toll on Caroline.
“I felt myself going,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m getting low again’. My doctor changed my medication, which put me into a psychotic episode. It went on for four months and social services came on the scene.
“My mum packed my bags and said me and the girls were going to stay with them until I was better. I was very ill. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had constant anxiety and I couldn’t eat. I dropped about four stone in a matter of months. My mum was desperate to help me, but she didn’t know what to do.”
Just after Christmas 2012 things came to a head. Caroline, at her lowest ebb, attempted to take her own life.
“Social services were talking to me about taking a bus to Derry to take my daughter to school, but my health visitor insisted I was too ill to do that,” she recalls. “I’d been having suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t think I’d carry them out. When you are depressed, you go dark, you go deep and you go very negative.
“I started panicking. I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, never mind go out the door. I felt so much pressure. I just remember my dad saying that he was going to do it. My dad is hitting 80 years old and not well himself.
“I remember the day in January that it happened. My dad was taking my daughter to school. I panicked. I went into the garage and I set my top on fire with a lighter.
“I didn’t really want to die. Survival mode kicked in and I tried to get the garage door open. Thank God my mum came in and threw blankets on me.
“I was rushed to Altnagelvin. I just remember being taken into the hospital and then it was lights out. I woke up three months later in intensive care.
“They had put me in an induced coma. They said that I had flatlined three times. I was a year in the Royal Victoria Hospital. I couldn’t walk or talk or anything.
“They had to amputate my fingers. I had third and fourth-degree burns. They had to reconstruct my eyelids and my mouth. Most of my body is burned, apart from my back, which is where they got the skin grafts.”
It’s been a long road for Caroline, but she says she has had many “angels and heroes” walk it with her. “My community psychiatric nurse, Olive Young, has been inspirational to me,” she adds. “She changed my life. She gave me the tool kit to help when I felt myself slipping.
“I joined a Wellness, Recovery, Action Programme and I have joined a Me4Men¬tal Facebook group, who really brought me back.
“I’ve given talks at mental health awareness events. I’ve facilitated a course for occupational therapists and hope to do more motivational talks across Northern Ireland. I want to help people.”
Caroline has the following piece of advice for anyone battling the darkness of depression: “Pick that phone up right away. Ring Samaritans, Lifeline, a family member. Just pick the phone up and don’t let the mind take completely over.
“Depression and suicide, they are thoughts.
“They are telling you to do this. I know it is dark but, believe me, nothing stays the same. There is hope, hang on. Hold on to that hope because that hope is a lifeline and when you have hope you can achieve anything.
“Believe that people are there for you. You just need to reach out. Put out your hand. Someone will be there to take it. Believe that.
“I feel so at peace now. I want to tell my story to help others. There is help out there. Don’t be in that place where I was and end up like I have.”
If you are are experiencing distress or despair, you can contact The Samaritans.
People living in Northern Ireland can call the Lifeline helpline on 0808 808 8000.
Belfast Telegraph Digital