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Mental illness - the long, hard road to recovery
[ by Niall Hunter, Editor www.irishhealth.com]
Thirty-six year-old Damien Godkin from Wexford has a message of hope for those who may be cursing the darkness of mental illness and hoping against hope eventually to see some light.
But it’s not necessarily an easy message, or good news about a miracle cure with a quick progress to recovery. Attaining good mental health is a complex process, and the road to wellness is by no means reassuringly linear or inevitable. It takes time and effort, and, as Damien says, you have to be allowed to make mistakes along the way.
“It may seem strange to say this, but I would see my having a nervous breakdown at one stage as a key part in my eventual recovery.”
Damien is now senior operations officer with the National Service Users Executive and leading a very full and satisfying life after many difficult years. His story begins with a traumatic childhood.
He came from what used to be called a 'broken home' and there were problems and issues when he was a child.
“When I was growing up, I remember thinking that my experiences must be the norm for everyone, But I realised later, after I started to hear about other people's lives, that I did not have a normal childhood. I feel I can't go into the details of exactly what happened to me as my mother is still alive and I don't want to upset her. I certainly don't blame her for what happened. All I know is that what happened to me when I was a child and adolescent and the anger I was carrying had a huge effect on my mental state in later life.”
“Funnily enough, if you saw me at school at the time you would have thought I didn't have a problem in the world. I was popular at school and relatively happy there. The 'bad things' happened elsewhere. I went to the debs with the girl most people would have wanted to go with. I was good at sports.”
Things start to unravel
Damien believes he probably did his Leaving Cert too early, and he left school at 16. Things started to go wrong fairly quickly when he went out into the 'real world'.
“The years between 16 and 25 were a time of almost total self-destruction, fuelled by anger and a sense of self-loathing. I lost my ability to communicate, to show my feelings. I would have got a name in the local community in Wexford for being an angry, frustrated person and in a way I tried to play up to this image people had of me.”
Damien was slowly disconnecting himself from ordinary life. “Relationships with women didn’t last. An early sign of my problems was that I dropped out of sports. I started not washing very much and not looking after myself very well. I would end up in A&E with minor injuries. I got into trouble with the law for offences like drunk driving. I had to get psychiatric treatment from time to time.”
Work-wise , Damien couldn't hold down jobs. Luckily, there was one particularly person he worked for at one stage who believed in him. “For some reason, he saw something in me when others might have given up on me. I still had a long way to go before things got better, but I suppose the fact that at this difficult time someone actually believed in me helped plant a seed that helped me later on when I tried to get myself together.”
At the time Damien had a tendency to believe that he was always right and everyone was against him. He admits there was a contradiction there. “I was loathing myself inside, blaming myself for the way I was, but outside I was also lashing out at everyone and blaming them for my troubles. I know people were afraid of me. While I wasn’t physically violent, I was angry and challenging and obviously not very comfortable for other people to be with. Deep down I knew something was wrong but at that stage I wasn't able to communicate it.”
Looking for help
“I looked for medical help. I went to my GP and spent some time in hospital, but at that stage, treatment wasn't doing any good. The diagnosis was drug-induced psychosis and depression on top of addiction problems. At the time I would have been taking a lot of prescribed and illegal drugs and drinking a lot as well. Things had got very bad, nothing seemed to be going right for me, but I didn't have the skills to communicate what my problems might be.
This was a particularly dark period for Damien. He felt he wanted to end his life and thought about this a lot.
“I would stub out cigarettes on my body, cut myself. This was like leaving 'cryptic clues' for people trying to let them know that mentally, I was in serious trouble. I was trying to break free from a prison of mental illness but I didn't have the key yet.”
An epiphany of sorts
Then, he had an epiphany. “Things started to get better-very slowly-after I had my 'moment of sanity' at the age of 24 on November 10, 1999. This 'moment' lasted about 20 seconds and with hindsight was a turning point."
"There was no particular incident that brought it on, but suddenly, I could see myself exactly as I was. I could see I needed the type of help, the type of therapy that could help me to take responsibility for my own life. Ultimately I knew the only person who could succeed in doing that for me was myself, but I needed to be helped along the way.”
Damien admits this didn’t mean his illness had just disappeared. “In fact there was worse to come along the way, but I can see that date as the beginning of the end, the start of a long road to recovery. It was a slow process, but I had made a start.”
Asked why he felt this moment of truth finally arrived, Damien believes he realised he had finally run out of people to blame for his problems and issues. “I had nearly reached rock bottom - the next thing would have been me ending up dead, or in prison.”
The long road back
“I was admitted initially to a psychiatric hospital. But this time it was different. This time I was willing to do something myself about recovery. I was for the first time ready to listen to advice and act on it and accept help offered to me.”
A doctor at the hospital told him that if he could get a handle on his addictions, things would slowly fall into place. He got valuable help from GROW, the support group for those suffering from depression.
“There I found love, understanding and acceptance, and no judgements. I benefited from getting help from people with similar problems to my own. I started to build a bridge to normal living. What was very important at this stage too was the role of the community in helping me to help myself. Once I started to gain tools and make progress in the programme for life I started to take an interest in things again, and got back into sport.”
Damien had boxed a bit when he was young but had given it up. Billy Walsh, who is now coach of the national boxing team, offered him a coaching position at the local club, St Ibar's in Wexford.
“I've since coached boxers at senior level. Boxing has been hugely important to me in my recovery. As I got into recovery as a way of life I got back into having relationships again. But I realised that due to my difficult childhood I had deep problems that I needed to confront and come to terms with. I sought professional help for this particular phase of my recovery.”
Damien then had what he describes as a massive nervous breakdown in 2004. “Now obviously this wasn't a pleasant experience, but funnily enough I see it as an important part of the recovery process. It was a relapse, and I started to abuse codeine-based medications. At the time my father was dying and a relationship I was in was breaking down. I saw a counsellor who was now beginning to bring me to a place where I could acknowledge what had happened to me in my childhood. I gradually came to terms with this and it was a big part of my recovery.”
“The truth sets us free - it's a cliche but it's true. It was decided that I should go to the Aiseiri centre in Wexford instead of a psychiatric hospital on this occasion. This was an important step on the recovery road. If I had been in a hospital, they perhaps would have tried to prevent or ease the breakdown rather than simply allowing it and getting me to work through it. I came out of it and slowly I became a lot stronger from 2005-2006 onwards. I also tried to stop taking myself so seriously and tried to become a little more might-hearted, a little less obsessed with myself."
Damien was in the Aiseiri treatment centre for a month and then had regular psychotherapy and was given extra support in the community. “I could visit counsellors regularly and I also had GROW and other recovery groups to help me. I had about one and-a-half years of psychotherapy plus addiction counselling. In 2006, I was 30 - I had been in a fairly dark place since I was around 16 but I was finally beginning to see some light.
Damien stresses that recovery can be a slow process. “It's not a question of things getting better every day. You're going to have setbacks.”
“My breakdown was part of my recovery. It's all about being allowed make mistakes along the way. Life itself, the normal everyday things that you do, can act as a healer. She may not know it, but my local shop-keeper was part of my recovery. She took the time to have a chat with me every day - not everyone would take the trouble to do that.”
The drugs don't work…or do they?
Damien believes drugs do have a role in treating mental illness, but says they are overprescribed and feels people are often prescribed them for far too long.
“The Mental Health Commission once estimated that in a lot of mental health treatment centres, up to 80% of ill people are on benzodiazepines (sleeping pills, tranquillisers), which is way above official recommendations.”
“I took medication and to some extent it helped. But I also became addicted to different types of medication at different times over the years. I would argue that you can never have a real recovery if benzos are in the equation long-term. The World Health Organization recommends that no more than 20-25% of people with mental health problems should be on benzos, and then only for a period of up to six or seven weeks. These type of drugs just create a force-field around you to protect you from your real feelings.”
“Those running mental health services seem to be happy with the information they are providing on medication but when you ask service-users there is certainly less enthusiasm about the information provided.”
Damien believes that far too often medication is seen as the only way. “We need to start offering much more in terms of alternative therapies and to broaden our minds to other ideas surrounding treatment and recovery and living with mental health problems.”
He believes people need informed choices and says there are massive resources in the community in terms of social activities and sport that need to be tapped into more.
“I now work as senior operations officer with the National Service Users Executive (NSUE) and this has been a godsend for me. Having had mixed experiences with services over the years I jumped at the chance to make a difference and to have a real input into improving things. It was set up under the 'Vision for Change' programme and its task is to have a real service user input into how mental health services are organised and planned. We very much promote the idea of recovery from the service user and family member perspective. I was voted onto the executive by other service users.”
Through the NSUE, Damien is helping to create structures for users and family members through consumer panels, and the NSUE is helping people come together in their communities and make sure that their voice is heard.
“We want to bridge the theory at management and planning level with the practical views of those actually using the service. In addition to working full-time with the NSUE, I do a lot of voluntary work. I've also started in third-level education, studying law, and am planning to do a masters in human rights law.”
Stigma and the media
Damien believes the media can play a more positive role in destigmatising mental illness and in helping people recover.
“It has a tendency to report what can often be complex mental health issues far much too much in black and white. For example, if someone takes their own life, there is a tendency to try to find someone or something to blame. The reality is, uncomfortable though it may be, sometimes there may be nothing or nobody in particular to blame. There's also the issue of unfairly characterising people with schizophrenia or other problems as violent. We need to understand mental health issues more, and it's not just a question of labelling everything in a particular way.”
“I always harp on about responsibility, but you can't really repeat this enough. Learning to cope for yourself, learning to be fully active in the community, is very important. Hospital can help you to some extent, but it doesn't usually foster in you a sense of you being ultimately in charge of your own recovery.”
“In hospital, you don't get to do much for yourself - someone else even makes your tea. It would have been very easy for me to keep going in and out of hospital and eventually learn the language of ill-health and remain ill. We need to start looking at mental health in a different way - we need to look at all the components that can play a role in the recovery process - community supports, different types of therapy etc.
Damien says we need to give people hope, to give them the space to make sense of their lives and recover.
“I'm a person who has had difficulties but I am not identified by these difficulties. Fifteen years ago I was more or less a leper in society - now I am an active member of that society. We need to understand the journeys people need to make and help them on their way to recovery.”
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