Welcome To My World

by Caroline Mc Guigan

Talk, talk, talk, that’s what I remember. Constant talking, constant chattering. Non stop, day in, day out. Wakening in the morning thinking, thinking, thinking. So tired, so weary. Who will I meet today? What will I say? How will I get the hell away from them? Oh God, what excuses can I come up with today? I feel the pain coming on, I feel the lump in my throat, the tears in my eyes and the pit in my stomach. Take a pill, that will help for an hour or two. Take two pills, sure that will give me the morning. Take them all – NO NEVER – or maybe – NO- maybe – NO – June the 13th 1995.

Hello, I would like to introduce myself, my name is Caroline McGuigan.  I am married and have two great children. On a daily basis I question my abilities as a parent, I worry about how I am bringing my children up and yet, this is the only way I know. In my life today, I am comfortable to share the many parts of myself. The kindness, the genuineness, the passion, the experiences, the expertise, the humour but also the hardness, the anger, the dismissive parts of myself.

At a time in my life I was ashamed, embarrassed and uncomfortable to be “me”, as I feared what other people may think of me. My greatest fear was “if they really knew me”. So I became Caroline, who truly worked hard at being liked, entertaining others, believing that “these people knew what they were talking about” and I started to become a shell. Why did I feel this way?  Why did I believe this?  LIFE.  My life experiences had allowed “my story” to unfold.

I now realise every individual’s life is complex and it is a combination of life experiences, the impact they may have on the individual and his or her coping mechanisms which have a huge part to play in how life affects each of us. What brought me to be here today to share my experience of attempted suicide? Determination, passion, anger, frustration and a drive that I wonder where it came from. People I have met along the way and situations I have experienced. Sometimes it seems that there is something that is more than all of this. What that is I am not sure, but I know I sense it.

I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or “panic attacks”. What was actually happening was I felt I was going crazy. I believed something awful was going to happen in front of everyone and I would have no control. I started to avoid people and places and lost my belief in myself, my self-esteem was slowly falling and my anxiety was quickly rising. At the time I did not know what panic attacks were and thought this was something happening outside of me.

I was introduced to medication, again I did not know anything about medication, the effect it would have on me and the road of addiction that lay ahead. The supports that were offered to me were psychiatric. I resisted at first because I believed that only “crazy” people went there. By the time I got there, I believed I was crazy. I was on 16 tablets a day, full of anxiety and terrified.

So now I carried the stigma of being in a psychiatric ward, so my self-esteem was at rock bottom.  I did not know what was happening to me.  I knew if I took tablets I could function, so I did – 16 a day, every day.

I met a lot of wonderful, kind and scared people; this describes both the staff and the clients. (I prefer the word “client”. Psychiatric services use “patient”). I still believed that panic attacks were going on outside of me so I was waiting to be fixed. In the hospital we had a community room in which we sat in for most of the day. My smoking trebled.

There were a number of very helpful people who truly cared but time was not on their side.  There were also a number of very controlling, unfriendly people who believed they were the expert and knew what was best for me. I now realise it was not about me. It was their own insecurities they were fighting with.

I started to become a part of this world, which kept me safe from outside, and gave me my medication. I also became dependent on this world. I fitted in. I did not feel excluded, different or “crazy”.  But outside the hospital, the staff, the clients, I could barely function.  Outside of this world I lied and avoided people and situations. My world was becoming smaller and smaller. Over time, I lost my job, friendships and my self-worth. I remember once a person saying to a friend of mine, “do you feel safe letting Caroline mind your baby, after all she has those panic attacks!” I cried and cried and cried.

I started to realise people genuinely did not understand when someone was mentally unwell and, for a lot of people, it frightened the living day lights out of them. But this made it worse for me. So my journey continued – panic attacks, medication, psychiatric services, avoidance, not belonging.

Over time I started to see the world I was in. I did not want this psychiatric world yet did not know how to get out of it. At the time, I was able to get to and from the hospital and go to certain places if I had someone with me. If I drank I could stay out longer but a couple of times I mixed the booze with the drugs, which was a disaster. But I started to become dependant on booze. I was crumbling. Why? Because I was starting to lose hope. The health services I was attached to had nothing else to offer, I did not know where to turn. I did know I didn’t fit in anymore. I know I felt great sadness, extreme pain and aloneness. Even though I had people supporting me, I felt so alone.  Through everything, I looked the same on the outside, but inside my heart was breaking. At no time was I offered counselling or invited to explore the idea of counselling.

The thoughts started. At first I was shocked and quickly started to think about something else.  But the thoughts came back. I was exhausted. I felt permanently guilty of the “burden” I had become to others. All I wanted was a minute, an hour, a day where my head would switch off, where I got a break, where my day did not start with…

“God here we go again. Get through this day without having a panic attack, within feeling scared all day long, without making excuses, without lying, without depending on others”.

The thoughts, the thoughts…

“Take a pill, take two, take them all.”

“Quietness, just a little bit of quietness.”

The night I attempted suicide, I had had a great time. I had enjoyed a barbeque with friends and had smiled. I had drink, which made it easier. So why that night?  I just did not want to wake up to those thoughts again. I was so, so tired, so weary and just did not know what to do. I felt a failure. After that it become a haze, hospital. Blackness. Bringing me back. Not breathing. Gone. Back.

I remember when I woke up I was surrounded by elderly people who were unwell. A nurse came up to my bed, not much older than I was, and said, “that was a really silly thing to do, look around you at all these people fighting for life and there is you trying to end yours”. I lay in the bed curled up like a foetus. I looked at the locker; all my medication had been left there. I cried and cried and cried. People came, people went. Shock was on their faces, the uncomfortableness of what I had done. While they avoided talking about my attempted suicide, I was thinking, “I couldn’t even get that right”

Over the days that followed, the impact of what I had done started to hit me. My world was still a mess but I felt different. I had survived a suicide attempt and was alive. I started to think, “well why am alive, do I want to be alive? Yes I do. But how the hell do I rebuild my life?” So without me knowing, the part of me that was a survivor, that strove to live and change, was coming alive.

At the time I was given an option of being signed in, which I refused or going back to the hospital I attended as a day patient 5 days a week. Also, lucky for me, a therapist was made available for me to work with. I spent 3 days a week for the next year and a half talking.  Talking, talking, talking. It was hard. It was painful. I thought this is a load of crap, all this is doing is going around in circles but I kept going. I cried. I laughed. I became angry. I started to understand.

My anxiety was still in full swing. I joined a support group to help me with the day-to-day practical issues of living with an anxiety disorder. All of this was so, so hard and I wanted on numerous of occasions to walk away. Why didn’t I? I was starting to change. I was starting to feel there was hope. Small as it was, it was there. I was still pumping the medication into me but decided with the support of the hospital over a long period of time to come off it. This was only because I now had access to therapy and a support group to help me with my panic attacks.

My recovery is a whole story in itself. It had its good times and it had its bad times. The biggest question and the scariest question throughout was WHO AM I?  You see in my “madness” I had a sense of security, I knew I was all over the place and I had somewhere to go. Now I had to figure out who I was and what had brought me to the different experiences in my life. The biggest struggle was to take responsibility for my own recovery and my own quality of life.

So what and who was I? What I started to notice was how I was treated in the psychiatric services and how others were treated. I started to listen to myself and to others. I started to hear what people were craving for: warmth, understanding, kindness and empathy, not sympathy. The medical services provided some of this but, in general, they did not have the time and also did not believe a person, given the right environment, could explore what their needs were. It was very much “we know what is best for you”.

Through my recovery I realised that to share my experience and for people to listen, I would need to become a professional myself. So I started the journey of becoming a therapist. This took me six years. Throughout these years, I continued to work on my own development and started to see and understand why and how my medication and treatment had been decided. I wasn’t always happy when I realised some of the reasons for my treatment and medication. But the big thing that stuck out for me was that, throughout my journey, it wasn’t the treatment but some of the people whom I met that made a difference. Qualified and insightful people, who could see that I was more than a label from the DSM book and allowed me to participate in my own recovery. What these people had in common was that I experienced warmth, genuineness, honesty and compassion from them and towards me.

So an idea started to form in my head. What would it be like to offer individuals a group where they would experience warmth, genuineness, respect and structure? What would it be like if people were educated on depression, anxiety, the psychiatric services and medication? What would it be like if people were given the opportunity to work on their life skills? What would it be like if people were allowed to explore and reflect on the impact life was having on them, particularly when their thoughts were moving towards suicide? What would it be like if all of this was offered to an individual in a group setting?  Not for 15 minutes a week, not for a couple of weeks but for a period of time that would allow them to pause and reflect and see if they were ready to start to take responsibility in their own recovery.

I spoke to a lot of friends and colleagues.  Everyone believed this environment was essential for an individual’s development. Some wanted to be involved. So Suicide or Survive, SOS was established. Suicide or Survive will be running its first programme, the “Eden Programme” within the next couple of months. We fund raise on an ongoing basis. We learn through our individual experiences and as a group. We are open and transparent. We do not believe our way is the one and only way, but we do believe that it is an option.  A tremendous amount of work goes on behind the scenes carried out by very passionate, strong and determined people.

What have I learned?  You need to be ballsy, persistent, determined and passionate, and have a tough skin. Why? Because Ireland is only starting to recognise that the revolving psychiatric door is not always the way for everyone, but is still cautious and fearful of the other options available. Fear was what brought me down. Now I realise if I stop, listen, be compassionate to myself and others, I can respond rather than always reacting. I remember once saying to a very wise lady, “I met some really special people along the way who truly made a difference”.  She replied “I am sure you did but, Caroline, we are all special”.  I have learned I am made up of many parts and my biggest gift to myself is to try somehow to allow compassion into my life so I don’t continuously judge myself.  If I can do this for myself, I can then do this for others.

Thank you for listening to my story.

Caroline Mc Guigan is a psychotherapist, tutor, founder and CEO of Suicide or Survive and Irish co-ordinator for “No Panic”.  www.suicideorsurvive.ie   www.nopanic.org.uk