My name is Billy, and I would like to take a few minutes, to tell you about my experience of mental health problems, and of the help which I got from Foyle New Horizons.
Not very many years back, my wife and I were living a fairly normal, happy life. I was working as a rep, for a French kitchen company, covering all of Ireland, and she was working full time in Tesco’s. Our three children were grown up and working in England, and we were able to visit them on a regular basis, and see our grandchildren. Overall, things were pretty rosy.
At that time, I suspect that my awareness about people with mental health problems was like most people, very minimal.
If I had heard that someone I knew was suffering from stress, or depression, my reaction would have been the usual, “what have they got to be depressed about”?, or, ” they should catch themselves on, and pull themselves together”. I had no understanding of what was involved with these illnesses. People with serious mental illness I would have tried to avoid, because of pure ignorance on my part. I didn’t feel comfortable in dealing with people “like that”. Of course I was also familiar with all the other derogatory references as well, a bit wrong in the head, off their rocker, a head case, not the full shilling, a nutter, etc. I am sure that you all have heard some others of your own.
I am not proud of these reactions on my part, but, unfortunately, I suspect that they would be the same as the vast majority of our adult population today.
Just over three years ago things changed dramatically for us. My wife suddenly developed serious health problems. Within a year she had to have two major brain operations. The outcome of this, as a result of the illness, and the operations, was that she suffered some permanent brain damage, and needed quite a bit of care and supervision at home. She also had to retire from work, on medical grounds.
During this same period, the recession had also started to kick in, and my business hit the floor. I was spending most of my time at home, which in one way was quite good, as I could care for my wife. My income was reduced to practically nothing, and we were forced to start receiving benefits. For two people who had worked all their lives we both felt very uncomfortable about this, but we had no option. Among other things, this meant that our visits to see our family in England had to be cut right back.
For about a year, life moved along pretty mundanely, but then I noticed that things were starting to change with me. I would start getting irritated at really small things, like something not sitting in its usual place, or at having to do some everyday chore, why did I always have to do it? … Really childish stuff. My patience got shorter and shorter, and my energy levels hit rock bottom. I would not leave the house and I became very withdrawn, not wanting to meet or talk to anyone. Because of tiredness, I ended up not being able to wait to get to bed in the evening, and would usually go around eight o’clock. I would lie awake for hours during the night, my head full of every negative thought that I could imagine, and believe me, they are not hard to find when you want to. Even things which happened years ago were dug up to be analysed, I would rise at five or six in the morning and plonk myself in front of the television for hours. I would have watched anything on the television, without any interest. I had no motivation, and couldn’t be motivated to do anything, even though there was plenty to be done. I just felt really low.
I was once asked if I ever considered suicide during this time, the strange thing is that hadn’t considered suicide, but I had worked out how I would do it.
Eventually I was persuaded by friends and family to visit my G.P., who diagnosed that I was suffering from depression. This meant that within a short period of time, I too had become “a head case”. Of course people asked the usual questions like, what was I depressed about, but I had learned the hard way, that it doesn’t work like that.
My G.P. put me on medication, and referred me to a councillor at a branch of The Western Health and Social Services Trust. After a few meetings with him, he persuaded me that I should try Foyle New Horizons, and I reluctantly agreed.
I had never heard of Foyle New Horizons, and knew nothing at all about it, except what the councillor had told me, which was that basically they provided activities and training for people with mental health problems.
It took a lot of will power, on my part, to make my first visit, and not knowing what to expect, or what sort of environment I would be in. I was not looking forward to it at all. When I arrived, I was introduced to all the staff and the different courses available were explained to me. Everyone and everything was very relaxed and casual, with no pressure whatsoever. I have to admit that my initial reaction was that, I shouldn’t be here, as there were a lot of people with, what I thought, were more obvious mental issues than I had. After talking to a few of them, it was clear that some of them also thought that they shouldn’t he there either, so we were all in the one boat.
After discussions with some of the tutors about my likes and interests, it was agreed that I should join two courses, gardening and Tiffany glass, again no pressure from anyone. Both classes were made up of people with a variety of different needs and we were all novices at what we were doing, so everyone was starting at the same level. After just a couple, of classes in each subject, I was hooked. The gardening class was very hands on, and took in everything from sowing seeds, to harvesting crops. The tutor answered any questions and explained everything in everyday language and I really started to get an interest, which hadn’t been there before..
The Tiffany glass was something else. Something which I had absolutely no experience of. It required a lot of imagination, and a lot of different skills had to be mastered. Again the tutor was brilliant, and helped along at every stage of the process. Nothing was too much bother, and within a couple of weeks we had all produced our own, first piece of Tiffany glass.
In the gardening, a lot of the classes involved working in groups, whereas in the glass most of the work involved working on your own ideas, and getting on with it, both of these situations I eventually realised suited me great.
During both classes everyone started to get to know everyone else, and become friendly. Previously we were all individuals; we were still individuals, but now a group. The staff throughout the complex would offer support when needed, and would have tried to answer any questions, on any subject, if possible. Something which always amazed me was the staff’s interest in each individual doing the courses. I was there only a couple of weeks when I met a member of staff for the first time.
“Hello Billy”, she said, without introduction. How good did that make me feel? So how has Foyle New Horizons helped me, and how have I changed.
For a start, in the summer past I constructed four raised garden beds at home, and started to grow my own vegetables. Brilliant. Would I have had the energy, or motivation to do that without New Horizons? No I wouldn’t.
I have also started to collect tools for working with glass at home, where I eventually hope to start making small Tiffany glass projects. Would I have had the energy or motivation to do that without New Horizons? No I wouldn’t.
My attitude towards people with different mental health problems has completely changed. This has come about by my meeting and associating with them, and having a bit of craic together. Also the realization that they probably think that I am as big an oddball, as I think they are, has helped. Again all this has come about through New Horizons.
Even though my attitude has changed, I know that there would still need to be a hell of a lot of work done to begin to change the attitude of the wider community. We notice attitudes when we are at our classes. We see outside vendors coming in to top up machines, trying their best to avoid eye contact with us, and trying to get out quickly before they are struck down. Unfortunately, I understand this attitude, but how do you change it? People come in for lectures, unconnected with the centre. Again usually, eyes down and get into the lecture room as quickly as possible, probably disappointed that the place wasn’t in bedlam. A few of us have actually talked about putting on a show to give them what they expect; I’m not sure how that would go down with management.
From a personal point of view, I now don’t have to sit in the house all the time, but have some place to look forward to going to, two or three times a week, to explore different interests and meet different people, thanks to New Horizons.
My overall form and condition has improved dramatically. My confidence is coming back and I would like to think that I am well on the way to a full recovery.