Ok to be not ok?

I was looking at my diary this evening trying to work out a writing plan for the next few months. I’d be ashamed to put a figure on how many blogs I aim to write a month versus the amount I actually have written. As I was going through my diary I saw that I’d written beside May 1: Mental Health Awareness Month. I had obviously planned to write something incredibly inspiring when I made this note, but as you can see when you scroll through my blogs for May, it didn’t happen. I couldn’t bring myself to write it, because doing so would’ve made me a hypocrite.

The truth is that on May 1, I was struggling to get out of bed, and I wish I could tell you why.

It wasn’t due to stress: sure, I was busy with the novel and other stuff but it wasn’t particularly taxing. Everything was great: JP was himself, and Ali her bubbly self and writing was going well. Yet since the end of January I had been feeling shit for no apparent reason. I started to feel fearful; I’d been here before and overcame it with the assumption that it would never happen again. That if I ever felt down again that I would speak out and get help before it got overwhelmingly bad.

It crept up on me quietly this time, out of nowhere. I was fine one week and not okay the next. I felt frustrated as I scrolled down through my Facebook feed, seeing the clichéd ‘It’s ok to be not okay’ and ‘needing help is not a sign of weakness’. Well, perhaps this was true for other people, I thought, but it didn’t apply to me. I had no reason to be down – I had a great family, great home, and I had lots of work coming in. And yet I was going to bed every night, tears falling from my eyes.

The truth is I felt like a failure. I felt empty. My novel might never be written. I don’t know how to go about finding another job. I still feel guilty about leaving my job behind three years ago, a job that I always felt that I was never any good at. These thoughts twirled around my head as I lay down each night. I had let my mum down, my daughter down and myself down. Some people see me as a role model, whereas I think I am a bit of a fraud.

Things finally came to a head on the 17th May. It was National Walk to School Day and I had walked Ali to school alongside other parents, a perfectly normal thing to do. But I didn’t feel normal at all. I left Ali at the school door and whizzed home, the tears stinging my eyes. I was sick of it, of feeling so crap. So I did something I’d never done before – I rang the doctor to make an appointment. There was an appointment that evening, and I took it. The minute I hung up, I felt sick. What was I going to say? What if the doctor thought I was crazy and had to go on antidepressants? What if she reiterated my feelings that there were people worse than I was, that I was being melodramatic? Also, the thought of handing over money just to have a chat with a doctor seemed like a massive waste.

As I sat in the waiting room, I felt like a fool. Across the room, there was a little baby in a carrycot screaming in pain. I don’t need to be here wasting time, I thought, picking up my handbag. But in true dramatic style, the doctor called my name at that very moment.

‘Sarah Fitzgerald.’

I followed her to the room. ‘Did you get your driving licence sorted?’ she asked, looking at the screen. I laughed.

‘Just this morning, believe it or not.’ (The rigmarole to get a licence these days is ridiculous).

‘So what can I do for you?’

‘Well, I don’t want to be wasting your time,’ I said, apologetically, ‘but the truth is I just don’t feel myself. I mean, emotionally.’

She stared at the screen. ‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Ah, on and off, since the end of January.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘That’s an awfully long time,’ she said. ‘Do you know what triggered it?’

I shrugged. ‘No idea. Just a general sense of failure I guess.’ I was starting to sound like an idiot, and was clutching my handbag, ready to run.

‘Okay. And did you suffer from postnatal depression? Or do you think you have it now?’

‘I had it for two-and-a-half years.’ She frowned.

‘There’s no record of that here.’

‘I didn’t report it at the time. Too scared.’

‘Right, and are you managing? Housework, meals, looking after Alison?’

‘Oh, absolutely. It’s not affecting my work at all, at home or otherwise. I just feel flat.’

‘And what do you do in your down time?’

She’s funny, I thought. ‘Not much. I try to work as much as possible. I work freelance, so if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I like to stay active, and disability activism is so important to me. And I’m looking for another job. Love being busy.’

‘Hmmm, you don’t think maybe you’re too busy?’

I scoffed. ‘It’s not like I have a full-time job or anything!’

As I listened to my own answers, I could hear what the doctor heard, at last. Firstly, that just because I didn’t have a nine-to-five job didn’t mean that I wasn’t working, or that the work that I do wasn’t valuable. Secondly, my self-worth is so wrapped up in what I produce in terms of my parenting and my writing that having not finished my novel had become like the end of the world to me. Thirdly, that downtime is important. This is the one I struggle with the most. I always feel like I should be doing something: writing, playing with Ali, cleaning, exercising. To me, sitting watching TV or reading is wasting time.

And then the doctor said the one thing I absolutely hate to hear:

‘You need to keep your expectations in line with what you can physically achieve.’

I stiffened. ‘I don’t think my disability is relevant, to be honest.’

The doctor laughed. ‘Well, it is. And also, you’re human. Take more rest. And talk more.’ She scribbled down the number of a counsellor on a post-it, which is still lurking somewhere in the bottom of my handbag.

I came out of the doctor’s feeling emotional. I had expected to be told that I was silly, that I had nothing to feel down about, that I should buck up and  cop on. And she didn’t say that at all. She had validated how I was feeling and acknowledged that it was real.

I’m not writing this for attention. I didn’t even want to publish this to be honest. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, or feel that I’m not able to work because I am (Keep work coming please – I like to eat). I was going to leave it languishing on my laptop. Then I thought of all the recent suicides, both local and celebrity, and reckoned that if I could help just one person reading this, then it would be worth sharing.

Sometimes, despite the clichés, it doesn’t feel right to be not okay.

But it’s not right to suffer in silence either. And I can’t be the only one who’s sick of it.

So let’s not do it anymore.

So if any of you guys want to share your stories please do. Even if it’s so I don’t feel like such a pariah

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Riding on my bike

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, I was just wondering if…’

‘Sarah, your trike isn’t ready yet. We’re still working on it. We’ll call you, promise.’

I felt unreasonable for ringing for the third time this week about a tricycle that up until a week ago, was slowly rusting in my shed. Alison has started cycling in the evenings, and watching her has stirred a hunger in me. Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit rubbish in myself. and I asked myself what made me feel better when I was younger. And the answer was a good, long cycle. It was a time when I was independent, not reliant on others. Free.

I could be getting my dates wrong, so forgive me, but I think it was Christmas 1992 that Santa got me the two things I’d asked for: Matilda by Roald Dahl and a bike. It was a lovely bike, red and white with black stabilisers and a carrier on the back. I couldn’t wait to try it. After the initial excitement of Christmas was over, we brought it down the conservatory steps and I hopped on. I hadn’t cycled six feet when I fell off. Undeterred, I tried again. And again. And again. It wasn’t working.

‘I don’t understand,’ I moaned. ‘It has stabilisers. Why do I keep falling off?’ Truth be known, I think my parents were disappointed as well. We had overcome so many obstacles and barriers and here was one that seemed insurmountable. Perhaps riding a bike was beyond possible for me.

The following summer I was sent for my annual ‘holiday’ in Clochan House. It was as much a break for my parents as it was for me, and it was a thinly disguised regime of physio, occupational and speech therapy. It was also a chance to make friends and have a bit of a laugh without having to answer ten million awkward questions about my disability. That was the week that Dorothy Oakley, possibly the best physio that ever lived, introduced me to the secret lives of the tricycle users.

‘Want to try one?’ she asked with a twinkle in her eye.  Half an hour later, she was panting trying to keep up with me in the hospital car park, ‘Slow down, I can’t keep up!’ I was in love. I knew that, from that moment on, my life would be very different.

Fast forward six months to Boxing Day. ‘Just got a phone call off Santa,’ my dad announced that morning. ‘There’s been a mix-up with one of your presents. The silly sod left it in Cummins’ shed!’

Bewildered, we wandered across the road where my neighbours opened their shed to reveal a red tricycle! Even then I was smart enough to know this wasn’t the work of Santa but rather of my parents pushing the Health board for months beforehand. Up to that point it was the happiest day of my life. Despite the fact that it was freezing outside, I spent the remainder of the Christmas holidays cycling around our patio, imagining I was in the Tour de France. I used it as a ‘taxi’ for my little sisters, who hopped on the bar above the back wheels and held onto the back of my seat. When I started school in the Sacred Heart, I insisted on cycling to school, hanging the bag on the back. I think my parents drove me to school a total of six times in as many years; I even cycled in snow, such was how precious the independence was to me.

By the time I’d finished second year in 1999, my knees were jutting out over the handlebars, but there was no way I was surrendering my independence. I became wary when my dad started to refer to it as a ‘skittery aul’ bike’ but what was the alternative? There was no way I was going to allow Mum and Dad to drop me to school. One July evening, my dad and Uncle Charlie arrived home in a van. It was 10.30 and the sun was rapidly melting in the sky.

Dad called me. ‘Come out here please.’

I was trying to think of what I’d done wrong when the sight of the most beautiful contraption knocked the breath out of me. It was a majestic navy tricycle, with gears and a basket twice the size of the wire ones in supermarkets. I was in love, however, when I cycled it down the road, I was petrified. It was too big, too fast, and I was sure it would be the cause of my untimely demise.

‘I’ll stick with the red one’ I said, nursing the poppy bruise on my shin.

Needless to say, I did not stick with the red one, and why would I? I could carry my sisters in the basket (Or I did until one of the neighbourhood lads asked to be carried in the basket  and buckled the wheel). It took me exactly four minutes to get from our house in Whitehall to the Sacred Heart, which meant that I was often still eating at half eight. I did my Christmas shopping every year on my trike. I hung around Whitehall for hours talking, delighted to have the energy to do so. It soon became my trademark, which beats being a poor, defenceless little cripple.

Unfortunately, when I was in second year in college the tricycle got stolen from our house in Tullamore, and despite gardai reports and appeals on the radio, it was never recovered. I still mourn its loss, but it wasn’t suitable to bring to Dublin. Once I moved back to the Midlands, however, I began to miss it. I moved to Portlaoise in 2007, and ended up staying at home most of the time. I had an old wheelchair but I still missed the trike.

Then a miracle happened, at just the right time: in 2009, a month after mum passed away, I was granted funding for a new trike. This couldn’t have happened at a better time; I had started moping around and hiding away. I started cycling to do our shopping, started spending afternoons in the library, cycling around the park. Our tenure in Portlaoise came to an abrupt end after I was followed home from Caffe Latte in Lyster Square to our house on Harpurs’ Lane in March 2010. This guy, I later found out, was highly dangerous. As I fled from him that day, I glanced at my speedometer – I was cycling at 16mph, and he still caught me. I would’ve had no chance in a wheelchair, I don’t  think.

My trike was instrumental in organising our wedding, collecting bits and bobs – I even brought my wedding dress to be dry-cleaned afterwards on it. It kept me fit until I got pregnant, and sadly after that I struggled to find the energy to get back cycling, until now.

I’m hoping that cycling will improve my physical and mental health, but I’m also looking forward to reclaiming something that makes me ‘me’. I’m looking forward to cycling with Ali and showing her that there’s always more than one way of doing things, if you’re willing to think outside the box.