I would like to take this opportunity to reveal some personal details about me. This is me sharing my journey towards becoming a mental health advocate, in nearly every sense of the word.
As 2016 crawled in, I thought it was time to take off the mask I had been wearing for over 20 years and uncover aspects of myself.
I’d been through a lot – bullying, the suicide of my partner, defeating alcohol, defeating gambling, defeating prescription pills and I remember thinking I’m not a famous sports star or singer, but I want to make a change in how I live my life and how people see me and I want to make an impact in the field of mental health and show that I’m no different to anyone else. Most of all, I wanted to tell the world, I’m Aidan O’Connell and I want (in respect of mental health) to end the stigma.
I hadn’t told anyone about my difficulties centred around anxiety and OCD for fear of being stigmatised, treated differently, being seen as less or being seen as weak in my city of Dublin or my country, Ireland.
Nobody at work knew of my inner battles. I had been working solidly for over 15 years in administration management and hadn’t a single days sick leave. Not one day!
Friends-wise, I pushed them all away. Family? I didn’t want to tell my parents or brother as I didn’t want to bother or trouble them and they held their own views on mental health along the lines of ‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.’
Soon, I found comfort through expressing myself in written words; blogging did wonders! I decided to call the blog: End the Stigma, for the reasons above. Initially I wrote on general themes and then I began to open up. A few things that brought me to open up were some of my experiences, some, I recall below in the hope that others realise we all have difficulties, but we all can get help. My aim in life now is to become an active mental health advocate.
I’m not ashamed to say I was bullied in school to the point where I accepted it as my punishment: I raised my shoulders, pretended I didn’t see or hear the bullying. But deep inside it was torture. I wasn’t deserving of bullying. I was just an easy target as I was a little anxious. Nobody is deserving of bullying. I had about 11 years of bullying between primary and secondary school. Primary school was OK. Secondary school was daily and aggressive bullying, genuinely nasty and I can confirm words do hurt more than “sticks or stones”. I was zoomed in on and identified as an easy target for bullying and it led me to dark thoughts and dark places.
Today, I can say I am at peace with it through professional help. My message to those who are being bullied now in school is simple: please tell a school authority and/or parent and keep telling them until it has been properly dealt with. If you want to talk, you can always reach me on Twitter, or through my blog.
I am saddened to say that I took to drink like a fish to water. What started off with a few pints of beer on weekends turned increasingly in my 20’s to 3/4 nights a week of maybe 10-15 drinks and I was increasingly drinking on my own. I was consistently told by my medics that I was self-medicating. I made several attempts to set dates in my mind when I would stop drinking, but failed on every occasion.
In October 2010, the first weekend of the month, I went on a heavy drinking spree and again said on 5th October, sick as a dog, I was giving up alcohol. This time I did. I had ten years of binge drinking. Today I am six years without a sip of a drink. If you are drinking, there are so many great organisations that can offer help. The first point of call is often your GP. I’m proud of my achievement with drink. We need to end the stigma regarding getting help for drink problems.
I am saddened to say that after being off drink for a number of years, I found what I now understand to be another form of self-medication and that was gambling. I went from a small bet of 5 or 10 euros to bets of 500 euros. Needless to say, I lost. I lost badly, the bookmakers took me for tens of thousands of euros. I was trying to push away the feelings of anxiety and feeling of guilt that I didn’t understand. Anyhow after a huge gambling spree on St Patrick’s Day 2013, I said I had to stop as I felt in a crisis. I haven’t looked back. I am three years gambling-free. I did it by myself because I had nobody. We need to end the stigma for those who have gambling problems. There is help and you don’t need to feel any guilt or shame; work with the professionals.
Through the alcohol, gambling, anxiety, guilt and feelings of emptiness, I was attending my family doctor and I was being given prescriptions for antidepressants. I was now worrying about worrying and the side effects and the stigma and I never filled the prescriptions and for ten years, I binned them. I convinced myself that the now known psychosomatic feelings were from my mental health problems. I had three brain scans, countless MRI’s and ENT appointments as my body reacted to the pain in my mind and gave me physical symptoms and equal distress. I eventually agreed to a trial of an antidepressant after ten years and I was given with it an anti-anxiety medication to quell any initial side effects and my fear. I soon realised that I was getting more relief from the anti anxiety medications then the anti-depressants. I started to “doctor shop” as I was getting diagnoses from Generalised Anxiety Disorder to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Borderline Personality Disorder to Bipolar II; I was beginning to see I had an addictive personality. I was addicted to certain medications. By this time, I was becoming known amongst Doctors and had trialled two dozen medications and two dozen GPs. If you are abusing medications or “doctor shopping”, stop. Seek out the help of one good doctor. Perhaps your primary care physician who can also maybe refer to one specialist who you must be entirely honest with and stick with.
Suicide of my girlfriend: a devastating heartbreak
I had many troubles when my girlfriend took her life at a harbour in Dublin. I never knew or met or thought I could love one person so much and my feelings at the time were I was undeserving of such a beautiful young lady. I have never known feelings of such distress on finding out (I fainted). She had a clinical depression and I remember many nights when she was falling asleep in my arms crying as I held her. I have a blog on this subject recently and I found an outpouring of support and kindness to me.
If you feel suicidal call 116 123 for the Samaritans in the UK and Ireland or contact emergency services on 112 or your number wherever you are in the world.
On the verge of committing suicide
I visited the place where my beautiful Laura had took her life a number of times and felt increasingly feelings of despair and sadness and I had nobody to talk to. I had such feelings of loss (that I hadn’t processed properly at the time with a professional). One day, I drove to the edge of the sea, to an unguarded edge of the harbour. Suicidal ideation had blurred with suicidal intent for the first time and I decided to let the handbrake off. I was going to die…
Moments later, a hand came through the open driver window and the keys were pulled out of the ignition by a beautiful woman who had witnessed my distress. To this day, I am compelled to believe that it was a miracle. She hugged me and phoned emergency services.
With these experiences, I was prompted to stand as a stigma fighter. My blog is still a little work in progress in some respects, but I have posted articles every other day. As of this writing, there are at least 80 blog entries there. I can only claim three-quarters of these, as through this work you meet the most amazing people who all have the same line of thinking and goal and want to do a guest blogpost.
I soon discovered hashtags relating to my concerns such as -#ImNotAshamed (by Rachel Griffin) and #SickNotWeak. I have interviewed Rachel, who is an American artist. Michael Landsberg is behind #SickNotWeak with his team and I have swapped a few emails and a few DM’s on Twitter with this gentleman. I love the guy for his works. Michael, who is journalist, is now an active mental health advocate.
#EndTheStigma, along with the cause I fight for, doesn’t finish with my blog. I am also hugely active on Twitter with over 11 Thousand Tweets and 3,800 plus followers. Each day I am advocating mental health for many hours and I have encouraged many people to see their clinicians and I support people and regularly using the hashtag #EndTheStigma. You’ll find me supporting and positively quoting tweets from Suicide, Survive, LustForLife, Samaritans, SeeChange and Aware. I am also on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
So today, I stand in front of you and say I’m Aidan O’Connell. I am an Ambassador for mental health. I am a writer, albeit a fledgling one. I am still struggling with anxiety and OCD, but that doesn’t define me. I’m no different to anybody. I just happen to be part of a pro-mental health cohort of individuals coming forward, stripped down and explaining that they have a mental health issue.
I hope this article gets picked up. It wasn’t easy to write.
You don’t need to be on your own. Please #EndTheStigma.
Aidan O’Connell is the author of End the Stigma. He was born and bred in Dublin and currently lives in South County Dublin. Aidan is particularly interested about increasing advances in psychopharmacology, the role of technology in psychology, and the link between body and mind in terms of psychosomatics. You can join his online community through his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @EndTheStigma_ie
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