Caroline McGuigan never thought she’d experience panic attacks, depression or suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, she was given a second chance at life and used it to set up Suicide Or Survive.
Caroline lived her life like anyone else in their 20s. But faced with feelings of anxiety, she was unable to cope with what she didn’t understand. “What I didn’t understand then was panic and anxiety. I got a lot of weird feelings that something bad was going to happen and I got very anxious; I kept getting these weird feelings. That got worse and became a bit of an obsession for me.
“I thought to myself, ‘don’t tell anyone about these thoughts you’re having, they’ll think you’re mad’. So I went to my GP, hoping that those thoughts would eventually go away but in the meantime, they could prescribe something to make me better.
I couldn’t tell anyone, of course, because I thought, ‘this is weird stuff going on, so you must be weird’.”
Caroline soon became addicted to the medication she was prescribed and her anxiety accelerated. “I agreed to go to a psychiatric service as a day patient. By then I was really caught in anxiety rituals, it was really horrible.
“I kept taking the tablets waiting for something to happen and I kept going to the psychiatric service waiting for something to happen. But over a period of time, I started to lose hope in myself; that’s when the thoughts of suicide came in. It was really scary, and I said, ‘don’t tell people about what you’re thinking, you’ll be locked up’. I really started to feel worthless. I felt like if I was gone people would be able to just get on with their lives.
No one ever believes those thoughts will visit them. If someone had said to me years ago, ‘you’re going to have these thoughts’, I’d say they were completely mad.
I was caught in a spiral; I didn’t know what was happening to me. I felt my whole life was taken away from me. I did not believe that people recovered from this because nobody told me.” Eventually, the thoughts became so intense, that Caroline attempted suicide, but luckily, she survived. “I ended up in hospital and I was zapped back to life and it was absolutely awful. It was just an awful feeling. But thankfully, I got a second chance in life. I said to myself, ‘you’re obviously here for a reason’.
“I was offered talk therapy, which I was never offered before; and I was very lucky because I happened to be in a hospital with a training facility, if I wasn’t, I still wouldn’t have been offered talk therapy. “I didn’t like it, I hated it. I’d come away feeling worse half the time. But it helped me.
Eventually, Caroline found a support group that she could go to. “It took me ages; I used to drive there every week for six months and just sit outside the door…
It’s worse living in a country with such a stigma; you don’t talk to people, because people will think you’re mad.”
Having gone through the health ystem and still working with her support group, Caroline began to get an insight on how mental health issues were dealt with. “I trained as an advocate and I got very angry about the system, because it was not about recovery it was not about support, it was not about education. It was about prescribing medication and institutionalisation.
“I thought about what I wanted to do and decided I wanted to be a therapist. So I trained as a therapist for six years, I learned what the medical model was about, I learned what the system was about and that’s when I really saw the power of the system”.
Caroline remembers going to the psychiatrist to tell him the great idea about how she could change the system. “He just smiled at me and I knew there and then he was thinking, ‘you haven’t a hope’.
Caroline came up with the idea of SOS after this encounter, when she realised the power of the system. “I sat at my kitchen table ten years ago when I thought of SOS. I was still on medication at that stage; I was still caught in the system thinking, ‘what if I had been given information? What if there was no stigma in Ireland’?
“People need to hear from people who have been through it and have trained up as therapists. I started sharing the vision of SOS with people; I got a lot of doors closed on me, but I also got a lot of open doors.
“Some [of us] have been through the system, some haven’t, but all of us are working towards the same vision. I’m not about blaming anyone anymore. I used to fight the system quite a bit, now I work with them. There’s still a lot of resistance though.”
One aspect of SOS is ‘The Eden Programme’, for people who have attempted suicide or have suicidal thoughts. “It’s designed to help people deal in a crisis situation. We say, ‘what would help you to keep you alive in that moment when you’re having those thoughts?’
The important thing for people is if you’re struggling, it’s normal. But if you carry stuff with you, it festers in your body and that’s how we get anxiety or depression.
But it’s important to remember that it’s normal and if we reach out to each other, we can get through it.”