Words: Phil Orr

In the spring of 1984 I was completing my fifth year as a young English teacher. Beneath my confident classroom persona I was crumbling. I must have visited the doctor more times than I can count, complaining of various symptoms. Cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis- I had them all, except that I didn’t have these things of course. My imaginary ailments were soon replaced with panic attacks in which I was seized with occasional, sudden and unpredictable terror that left me shaking. By the time the new term began in September 1984 I was in no fit state to teach. After a few weeks of horror in front of classes I could no longer control I ran away to the false safety of my parents’ house and crawled inside an isolation chamber of fear and depression. 

By now I couldn’t face such terrifying places as Belfast city centre. Or indeed any shop, anywhere. I could only sleep for two hours a night and had to force myself to eat anything  at all. My doctor provided me with tranquilisers and sleeping pills but they made little impact. Then he sent me via a psychiatric connsultation to a day centre in North Belfast where on a daily basis I played Bingo and table tennis with other sufferers and had occasional counselling sessions. 

By now even the simplest of tasks was an ordeal. At the centre we were sent out to enjoy the therapeutic challenge of visiting city shops to purchase food for the centre kitchen and I remember being utterly incapable of the task. I was panic-stricken.

Few friends visited. They did not understand what had happened to me. Those who did visit I will always remember with favour. In my misery meanwhile I was convinced I would never teach again. Indeed I would now start each day with the query- should I commit suicide or not? I never got beyond the ideation of taking my own life but the imagination of self destruction was my constant companion.

So how did I come out of it? I don’t quite know. I remember one day, coming up to Xmas, saying to myself _’Damn this, I am going to go down to Belfast city centre and I am not going to crumble’. On other occasions, I’d think of the children I had taught and the desire to get back to teaching them in all their enthusiasm and joy - it was a light in my dark. And I read books about depression and breakdowns and started to recognise the universality of what was happening to me and see that there might just be a way through.

In January 1985 I resumed work. I struggled. I was exhausted. I don’t know still how I found the inner resources. But find them I did. Friendships, love affairs and work were resumed, a ‘normal’ emotional life re emerged and by the summer of 1985, after my long year of breakdown I felt much better. 

I have to say that that year of hell changed me for the better. I learned about my own inherent vulnerability, trying to build a challenging teaching career on the fragile edifice of a not-that-long-distant and traumatic boyhood. But I also sensed now that every person I met was also vulnerable (including the confident ones) and that patience, tolerance, love and truth were required of me in my professional and my personal life. 

Above all, love.

Mental and emotional illnesses are like no other. They constitute hell. Yet they offer hope to the sufferer in the shape of a recognition that love, kindness and courage are what matter.