A little note on #littlethings

Today sees the launch of the HSE’s new mental health promotion campaign, Little Things. The campaign is a new, positive wellbeing campaign, designed not quite as a suicide prevention measure, but rather, in order to help us to help ourselves and others through the normal, everyday dips in mood that most of us experience at some point in our lives. It’s about educating, empowering and equipping us to deal with tough times, and just as importantly, reminding us to reach out to others, who may be going through their own difficulties. Ultimately, the aim is early intervention, protection and prevention – stopping normal ‘dips’ from becoming more serious or long-term problems.

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Disclaimer from the outset – I was involved in certain elements of the development of this campaign on a professional level. I found it a compelling and educational process, and speaking to members of the public about the new messaging and about mental health in general demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that people really want to make their own difference when it comes to mental health issues in Ireland, but that they’re not always comfortable with doing so. Males in particular freely admit that this is an area they sometimes struggle with, and would like to see conversation around it becoming more normal and acceptable – and less of a big deal.

What was really striking was just how difficult the terms “mental wellbeing” or “emotional wellbeing” were to grasp. Any discussion of mental health invariably reverts to the traditional mental ILL-health narrative, and the concept of looking after your mind, as you would your body, and taking a preventative approach as you would with your physical health, is still alien to many. As a matter of urgency therefore, we need to change that, start educating ourselves and being more proactive in this regard.

Secondly, and this is evident from looking at the #littlethings stream on twitter last night, particularly after Enda Kenny broke a twitter hiatus of almost four years to lend his support to the campaign, there is real anger out there. Fury that the government can be seen to get behind this campaign, yet fail the country so utterly when it comes to the provision of services to those in difficulty who urgently need them. The government, in this year’s “giveaway” budget had a golden opportunity to reinstate the €15million in funding that they whipped away from the “ringfenced” budget last year, yet chose not to do so. €15million is a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, especially when you bear in mind that €68m was allocated to the Horse and Greyhound fund (wait for it) “in recognition of the significant shortfall in funding going into the horse and greyhound sectors in recent years as a result of the downturn in the economy”. Public anger is therefore completely and utterly justified, and not for a second should this campaign be deemed a solution to the problems of severe mental ill-health and high suicide rates.

However, that is not to say there isn’t a place for a campaign like this – in fact, quite the opposite. Fixing our problems with mental ill-health in Ireland shouldn’t just consist of implementing suicide prevention measures. Rather, we should be speaking to people who sit on all points of the mental health spectrum – i.e., every one of us, at any given time. As Alan says in one of the TV ads (below) “Thoughts can become feelings if you let them” – a line that succinctly sums up how mental health issues can develop over time, and a decline in mental health can be gradual. You don’t normally just wake up one morning in severe difficulty – it typically happens over time. This campaign is therefore designed to interrupt, to educate, to empower, and to make us aware that there are things we can do for ourselves and others – things that are scientifically proven to have a positive effect – at an earlier stage that can turn the tide before we reach crisis point.

And critically, it should serve as a reminder that every single one of us has a role to play by reaching out to others who may be experiencing their own tough times. And even if they’re not, a little kindness can make an immeasurable difference to someone else’s wellbeing without you ever knowing. Take it from someone who knows.

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The campaign is launching today, so you’ll probably see it on your screens at some point this week.  On social media, follow @littlethingshub,  like yourmentalhealth.ie on Facebook, and feel free to share the little things that help you to mind your mind – they may well help others. Check out the newly designed website yourmentalhealth.ie – a “one stop shop” for information on mental health, wellbeing, and also, importantly a directory of support services of all types available throughout the country.

We all need to help each other to prevent suicide

Wednesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. There are now lots of days and weeks designated for mental health awareness, so much so that it’s starting to become a bit confusing, but I reckon there’s probably never a bad time to be reminded to mind your mind. Next Friday October 10th is World Mental Health Day. With these two dates in mind,  I wrote this column for the Mayo News on Tuesday 16th September.

Last Wednesday was World Suicide Prevention Day, a global day designated for raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. Traditionally shrouded in silence and shame, the stigma with which suicide was traditionally regarded in Ireland is being slowly cast aside. But as welcome as that is, it makes the consequences no less devastating, and indeed it is an occurrence with which many of us are all too painfully familiar. Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that at a global level, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe, and 475 people died this way last year. Over one a day. That’s a lot of grieving families, partners and friends.

Suicide is complex, as are the reasons behind it. There is, however an established link between suicide and mental ill-health, and we are finally starting to talk about it. The conversation has developed significantly in recent years, and we are slowly but surely moving towards a point where it is just as normal and acceptable to talk about your mental health (or ill-health – there is an important distinction) as it is your physical wellbeing. However, it truly is a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

Crucially, the question people are starting to ask is “What can we do?” This is a welcome development, given the countless campaigns to raise awareness of suicide and depression. At this point, I think it’s fair to say we’re all well aware of the problem. Now what we need are solutions, and the truth is, every single one of us can make a difference. To put it bluntly, it’s high time we all looked in the mirror, and stepped up and took some responsibility for suicide prevention.

It’s all very well advising people struggling with their mental wellbeing to “reach out”, “get help” and “talk to someone”. That’s the overriding message, and yes, it’s good advice – more often than not, it will help. But as someone who has suffered in the past with mental ill-health, the fundamental problem with telling people who are struggling to “get help” is that it places all the onus on someone who is unwell to take that first step. What if, for a change, those who are well started doing some of the reaching out? When you’re in that dark place, when you’re so unwell that you’re starting to believe that not being alive at all would be preferable to living with unrelenting darkness, it’s common to withdraw and isolate yourself. “Just talking” to someone can seem like a mammoth task. When I experienced my first bout of depression over fourteen years ago, I didn’t leave my house for nearly two weeks. I needed someone to reach out to me, and I was one of the lucky ones – somebody did. I will forever be grateful to that person, because I owe them my life.

If we are serious about tackling suicide, we all need step up to the plate, and start being kinder to each other. We need to be cognisant of the fact that 1 in 4 of the people around us will be suffering from a mental health issue (mild or major) at any one time. Every single one of us at some point will experience emotional difficulties. We don’t know what others are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and there may not be any signs. But there are lots of little things we can all do. A phone call, an email to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; even a kind word to a stranger can make the world of difference. When you ask someone how they are, listen to their reply. Remind your loved ones that you love them.

If someone comes to you for help, it can be daunting, but don’t panic – you don’t need to be a professional to help; neither do you need to solve the problem. Just listen. For as little or as long as it takes. Hang in there; don’t give up on them. Believe me when I say that simply being there can be enough. [Update: If you do wish to equip yourself, the HSE ASIST course is an excellent free resource – read my account of it here.]

Let’s look in the mirror and take some responsibility here. Let’s as a community educate ourselves and be more thoughtful, supportive and kinder to each other. And let’s end this scourge on our society for once and for all.

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Time to Talk

Today is National Time to Talk Day, and as such, it’s a good day to reflect on what it means to talk, but also what it means to listen. It’s important.

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The national conversation around mental health often focuses on the message “Talk to someone”. But to talk, you need to have someone to listen, right?

It can be hard to know what to do if someone decides to talk to you about a mental health issue. They might just feel a bit down, or they might be more worried about themselves. And if they’ve chosen you to talk to, that responsibility can feel a bit daunting, or it may feel like too big a problem for you to take on.

That’s fine. We’re all human.

But if someone decides to talk to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve chosen you in the hope that you’ll solve all their problems. They may simply need to put how their feelings into words, or share them with someone. Sometimes doing that alone can make all the difference, so having someone to sit and listen and empathise with how they feel can make all the difference.

If you do feel you need some tips on how to say something back, the Green Ribbon website has some really useful advice. And it’s just normal, everyday stuff, not out of anyone’s reach.

This poem by Robert Frost sums it right up.

“When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.”

So today on Time To Talk day, in your conversations , make a point of really listening to what the other person has to say, without distractions. Give them your full attention – give them five minutes or half an hour of your time.  When you ask “how are you?” be aware that the answer may not be “I’m grand”.

And that’s grand.

Donal Walsh and Suicide: What’s missing from the debate, and where do we go from here?

Donal Walsh

There has been lots said and written on the subject of the late Donal Walsh over the past 48 hours. Rarely has the passing of a young man evoked so much emotion and passion among the public, but then, Donal was without a doubt an exceptional young man, who displayed remarkable courage, dignity and bravery as he faced his future knowing he was dying from cancer.

On Wednesday night, RTE 1 showed a documentary entitled “Donal Walsh: My Story”, which followed Donal and his family throughout his last few months as he came to terms with the fact that he was dying. Knowing that he had very little time left, Donal, his friends and family spoke eloquently and earnestly about his treatment, his feelings, his aspirations, and his frustration that he would never get to achieve many of his dreams and goals. The public was already familiar with Donal’s story, having witnessed his candid interview with Brendan O’Connor on the Saturday Night Show in May 2013, where he implored teenagers to think twice before they considered suicide.

RTÉ tends to excel in the genre of documentary making, and as a human interest story, this was an exceptional, evocative and heart-breaking piece of film-making. Donal’s courage, and that of his and his family – mother Elma, father Fionnbar and sister Jema –  and his loyal bunch of friends is one of the most inspiring stories of our generation, and a story worth telling. There are lessons to be taken from the way in which Donal faced his illness, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone watching it could fail to be moved.

A central focus of the documentary was Donal’s opinion on teen suicide, as broadcast on the O’Connor interview in May. Statistics had shown a consistent upward trend in recorded suicides in Kerry in previous years, many of those deaths occurring among young people.

“I just didn’t want them to see suicide as a solution to any of life’s problems. It hurts me to see them think about it… to see it among their friends. But it kills me because I’m here fighting for my life for the third time … I’ve no say in anything, and I’m still here waking up every day. And they think that they have a problem, and this might be a solution. That does make me angry, and I’m not going to lie about it. I’ve nothing against people with mental illness. But these people have to realise that there is help.”

His words triggered a nationwide conversation on suicide, and widespread media coverage. Young people claimed that his message had touched them, had changed their outlook, and had resonated in a way that the voices of adults – parents, teachers – had not.

During the documentary, his father, Fionnbar, read from a letter received from a student in Waterford.

“Your story was so powerful and moving. I’m 16 myself, and the thought of going through what you have gone through at the same age is just hard to believe. Many people would have been afraid to say what you’ve said about suicide. It wouldn’t have been politically correct, and all that bullshit. You tell it how it is, and I respect that”.

The words of another student:

“Young people shouldn’t be thinking of dying so soon. They should be just growing up, thinking about what they want to be, what jobs they want to have … that kind of stuff.”

Donal himself said:

“If I’m meant to be a symbol for people to appreciate life more in general, he said, then I’ll be happy to die, if that’s what I’m dying for.”

His father put it in starker terms.

“There is no comeback after death”.

The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) adopted Donal’s message, rolling it out to schools, and embarking on a programme to educate young people on appreciating life before they considered dying by suicide.  It’s a good video. But as a strategy to tackle youth suicide, it is lacking. And it is here that the discussion becomes problematic.

There has been much debate raging online since the documentary was aired on the merit of Donal’s message. There is little doubt that it had resonance. It spoke to young people at their level, it moved people of generations older than himself and it made probably anyone who encountered it stop and think. It potentially saved lives. Was it worth saying? Yes, I think so. The phenomenon of suicide clusters and copycat suicides is well documented, and the theory that some suicides are decisions made, not after months of depression, but on the spur of the moment or as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatic occurrence cannot be discounted. I can’t quote the prevalence of such happenings, nor am I sure what statistical evidence is there to back it up, given the difficulty of collecting such information on suicide. But I do think there was an audience for and a merit to Donal’s message. I’m not convinced we can argue that there was not.

But there are a number of things that are deeply alarming, both within the documentary, and in the way that Donal’s message has been perpetuated by adults almost as a universal truth. What is not acknowledged  is the fact that that this fails  – and fails utterly – to address the fact the suicidality is just not that simple, and that the factors contributing to any one person’s suicidal intent can differ greatly to the next. Suicidality is also strongly linked with depression. At no point in either the documentary or in the wider campaign has depression been acknowledged as an illness, has its nature been explored, nor has the fact that suicide is very rarely a decision made with a clear and rational mind.

No professionals working in the field of mental health were interviewed during the course of the documentary. No account has been taken, either within or outside of the documentary of the fact that a one-size-fits-all message is not an appropriate way in which to go about formulating a suicide prevention strategy – even a youth suicide prevention strategy.

There have been a number of pieces written in the past 48 hours on depression and suicidality from the point of view from those who have themselves been there , and I urge you to find them, read them, absorb them and think about them. The point has been made that we are now at a stage where people feel supported enough to be able to disclose their experiences, and this alone is evidence of the strides that have been made in this debate.

However, it is absolutely crucial to remember that there are two levels of understanding of suicidality. The understanding of those who have been there, and who have felt that despair, and those who have not. The latter, if they are serious about wanting to help to address this problem, need to take responsibility for learning about the state of mind in which a fellow human being  finds themselves to not want to exist anymore. From my own experience, it is born out of a desperation to escape a hellish existence in one’s own mind, where nothing exists but self-loathing, darkness and a sense of being trapped. When I felt suicidal, and contemplated dying, it wasn’t because I wanted to die. I just wanted to escape. I didn’t want to live like that any more, and the only way in which to achieve that was to stop living. To a healthy mind, that’s almost incomprehensible. There is no rationality involved in that particular state of mind. None. But I urge you, try to contemplate it.

Now picture someone telling you “Sure you’ve loads to be thankful for. There are people dying through no fault of their own and you want to kill yourself.” Consider how, in a mind full of despair, hearing those words would make you feel. Would you feel any better about yourself? Already, you can’t find anything to make you feel grateful for living (as illogical as it may be, but remember, there is no logic left). Now, the implication is that you’re selfish, too. Which, in turn, reinforces every negative thought you’ve already had about yourself, and increases that sense of self-loathing. How is that helpful? How?

Above, we had a student dismissing public discourse on suicide as “politically correct” and “bullshit”. This assertion remained unchallenged within the documentary. Suicidality is so complex. It IS delicate. We are still learning how to talk about it in a responsible way. Treating it with sensitivity is not politically correct bullshit. I have no issue with this young man saying it as he sees it, from the point of view of a teenager who has in all likelihood experienced suicide by peers. But I do have an issue with this viewpoint not being challenged by adults, or those who deemed the documentary an appropriate commentary on suicide. Again – it’s just not that simple.

So why, at no stage, has no-one in the public eye, the media, the health professions,  while this campaign has been running, and documentary been airing, strongly and explicitly acknowledged that this message, while extremely laudable in one sense, is absolutely not applicable to everyone out there who is contemplating suicide? Why has the negative impact that this message may have had on those in a depressed and suicidal frame of mind not been acknowledged?  Why are we consistently fed a strategy of soundbites that may resonate with some, but may alienate others? While NOSP claim that they had the input of a number of professionals in producing the Donal Walsh video on their website to ensure it was appropriate for young people, why did they not acknowledge the complexity of suicidality, the fact that each sufferer is dealing with their own individual struggle? They tell young people about the “value life” message, yet do not acknowledge the difficulties involved in doing so when struggling with a mental illness like depression.  This “scratching the surface”, one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it anymore, and if anyone should be acknowledging that, it is one of the few – if not the only – public bodies currently tasked with suicide prevention.

The issues I raise in this post aren’t with brave, dignified Donal Walsh. They are not with his tremendously courageous and generous family and friends. I hope that is absolutely clear. They have lost a son, a brother, a close friend. They have given magnanimously of their time, their privacy and shared their grief with a nation, in order to spread the message of Donal’s courage and dignity. There is hardly a person watching RTÉ 1 on Wednesday night who didn’t want to put their arms around them and take their grief away, or could fail to be inspired by their appetite to inspire massive societal change, as evidenced in the setting up of Donal Walsh Live Life. Donal’s words – which his family explicitly acknowledge were said in anger, by a dying child who never claimed to be an expert on mental health – inspired a wave of emotion, and injected impetus into a conversation we are only starting to have at a national level. And for that, I am certainly grateful.

But they should not be perpetuated as an all-encompassing strategy, nor do they speak to everyone. It is now the responsibility of public policymakers, mental health bodies and organisations (starting with the Minister for Mental Health), medical professionals and indeed, ourselves as a mature, responsible society to continue that conversation, while striving to educate ourselves and others on the nature of suicidality, mental ill-health and depression in a meaningful way.

Soundbites aren’t enough. Platitudes aren’t enough. We’ve all heard messages at this stage like “talk to someone”, “get help”, “there’s always someone out there willing to listen”. They are just not sufficient anymore. We can’t just dump them out there and expect people in distress to find their own way.

Let’s look at this in real, practical terms.

If you were desperate, in the frame of mind where the only relief you could contemplate was not living any more, where would you turn? Who would you talk to? If you make the (difficult and brave) decision to “talk to someone” and seek help, where would you go first? Would you get the support you needed from your family? Friends?  Would your employer support you if you need to take time off? Would you even feel comfortable telling your employer? Would you receive the best advice on embarking on the path of medical support such as taking anti-depressants?  Would you be able to access the right therapy for you, with a therapist you felt comfortable with? Would your health insurer pay for you to get all the therapy you need? If you don’t have health insurance, how would you go about accessing that therapy? How long would you have to wait to access that therapy? Bear in mind here that you are desperate, and need help quickly. And not just any old help. The right help and treatment for you, as an individual, with individual needs.  If you dial 999 in the middle of the night, or contact an out-of-hours GP service, will you get the help you need?  We need these assurances.

What if someone came to you in desperation, telling you that they couldn’t cope with living any more, and didn’t know where to turn, would YOU know what to do? Would you know where to go to get help? Would you know what to say, what not to say, how to listen?

Make no mistake, this conversation is merely in its infancy. Donal Walsh and his family have played a huge part in building that conversation. This is not a battle for them to fight alone. What is the HSE doing to address the above questions? What is the Minister for Mental Health doing? What are you and I doing, as members of a mature society with a collective responsibility to each other other than repeating platitudes that make us feel better about ourselves? Are we educating ourselves on how to recognise the signs, how to react?

It’s time to stop paying lip service to suicide prevention, and start coming up with real solutions, fast.

Mental Health, Mixed Messages and the Green Ribbon

It’s May, a new summer season is upon us (apparently), and around us a new conversation is finding its feet. Discussion of mental health issues and suicide, in particular, has never been more prominent than in recent times, yet rarely has the conversation been so intense and the messages been more mixed.

We’ve had weeks of robust debate around abortion, where the term ‘suicide’ has been bandied around frequently, carelessly. Public discussion is hugely important in shaping perceptions of mental health, and regardless of the abortion issue, suggestions of large teams of professionals having to ‘verify’ the state of mind of a suicidal pregnant woman arguably sent a subtle, but potentially very damaging message.

We’ve witnessed also the late Donal Walsh’s impassioned campaign against suicide. At 16, Donal knew he was dying, and spoke eloquently of his anger that some of his peers were choosing to end their lives, when he so badly wanted to live. There is little doubt that Donal’s brave handling of his illness earned him respect and admiration. While he may not have fully acknowledged the mindset that drives someone to take their own life, nevertheless if his sentiment, ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ resonated with just one young person and made them think twice, then it hit the mark.

Another to add his voice to the discussion has been musician Niall Breslin, who’s spoken candidly about the crippling panic attacks he suffered for years. The significance of someone like Bressie – likeable and popular among the younger, more vulnerable demographic – talking openly  about his own mental health simply cannot be underestimated.  He is also an active campaigner who insists that suicide should just not be an option; it “should not even be part of the conversation”.  Instead, he focuses on the practical, and is adamant that young people need to know exactly where to turn. While there are many options, he says, quite correctly that they are not always clear or obvious, and they need to be so. Bressie has also highlighted the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption – something that for various reasons is routinely ignored in mental health discussions but undoubtedly contributes in no small way to the problem.

What’s great about Bressie’s input is not just the way he normalises mental health, but his reassurance that mental ill-health is treatable, and that we have the power to make positive changes. Too often these conversations focus on negative outcomes like suicide, but it’s vital to show that frequently outcomes are positive, people do recover and that we can and should take steps to mind our minds like we do our bodies.

Last Saturday, the spectacularly poignant Pieta House Darkness into Light walk saw 40,000 people in parks nationwide rising before dawn, donning yellow t-shirts and walking together towards the sunrise in a powerful show of solidarity, remembrance, and hope. The emotion was palpable – unsurprising considering that pretty much every participant had in some way been touched by suicide. All were walking to send a powerful message that change is needed, and quickly.

May is Green Ribbon month. Like pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer, the green ribbon is an international symbol – of challenging the stigma of mental health problems. See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership has launched a month-long campaign to get people talking openly.

We are however, already doing that, and often the advice given to those who are struggling is to “talk”. What we don’t acknowledge is that often, starting conversations is the hardest part, and that many of us simply don’t know how. Even harder is knowing how to listen, without necessarily offering solutions which may not be helpful. The Green Ribbon campaign offers helpful, practical tips. Simple things. Ask someone how they are. Don’t feel the need to jump in with a solution – just listen. Be patient. Sometimes, tiny things like a text message make the biggest difference.

Above all, we must realise that collectively we all have responsibility. An act of kindness costs nothing, while simply looking out for those around you can be priceless. This is the season of hope. Let’s make it a mission to spread some light this May. And get talking.

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Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013

Booze-free Lent comes to an end

I was asked to write this piece for Newstalk.ie on my experience of giving up alcohol for Lent.

The piece was published on the Newstalk site on Thursday 28th March 2013.

As an average thirtysomething woman, I’d classify my relationship with alcohol as relatively healthy.Like most, I enjoy partaking of a glass of wine or three of a Friday, or sinking a pint of the black stuff over a chat with friends. I may have suffered an occasional hangover, yes. The end of an odd night out may have been a little hazy. I might have missed a few Sunday mornings, buried in the Horrors under my pillow. But “big nights” nowadays are few and far between, and the idea of bypassing the booze for Lent wasn’t high on my agenda.

So what prompted the decision? I bit the bullet for a number of reasons (none of them religious).I was unemployed, having left my job to embark on the uncertainty of a career change. I’d beenfeeling the effects of an unhealthy holiday season. And crucially, I was stony broke. The stage was set.

Around the same time, I’d written a piece on my blog about attitudes to alcohol in Ireland called“The Elephant in the Room”, questioning why, with suicide levels so high, no-one really questions the effect our relationship with alcohol has on mental wellbeing. The piece was published on a national news site and the reaction on social media was astonishing. I was inundated with replies relating the pressure people felt to drink. Some reported concealing non-drinking, or avoiding social occasions altogether to avoid the hassle of justifying their choice. Non-drinkers disliked the messiness of drunken nights out, and being met with suspicion and mistrust. It appears that “peer pressure” is not solely the preserve of children or adolescents.

On the back of this, I saw the Lenten endeavour as a timely personal experiment. I’d never gone “ off the booze” for a deliberate, sustained period since I came of drinking age, and wanted to see how I’d cope with cold sobriety in social situations, and the reactions I would encounter. I also wanted to do my own bit to challenge attitudes.

I embarked with a sense of trepidation. I didn’t want to avoid social occasions, but neither did I relish the thought of feeling socially stunted without a drink or two. The first couple of weeks were difficult, and I often, rather worryingly, found myself craving a glass of wine, particularly at weekends. However, with the exception of the odd “Why are you doing this to yourself?”, and“Jesus, I could never do that – in March, are you mad?!”, friends were largely encouraging.

How did I cope? Ultimately – and this may appear obvious – I found company was key. I enjoyed some great nights with friends as the sole non-drinker, without it being an issue for either party. In contrast, I attended a wedding at which I knew barely anyone, and struggled. I felt my personality had fled, hand-in-hand with my alcohol crutch, leaving my confidence legless and my dancing even more uncoordinated than usual. I settled into sobriety, though and while I missed being able to have“just the one”, not drinking began to feel normal.

So, six weeks on, was it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, it’s a relatively short period of time, but what they say is true – I feel healthier, happier and clearer of mind. The convenience of hopping into the car after a night out, and waking hangover-free were definite positives. I certainly didn’t miss the Monday beer blues. The time out has helped me to recalibrate my attitude towards alcohol, and I have a feeling I’m likely in future to indulge a little less, and enjoy it a little more.

Ultimately, however, I don’t see myself as a non-drinker, and rather than moving towards the divisiveness of non-drinkers having their own social spaces and activities, what I’d like is a happy medium where drinkers and non-drinkers can feel more comfortable socialising together. I’d also like to see social occasions focusing less on alcohol consumption, and I’d love to see less pressure placed on those drink moderately to consume more.

Would I do it again? Probably.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just looking forward to some chocolate this Easter.

 

My 10k adventure – and a thank you

Two months ago, I took a mad notion and decided I’d run 10km for charity.

Okay, I lie. I did no such thing. I decided I’d repeat the efforts of previous years, and sign up for the Women’s Mini-Marathon, do some token training – consisting of running 500m down the road and back while feeling faintly ridiculous – for the week preceding the big event. Then I’d turn up on the day, togged out like a pro. I’d jog a little and feel smugly fit and healthy before starting to wheeze, and would happily succumb to a(n albeit brisk) walking pace around the 2k mark. Then I’d finish triumphantly by jogging across the line at a respectable 1 hour 40 minutes and head to the pub to smugly celebrate my achievement.

This year was different, though.

I work for a large multinational corporation. I’ll openly admit that this is not necessarily the career path I’d have chosen as a young idealist, but it’s worked out well for me. While I work hard, and sometimes excessively long hours, I consider myself pretty lucky that I can work with some great clients who do fantastic work in the social arena. I’m glad that as part of my day job that I get to meet people who inspire me, and I’m grateful that I’m able to play a very small part in helping them achieve their aims more effectively and successfully.

One of the single biggest positives of my job is that as part of our corporate social responsibility programme, I with a small team of others have been able to work closely with the wonderful people at LauraLynn House, Ireland’s first – and only – Hospice for terminally ill children. Social responsibility programmes within big multinationals sometimes get a bad rap among cynics, who suggest they smell a little of tokenism and are simply part of an effort to generate positive PR, but I say, if I can contribute to a cause like LauraLynn House, even to a tiny extent, as part of my day job, then that’s good enough for me.

I’m sure by now that most of you have heard Jane and Brendan McKenna’s tragic story, but if not, you can read it here where you can also find out a little more about the work that the Children’s Sunshine Home and LauraLynn House do.

Three weeks ago, I was confronted with an image on the front of the Irish Independent that stopped me in my tracks. Tiny baby Leo McWade, aged 6 months old, gazing up at his dad with his beautiful big eyes, had been born with an inoperable heart defect. Told he would have very little time, his parents, Catherine and John had brought him home to care for him side by side with his twin sister Molly. I won’t deny that I cried when I read of his dad John’s feeling of panic when, on a particularly awful night, he phoned the hospital desperately looking for help and was told not to bring him in, that there was nothing they could do. I don’t have children, but I can only imagine the how horrifying that feeling of helplessness must have been.

John and Catherine subsequently moved into LauraLynn House with Leo and Molly, where Leo has received specialist care. The twins are now six months old. John, during his interview with the Irish Independent marvels at Leo’s resilience. “Now we have gotten to know this little boy. We can hold him and he looks up at me and he smiles”, he says. They can now tell Leo’s little sister that they did everything they could for him.

I hope John and Catherine don’t mind me telling their story here. But I don’t mind saying that nothing I have ever read has affected me so much. I hope Catherine and John get some more time with their little boy, and when the time comes, I hope sincerely that they’ll get the support they need at such a terrible time.

LauraLynn House is a wonderful facility. In their recently-opened new hospice building, they’ve thought of everything. It’s full of natural light. The bedrooms are decorated so as to make them feel as homely as possible. While every room houses essential medical equipment such as hoists, they are discreetly housed behind doors so as not to serve as a reminder that this is a medical environment. Large recliners beside beds enable tired parents to rest in comfort. Computer screens where staff can access medical records double as interactive screens for children to play games. There are guest rooms, with small kitchens where families can avail of privacy and retain some dignity at that most terrible of times. And in the most poignant of additions, there is a beautiful room called the Butterfly Suite, where children close to death are brought to die with their families around them. Importantly, LauraLynn House is not a sad place, nor is its sister organisation, the Children’s Sunshine Home. Though the facilities between provide care and respite for hundreds of children and parents, they are places of light and laughter.

LauraLynn House receives NO direct government funding. Not a cent. Apart from some funds diverted from the state contributions towards the Children’s Sunshine home, on whose grounds LauraLynn House sits, the hospice relies solely on the goodwill of fundraisers to pay its staff, and maintain its buildings and equipment. Running costs for the Hospice amount to over €2m annually. That’s a lot of money to raise.

When I read baby Leo’s story, I’d already started fundraising. I’d already raised quite a bit, having beaten my original target of €250, which I’d thought ambitious when I set it. But reading this made me more determined than ever. So I started to make a nuisance of myself, and it paid off. I’ve known from years of getting soaked outside churches while shaking buckets and selling raffle tickets at table quizzes, that we as a nation are an incredibly and unerringly generous people. I’ll always remember the old gentleman with no coat and a jumper that had seen better days who, outside a north Dublin church on a freezing cold, rainy night with a shy nod pressed a €50 note into my collection bucket. Once people are asked, they almost always respond with genuine enthusiasm for a good cause. But when times are that bit harder, and money is tight, I’d have understood if people were more reticent. I was prepared for that. But the opposite proved to be the case. In the end, I’ve managed to raise over €1,200 for LauraLynn House, and to say I’m delighted is an understatement.

One of the most amazing elements of my fundraising effort was the response I got from my efforts to promote the cause using social media. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m  an avid fan of twitter. I’ve been using it for about three years, and during that time (once the initial rite-of-passage novelty of celeb-following wore off), I’ve gathered over 1500 followers, and enjoyed thousands of fascinating, bite-size conversations with people from all walks of life on lots of interesting topics. (And politics.) I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting some people who I can now safely say will be friends for life. But despite my already strong conviction that the people you meet on twitter are among the best you’ll ever find, nothing could have prepared me for the response I got there to my fundraising efforts. In total, nearly half amount came from people who follow me on twitter. Astoundingly, a third came from people I’ve never even met. Some even passed my fundraising page on to friends and colleagues who in turn, also contributed.

Just… wow.

So when I togged out last Monday, I felt I owed it to those who donated to put in a bit of effort, over and above my usual laid-back ambling through the route. Work commitments meant training time was minimal, so I approached the day with some apprehension. (By minimal, I mean non-existent.) An old injury didn’t help, but along with a good (and annoyingly, infinitely fitter) friend of mine, I vowed I’d give it socks. (I even bought special socks for the occasion.) The first kilometre was a breeze. I was starting to wonder what the big deal about running was. By 2k, I was getting a wee bit sweaty. At 3k, I was starting to wheeze and feel a bit dizzy. By 5k, parts of me I didn’t know existed were starting to hurt, and I had to slow down for a bit. (By slow down, I mean stagger to the nearest water station and consider catching a bus.) Around the 7k mark I was definitely starting to hallucinate and reminiscent of the Lenten episode of Father Ted where everything appears to Ted to be a giant cigarette, I was having visions of tantalisingly cold pints of liquid. (Swithwicks.) The firemen cheering us on at Donnybrook at the 8km mark bolstered the spirits somewhat, despite being somewhat of a distraction. By 9k, every single part of me, including my eyeballs hurt (and didn’t stop hurting for four days). But I crossed the 10k mark having managed to run a good 90% of the route, and clocked a time of 1hr 18 minutes. Not exactly impressive, but bearing in mind that I absolutely detest running and avoid it at every opportunity, I was pretty damn chuffed with myself. I was so chuffed that I even contemplated running a victory lap around the Green.

So, this post is a thank you. To anyone who made a donation to the cause, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. I’m humbled by your generosity towards what is a wonderful cause. LauraLynn House value every cent of the money you donated. But in addition to that, the past few weeks served to remind me that despite all the negativity and cynicism that pervades the news, the papers and our everyday discourse, there is still an intrinsic goodness in us, and a desire within us to help out others less fortunate than ourselves. And it’s for that reminder that I’m even more grateful.

You can read John McWade’s interview with the Irish Independent here.