Stories of Hope: An Interview with Aidan O’Connell
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health advocate Aidan O’Connell about his history of mental health challenges and about some of his current advocacy work. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?
AO: My mental health difficulties can be traced back to my childhood. I was always a slightly nervous child, had some tics and was hyper-vigilant from a young age. I was the victim of child sexual abuse as a young teenager and this had a profound impact where I withdrew into myself and subsequently was an easy target for bullying. I didn’t reveal any of this to my family or friends. The tense, terse nature of my upbringing made me too afraid to tell my family.
In my 20’s, I was working successfully and at a good management level when I began to use alcohol as a crutch. I met the most beautiful girl, but regretfully her clinical depression led to a tragic suicide. I still cherish the time we had as the most magnificent time I had. Her passing led to my increased alcohol usage and binge drinking large volumes of alcohol all weekend and mid-week nights too.
One addiction led to another and I found myself another addiction, a very dangerous addiction – gambling. Nothing was out of consideration – horse racing, dogs, lotteries, sports, and casino-related games. With a bookmaker’s shop on every main street in Ireland, there was no problem in finding somewhere to bet morning to evening. I lost over a hundred thousand euro’s in gambling and in terms of alcohol, multiply that monetary figure. I don’t want to write it!
All along the way, I had health anxiety (any wonder!). I saw many consultants and was diagnosed with everything from depression to generalised anxiety disorder to OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to avoidant personality disorder. The carnage continued all the way to 2016.
It was in this year I only properly told my family in 2016, who despite being anti-psychiatry, anti-psychopharmacology and anti-psychology were supportive to me when they met the professionals.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
AO: The turning point for me was when I moved from passive death wish to suicidal ideation to suicidal intent and these thoughts began to consume me and affect all aspects of my life. I think everyone has a threshold of despair and without appearing to sound arrogant, I had circled that many times, but family relationships and work were rumbling.
I had a genuine concern I would do something I would regret. I was saved from a suicide attempt by pure chance and a kind stranger who sensed I was in despair at the water. There was a second instance and an attempt and again quite incredibly, I was saved by a random stranger on a busy bridge. I was unhappy with my experience of psychiatric services and consultants, but I knew I had to do something. I had become aware of a secluded very small psych hospital and lifted the phone and made the difficult steps for first ever admission.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
AO: My treatment was initially like many – meds, meds, and more meds. I tried SSRI’s to SNRI’s to TCA’s to mood stabilisers to antipsychotics (off label) to the many various miscellaneous meds. I am quite unusual in that I do not get side effects from start up, taper, or titration. I had side effects with one medication, approximately two dozen meds had no side effects at any point.
When I went in-patient in my year of actual therapeutic healing – 2016 (twice, as it happened), I got a correct diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) which made a lot of sense to me and the medics treating me! I hit all the diagnostic criteria. Finally I was on the same wavelength with a consultant psychiatrist. It all made sense.
Psychiatry is best accompanied by psychology in my opinion. I did find meds that worked very well for my symptoms, but I also engaged with the social worker and occupational therapist and psychologist in the hospital. I put a particular focus on DBT: dialectical behavioural therapy. Initially, I was a little sceptical, but DBT is the primary treatment for EUPD and rightly so. I found it beneficial, but I would also be a supporter of meds. I have found therapeutic assistance in some mood stabilisers and also antidepressants.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
AO: I am particularly well now. I don’t claim to be “cured.” I wouldn’t use the word. I have had little “dips” and will again have “dips.” I am under no illusions there. I do know the lifestyle habits I need to keep: exercise, good diet, consume no alcohol (6 years now) and engage in no gambling (3 years now). For me, I have addictive and obsessive aspects to my personality, so I lead a life where I listen to podcasts (my main passion) and I watch UFC (another passion) and I read. I ensure I avoid bars in the evening.
I have learnt self-soothing skills, I have learnt mindfulness skills, and I have learnt to take it a little easier on myself. I would have been somewhat of a perfectionist too. I have learnt that we all make mistakes, to err is human. I engage in my hobbies and interests without feeling guilty that I am not working or thinking of working.
I am getting fitter as physical fitness complements mental well-being, so incredibly I’ve started jogging. I studied sleep hygiene. I have learnt to keep well and realise it’s important to keep my medical appointments, see my general practitioner, see my psychiatrist and keep working on acquiring more and more knowledge of emerging therapies for psychological well-being.
DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
AO: I decided to start the #EndTheStigma campaign at the very beginning of 2016, as I found there was very much still a stigma on declaring Mental Health conditions in Ireland and globally.
I primarily have my website where I blog extensively and have guest bloggers. Within the website, there are plenty of positive quotes, and I am opening up questions and answers on mental health conditions and there is a dashboard of my most recent social media activity.
I run a very busy Twitter account, a Facebook page, an Instagram account and I use Linkedin. I am also beginning to use Periscope and YouTube and have not ruled out other platforms! I’m a huge fan of social media.
All have been a huge success in terms of engagement and I would dare say we have reached and changed some opinions.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
AO: Please know that things will get better. I don’t know the exact details of your distress, but I have been at the very bottom and what you need to remember is that it’s OK not be OK and it’s more than OK to ask for help. Stretch your hand out and ask for help. Today, there are more and more that will take your outstretched hand and assist. So many people will help you on your journey. You are not alone and once you take the steps, stay committed, it’ll get easier with time. We are fighting stigma so you can open up and talk and subsequently heal.
Aidan O’Connell is an avid mental health campaigner in Dublin, Ireland. Aidan has emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) and has battled many addictions successfully. Since the beginning of 2016, he has been an advocate for ending the stigma that perpetuates mental health. Aidan’s line of thinking is if he can help one person, he has made a difference. Aidan has started to write and has been involved in many campaigns, presentations and seminars in Ireland. He has a very large base of mental health colleagues in the fight to normalise mental health conditions and stand them equal to physical health conditions. You can connect with Aidan on his website, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, or by email.
Thanks so much to Aidan for sharing his terrific story of hope!
Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!