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Stafford wins battle with depression

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Those black dog days: Tania Stafford and her Jack Russell terrier Maili

Damn, I’m still alive.

That’s what Tania Stafford thought when she awoke from a failed suicide attempt in October 2010.

She’d neatly cut an artery in her arm, hoping to quietly slip away from the world.

Luckily, her cat woke her up.

“At first I thought I would just lay there for a little longer,” she said.

“Then I thought maybe I wasn’t meant to die.”

Very weak and cold from blood loss she managed to crawl to the phone and call 911.

“When I realised I was going to live, I had to think about how I was going to move forward,” she said.

“I never intended to wake up. I had no plan B.”

She was eventually diagnosed with treatment-resistant chronic depression, meaning she didn’t respond well to typical medications.

She was 42 at the time of her suicide attempt and plan B turned out to be a total life transformation.

She reduced the number of hours she worked as an educator to diminish the stress in her life.

She created a network of support around herself. She devoted herself to community causes. And she adopted a four-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Maili.

The 57-year-old shared her six-year journey to recovery at a Pecha Kucha Bermuda talk last week. Two of her good friends, Nicky Gurret and Aideen Ratteray-Pryse, are organisers and encouraged her to tell her story.

“It’s imperative to create a safe space for people to talk about mental health,” she said. “If we stigmatise people and drive them into the shadows we are complicating their problems.

“I am happy to stand up and say this is really nasty.

“You wouldn’t wish the symptoms of depression on your worst enemy.

If the huge crowd of people around you can hold space, you can continue to be a huge value to our community in many different ways.”

She said there was nothing brave for her in talking about her battle.

“That’s just who I am,” she said.

“The truly brave thing was changing the paradigms in my life. I could no longer afford health insurance on a part-time salary. I had to ask myself, was it better to be dead with health insurance, or alive without it? I could no longer worry about my pension.”

Her journey started in 2000 when a few things started to happen in her psyche.

Her sleep patterns were getting disrupted and anxiety crept in. At first she was able to reject the symptoms of depression as job stress. She changed jobs, but the problem didn’t go away.

Then, as her fifties approached she thought it was menopause, which shares some of the symptoms of depression, such as a loss of appetite.

“Then came the day when I couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “That was when I first accepted a referral to a psychiatrist.

“It had been offered to me before and I rejected it. This time I did go and see a psychiatrist and got some medication. I “fixed” myself over the next ten months. The meds took hold and everything was good, I was firing on all cylinders again and found another job that I liked.

“No one wants to scare you by saying you are going to live with this for the rest of your life.”

But at the end of a visit abroad with family in 2010, she felt her stability unwinding. She felt edgy, anxious and panicky.

When she returned to Bermuda, she and a psychiatrist went through serious attempts to stabilise her, but they failed.

“I sure as hell didn’t plan my suicide attempt in October 2010, I just got up in the morning and it happened,” said Ms Stafford. “But it wasn’t my day to die.”

Slowly, slowly over the years since, she has learnt how to live with the illness.

“It has involved changing what I do,” she said. “It has involved accepting vulnerability as a strength not a weakness.”

She believes her illness might have a genetic component as her own mother, Ivy Stafford, committed suicide in 1978, when Ms Stafford was 19 years old. Her mother tried to drown herself in Devonshire Bay. Although someone pulled her to safety, she died from the event later at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.

“My father had to turn off the life-support machine,” said Ms Stafford.

In the 1970s her mother’s condition was labelled a breakdown, but Ms Stafford believes she probably had the same illness as herself.

“I never blamed my mother,” said Ms Stafford. “Going through it myself, it has given me a much greater appreciation for how hard she worked to try to get well.

“It’s given me a much greater appreciation for the value of being open about being ill.”

She said her support network of family and friends were there with her through it all.

“I didn’t feel alone, so that hugely helped,” she said. “If you have a loved one going through mental illness, what you do is you hold space for the person.

“That means you are there, but you can’t take responsibility for what the person does because that is too much to ask. But you can be accessible. You can provide support.”

She wants the general public to understand that mental illness is not a choice.

“It tends to affect very strong people,” she said. “The key to living with mental illness, as far as I can see, is to see the vulnerability of it as an opportunity rather than a problem.”

Ms Stafford said people can also help by providing opportunities.

“One of my friends said to me, ‘you can do this project’,” she said.

“There is no pressure, but I think you will like it. I work part-time as a town planner for Government and can do as many hours as needed to get the work done.”

She is currently working to get her dog Maili declared a therapy dog so she can take her on the bus.

“She is high energy and she needs to get up first thing in the morning,” said Ms Stafford. “I don’t get the choice to not get out with her.

“Instead of staying in my house where I am cocooned and not growing, that white fluffy critter takes me out the door.”

Ms Stafford said she was now looking for organisations to either join or form, if need be, to bring greater support to people with mental illness and their families.

The next Pecha Kucha talk will be in August. Organiser Nicky Gurret said they were always looking for people to talk on interesting topics. If you are interested e-mail Ms Gurret at gurret@northrock.bm.

Tania Stafford and her Jack Russell terrier Maili. (Photo by Two & Quarter)
Tania Stafford and her Jack Russell terrier Maili. (Photo by Two & Quarter)
<p>Spotting the signs </p>

Feeling a little down and a major bout of depression are not the same thing.

Often the first signs of depression include disrupted sleep patterns and a loss of appetite.

Other symptoms can include a persistent sad or anxious mood, feelings of hopelessness, decreased energy, thoughts of death or suicide, and loss of pleasure in hobbies or activities, among other things. About seven per cent of any given population probably suffer from a major depressive illness, and the World Health Organisation estimates that about 350 million people have depression globally.

Women are twice as likely than men to suffer from depression, possibly due to hormonal differences, and they also have a stronger genetic predisposition to it. For more details about the symptoms and treatment of depression, talk to your doctor.