There was a time when, if Elaine Crowley did not appear on her Virgin Media chat show, her family would panic. “If there was a day that she wasn’t on TV we’d be worried, and we would ring each other and say, does Elaine have a photo shoot today, has she anything organised?” her elder sister Maggie (47) explains.
They were like a bush telegraph,” Elaine says of her sisters. The 45-year-old broadcaster is one of a growing number of people in the public eye who have challenged the stigma surrounding mental health by speaking out about their own struggles.
A story we still hear little about, however, is what it is like for the loved ones of the person suffering – what it is like to watch a person struggle and often feel helpless, and, perhaps even more difficult to talk about, the toll it can take on their own mental wellbeing. It is a subject Elaine and Maggie are anxious to shed light on, which is why they are taking part in the Talking Depression campaign.
Elaine was diagnosed with dysphoria by a psychiatrist at the age of 36, a disorder that is characterised by medics as intense feelings of depression, discontent, and in some cases indifference to the world around them.
She says that it was as “clear as day,” that she had always had some form of depression.
“My mother did say I was born melancholy,” she smiles, recalling how at the age of eight she wrote a song called I Wish I Was Happier. She performed it at school, the sisters laugh, and Maggie adds that the entire family knew the words and could sing it.
Maggie recalls how, as children, she and her siblings would know when not to push Elaine to join in their games.
“Sometimes we’d try and make her do stuff, and you’d know when to leave her. We thought that was just Elaine,” she says now with a little shrug.
There are 10 siblings in the Crowley family, six girls and four boys; Veronica, John, Mona, Kathy, Colm, Maggie (whose twin Ann Marie died of spina bifida and hydrocephalus when she was a couple of weeks old), Elaine, Lillian, Brendan and Liam. They grew up in New Twopothouse in Cork. Their paternal grandmother lived with them too.
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All of the family are close. But it was Maggie, a nurse and mother-of-one who lives in Carlow, who always understood that Elaine was unwell and not just being difficult in the years before she received her diagnosis.
As her younger sister’s mental health worsened in her 30s, it was Maggie who gently pushed Elaine to make the appointment that led to the diagnosis of dysphoria after a particularly bad episode.
Elaine resisted for some time. “People will think I’m a nutjob,” she recalls worrying. “I was the person stigmatising myself.”
“When she told me she made the appointment I was so happy,” Maggie says now, smiling.
Elaine is the next sibling down in age. The love between the sisters is palpable, as is the mutual respect, although Maggie describes their differences as teenagers. She was, their father would say, a trier. Elaine, she says proudly, was good at everything. Acting in school plays, sports, academics.
“Especially when she was so good on her TV programme, some people would say is she just putting it on? Just being a pain? I had to say, no, she’s really unwell,” Maggie explains of later years.
It was when Elaine was 14 that she first experienced a depressive episode. After hurting her ankle she was unable to play sports. She was involved in sprinting, hurling, long-distance running and basketball at the time.
“That really sent me off a cliff,” she recalls. “I’d come home from school, curl up in a ball and watch Star Trek in the evenings. I never really got back into the exercise.”
The self-loathing was quite horrendous
But it was when she went to college that she really felt the rug was pulled from underneath her. Just 17, and away from her supportive, loving family for the first time – studying communications in DIT – she struggled with the change and the lack of structure.
On a visit home, she hurt her ankle again, and was out of college for a time. It was then that her father, Seán, realised Elaine was staying in bed most of the day and staying up all night, a schedule she had adopted in college. Her father, who had studied psychology, encouraged Elaine to go to the GP.
By then in her late teens, she remembers feeling scared and very alone. “And I was quite… just grey. It was a very terrifying place to be.” She describes the mixture of overwhelming physical exhaustion, insomnia, and a racing mind. “The self-loathing was quite horrendous.”
Elaine was prescribed medication; she can’t recall the word depression being mentioned. In the car on the way home from the doctor’s one day, another older sister, Kathy, pointed out that it might come back.
“I said no it won’t. I’ve been treated and I’m grand now.” Elaine’s family seem to have known otherwise though, and when her dad became ill with cancer a few years later, from which he died when Elaine was 23, he told Kathy to “keep an eye on Nainsey.”
In her 30s, Elaine’s depression became very severe. She describes herself as coping, by which she means she maintained her career. But everything else began to fall by the wayside.
“We, I especially, got very worried about her,” Maggie says, turning to look at her sister. “She’d answer the phone, you’d say how are you, and she’d never go ‘I’m grand’. She was very sad; you’d know by her.”
Things got worse, to the point where Elaine would neither answer her phone nor meet up with family or friends.
When she felt really bad, Elaine describes not caring about anything. “Outwardly, if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t have a clue there was anything happening to me, because I on television almost every day.”
But she was going home and crawling into bed, the same mixture of exhaustion and insomnia.
They had a mutual friend, Elle, living in Dublin who Maggie had alerted to the situation, and who was also monitoring Elaine. If the sisters in Cork could not get hold of her, Elle would call to Elaine’s home.
“We were extremely concerned,” Maggie says softly, leaning in. “I could see how bad she was. There were a couple of years that were horrendous.” As often as she could, Maggie would come up to Dublin from Cork at the weekend, bringing her daughter Izzie, then a small child. Sometimes Elaine would engage mainly with her tiny niece.
Maggie recalls now how she never knew what mood she would find her sister in, or how welcome she might be. “I think it’s important just to show up,” Maggie says. “Even if they don’t want you there. Because if you keep showing up and reinforcing how much you love that person, eventually some of it will crack through.”
You didn’t know if you were going to get Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde
Depression can manifest as anger or frustration, on occasion targeted at loved ones, for whom it is sometimes described as like walking on eggshells.
“Oh definitely,” Maggie says. “Your heart is in your mouth, because you don’t know what reception you’re going to get. You could drive up and she could be delighted to see you, or like what the heck are you doing here.”
“I wasn’t saying heck,” Elaine chuckles darkly.
“You didn’t know if you were going to get Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde,” Maggie adds. “And you were trying to tell this person, ‘look I’m here for you, and I do love you. We’re all there for you’. And then you get ate,” she laughs. “And that’s fine. And sometimes you just go I’m not doing this again, but you would.”
Elaine describes the anger from her side.
“I felt that they were annoying me. All the calls. No,” she says emphatically. “Can you just leave me alone. I’ll get through it, stop ringing me. I don’t know where the anger came from.”
She deleted and blocked all her family’s numbers.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with my family, and I absolutely adore my family. I just hated everybody, and I hated myself. I didn’t want to be around myself. I didn’t really see the point in being in existence, to be honest.”
Maggie never contemplated giving up, or even stepping back and taking a break from trying to get Elaine to see that she needed professional help.
“You know it’s not that person you love saying this,” she says now. “It’s their illness. So you have to keep chipping away at having little conversations. Because some people are not ready to hear it at once. You have to learn not to take the behaviour of the depressed person personally. And that can be hard, because you can get quite biting remarks.”
She herself had fertility troubles several years before. “I know it’s not the same, but when I had fertility issues, you hope it’s not there, and then all of a sudden, you’re told you need fertility treatment, and you may never have a baby. Some things you don’t want to hear. When you’re in it, you don’t want to hear, ‘you may have depression, I think you need to see somebody.’”
Maggie was the one who understood, Elaine says. “You knew it was an illness rather than me being a bitch basically,” she says, and they both laugh.
She describes coming home one Christmas, “and they were all bouncing around the place delighted with life. I just started crying. Some of my family were cross with me. What the hell’s wrong with Elaine? I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I was just bloody miserable.
“I kind of got angry because they didn’t realise. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t my fault that I was that way, I wasn’t doing it on purpose.”
It was a combination of hating herself, hating the effect she was having on other people, being angry at them for not understanding it wasn’t her fault, and then blaming herself, because maybe it was her fault. And the guilt, because after all, she has a lovely life; why does she feel like this?
Maggie, who Elaine says proudly is a wonderful nurse, always understood, and could see beyond what might’ve seemed like difficult behaviour being the source of the problem.
With tears in her eyes, Maggie describes this time as terrifying, watching her sister struggle so much, not knowing if she would be able to reach her, not knowing if Elaine would survive the major depressive episode that had set in deep.
“The only thing I did was kept going back. I was so worried about her that I was afraid that she would do something,” she says, her voice lowering. “The thought of her not being around anymore, and our family having to live without her, was something that I was willing to keep pushing for.
“Because the alternative just wasn’t an option for us. And I think that’s what keeps you going as well. But it does take a toll.”
When she was 36, Elaine finally went to see a psychiatrist. “It’s terrifying to come to that point, but the relief I got afterwards…” Elaine says of receiving her diagnosis. “I just wish I’d done it years before. It felt like someone saying, you’re not a lunatic, you just have this, and loads of people have it, you can actually deal with it.”
Receiving a diagnosis was a huge turning point, Maggie reflects. The family still worries but knowing Elaine reached rock bottom and was able to make it through changed everything. “Whereas when she was in the depths of that, we all thought she might not come back.”
That is not to suggest that life is now “a bed of roses,” Elaine says. This is a chronic illness. The last few months have been difficult, for example. When we meet, it is a few days before the first anniversary of their beloved mother, Mary V, who died from cancer last year. “She always said you’re only as happy as your least happy child,” Maggie says of their mother’s awareness of Elaine’s situation.
She still checks up on her younger sister, still worries about her. Now if Elaine won’t answer, she will get her daughter Izzie, to ring her, because Elaine will always answer the niece she adores, Maggie says with a grin. The family network continues its support.
I wonder about the impact of this for Elaine, how it feels to hear her sister talking about the effect her illness has had on her beloved family, the loved ones at what is sometimes described as the frontline of depression. They had never talked about it until they began working on the Talking Depression campaign, the reason they’re here today.
“When we did the video for this, I started bawling crying,” Elaine admits. “Because I never had any idea what I put ye through.”
“We never spoke about it really,” Maggie adds. “She always knew I was worried about her, but she just never knew how afraid I was for her.”
Now, Maggie says, she is scared if she can’t reach her sister, but no longer terrified.
“Because I do know that she knows she can come through it, and she knows she’s loved, and we all want her around. And she knows that if anything happened, we would be devastated. So I do think that terrifying feeling of what if I don’t get there, what if one of us isn’t around, is gone.
“You’re always worried, but that actual fear of getting a phone call to say something bad happened to her, that’s gone really. Because she got help and got her diagnosis.”
All videos for the Talking Depression campaign can be viewed on the Janssen Ireland YouTube channel and The Little Book of Big Conversations can be accessed on the Janssen with Me website at janssenwithme.ie/depression
Five ways you can support a loved one
Dr Shane McInerney is a general adult consultant psychiatrist at University Hospital Galway. He has some words of advice for offering support:
1 Starting a conversation with the person about how they are feeling is the first step toward getting someone the professional support they need.
It can be difficult to start that first conversation. It is important to remember, however, that your intention is a good one and that such a timely intervention helps begin to address the issue. Writing down some conversation points ahead of time can help to support a positive outcome.
2 Actively listening, where the person has another’s full attention, is important so the person feels they have the chance to express themselves without any sense of judgment. Using supportive words can be helpful – “I see, I understand”.
The word depression does not even need to be mentioned; you both might just discuss the symptoms being experienced.
3 A goal of accessing professional care is important. Depression is treatable and typically the sooner a person presents the better the outcome, even for those with very severe symptoms. The GP can be a great resource. In milder conditions, the GP can initiate treatment, whether it’s medication or a referral for psychotherapy, or both.
If the condition is more moderate or severe in nature, the GP will often make a referral to the local mental health services.
4 Patience and persistence are key when supporting someone with depression. It may take time for the person to open up or feel ready to take a step toward seeking professional support. People might be reluctant at first so you might need to have multiple conversations before they open up about their experiences. Keep reaching out to remind them you are there to support them when they are ready.
5 Last but not least, tap into community support agencies. If you are unsure about how to support your loved one or are feeling in need of support yourself, you can refer to the list of services available in Ireland, such as:
- Aware can be contacted by freephone at 1800 80 48 48.
- Contact Samaritans at 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Text Hello to 50808 to access online volunteer support.
- Pieta House at pieta.ie. Crisis Helpline 1800 247 247 or Text Help to 51444.
- The Little Book of Big Conversations is full of advice on depression. janssenwithme.ie/depression
https://www.independent.ie/style/celebrity/celebrity-features/elaine-crowley-i-didnt-want-to-have-anything-to-do-with-my-family-i-hated-everybody-i-didnt-see-the-point-in-being-in-existence-42154399.html Elaine Crowley: ‘I didn’t want to have anything to do with my family. I hated everybody. I didn’t see the point in being in existence’