PAT Sheehan came from a typical family. He has an older sister. His father was a factory worker and his mother a stay at home housewife. His mother was always very caring and extremely sensitive and inclined to worry. She developed depression when the children were quite young.
Pat noticed the fact that his mother was unhappy and tried to make it better. Their father was away at work all day so he took on the counselling role and listened to his mother.
“Our mother was not present,” he says, and, “this affected my sister and me, the relationship was turned and askew, I became the adult looking out for the parent. I used all my energy to help my mother rather than in my own development.”
When visiting his mother during a period when she was hospitalised, he felt in his heart that it was not the right place for her.
Later he felt huge grief about that. His mother died by suicide while Pat was a young teenager.
“I felt I’d failed, that I had been unable to save her,” he says.
This was in the 1970s when suicide was a taboo subject so they didn’t talk about it and didn’t have the skills to talk about it. His father coped as best he could and returned to work after the funeral.
The burden of guilt stayed with Pat. He finished school after the Leaving Cert and went to work in retail and wholesale. He ploughed himself into the work.
“When you fail in looking after someone, you have to find success in another area,” he said.
He knew he was on the edge of depression and very unhappy and long hours spent at work masked that. Pat was confused around relationships and didn’t have a sense of direction. It took him a long time to realise that he verged on hopelessness and despair.
He found reading about how other people coped with difficult situations helped to keep him going. He says: “Our development is compressed as children when children take on the role of carer.”
With much reluctance, Pat eventually decided to take a step towards counselling. At the time, he found this very difficult, thinking that he was in some way weak and shouldn’t need to ask for help. He met a wonderful counsellor who was able to help him unfold the burden of guilt and to recognise that his development had been compromised.
“When focused on another person, you lose the focus on self and work to the point of burnout,” he says. “But you don’t realise you’re doing it, you need others to point it out.”
Talking in therapy allowed healing. It was a long journey, coming to terms with the burden of guilt that was a constant shadow over his life.
Pat explored the idea of studying psychotherapy and began with a higher diploma in counselling and psychotherapy, progressing to doing a degree and then a Masters.
While studying, he met people with similar stories which was a revelation as until then he had felt he was the only one to experience such feelings. He says: “Everything that is worthwhile is personal experience.”
During this time of study, he found his way to working with the Brothers of Charity services. Here, he felt he was making a contribution that fitted his own value system. He loved working with the residents and also took on the role of training in new people.
Pat stayed with the Brothers of Charity for 12/13 years, while continuing his own training in psychotherapy and building his practice. In 2017, he took the decision to leave the Brothers and go into practice full time.
During the last 15 to 20 years, Pat has worked in the area of mental health. He said: “When people don’t have a set of skills to work through problems it is very easy to fall into depression.”
In his practice, he works with people to develop those skills.
Pat says he learned a secret about mental health: “If a person admits they are ill and really wants to get better, then they will. The attitude in how we see illness is very important.
“Don’t become a victim of your illness, but see it as something you can learn from. If you put yourself into victim mode, you give over your authority to someone else. This takes personal responsibility out of it.”
Pat believes suicide bereaved people can feel very angry, abandoned and betrayed, but often are unable to articulate it. When they don’t talk about grief, it becomes complicated for the whole family. Isolation becomes a huge problem. Death is part of life but we try to sanitise death and dying.
The work Pat is doing now grew out of his life experiences and is a natural fit for him. He survived through, friends, reading other people’s stories, and a sense that there was something greater beyond this life. Spirituality kept him going and is a very important part of mental health.
When in UCC he undertook research into what causes happiness rather than what causes sadness. The answer is three things: friendships/relationships, community, spirituality, and a sense of contributing to society.
“When I look back,” he says, “yes, tragedy happened, but there was great learning from it. Upsets make us who we are.”
For years, he felt alone and confused about his life — on the outside he looked grand, but inside he wasn’t.
He said: “We tend to put on masks for the benefit of others.”
His story is one of many, thousands of people have similar stories.
“Resilience,” he says “is bouncing back after something terrible. We all have that ability, but sometimes we don’t have the skills to bounce back. It is not about changing the fact that tragedy happens, we have to get on, move on, and not drown underneath it”.
He has met some amazing people who have found their way out of despair and have been able to get on with their lives.
“There are no instant solutions,” Pat cautions. “Sometimes people want answers, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process.”
Pat also practices cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, which he finds very beneficial in helping people manage their thoughts. He combines it with psychotherapy.
Sometimes people just need their story to be heard.
“Anxiety,” Pat says, “is there to help us, it prepares us for danger, and how to manage it. Anything new is bound to make us anxious as it takes us outside our comfort zone.
Today’s advertising plays into that, with the suggestion that a new car, or bigger house, will mean you’re a success. Men, especially, buy into that.
“Retirement is another big hurdle for people, especially if they’ve been working all their lives. It is something that needs to be planned and prepared for; we must keep active, fill the space with something else.
“It takes a long time to get out of the clutches, of work to realise this is not where you’re going to get answers”
Pat Sheehan will give talks in: Ballyphehane Library March, 20 at 11am, Blackpool Library March 22, at 11am and Mayfield Library, March 23 at 11am.
Pat blogs weekly, giving tips and ideas for good mental health, on www.corkwellbeingcounselling.ie/blog.
PAT'S TIPS FOR HELPING WITH GOOD MENTAL HEALTH
Try living fully in the present moment.
Developing your potential and finding ways to express it.
Developing coping skills and building resilience; to adapt to life’s uncertainties.
Try practicing an attitude of gratitude (counting your blessings).
Discover what are the things that add value to your life and set goals according to your values.
Contributing and engaging in activities that actively build social connections and contribute to the well-being of others, and of the planet.
Healthy diet and spending time out of doors.
Committing to a life-giving spiritual practice, that increases meaning and purpose.
Make sure to get a proper amount of sleep.
TRY TO AVOID
Getting stuck in rumination — negatively mulling over past events.
Anticipatory anxiety — worrying about future events.
Engaging in social comparisons — keeping up with the Jones’s.
THREE SMALL TIPS FOR LIVING MINDFULLY
Breathe 7/11 — Drop the shoulders and bring attentiveness to the inhale for the count of seven and exhale for the count of eleven.
Bring attention to the body — feel feet on ground, hands on lap, etc… remember, your body is always in the now!
Activity — choose a routine activity e.g. brushing teeth, and be with the sensations rather than racing ahead with to do lists. (Remember to do things mindfully).