‘When I’m depressed I push myself to go out of the house to the garden’

Geraldine McCoy
Geraldine McCoy

Mum-of-five Geraldine McCoy from Toomebridge, Co Antrim was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 32, forcing her to give up her much loved job as a primary school teacher and leaving her struggling with family life.

Geraldine had always been a confident person with a talent for sports, juggling a career and a busy family life. However, 17 years ago it became apparent that something was very wrong.

The former primary teacher began to experience mood swings, going from feeling highly energized to lows of depression where she couldn’t get out of bed.

“I couldn’t see it at the time, but in hindsight it all started after my fourth child was born,” explained Geraldine.

“I started to get highly energized, almost hyper and I felt like I could succeed at anything which meant my ideas became too big, too quick.

“I would get frustrated with people who weren’t as productive as me, say things out of character and have intense mood swings. But at this stage I didn’t know anything was wrong, I felt normal. Without medication, support or any understanding it just got worse. There were days when I’d be in bed with the curtains closed and I wouldn’t answer the door.

“The highs and lows went on for a couple of years before I was diagnosed.”

Having received the diagnosis she had bipolar disorder, Geraldine was forced to leave the job she dearly loved which plunged her deeper into depression.

“That was 17 years ago and I still get emotional thinking about leaving my teaching career,” she added.

“I loved my job, I just loved being able to teach children and I took a lot of pride in it, so it was a real disappointment for me to leave it. But I have five beautiful children and when I left teaching I dedicated the next few years of my life to my kids, who were all under 11 years old.

“At the time it was very difficult. I didn’t really understand what was happening to me and I didn’t have very good coping mechanisms. I couldn’t do things as well as I used to, even making simple decisions like what to buy in the supermarket for dinner became a huge task.”

Bipolar disorder is a condition that is often misunderstood and shrouded in stigma with roughly one in 100 people in the UK diagnosed during their lives. Actor Stephen Fry has frequently spoken out about his battle and the late actress Carrie Fisher often talked about her struggles.

Despite the difficulties she faced as she dealt with her condition, Geraldine had the unwavering support of her family, husband Kevin and children Anne (16), Paul, (22), Caoimhe (24), Ciaran (26) and Mary Kate (27).

“My husband Kevin has been a great support, I couldn’t have got through it without him and he provided stability for me and the kids,” said Geraldine. “They are all doing very well in their lives, I’m extremely proud of them and they are proud of me.”

Despite having amazing support from friends and family and having always been used to working prior to her diagnosis, Geraldine felt there was something missing from her life.

The Toomebridge mum then taught herself to craft wood and to garden and two years ago she got involved with TIDAL, a local community based group, helping out in the office.

Gradually Geraldine got more involved, volunteering in the garden and crafting area and she now uses her teaching skills to help others.

“I’m 49 now and this is the first time my bipolar has been easing,” explained Geraldine.

“My mood will still go up and down and my bad days can last for months but I don’t go as deeply into my depression as I used to. Being committed to TIDAL has stopped me from going into my usual pattern of isolating myself.

“Now when I’m depressed I will push myself to get out of the house and I come to the TIDAL garden, I can still have my own space and not talk to anyone if I don’t feel like it, but the important thing is that I’m out of the house and I’ve got people around me if I need them, and I’m doing something productive. If other people can experience this at TIDAL too then we are changing lives.”

Geraldine is passionate about the work being done at TIDAL. Now a new project funded by the Big Lottery Fund, using cash raised by National Lottery players, has allowed TIDAL to expand their support to local people with the community enterprise, and Geraldine is involved as a volunteer.

Geraldine said: “When you change one person’s life there is an enormous ripple effect.

“With this new Big Lottery Fund project we are going to be able to improve the health and wellbeing of the whole community.

“A safe community space will be created where people can come and get involved and talk to other people. I’ll be able to spend more time with people in the garden and help them talk about their mental health.”

“When I don’t feel depressed my creative side comes out and things that I see in the garden inspire me. The other day I was looking at a carrot which was being attacked at the root and making the top wilt and become unhealthy so we used an organic remedy to save it.

‘‘I saw it as a parallel in my life, there is something below the surface in me which is making me unwell. It’s not just medical treatment which is helping me cope better, the natural remedies like gardening, crafting and helping others are also a great healer.”

As Geraldine lives with the often overwhelming effects of bipolar disorder, her family are so proud of the progress she has made.

Daughter Mary Kate (27) said: “Mental illness is a constant battle, and sometimes mammy finds it hard to do wee things like make dinner, tidy up and go places that the rest of us all take for granted. But she’s great, she struggles through at times when she probably can’t be bothered.

“Things like the garden in Toome, the people she meets and the crafting helps give her motivation to keep going. She’s friendly, outgoing and very caring.

“The garden in Toome brings this out in her and lets everyone see the good she can and does do all the time. She’s a great mother and a great friend.”