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Hard lockdown lessons

February 16th, 2021 7:05 AM

By Emma Connolly

John feared looking weak by sharing his story, but says if it helps even one person it will have been worth the risk.

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The pandemic is impacting people in many different ways, but for Bandon Grammar School teacher John O’Regan, it has been a particularly dark and difficult period

A WEST Cork teacher has spoken out about his mental health challenges since the pandemic hit, in a bid to help others, particularly men, who may also be struggling.

Bandon Grammar teacher John O’Regan had experienced periods over the past 15 years where he had felt low, but nothing compared to the unrelenting depression of the last few months. He went from feeling well, to becoming tormented by his thoughts and feelings, and while not contemplating suicide, he began to understand how one might get to that point. 

‘There were times previously before where I mightn’t have felt ten out of ten – maybe a five out of ten, at the worst.

‘But when Covid hit, everything was exascerbated, and it all felt very difficult – home schooling, teaching online and just living through a pandemic,’ he said.

John, from Fountainstown, admits that on paper his life looks great, and not many people would have suspected how he was floundering.

He’s a dad of three happy and healthy children aged six, four and two. He is in a happy marriage to Jane, and lives in a house he can afford.

‘My parents are also still alive, I’m close to them and my siblings and I’ve a good bunch of friends.

‘But I still felt miserable and I think it’s important to note that everyone’s reality is their own reality,’ he said.

John, who has taught English and history at BGS for the past 10 years, found the summer especially difficult.

‘The limited structure that having to teach had put on my days had helped keep the darkest of my feelings subdued.

‘The end of the school year marked a period of emptiness I simply did not know how to cope with.

‘Every day was exactly the same: rise with the kids some time after 6am, feed them the first of their meals and snacks, go to the playroom, garden or for a walk, and try to kill the endless hours that lay before us.

‘Then bedtime, clean up and couch. Rise and repeat.’

John said as exhausting as it was, he maintained an outward charade of normality to neighbours, friends and family, but it wasn’t something he could keep up at home.

Going back to school offered some relief but no ‘magic solution.’

Once the initial lift had subsided, he said, he was back in a ‘default state of gloominess.’

‘It was getting harder and harder to hide how I was feeling. The acting enthusiast in me has often paradoxically enjoyed putting on a façade of wellness but people were seeing through the cracks.

‘A close colleague said I looked weary and she hoped I was okay. I wasn’t but I smiled and told her that I was grand.’

The reality, he said, was very different. By November he was at his lowest point ever.

‘My strength to resist my own negativity on a daily basis was waning and I was getting closer and closer to that guy who can’t get out of bed in the morning.’

He visited his doctor, ‘laying out in stark detail how I was feeling.’

‘For the first time suicide was on my radar. I was not suicidal but I could understand why people might go there.

‘I explained how I lost the ability to find pleasure or joy in almost anything. I used to love podcasts, but couldn’t engage with them.

‘I love soccer and used to read prodigiously on this subject but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to click into an article. What was the point?’

His doctor was concerned, and changed his medication. Thankfully, after a period of time ‘the fog started to lift.’

‘We had to figure out the right blend of medication and after six to eight weeks I did begin to feel better,’ said John.

He honestly admits that he feared that by sharing his story he might look weak or vulnerable.

‘I really had to fight against those instincts. Men aren’t good at sharing and I’m speaking as someone like that. Women are much more emotionally literate.’

But if it helps just one person, he feels that risk will have been worthwhile.

Right now he’s feeling an awful lot better, he’s  seeing a counsellor and practising meditation.

However, he’s aware his recovery isn’t as simple as taking a pill.

‘I’m very conscious of my mental health and I’m very hopeful that I won’t ever feel as bad again but I’m not naive either, and I know there’ll be ups and downs.

‘Uncertainty again rules. But this time I am determined to remain optimistic. The world may be in a dreadful  place, but I have faith in my fellow citizens that we will stay at home and beat this virus.’

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