|Here is article about Steven O'Connor which was written by Michael Cooke for Amicus Union magazine. Photographs by Rob Flemming.|
It was a grey blustery October morning and Steve O’Connor was contemplating the 50 foot drop down to jagged rocks and swirling sea at Portreath, a coastal village in Cornwall.
That morning, for the umpteenth time, the 47-year old welder had lain in bed planning his suicide.
And like every other day he had got up, made some sandwiches and set off for work.
But this day was different.
‘I just sat in the car park. I couldn’t go in. I drove around aimlessly until I ended up at Portreath,’ he recalls.
He says he spent several hours on the cliff edge, a period which, he says, seemed to pass in a few dazed seconds.
‘Then I saw an air sea rescue helicopter fly past. I thought about the risks those guys would put themselves in if they tried to rescue me and that was it, I realised I couldn’t go through with it.’
Life wasn’t always like this for Steve O’Connor.
A life-long Amicus member with a natural affinity with trade unionism, he says he was never afraid to speak his mind or fight for his - and other peoples’ - corner at Hobart food preparation company in Barnstaple, where he worked for 20 years.
In fact, he says it was his outspoken attitude which got him sacked from Hobart’s in 1999, the victim of an alleged set-up.
But the sacking triggered off a disastrous series of events, which, little over a year later, had cost him his marriage, his home and very nearly his life.
Steve O’Connor now recognises that he has suffered from manic depression ever since his childhood spent on a farm near Tipperary, Ireland - it was just never diagnosed.
And he is not alone. According to mental health charity Mind, manic depression or bi-polar disorder affects 600,000 people in the UK. It is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain which control mood swings.
So whereas most peoples’ moods hover around the ‘equator’ of mood equilibrium, people with bi-polar shift radically between the ‘poles’ of frenetic activity at one extreme, and deep depression at the other.
Moods can often last several months yet people with bi-polar are powerless to stop the swings taking place.
Many people with bi-polar describe the pit of depression as huge, terrifying black hole. Steve O’Connor simply says: ‘When you are depressed you have suicidal tendencies and you don’t function at all.’
But what many people don’t understand is the seductive ‘high’.
Steve O’Connor says: ‘When the mania comes in, it is the opposite. You are functioning on such a high level of adrenalin. You don’t sleep, you are just full of energy, you can take on anything. Mania is a state you live in when nothing seems impossible.’
The irony is that because of their boundless energy and self-confidence, people with bi-polar are often big achievers in their ‘up’ phase.
For instance, at one point during the last bout of mania before he was diagnosed in late 2000, Steve O’Connor very nearly succeeded in buying three properties at the same time - one being a speculative development – despite having no experience of the work, no money and no income.
However, if unchecked, this confidence can end up as delusions and ludicrously ambitious schemes. People with bi-polar often run up huge debts during their ‘up’ period, only to realise to their horror, the implications of their actions on the way down, adding to the depth of the looming depression.
Steve says: ‘We all want to be there [on the high]. But the downside is so destructive that it’s just not worth it. No way.’
Because there is no cure, the usual treatment for manic depression is a life-long course of mood stabilising drugs and intensive psychiatric support.
Steve for instance is currently taking Epilim, a drug designed to treat epilepsy and he has regular psychiatric treatment. Since his diagnosis and treatment he has suffered no major mood swings and he says his mood currently is slightly subdued.
But self-treatment is also a vital factor and for Steve, this comes in the form of a 14 year old part Arab gelding called Colina.
He says: ‘There are many routes to getting back to health after a disabling disease and for me it is long-distance riding. I grew up on a farm so I have always loved being around animals. There is just something about horses.’
In 2002, he and Colina set out on a 2000-mile ‘long riding’ trek from Southern Spain to Penzance following medieval pilgrim trails through Portugal, the Pyrenees and western France.
Using £3,000 from his divorce settlement, the trek had two aims - to aid Steve’s recovery and raise awareness over mental illness.
On the first count, the project was a great success. Despite the gruelling four-month slog, Steve says he and Colina experienced little but friendliness, generosity and hospitality from people they met along the way.
He says: ‘It does wonders for your belief in humanity. The trek just opened so many hearts and doors. As soon as people see you with a horse, it is just different. People just look at you in a completely different way than if you were walking or were on a bike.’
But, he adds: ‘I never looked further than one day ahead, I just thought about what I had to do that day. I never tried to think of the whole thing, it would have overwhelmed me.’
Overcoming deep-seated prejudice surrounding mental illness, however, will be much more difficult, he says.
‘So many people are working under stress or are depressed. And if they are off with a broken leg it is no problem, it is visible, it is obvious. But if it is mental illness people are wary. This view is deep-rooted, but it can be tackled as long me and other people like me are saying ‘this is what I have got, this is how life is and this is how life can be.’
Now with a new life in Penzance and a new girlfriend, Steve is currently planning a four-week trek with Colina around Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin moor.
On a field overlooking the stunning Cornish coast he says: ‘I come up here with Colina almost every day. In an hour’s ride that way you can be on the moors. It’s a magical place.
‘If I’m not feeling very well, he just calms me down, even if we don’t go out. I will sit there and have my lunch he’ll graze away. It’s real companionship. Even though horses can’t talk you communicate the whole time.
‘He’s quite happy to stroll along for hours on end, he doesn’t get too excited and it has a sort of calming effect on me. I can’t think how I could be without him now.’
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