Surviving black dog days of depression and telling the tale

‘When I was at college doing my finals . . . I had my first really defined episode’

Having been bullied throughout his childhood, Tony Hickey suffered low self-esteem and later went through several bad periods of depression which on more than one occasion resulted in him being hospitalised.

“I was bullied relentlessly as a child, both physically, when I was much younger and then as I got older it was more emotional and I was ostracised and alienated from the group,” he says. “Initially, I thought this was just a normal part of childhood, but it wasn’t until much later in life, with the help of therapists, that I understood that what had happened to me wasn’t right and it had done a lot of damage.

“By the age of eight, I had very low self-esteem and, like a lot of bullying victims, I blamed myself and thought I must have deserved it and they must be justified in bullying me. I took me a long time to work out that their behaviour was totally inappropriate – but it was a journey I went through from childhood right through my life.”

Hickey, who is in his mid-60s, says the lack of confidence and self-belief changed into something more serious as he got older, and he first remembers suffering from depression when he was in his final year at college. “The feelings of low self-worth were like a cloud hanging over me,” he says. “Looking back, I had also been dealing with depression from my late teens, but didn’t realise what it was at the time.


“Then when I was at college doing my finals for my engineering degree, I experienced my first really defined episode of depression.  I guess I was around 21 and was overcome with a feeling of negativity and couldn’t believe that I was even attempting to study engineering or take exams as I didn’t think I had the brains for it. I couldn’t motivate myself and felt like I had made a totally wrong decision.

‘Important exams’

“These feelings lasted for three or four months, which was pretty difficult when I was trying to prepare for one of the most important exams of my life. Naturally, it is quite rough when your cognitive function lets you down at a time like this, but thankfully those feelings lifted about a month before the exams, so I was able to do enough work to get a good degree.

“I had no idea what had happened to me, and I think what kept me going was a sense of duty and not wanting to let my parents down – I was glad to get through it but boy, it was a tough time.”

My children arrived when I was in my late 20s and this was a very joyous period in my life as the joy of parenthood kept depression at bay. But I was never totally free of it

The Dublin man married in his 20s and went on to have three children. But the depression and feelings of despair, while buried, didn’t disappear and when they returned, he finally sought medical help and was subsequently hospitalised on more than one occasion.

“I carried on living with bouts of depression after college and through my early adult years,” he says. “My children arrived when I was in my late 20s and this was a very joyous period in my life as the joy of parenthood kept depression at bay. But I was never totally free of it and there was a recurring pattern – so I would be well for a few years and then a life event would throw things into disarray, and I would be unwell again.

“I carried on dealing with it in my own way and didn’t have any medical intervention until I was about 33. Then around this time, I experienced a depressed episode which was so bad that I finally went to my doctor about it. He said straight away that it probably was depression and suggested that I either take anti-depressants or go into hospital for a while. I thought I would try medication first and after about four weeks, I noticed a bit of a difference as the cloud, which had been hanging over me, began to break up a bit and I could see a little patch of blue. Then, day by day, that patch got bigger and bigger until I was back to myself again.”

Coping mechanisms

Although he had recovered from this bout of depression, the father-of-three knew that it was likely to return, so decided to go voluntarily into hospital to see if he could learn something about his condition and learn some coping mechanisms for when it returned. “When I was well again, I checked into the hospital to find out more about depression and, looking back, it was actually a wonderful time for me as I learned so much about mental illness and my own condition as well as a lot of information which helped me to maintain wellness into the future.

My mood had been deteriorating so I started to drink in order to take the edge off the depression. So by 2015, I had two problems – depression and alcohol addiction

“I spent my days going to lectures on depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety and got a lot of vital information. I went to group therapy as well and also learned a lot of different relaxation techniques, which were also very useful to me.”

Having worked as an engineer for 30 years, Hickey took early retirement for the sake of his health and says this, along with the coping mechanisms he learned in hospital, has kept him well to this day. “My first hospital stay led to two others later on in my life, one in 2007 and another in 2015,” he says. “The second admission was triggered by the death of my mother as I really struggled with that loss.

“Then in 2015, my mood had been deteriorating so I started to drink in order to take the edge off the depression. So by 2015, I had two problems – depression and alcohol addiction – and I was enrolled on a dual-diagnosis programme where the two issues were treated. Thankfully, I responded really well and have been free of alcohol addiction and depression since.

“I learned to look after myself by taking early retirement form work as I had identified that work-related stress was a trigger. So being able to leave work was a huge benefit. I’ve also found that taking regular exercise is key, along with abstaining from alcohol, practising daily mediation and I also joined a choir as I believe there is something wonderful about singing – particularly with a group.”


Mental health charities, such as Aware, have also been a lifeline for Hickey and others. Last year, 30,000 people directly benefited from Aware's support services, with a further 8,000 people taking part in education programmes facilitated by the charity.

"Depression robs you of the simple joys of life," says Stephen Butterly, head of fundraising at the charity. "It drains your motivation to the point where you can't get out of bed. It sees darkness where there should be light, feels despair where you should feel hope. Every day, Aware provides vital support to people impacted by depression and bipolar disorder but they can't do this without your help."

Hickey says it is vital to be open about mental health issues as the more open we are about it as a society, the more people will talk about how they are feeling, which will, in turn, help them to recover. “When my mental health is in a good place, life just goes along swimmingly and if difficulties arise, I can look at a situation, assess it, figure out a solution and then implement it,” he says.

“Good mental health is everything for me, but I really don’t think I’m unique in that way – I think a lot of people are struggling through life with mental health which is below par. So we need to keep talking about this and my advice to anyone who is struggling would be to look for help. There’s much more available than when I was a teenager, so don’t struggle or suffer on your own. There is help out there and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”