From a young age, Amy Molloy knew mental illness was rife in her family – especially among the women. Yet, by spending her life studying optimistic coping mechanisms, she believes she has finally broken the cycle. Here, she shares what she has learnt on her journey to happiness.
The word ‘antidepressants’ was part of my vocabulary before my age hit double digits. A number of adults in my family were long-term takers. From a young age, I knew what Prozac was and I can remember playing with the boxes of St John’s Wort tablets that were stacked by the telephone.
“All the females in our family are crazy,” my father always joked, even telling my serious boyfriends when I brought them home to meet my parents. It’s an interesting situation to grow up being told that depression runs in your family – especially the women.
If any kind of illness runs in your family you’ll know how it feels. You’re constantly looking for signs and you become hyper aware of the possible triggers. Will this break-up be the one that tips me over the edge? Will this setback be the one that releases the black dog into my garden?
Research shows that, although a range of contributing factors can lead to mental health issues, genetics are party to blame, alongside biochemical factors, personality style, long term stressors and traumatic events.
During my early life, I ticked the ‘traumatic event’ quota. Shortly after my 17th birthday, my father lost the use of his legs from Hodgkins Lymphoma. At the age of 23, I lost my own husband to cancer just three weeks after our wedding day, when a brain tumour caused him to have a stroke as he lay in bed beside me.
With each unimaginable incident, I knew my family were on high alert. During my husband’s illness, my mum prayed for God to take her instead of him, believing that I wouldn’t have the strength to live without him.
Yet, 10 years later I’ve defied the odds and, dare I say, broken the cycle I was born into. I’m writing this as a 33-year-old happy, healthy woman with a baby growing in my belly, a fulfilling career and a loving relationship with my parents and partner.
I would never call myself a ‘naturally happy’ person – if I’m honest, I don’t believe such a human exists. However, I am a ‘strategically happy’ person. In an odd way, my genetic predisposition for mental illness was a blessing because I became obsessed with uncovering the secret to emotional resilience.
As a journalist, I spent a decade interviewing ‘empowered survivors’ about their coping mechanisms, from tsunami survivors to 9/11 rescue workers and shark attack victims. Their advice became the basis of my book, The World is a Nice Place: How to Overcome Adversity Joyfully.
As I discovered, it is possible to overcome the worst experiences of your life, whilst still hoping for the best – with the help of an ‘emotional tool kit’ of rituals, practises and strategies.
It’s important to note that some mental health conditions are due to chemical imbalances and you can’t just ‘think’ your way out of them. I’ll never forget interviewing the mother of a boy who first tried to kill himself at the age of six. Evan suffered from bipolar disorder and eventually took his life at the age of 15 by jumping out of his bedroom window.
Over the years, I have recommended that friends ask their doctors for antidepressants, and I’m a big advocate of talking therapies. But I’ve also seen the transformative power that you can have over your own psyche.
For me, this includes honouring my feelings rather than trying to gloss over them. In fact, experts say it is better not to have it all together all of the time, and a “micro-meltdown” – momentarily becoming overwhelmed by our emotions – can even work to our advantage.
Researchers at Penn State University found that coming up with a time and place to think about a worry can help to contain it. Instead of letting negativity cloud your schedule for the entire day, create a ‘worry window’ – for example, this could be 30 minutes in the morning, when you sit down with a notebook and write down everything that is concerning you.
I also use the soothing power of visualisation. If I have a bad day, I head to the ocean, a swimming pool or even just the bathtub. I float on my back and imagine black tar running out of my hair into the water. When I leave the water, I make a conscious decision to leave that toxicity behind me.
During all tough situations, I gravitate towards ‘eco therapy’ for comfort. Research confirms that a break in nature of just 15 minutes a day can reduce stress levels, anxiety and depression, as well as boost productivity and creativity.
In hindsight, I’ve always been drawn to this coping mechanism – swimming in the Irish Sea after my husband died, standing barefoot in the grass outside of my dad’s hospital, and even walking on the beach when I was in labour with my baby.
My search for optimism has not been a solo mission. In the past, I’ve seen a psychotherapist. I also FaceTime with a life coach in South Carolina. I have ‘colour acupuncture’ from a spiritual healer and sporadically visit a hypnotherapist, a reiki practitioner and a meditation tutor. I’ve also seen a break-up coach and a divorce mentor, who helped me to compassionately exit my second marriage.
It might sound excessive to have six experts on speed dial. But I’ve never regretted the time or money spent on these multiple touch points. My psychotherapist specialises in post-traumatic stress disorder, my hypnotherapist is an expert in ‘childhood hangups’ and my meditation tutor has taught me to process stress, smoothly. They’re like The Avengers of mental health and they make me feel invincible.
Now that I’m a mother, and have a second baby on the way, I am increasingly conscious of my family history. At 16 months old, my daughter is wondrously free of worries and emotional demons, but I know it might not always be that way. I just hope I can teach her not to take her happiness for granted, and to arm herself with an emotional toolkit and ask for support whenever she needs it.
On Instagram, I recently stumbled across a quote from Marilyn Monroe: “She was a girl who knew how to be happy even when she was sad. And that’s important.” For me, this is the ultimate goal. Few of us can escape disappointments, trauma and emotional downturns, but we can control how we react – even if we’re wired for unhappiness.