Alison Canavan, 39, a motivational speaker, shares her My Healthista Story of overcoming 20 years of depression and anxiety whilst ditching the drink and medication
Alison Canavan is the picture of a wellness warrior to her 14K followers on Instagram. But no more than five years ago, it was a different story. For 20 years between the ages of 15 and 35, Alison recalls self-medicating with alcohol and partying alongside taking antidepressants whilst travelling the world as an international model.
The Irish catwalk queen suffered from depression, the most predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety – which Alison also had – schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mental health is a growing public health concern, as recent statistics show that one in three work sickness notes handed out by GPs are now for mental health. Figures show 64.7 million anti-depressant prescriptions were dished out in 2016, compared to 31 million in 2006, as it is suggested more people come forward and seek help with momentum behind campaigns such as World Mental Health Day (yesterday).
With a glass of wine in hand after a day of work, Alison felt her most relaxed and free from the mental clutter. ‘I was always well aware my partying was an issue’, she tells Healthista. ‘Over the years people used to say to me, Alison, you still stink of drink I can smell it on you. And I’d say oh it was fine! Every body was out last night. What I realise now is that the level of what we consider normal is actually not normal at all’, she says.
Despite facing the symptoms of depression and anxiety every day, it was impossible for Alison to communicate how she felt, leaving her to feel trapped and alone. ‘Someone would say to me tell me how you feel and tell me what you’re going through and I’ll try and help you. In my head, I could put the words and sentences together but they wouldn’t come further than my mouth’, she explains. When she did speak honestly about how she felt, she was undermined. ‘People would say god, do you realise how lucky you are? Do you know many people would love to be travelling the world as a model? How many people would love to be in your position? What starts to happen is you lose your voice and you become afraid to tell anyone how you’re feeling because that’s the reaction you’re fearing of getting in return’, she recalls.
When Alison had her first baby, James, who is now six, she faced post natal depression. But this time was different. ‘I realised that instead of trying to be better for James and be a better mum I actually needed to get well for myself first. It was one of the first times that I really understood the power and importance of self-care’.
Determined to get off medication, Alison discovered the benefits of self-help therapy and mindfulness meditation alongside a healthy diet and exercise. It was a journey that took time and patience, but what Alison came to realise was that, ‘I had been looking for happiness in external things outside myself, but really we have everything we need inside.’
Using everything she learnt, Alison’s new book, Minding Mum, advises new mothers on how to prepare for life after childbirth and the importance of self-care. Encouraging people to be their own wellness coach, Alison’s message of real wellness focuses on ‘the full 360’: ‘Real wellness can only truly be achieved when we connect the dots for ourselves with our own health and wellbeing. This means looking at body, mind, spirit, our environment and the quality of our relationships’, she writes on her website.
‘At some stage in our lives pretty much all of us will struggle [with mental health] in some way. It’s really important to communicate’, Alison says. ‘Mental health and illness of any kind is something that’s invisible… And because of that it’s scary, not only for the person suffering but also for friends and family too’.
Symptoms of depression
The symptoms of depression can be complex and vary widely between people, say NHS guidelines. But as a general rule, if you’re depressed, you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy that interfere with your work, social life and family life. You may have some of the following symptoms:
- continuous low mood or sadness
- feeling hopeless and helpless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling tearful
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling irritable and intolerant of others
- having no motivation or interest in things
- finding it difficult to make decisions
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- feeling anxious or worried
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- unexplained aches and pains
- lack of energy
- low sex drive (loss of libido)
- changes to your menstrual cycle
- disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning.
If you are concerned about your mental health, phone Mind Charity 0300 123 3393 or Samaritans 116 123.