Nell McFadden M.B.E.

(Published March 2009)
I will be 82 years young this year. I have been windowed twice, brought up four of a family and now have seven great grand children and like many of my generation, worked most of my days until my 60th Birthday.

I decided I owed it to myself to retire the day I became 60. I had intended to have a year off and then take up voluntary work of some kind. But it never worked out like that for me. I retired at the end of March and during that summer I had a great time and although I was living on less money, I coped. I went swimming; bus runs; walks and joined an exercise class, but by the end of the summer the bus runs stopped, the swimming pool closed and I didn’t realise how that would affect me.

As the autumn and winter approached I began to feel that something was wrong but I didn’t know what, and as the winter came on I started to take panic attacks and wouldn’t go out, I wouldn’t answer the phone, I just began to go down that long black tunnel of depression. I didn’t realise for some time that this creeping thing was depression. Only anyone who has ever been there can really know how it feels to lose control and how negative we can become.

My favourite expression at that time was ‘I can’t cope’ – I who had always been the rock for my family was now the one who needed help. I would never like to go through that terrible time again. At the beginning of the next year I went to my doctor and cried in his surgery asking for his help. He said I can tell you what to do but only you can do it. He advised me to go out into the community and get involved to the best of my ability. I went home in despair, how could I go out and get involved when I didn’t want to go out and couldn’t cope with life? I won’t say what I called my doctor when I went home. How dare he tell my to get involved in my state, but as I sat and thought about it I realised there was no one to really help me, so I must try to do something.

I started by working in the Oxfam shop two mornings a week and no one except those who have been there will ever know the effort I had to make just to go out and be involved. That summer an article in our local Telegraph newspaper said a Conference was being held in the hope of getting an Elderly Forum Group set up. Suddenly I thought maybe this is something I can get involved in. I went along and liked what I heard and put my name down to go on a Committee. I was voted on as Vice Chair and thought it would be alright to just be there, but after three meetings the Chairman left and I was thrown in at the deep end. I was told very bluntly that if I didn’t take the Chair the Forum was finished. I will never know how I got through that meeting because I was still having panic attacks and problems coping with life, but I managed it somehow.
Little did I know that taking the Chair that day could change my life for the better forever! 20 years ago people talked about depression as if you had committed a crime. There were no support groups to my knowledge and the stigma and ignorance surrounding it was unbelievable. Now it is in the open, there are many support groups and it is high on the agenda of the Scottish Government. It is an illness which can attack all ages but when you are older it is hard to accept that the person who has coped for all their years can have depression.

I used to get angry with myself and feel guilty because of my age, but it is no disgrace, it can affect all ages. In my case even although I was not pleased with my doctor, I eventually took his advice and became involved in the community. I have lived a rich, full life by being involved. I have an M.B.E. and four other awards for my work with older people. I sit on 12 Committees – do public speaking – go wherever I need to go to represent older people. I have spoken all over the country and in Ireland and Rotterdam, Holland for Unilever. Two years ago I had to have two major surgical operations; one was an emergency to save my life. I count myself as being one of the lucky ones.

I not only survived, but survived to fight another day for a better quality of life for not only the elderly but for everyone, and because I had been so involved before my operations I still had all these groups and others to come back to. As I say I have been given another chance, and I have made so many lovely friends over the last 21 years. In my case it was my retirement which triggered my depression, all that lovely spare time became my nightmare, but many other things can be responsible, e.g. bereavement, illness, moving house and even things like family problems can be a cause. If you feel down don’t be afraid to admit it, it is no shame on you. Although there is still not enough help out there and Mental Health illness still has stigma attached to it, there are many people out there trying to change attitudes and perceptions.

One of my groups has been going for about 10 years; it is the Mental Health and Wellbeing in Older People and is Scotland-wide. Because I have been down that long dark tunnel of depression I can put myself in the shoes of someone else with depression. Although it takes you down, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you don’t think it. Someday everyone with depression (or Mental Health problems as they call it) will hopefully, like me, not only see the light at the end of the tunnel but will come out of it and live a full and happy life.