Putting it all on the table - Diabetes, eating disorder, depression, cancer

Putting it all on the table - Diabetes, eating disorder, depression, cancer
Aileen O’Reilly, photographed in the Morrison Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Dave Meehan.

Diabetes, eating disorder, depression, cancer. Aileen C. O’Reilly had her share of health challenges — but she’s still standing.

There is a short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald entitled The Lost Decade — about a hugely successful Wall Street broker who loses 10 years of his life to drink and then finally re-emerges again, bleary-eyed and bewildered only to find that life has moved on in his absence, nobody believes who he is and he can only fudge so much when it comes to explaining where he’s been for all that time.

I am that man, plus four years. I’m 46 and I haven’t worked in 14 years and up until relatively recently, I had absolutely no career prospects or aspirations to change any of this.

My life just stopped in its tracks due to overwhelming health problems and I gave up on everything. Back in the 90s, I was the girl who had it all — the big pad in town, interviewing celebrities, flying off on private jets with The Corrs. I spent the Millennium in New York you know — partying with Mayor Giuliani in Times Square.

Note to self: Children born that year are adults now, voting, you can’t seriously be dining out on those old war stories anymore.

As reveries about my career were starting to make me sound like I was just raving, I shut up and quietly shut down.

Long-standing issues with type-1 diabetes eventually crippled both me and my career — my sight failed, my kidneys weren’t great, I lost toes. I got seriously depressed as infection after infection saw me deposited by ambulance back in the hospital on a monthly basis. I had never fully dealt with the fact that I was a diabetic.

In the end I was simply forced to listen before limbs were summarily detached. It took a stark warning from my doctor in front of a team of stunned students followed by a weekend left in my hospital bed crying solidly for this to properly sink in. The diabetes wasn’t going away.

Luckily I had a brilliant endocrinologist who appreciated the car-crash impact of my eating disorder on my diabetes and put me on a revolutionary new treatment on the off chance that it might just work. I think all the students secretly crossed their fingers and prayed.

I knew this was my last chance. 80% of my sight in my left eye was already irretrievably lost and I was down two toes on my right foot — if the doctors were taking a punt on me with this new treatment then I owed it to them to play ball and do my bit too.

So I began to tentatively eat well, checked my blood sugars eight times a day, got the recommended level of exercise and my body slowly started to regenerate itself. I couldn’t believe it — after years of feeling so unwell, I had energy again. I still remember the day I bounced back into my doctor’s office and asked him about the possibility of returning to work.

My specialist, a young go-getting fellow in his 40s, looked at me and I’ll never forget his words.

“You’re not ready for a full-time job. Have you any hobbies? You’re still very fragile you know. And maybe avoid relationships for a while too. You do have a job — your job now is to mind yourself and not get sick again. Your job is to stay well so you don’t end up in hospital all the time.”

I felt like screaming. I had no purpose anymore. Here I was — finally thriving but I couldn’t do anything with all this new energy. I felt like I was being buried alive in safe bubble wrap — 40 years of age and already pensioned off.

Don’t get me wrong — I tried charity work. I started doing shifts in a charity shop in town and within a week my feet were acting up and the ominous word “rest” was being bandied about again. Perhaps not so surprisingly it wasn’t long before full-scale depression set it.

Looking back it felt as if an unyielding fog had descended and sapped all my energy. I kept minding myself the way I knew I had to but it was just routine and the joy of being well totally evaporated.

Putting it all on the table - Diabetes, eating disorder, depression, cancer

I remembered, as I dispassionately viewed my newly healthy body in the mirror, how the little mermaid had traded her singing voice for legs so she could run away from her life beneath the waves.

“Shut up,” I mumbled to my reflection “ you have your health back — at least every one can stop worrying about you now.”

A very protracted stint on anti-depressants followed — but believe me all rumours of the wonders of liquid sunshine are greatly exaggerated.

I flatlined.

The day I narrowly missed being hit by a double-decker bus and I realised my heart rate hadn’t even accelerated I knew it was time to ditch the drugs and deal with my issues.

Four weeks into the withdrawal programme it hit. Noise, life, fear, anger…. everything that had been on mute surged back in with the force of an emotional tsunami. I woke up raging. I punched walls.

I roared when I couldn’t find my other trainer. Then I cried…. Then I kicked something else .. Every emotion was like a loaded gun without the safety catch - in the hands of a hopped up five-year-old. But amid the screaming and tantruming, my sense of humour finally returned and redeemed me before my family was left like the ruins of Dresden.

And then I got cancer.

A nodule on my thyroid turned out to be a neck riddled with cancer from an old Branchial cyst I’d had since birth. On the plus side, despite the absence of drugs, the upside of relentlessly training yourself not to look for anything from life is that you just tend to get on with it when things inevitably go “a bit wrong”.

The doctors reassured me that cancer of the neck was good — in that it didn’t tend to spread anywhere else in the body so they’d just cut it out. It was all done and dusted inside of six weeks and I was left with half an “Eastend smile” sliced into my neck and a row of black stitches that Jack Skellington would have salivated over.

A five-day stint in isolation with radioactive iodine followed along with a horrible taste of loose change in my mouth, sleepless nights, and everything tasting weird — oh and nosebleeds, loads of inopportune nosebleeds. I didn’t care. Every test was coming back negative and I had had my absolute fill of hospitals.

I still don’t feel like I’ve had the “big C” to be honest — I see the physical and emotional trauma that other people have had to endure and my experience is more akin to sailing past the Titanic on a cruiser at a very safe distance. And I aimed to take full advantage of that fact.

Before anything else went wrong...

However, the idea of searching for old contacts and wearing a shit-eating grin whilst on the phone arranging to try and meet up was just too much — 14 years had passed. My confidence, which got me through operations and endless consultants meetings, was deserting me.

Younger, sharper multi-media savvy journalists had sprung up during my self-imposed exile and I felt irrelevant, stupid and out-teched by them all.

I should also probably mention that my glittering career started off with me as a coffee girl without any journalistic credentials in my back pocket…..

Thanks to the wonders of social media I reconnected with many lost friends who were so helpful and encouraging — one of whom dropped everything to come to my house and was kind enough to put me forward for “a bit of travel writing” with her ex’s travel trade magazine.

Putting it all on the table - Diabetes, eating disorder, depression, cancer

“Sure you might get to go on the odd nice trip and have a few posh lunches in town” she smiled, hugging me as she left.

Inside my head a merry go round shuddered, clunked and whirred back into action with its glowing lights, jolly blaring music and gaudily painted horses and things started to move. Life isn’t just “good” — it’s beyond amazing, I’m just back from Jordan and since last October I’ve been to Paris, Morocco and to many, many amazing events in between including my first ever cruise.

I'm terrified on a daily basis but that’s good too. My family look at me with the marvel and awe which must have greeted Tutankhamun when he was finally unearthed and I am humbled by their unerring love and patience (and ability to wear flak jackets in unified silence).

My wonderful patient parents who have been there every single step of the way feel younger as a result of it too — their 40-something daughter is back in her 20s and I think they’d gladly trade me in for a few camels just to get a bit of peace at this stage.

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