Life

Belfast gran Maryann on how virtual Aware sessions helped her survive lockdown

North Belfast grandmother Maryann Quigley tells Maureen Coleman about how virtual Aware meetings via Zoom and online mindfulness sessions helped her survive the isolation of lockdown

North Belfast grandmother Maryann Quigley availed of Aware counselling via Zoom during lockdown. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maureen Coleman

WHEN lockdown restrictions were first introduced back in March, north Belfast widow Maryann Quigley was naturally concerned about being cut off from loved ones and not being able to attend her support group meetings for depression.

The grandmother of two had been a regular at the Aware NI meetings for around 10 years, after suffering bouts of depression. When she lost her husband Patrick 18 months ago, the support group had been a great source of comfort and strength for her and she didn't know how she would cope without that "invaluable" help.

Like many pensioners, the thought of being isolated and unable to spend quality time with her family and friends exacerbated her depression going into lockdown until she was introduced to the charity's online resources for coping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the help of Zoom support group meetings and online mindfulness courses, however, Maryann found the support that she needed and was able to navigate her way through her loneliness and low moods.

In addition, she learned new skills, such as operating Zoom and using social media to keep in touch, which also helped boost her mood.

Maryann is one of hundreds of people across the north who turned to virtual assistance during lockdown to deal with depression and says the services provided by Aware NI were a "lifeline" to her over the last few months.

"I've been attending a support group for depression for 10 years on and off and found it very helpful," she says.

"You get to know the people in the group and there's a great sense of camaraderie. Each member of the group talks about how they've been feeling that week and we're all there for each other so you form close bonds.

"My husband had been ill for some time with pulmonary fibrosis and I'd been nursing him at home. But at the end, it was very sudden and traumatic.

"I found him lying dead on the floor of the room where we'd set up his hospital bed. It was awful. We'd been married for 35 years and I felt lost without him."

The discovery of Patrick's body proved such a trauma for Maryann, she felt unable to go into that room again and asked her son to close the door so she couldn't even look into it. But unable to feel at peace in the house, she decided to move.

Going through two such major upheavals in a short space of time brought back her depression and once again, the support group was there for her. Even when she wasn't able to attend, the various Aware groups kept in touch via Whatsapp so Maryann never felt too alone.

Going into lockdown was a frightening prospect for the former community worker though.

"I like to be out and about, meeting people and I found the confinement terrible," she says.

"There were so many mixed messages from the government – 'stay in, go out'. My mood got very low. Contact with my children and grand-children was limited; they could only come up and speak to me through the gate. I realised what it must feel like to be an animal at the zoo, with people looking at you through the bars.

"It felt like I was in an open air prison. I got really fed up with it all. Nothing about it felt normal."

Then Maryann was invited to join Aware's Zoom support group meetings and it helped her to know other members felt the same. It also helped her to see so many familiar faces and catch up with their stories and experiences of life in lockdown too.

Although she'd never used Zoom before, she found it surprisingly easy to get used to and the weekly online meetings became a highlight for her.

"I told my family not to call me or interrupt me during that hour or hour and a half," Maryann says.

"I shut the door, switched off my phone, logged on – and that was it. It was so lovely to see everyone and it helped to hear that other people were struggling too. I didn't feel so alone then.

"Just knowing the group was there and that we could all share our experiences was invaluable. And I got to learn new skills too, which was great for the brain."

Maryann Quigley. Picture by Hugh Russell

As well as offering online support group meetings, Aware has also been delivering free mindfulness sessions to around 250 people a week. The mindfulness webpage currently averages 700 views per week and has jumped to become the most viewed page on Aware's site this year, with over 15,000 views in total. The charity's first batch of mindfulness sessions (four weeks' worth) was fully subscribed within three days of being released.

"The mindfulness courses were really good for showing me how to relax and what exercises to practise during the day," Maryann says.

"Mindfulness is all about letting thoughts come and go and how to do deep breathing; which is beneficial for people with anxiety.

"My depression did get bad during lockdown, but when I knew I would have my Zoom meetings and that I'd be talking to other people who were feeling the same, I felt so much better.

"For me and many others, Aware has been a much-needed life-line during lockdown. When I started to feel isolated and alone, it made all the difference in the world to me to know they were there and there were others in the same boat.

"When I talked to other people then, I realised that I wasn't alone."

Maryann says she will continue the online sessions until the charity is permitted to hold them in person again. In the meantime, she's looking forward to getting her hair down for the first time in months, to attend the next Zoom meeting.

"The ladies in the Zoom group like to be well groomed and we were all having a laugh about the hair salons opening up again," she says.

"I'm so happy about getting my first appointment booked in. At the next session, we'll all be looking very glamorous with our make-up and new hair."

:: AWARE online support groups are for anyone over 18 struggling with depression or bipolar disorder. Details can be found here: aware-ni.org/how-we-can-help-you/aware-ni-online-support-groups. Please email info@aware-ni.org to register your interest for a support group.

:: AWARE Support Line is a phone line for mental health advice and signposting, staffed by their Support Services team from Monday to Friday, 11am to 3pm. Please call 075 4853 0931 or 073 4048 8254.

:: AWARE Support Mail Service is an email service for mental health advice and signposting. Members of Team AWARE will respond to queries to offer advice, support and information around depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Contact info@aware-ni.org

:: Introduction to Mindfulness Sessions: These are free online mindfulness sessions which are taken over Zoom by trained practitioners. They can help to alleviate stress and anxiety and aid better sleep. Details can be found here: aware-ni.org/intro-to-mindfulness

:: AWARE social media channels:

Facebook: facebook.com/AwareNI, Twitter.com/AwareNI, Instagram @aware_ni, Linkedin.com/company/aware-defeat-depression

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