Deirdre Cartmill: It sounds crazy but the heart attacks were the best things that ever happened to me

Author, screenwriter and poet Deirdre Cartmill knows it 'sounds crazy' but insists that experiencing two heart attacks in a week in her early 40s set her on a path that helped her 'fill the emptiness' in her life. As she takes up the role of writer-in-residence at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, she shares her remarkable story of near-death experience, anxiety, angels and spiritual recovery with Mairead Holland

Mairead Holland

Deirdre Cartmill is the first writer-in-residence at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. A series of heart attacks changed the direction of her life. Picture by Hugh Russell

AS Deirdre Cartmill was being rushed to the operating theatre following her second heart attack in less than a week, she experienced what can only be described as an "epiphany".

Aware of the quiet panic of the medical staff around her and the ceiling passing by just above her head, the successful screenwriter, then aged just 43, had a moment of clarity when she realised she was being given a "divine choice" between slipping gently away or continuing to live.

"I knew then with every fibre of my being that this body would die but I would go on somewhere else in some other form. And I did think about leaving because I was in a very bad place," she says.

"But then I felt I'd come here for a reason and I hadn't done that yet so I chose to live."

Since that pivotal moment 10 years ago, the Moy-born woman, who is also an award-winning poet and writer, has been on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery and healing, and now uses her skills to help others in her work as a spiritual teacher.

This week, she embarks on another new challenge as the first writer-in-residence at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast – synonymous with its annual Black Santa Christmas charity sit-out - and will write a series of poems over the summer, inspired by the historic building and the many people who pass through its doors.

"As a child of the Troubles, I'm sure it will also provoke some thoughts on my upbringing. I was brought up Catholic and it will be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between my childhood experiences and the world of this Church of Ireland Cathedral," she says.

Deirdre's enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the anxiety, stress, worry and depression of her former life.

"Before my heart attacks, I had everything - the great job, the London agent, the lovely house, the loving husband - but I was just completely empty inside," she recalls.

"I know it sounds crazy but the heart attacks were the best things that ever happened to me."

Although initially baffled by her symptoms at the start, doctors operating on her discovered that a small section of artery ran under the heart muscle rather than over it, and life-saving stents were inserted.

"I wish I could say my life changed overnight but I actually went into a year of suffering from anxiety," she continues.

"I could barely leave the house on my own. I was bursting into tears if I had to get the bus down to sign on as I couldn't work.

"I had to get back to basics about self-care – and it was a moment when I had to stop and look at how I was living before and how I was living now."

Deirdre says the first thing she did was leave her screenwriting job; it had been her goal in life, but she now realised "it hadn't filled the emptiness inside me and it was hurting me in every way".

"It was pressure, it was stress, it was fear. It was not art and it was not feeding my soul," she explains.

"I started to do those things that, when I was lying in the back of the ambulance, I wished I had done instead of working more.

"I went to singing classes and that gave me the confidence to go to a shamanic day of meditation and then angel meditations.

"The inner life was changing so it meant the outside life didn't really fit any more.

"I left my marriage which meant I left my home, my workplace. Looking back, my ex-husband was a loving, gentle soul but I had no self-love, so there was no way I could let anybody else love me. I had to go out on my own and figure out who I was, how I wanted to live and how on earth to love myself."

Deirdre Cartmill is the first writer-in-residence at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. A series of heart attacks changed the direction of her life. Picture by Hugh Russell

Deirdre, who is now happily settled in Belfast with partner Robert, believes her heart attacks were also "absolutely linked" to her previous stress and unhappiness.

"There was this complete emptiness and loss inside me. I kept saying my heart was broken and then my heart literally broke," she says.

"I had lost my father to cancer and then had the whole journey of trying to have children and going through IVF, the joy of getting pregnant and then losing the baby at nine weeks.

"But looking back, as well as the pain and the loss, I wasn't nurturing myself in any way, I wasn't listening to my heart or my soul, I wasn't stopping and doing things differently."

Deirdre also recounts another experience in hospital – two days after her second heart attack – when she was visited by three people she describes as "angels", adding that she believes we all have angels or spirit guides who look out for us and act as a link between us and God.

Raised in the Catholic faith – she fondly remembers helping her aunt, a sacristan in the local chapel, to polish the pews and clean the candle holders – she is aware that many people will raise a sceptical eyebrow at the mention of angels and her near-death experience.

"Before I had these experiences myself, I would have been one of those people raising the eyebrows," she laughs. "I think the hardest thing was telling my mum about some of my connections but, to be honest, after my dad passed away she connected to angels a bit more."

Deirdre's beliefs were put to the test again during lockdown when her mother, Roisin Cartmill, passed away less than three months after being diagnosed with cancer.

The family cared for her at home in the final weeks of her life, an experience which Deirdre describes as "beautiful and awful at the same time".

She says: "There was no escaping the grief and pain and anger but compared to when I lost my dad, I had the tools to bring myself back into a better state much more quickly.

"I also knew without a doubt her soul would go on somewhere else."

Deirdre Cartmill is the first writer-in-residence at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. A series of heart attacks changed the direction of her life. Picture by Hugh Russell

The spiritual element aside, Deirdre believes everyone needs to practise self-love and self-care, to stop, listen to their inner voice and do things that bring them joy and inner peace. For her, those things are meditation and writing.

And she says the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this into sharper focus than ever before.

"Coronavirus has been a time of pause for people and a time to reassess how they are living, the same as my heart attacks were for me," she adds.

"This is not about being perfect, it's about living a real life but from the point of view of how I can love myself rather than unconsciously hurting myself."

Deirdre is currently writing a book on her journey and experiences and is passionate about giving people the tools which have enabled her to transform her life.

"I am hoping other people might feel inspired by my story and see that no matter the pain and loss and trauma you are feeling at the minute, you always have the ability to get out of it," she says.

She has recently returned from a spiritual retreat she ran for a group of women in Corrymeela and was delighted when they told her how much it had changed their lives, although she insists she was simply the guide.

Meanwhile, daily meditation is an integral part of Deirdre's life. "It helps me to stay calm, it keeps me centred, and it keeps me focussed on what I want for my life, and on what I need to heal and change. And it gets easier and more powerful the more you do it," she says.

"It has really been a journey back to joy, peace and love that I've been on."

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