The whole world came crashing down for Christine Tracey when her beloved daughter and husband died – leaving her mental health spiralling until eventual burn out.
Chris, a former social worker, experienced endless dark days of depression as she struggled with her grief – but support from our colleagues at ARCH Recovery College in Durham finally changed her life.
Now, the 63-year-old is even helping others through hard times as a volunteer with ARCH – by leading walks around the city for people seeking a sympathetic ear while exercising.
“I’ve always loved caring, that’s why I became a social worker, so it’s come full circle for me now – but this time I can really connect when people say they are in a dark place,” she said.
“Now, after being in the darkest of dark places myself, I can appreciate what people are going through. I love helping, and I love being part of the whole ethos of what Arch does.”
Offering a helping hand
ARCH Recovery College is a specialist resource base for patients, carers and Trust staff, which offers people with lived experience of mental ill health the chance to develop new skills.
The college also provides Trust colleagues with the opportunity to become more recovery-focused, as well as to consider their own wellbeing.
“It’s as if I’ve been given a second chance at life, and at caring – but in a different way. Now I don’t have work targets, I can just help people. And that is what I love to do,” said Chris.
Life changed irreversibly for Chris in 2010, when her 21-year-old daughter Sarah died of a seizure.
Although Sarah had suffered from Crohn’s disease for several years, and later epilepsy, her death was completely unexpected.
The health of Chris’s husband, Trace, deteriorated in the years following Sarah’s death and, in 2016, he underwent major heart surgery. Tragically, he died just a few weeks later.
“It was horrific, my whole world was taken away from me,” said Christ, who lives near Durham. “I tried to cope by going back to work, to keep a routine, but I burned myself out.
“I actually struggled on for three years, but it wasn’t good, and I found it very hard. Then one day it got too much for me and I just packed up my work locker, cleared my desk and left.”
Seeking vital support
Christine was left in a dark place and could see no way out. She became too frightened to drive, too worried to open her own post and eventually too terrified to leave her own home.
“My husband had retired to look after Sarah, so I needed to work to bring in a salary. I felt I had to try and pretend I was strong and do everything, even after her death,” said Christine.
“But when Trace died, I became scared of everything. It was a really dark place I was in, and I knew I needed help. I should have opened up before everything spiralled out of control.”
By the time Chris finally sought help, life had become overwhelmingly frightening. As part of her treatment a safe room was developed in her house, to help her through the dark times.
Her adoption of an RSPCA rescue dog also helped, as the affectionate pet would snuggle up to her in the safe room – often for several days at a time – bringing her comfort from his closeness.
Chris’s life finally improved when her social worker introduced her to ARCH Recovery College, at St Margaret’s Health Centre, Durham – although it took her several attempts to go inside.
“I turned up at ARCH a couple of times but walked away. Eventually I ended up being invited in for a coffee after I arrived for a walking session, but found that I’d missed it,” she said.
“It was difficult, very difficult, as it was the first time I’d talked about my situation. It made realise I wasn’t alone – and that there are lots of people out there like me.
“When you are at ARCH you feel safe, you really do. After that first coffee I went back for a walk the next week, then joined the running group – which actually helped to get me through Covid in the end.
“Everyone understands where you are coming from – it’s like having an extended family. People are there for you, they help get you through the hard times.”
Chris, who is now retired, continues to look after her mental health through exercise, including sea swimming and dog walking, as well as volunteering on a regular basis at ARCH.
Saved my life
“I believe ARCH saved my life. From Day One you feel valued – and it’s very difficult when you’ve come from a dark place to believe you are actually really valued,” she said.
“Everybody respects and values whoever walks through that door – to a degree that I’d like to say that we make them feel special.
“That’s what they did for me – they made me feel I could achieve things, and that I was worth it. It’s not every day that you can find a place like that. It was like finding a new home.”
Tracey Chapman, Operations Manager for Arch Recovery College, said: “We support personal recovery through learning achievement.
“It is an opportunity for people to develop skills and explore opportunities which will support them in their recovery journey.”
** Find out what mental health support is available to you at www.tewv.nhs.uk/services/mental-health-support