“Unless you have been through depression, you don’t know what it’s like.”
It’s not the sort of light-hearted material you expect when spending an afternoon with a comedian.
But for Sheila McMahon, the launch of her new book allowed her to reveal the demons she has battled – and highlight the journey she has undertaken to move beyond them.
Even when plumbing some of the darkest depths of her own battle against the “dark cloud of depression”, the pyschotherapist-turned-comic showed an ability to reveal both the impact of her experiences at the hands of bullies and tell the tale of taking control of her own destiny, all with a smile on her face.
Listening to the distinctive tones of Ireland in her voice, it doesn’t take long to realise that Sheila’s story begins on the Emerald Isle.
The 39-year-old grew up on a farm in the West of Ireland, after being born with a cleft palate which made her the victim of bullying as she undertook speech therapy.
A move to England, coupled with therapy in her early twenties and subsequent training to become a counsellor have helped come to terms with the demons which haunted her childhood.
“Deep down I knew I was a good person,” she said. “Yet I would have the black cloud of depression convincing me I was worthless and stripping me of my identity.
“Unless you have been through depression you don’t know what it’s like. It’s not something you can snap out of. It strips you of your self-worth and irrational thoughts can take over.
“But I wanted to know why – and I decided to do something about it. So I went back to Ireland to do my research for my book and interviewed the people who had bullied and abused me to find out what it was like from their perspective.
“I found out they had been bullied themselves and were offloading the frustration on to me.”
Writing The Power of Knowing You has not been an easy process for Sheila. Many of the answers she needed have come from closer to home than she may have liked.
As well as seeking explanations from her brothers who were quick to ridicule their sister as a child, Sheila was desperate to find out why her parents hadn’t stepped in.
“My brothers are so sorry for the damage they did, but they were only kids too,” she said. “When I went into therapy, I spoke to my brother who would have been the main instigator at the time. He was completely clueless. To him it was a game.
“When he found out the effect it had on me, he was horrified. I know he feels really bad about it now, but I’ve said to him, the best thing he can do is forgive himself.
“When I went back to Ireland with the book and showed it to the family, he took full responsibility – as a child of abuse, to have the abuser admit it is massive validation.
“I had kept blaming myself for the stuff that happened because my parents would tell me I was too sensitive during those years. There was a total lack of empathy and support, even though I was only five or six. But at that age you believe it and think it is your fault because people say so.
“I found out that it was abuse not just bullying. That was a major turning point for me. Then I could allow myself to heal and look after the inner child – something I now do with clients.
“I also wanted to understand with my parents about how all of the issues were missed. I know they love me deep down and in the best way that they know how. But I also learned the difference between unconditional and conditional love.
“Unconditional love is when people can give you that support and allow you to be who you want to be without putting their own expectations on you and allow you to be a person in your own right.
“My parents weren’t allowed to be that way themselves by their parents. It was interesting to hear about their upbringings while interviewing them for my research. My mum was very bitter, my dad was very bitter and naturally they became very resentful. Then, when they have kids they were thinking ‘well I never had anything so you should put up and shut up’ and it becomes a generational thing.
“The sad thing about this in a family is that they don’t realise the damage that they’re doing.
“But if you come from a place of understanding and look at things from a different perspective. It makes you realise they love you, but they don’t know how to give you the consistent love that you might need.”
And putting her thoughts on paper was a logical step.
She explained: “My parents were in denial and still are.
“For them, they’re so worried about looking bad and they saw the book as a personal attack. But it has never been about them. It’s about people who have been through depression to help them make sense about why they feel so worthless and see it’s actually nothing to do with them.
“All you can do is give people the time and they’ll either come round or they won’t.
“It’s very sad that my parents aren’t here to share in the success of this book and how well it’s doing because they can’t get past their own behaviours. But that’s nothing to do with me and where I’m going. They’ll have their own process and denial is a massive one.
“There are so many reasons why I wrote this book. There were definitely very strong personal reasons.
“I went to counselling and thought I was fixed for life. I then went on to become a counsellor because I thought how fantastic it would be to give to someone else the help that was given to me.
“But I realised during my training that I was holding myself back. I had this belief that if it was meant to be it will be. But I was giving my power away and wasn’t taking responsibility for myself – that’s a massive thing in your life. People need to make sure they claim their power back.
“As adults we’re responsible for ourselves and you can change things around.
“The first chapter of the book is all about awareness and getting to know yourself. It was only when I went through counselling that I realised I was a valuable person in my own right.
“When you go through the process of knowing who you are, the benefits are amazing. It’s great to have self-worth as a comedian. I don’t care if the audience laugh or not. I’m not afraid to fail.
“To get to that stage is special, and that’s what I want people to get from this book – to not let insecurity or fear to hold you back.
“I had times where I was doing well but would slip back and not follow things through. I could have done this with the book and there were times where I could have stopped and given up.
“But launching the book allows me to show myself that I have followed it through.”
The Power of Knowing You by Sheila McMahon is available now from Amazon.