"Contentment is, to me, like the foundational basis for our lives, because, again, we only need to look around us and we can compare ourselves to somebody else: somebody's worse off or better off."
These are the words of Rachel Gotto. The therapist and corporate speaker was finishing up her conversation with Ryan Tubridy this morning with this insight and, if you’d only heard this part of it, you might have thought that she had a point and fair enough. But Rachel’s story, which unfolded over the preceding 20 minutes, was so remarkable that the very fact that she arrived at a place where she could even contemplate contentment is surprising in itself.
Rachel is from Glandore in West Cork (though you wouldn’t know it to hear her speak) where she grew up by the sea. She told Ryan that she had a gorgeous upbringing with the sort of freedom that most children don’t get to enjoy these days.
Her brother Dominic – they were "Irish twins", being born just over a year before Rachel – became seriously ill at a very young age, being diagnosed with bowel cancer at 26. He died just two years later.
"I was his minder for many years so it broke me and some of me went with him on that day in November 1996 when he died."
When Nic walked into Rachel’s restaurant one day and there was something about him that made Rachel believe he would play a significant part in her life. And indeed he did – they got married and shortly afterwards Rachel found out she was pregnant.
"Life was just starting to take off again after Dominic died. I was still bereft, but I was starting to live a little bit. And of course, we had this beautiful hope of Nicola, who was to be born. So it was like life was just starting to begin again and the sun was beginning to shine a little bit."
But tragedy struck again when Nic drowned in a diving accident off the coast of Cork: "I felt my pregnant tummy lurch. I felt Nicola inside me turn over and I knew that things had changed irrevocably then."
Nicola was born less than 5 months after her father died. When Nicola was 6, Rachel started noticing that something was up: she couldn’t remember how to change gear, her left leg stopped working, she had unusual urges, like wanting to stick her head out the car window while driving.
Nicola had been unwell and they were travelling to hospitals a lot and Rachel kept putting her symptoms down to grief and stress, until that was no longer an option: "When I woke up with Nicola sitting on my chest screaming at me, 'Don’t die mummy! Don’t die mummy!’ That was really the first I really took very seriously."
Rachel was eventually diagnosed with AVM, a benign brain tumour that doctors told her was inoperable. But Rachel did have surgery, which resulted in her being paralysed down one side. Her recovery was long and very difficult. She was put on benzodiazepines to control the post-op seizures she was having.
This led to years of dependency and the defining struggle of Rachel’s life as she tried to get off the highly addictive drug: "I was on them for 9 years, which is an enormously long time. So I was becoming more and more depressed. My life was like a flatliner. I had no ability to experience any ranges of emotions. I had acute insomnia, constant. I never slept at night."
Basically living what she calls "a twilight life", Rachel had become physically dependent on benzodiazepines. Her descriptions of withdrawal from the drug are harrowing. You can hear how Rachel finally withdrew safely from her dependency – and why she doesn’t like the word "happy" – in the full and frank conversation, available here.
And you can find out more about Rachel’s work at rachelgotto.com.