As a young girl growing up in Dublin, Yonkers dance teacher Deirdre O’Mara suffered from debilitating panic attacks that no one understood. Relief came when she moved to New York, and now she’s committed to helping others with anxiety.
The living hell of panic and anxiety attacks were a daily occurrence for Deirdre O’Mara during her Dublin childhood, and not one person cared or offered a helping hand. Mostly because they didn’t know how.
But life often has a way of flipping the script from sad to glad, and O’Mara is living proof. The founder of the Deirdre O’Mara School of Irish Dance in Yonkers has persevered despite trauma which would overwhelm so many others forced to live similar lives. And she’s determined to share her story and help those who feel alone and helpless.
“I still struggle with anxiety. It’s not like I’m talking about something in my past. It’s still a part of me,” O’Mara, 50, told the Irish Voice during a wide-ranging interview about her difficult childhood and her desire to lend a helping hand to those who grapple with emotional issues, particularly if they are young and suffering in silence.
“I am very committed to trying to help. Mental health issues have been a common thread in my life,” she added.
From the outside, it’s hard to fathom that O’Mara is living anything other than the so-called “perfect” existence. In addition to her thriving Irish dance school, she is one of the driving forces behind the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on McLean Avenue in Yonkers. She also vice-chairs the McLean Avenue Merchants Association group that includes all of the businesses that dot the beloved “Emerald Mile” of McLean, one of the local Irish community’s enduring strongholds.
Her inside, though, reveals a different reality, one that she felt compelled to share via a Facebook post last month that unmasked her hidden fears and offered a haven to those in similar distress.
“I have wanted to do this for a long time but life always got in the way. I woke up this morning knowing I need to do it. I am starting a support group for children who suffer from anxiety and for their parents too,” O’Mara wrote.
“I have suffered from anxiety and panic disorder my entire life. I don't remember a time I didn't have them. They are terrifying, tortuous, debilitating and isolating … In 20 years of working with children, I see it more and more and it breaks my heart.”
O’Mara is so distressed by what she sees that she decided to establish a monthly support group for sufferers who wish to talk about their issues. She’s had a huge response to her Facebook posting and is now working on organizing a second meeting of the group which will take place next month.
“I’ve worked with children for 20 years and I can see that anxiety is becoming more and more prevalent. When I was growing up I didn’t know anyone else who had it. That’s not to say there wasn’t anyone, I just didn’t know of them. Nothing was spoken about.”
O’Mara was raised in Coolock, and her growing up years were full of family trauma. When she was only one her father suffered a massive stroke which rendered him severely brain damaged and unable to support his family. Her mother, who was only 27 at the time, had to return to the workplace, and with three children – there was also a four-year-old and three-year-old – she found it increasingly difficult to cope.
O’Mara’s father became an alcoholic and her mother was bipolar and suicidal, spending periods in a psychiatric hospital. The effects were devastating on the young children, particularly Deirdre, who remembers “never feeling safe at home.”
“I was constantly surveying the landscape at home – was my father drunk, was my mother manic, what else was going on. I worried every single day what kind of a house I would come home to from school. I felt constant tension. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
“The panic attacks were so bad, and felt so physical, that I actually thought I was dying.”
One night when she was 10, O’Mara had such an awful attack that she felt she had to tell somebody what was going on. Her mother, unfortunately, didn’t lend a sympathetic ear, but she did bring her to the family doctor to see if something was wrong.
“He told me, and I will never forget it, ‘You are just looking for attention.’ I was going through the most horrific feelings like I wanted to jump out of my skin, and he thought it was an attention ploy. So from that point on I just bottled everything up and didn’t talk about it again. I just suffered in silence, hoping I would survive.”
A way out came when O’Mara turned 18 and came to the U.S. with her best friend. She admits that she longed to get away from the chaos of home, and she secured an au pair job in New York. Her friend eventually returned to Ireland and O’Mara stayed for good.
The realization that her anxiety was an actual treatable condition came one day when she saw an article about panic attacks. She felt as if she was reading her life story.
“After all those years of suffering, with no clue and no words for it, I was reading these symptoms and they described me to a tee. It was such a relief to learn that I actually had a condition, that it just wasn’t in my head and that I was crazy.”
O’Mara contacted an anxiety clinic in White Plains for treatment. She almost felt re-born thanks to her newfound ability to share her problems with professionals who not only understood but were able to assist.
“I was a young Irish girl, and to seek help shows how desperate I was at the time,” she said.
“And I absolutely got help. I use the tools to this day. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. Anxiety isn’t something that just goes away in an instant, and when you grow up in an environment like I did that is especially true.”
O’Mara listens to her body and takes care of herself through things like meditation and other stress relievers. Her dance school is her pride and joy, and her students are like family.
“I’ve overcome tremendous things in my life, and I say to people all the time that while the dance school may look like it’s my biggest achievement, actually being able to have the dance school despite everything is a bigger one.”
O’Mara’s top priority is for anxiety sufferers, particularly children, to know they are not alone. She remembers one of her students telling her about a panic attack and asking if O’Mara thought she was weird.
“I said absolutely not. I told her I had them too. It’s so important to be open about it. I know what it’s like to be completely and utterly alone, and that’s why I want to help,” she says.
Her Facebook post, she says, “wasn’t easy to write,” and she’s been thrilled with the positive response.
“It’s not like I’m talking about my past. It’s still part of me,” she adds.
The Irish are especially reluctant to freely discuss their inner feelings, but O’Mara is firm that the time has come to have honest discussions about mental health. The recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have driven the point home even more – bottling up problems can lead to catastrophic consequences.
“It could be a tough group to build in the Irish community but believe me, I’m totally committed to it. I’m living proof that there’s a better way,” O’Mara says.
(For those wishing to contact O’Mara about her support group, email DeirdreOMara1@hotmail.com)
Here are some of Deirdre's Irish dance pupils performing at a 2014 St. Patrick's Day dinner dance: