How this Leyland carer whose husband has MS triumphed over depression and suicidal thinking
They were the high-earning couple who holidayed in the Seychelles and had a house full of the latest gadgets.
But when Leyland man Ray Whiteley was diagnosed with MS at age 33, their glamorous world came crashing down and his 34-year-old wife Loretta had a mental breakdown after becoming his carer.
Loretta, now 54, is urging carers to seek help if they need it and is highlighting the support available in South Ribble.
She said: "I felt Ray's illness took complete control of my life. I had a mental breakdown and couldn't function or look in the mirror without having a panic attack."
Loretta was in shock when her husband was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. In MS, the coating that protects the nerves is damaged, causing symptoms like eye problems, pins and needles, fatigue and pain.
Ray, now 53, uses a wheelchair as he struggles with balance and suffers from partial paralysis of the face, which makes it difficult to chew food.
His symptoms began on holiday in California, just a month before his diagnosis.
"Something wasn't right. There were these odd, little things but as the weather was hot, I put it down to the heat," Loretta said.
"When we came home, his eyes felt funny, he had pain and felt little electric shocks in his arms.
"One day at work, I had a call to say he was in hospital so I shot to A&E. When I saw him, he looked like he'd had a stroke as he couldn't move one of his arms and legs. You just don't think someone at 33 is going to have a stroke."
After around a month in hospital, Ray was discharged. But the following six weeks were a confusing time. One day Ray would have no symptoms at all; and the next he'd struggle to speak or move his limbs.
He then saw a neurologist and underwent an MR scan - and discovered the devastating news. They were pointed towards a MS nurse but didn't see the doctor again for six months.
"Even though we hadn't smoked for about 18 months, we left the hospital, went straight to buy 10 cigarettes between us because we didn't know what to do and started smoking again that day. We were both in shock. You think it'll only happen to people older than you," said Loretta, who runs Facebook page Animal Issues Leyland.
"Finding the right help was a huge minefield as we didn't know where to start.
"It put a huge strain on our marriage and we were so close to getting divorced in the first 12 months after the diagnosis."
As the illness progressed, Loretta took over all the housework and helped her spouse with daily care. Soon she felt the pressure of balancing work and being a carer.
She also suffers from anxiety, as Ray often falls, and has previously broken bones or gone into respiratory distress, a life-threatening condition where the lungs cannot provide enough oxygen to vital organs.
Loretta's even had extensive surgery after dislocating her shoulder while trying to lift him. It's why she hopes to buy a special cushion designed to inflate and help him stand safely.
"Sometimes it's the indignity of it," she added.
"He once fell in the wet room, and I looked at him on the cold, wet floor and my heart broke seeing him helpless like that."
But Loretta said she was once a different person who struggled with both the shock of her husband's diagnosis and the loss of her former identity, which felt like a grieving process.
She added: "I remember thinking, 'I feel cold and empty.'
"I was the girl with the platinum credit card and I was frightened of having my identity swallowed up by two words - Multiple Sclerosis - which were completely destroying our lives.
"It's really easy to lose your own identity as a carer and I went through a long stage of resentment. I hated the person I was.
"I was selfish and spent a lot of time thinking about me. We had a nice house, well-paid jobs and holidays in Bali and the Maldives.
"I was angry at Ray, the hospital, the world. I felt like everyone was robbing me of my life. It's a guilt I'll take to the grave."
And then her struggles reached crisis point.
"I suffered a breakdown and was hospitalised for three weeks," she said.
"I took an overdose. Ray was at a football match and I wrote a note. To put on paper what I was feeling was so cathartic but it didn't feel like enough of a relief to stick around.
"I was lucky. The hospital told me if I'd taken two more tablets that would have been it but I fell asleep before I could."
Coming so close to losing everything made her realise she needed to change. And then came the heart-breaking words that jolted her into action.
"Ray had said to me, 'You're free to walk away and I won't stand in your way'.
"'That was a huge turning point as I sat down and thought, 'If the roles were reversed, Ray would stand by me.'"
Determined to escape the dark hole she'd fallen into, Loretta began researching local services and obtained information about the illness from the MS Society. And when Ray developed pneumonia, she dug even deeper to find inner strength.
"I was pleading with him to let me take him to the doctors and one day I came home from the shop and thought he was dying because he was grey and clammy.
"He was hospitalised and when I visited he held my hand and said, 'I hope I die soon so you can have your life back.'"
The words broke her heart but emboldened her to access life-changing therapy through the MS Society. The pair have also made new friends through the branch in Sutton, near Surrey where they used to live.
They've even received a disability grant to build a wet room, with the help of South Ribble Borough Council and the social services. And N-compass Northwest, a carers support network, has helped Loretta obtain a grant allowing her to enjoy some respite.
She also found strength from her own cancer scare six years ago.
"I had a tumour removed from my bowel two years ago and doctors said the cancer will come back," she added.
"I remember coming home and telling Ray that I won't let cancer define me. It's just a word. And that's how I see MS now. It doesn't define us."
Following a massive relapse seven years ago, Ray now has a progressive type of MS. It means he will no longer have any period of remission.
But while Loretta still suffers from depression, she now uses mindfulness and meditation to help her cope.
"The worry never goes away and some nights I cry myself to sleep. But as the illness progresses, we're getting stronger. It won't stop us doing things we want to do. We'll just find another way to do it," she said.
"There are people out there who I can turn to and that's a comfort. It's a horrible situation but we've made it work. Talking to other people who understand what you're going through is wonderful. People told me, 'you're not horrible and I went through the same thing.'"
Now Loretta believes asking for help has even strengthened her marriage.
"We've been married 27 years now and still fight like cat and dog but it's brought us closer. I probably love him more now than the day I married him. His illness has made me a better person."
For carers' support, contact the MS Society's Chorley and Leyland group on 03003 650 014 or [email protected]
Or visit www.ncompassnorthwest.co.uk