This lemon coconut cake is a marker. It is incredibly easy to make. You melt the butter and mix it with all the rest of the ingredients and bake it. The icing is also simple enough for a young child to make. And yet, four or five weeks ago – making this cake would have been impossible for me. I would have struggled to concentrate for long enough to read this beginner’s recipe. I’d have gone to the pantry or the fridge unable to remember what I was there to get – not just once, but again and again and again. I would have forgotten to add at least one of the ingredients, or to turn the oven on. And if I’d persisted with the process of trying to make this cake, I would have grown unbelievably frustrated with myself. If I had no experience with the signs that comprise my Bipolar 1 Disorder, I would have beaten myself to a pulp over my inability to perform a simple task. A task I could normally perform while on the phone, and with my eyes almost closed.
You see, that’s the ghastly thing about mental illnesses – because they affect your thoughts and feelings they often merge with your sense of self, and it is very difficult to separate yourself from the illness. So, especially in early episodes you tend to blame yourself for your inability to concentrate, lack of short term memory, intense irritability, noise sensitivity, low mood, or whatever your symptoms may be.
With repeated episodes, you can learn to painstakingly separate yourself from your symptoms. When it starts up with the guilt, you stand up to it and say:
‘This illness is no more my fault than a brain tumour would be. I will go and get treatment for it, just like I would a brain tumour. But I am done wasting energy on blaming myself for this.’
Accepting that it’s not your fault is a process. But once you master it, you can direct the energy you would have wasted on guilt into getting the help and support you need to get better.
But back to the cake. I was able to effortlessly make that cake last night and ice it this morning. Four weeks in hospital with a manic episode and medication adjustment, and one week back home, and I am able to do what I wouldn’t have been able to four weeks ago. The time taken to get better is unfortunately arbitrary. For me, four weeks in hospital is not long. I’ve had admissions last close to five months. But I know plenty of people for whom four weeks is a long admission. That is the other hugely frustrating thing about mental illness – no one can tell you how long an episode will last. You just have to step your way through each moment, until it’s over some time later.
The cake also marks the re-entry into my social life: Having friends around for lunch. Something I love to do. When you start socialising again after an episode of mental illness, or even during it, it is so important to choose your company wisely. Steer clear of anyone who is hard work, drains your energy, or you don’t share core values with. Start with the closest of friends or family. People who don’t put any pressure on you.
In our case today – one of my best friends and her family came over. We met in hospital eleven and a half years ago, and it is one of those friendships, which not only lasted, but continues to grow stronger. Our husbands get on very well. Our children almost view each other as siblings, and they all know what it’s like to have a mother go into hospital for a mental illness.
I have several friends who are suffering with a mental illness or who are supporting someone with one, at the moment. If that is you: Remember, you are not alone, this is not your fault, use your support systems, and take one small step at a time until you are out the other side.