The Four Minute Teacher’s Gift

A giant digital clock rules the room. It ticks down the allotted six minutes in seconds, and an unignorable alarm leaves no one in any doubt of when their time is up. The space has a frenetic speed dating vibe.

But this is not speed dating. These are parent teacher interviews. And many of the parents are there to squeeze the most out of the teachers and every second they have with them.

I admire the teachers for being able to give the right information about the right kid to the right parents, respectfully and diplomatically. And I feel compassion for them because they are the shock absorber for a new parent’s emotions every six minutes. I’ve heard (from teacher friends) those emotions can be intense and not always politely expressed.

Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and too often disrespected by parents who should know better than to take out their frustrations on those who dedicate their career to educating our children. Parents should have the insight to recognise that their child’s learning outcomes are the result of many factors. What the teacher is doing is only one variable.

A child’s ability to function happily at school is affected by many things that their teacher has no control over.

Teachers (generally) have no control over whether a child has had a decent breakfast, no breakfast, or a slurpie for breakfast before they arrive at school. They don’t control whether that child is given the space to express their emotions safely at home, and whether they are given unconditional love and support in challenging times. Teachers often have no control over whether they have an adequate number of teacher aides and other support staff for the class they are allocated. Teachers don’t control whether a child has an undiagnosed and/or unmanaged medical condition that affects the child’s behaviour.

I appreciate that for many parents giving their child food, a safe home, and appropriate medical care, is something they are unable to provide. If a child lives with a medical condition or disability that is poorly understood or inadequately supported by the school, or if a parent suspects their child is being abused by a teacher, of course they must advocate for their child. But these instances are not what this post is about.

This post is about the parents who live with none of the above circumstances, stopping to appreciate what a fantastic job most teachers do with our children. This post is about stopping before you abuse or accuse a teacher of being responsible for aspects of your child’s development that they are just not responsible for.

I approach parent teacher interviews with empathy for my children’s teachers, even the teachers who other parents whisper sharply about. Over the ten years that I have had a child or children at school I have learnt that some years my children have brilliant teachers whom they love and work well with.

Some years their teachers do a good, solid job. And some years they have teachers who they don’t click with, who may not handle difficult situations in the classroom as well as one of the brilliant teachers might have. These last teachers may not be my children’s favourites, but they haven’t broken my children either. Because (unless a teacher is abusive) the ‘not breaking the children’ responsibility is largely mine and my husband’s.

I generally keep my parent teacher interviews to four questions:

How is my child’s behaviour?

Are they making an effort?

Are there any areas where they are falling behind enough to warrant additional support?

Does the teacher have any concerns about my child?

The answers tell me more than a six-minute gallop through their work books would.

I’ve found high school involves fewer parent teacher interviews. So, when the notification option to book in for parent teacher interviews was emailed out recently, I asked each child if they wanted me to book any interviews. The year 7 child nominated a teacher he wanted me to catch up with. I asked if there was anything in particular he wanted me to mention, and he said:

‘No. I just really want you to meet my favourite teacher.’

The interview was last night. Just after the screech of the alarm ending the previous parent’s time, I sat down opposite my child’s favourite teacher. We introduced ourselves. She sipped hot tea from a big, green mug. Her voice was a little hoarse. A Covid leftover. She asked me what I’d like to cover. I told her:

‘He just wanted me to meet his favourite teacher.’

The teacher’s whole face smiled: ‘That has made my day.’

We briefly touched on my usual questions and as I stood up, I said: ‘Thank you for everything you do.’

The whole interaction took exactly four minutes.

The teacher stood with me and smiled again: ‘I’ve got two minutes left to get a fresh cup of tea before the next one.’

You may also like to check out these other posts:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Easter Sunday

Pre dusk April Easter Sunday. A brisk suburban walk. The air is laced with lawn clippings and flowers. But it is the reek of Good Friday’s prawns creeping past the closed lids of the kerbside bins that gets me thinking about Easter rituals.

A hard copy photograph exists of me, at about 18 months simultaneously wondering at and crushing one of the blown out coloured eggs hung delicately on bare branches in a vase in our house in Saudi Arabia. I think it was blue. The egg. The memory is of the photo, not the event.

I do remember Easter in Germany (1979-1986) was always cold.

Cold enough for the garden to refrigerate the eggs overnight. Too cold for vermin to spoil them. Real dyed eggs, some chocolate, clustered in natural nests of spring flowers. Snow drops and crocuses. A promise of winter ending. Inside, vases of willow branches with fluffy buds – irresistibly soft like kitten fur – sat in the centrally heated living room after being cut from trees on the banks of recently thawed rivers.

In Australia Easter is in autumn. Another Anglo-Saxon celebration inserted where it didn’t belong. It is all chocolate. Easter egg dye is not available as a seasonal staple in supermarkets. But I cling to what is in my marrow. What I grew up with. So, I dye hardboiled eggs with my children, using regular food dye, hot water and vinegar. It is imprinted behaviour, like baking Christmas biscuits in the heat every year.

As for the meaning of Easter…

I am more comfortable with the pagan echoes of this festival than the Christian. I identify Easter with renewal, a new season. The south of Germany, where I spent most of my childhood, is deeply Catholic. I went to church for school services, but our home was agnostic. The door to my mind was left open.

At this point I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday (or any day). The faith required in the absence of proof is beyond me, and this belief does not add meaning to my life.

I could follow my maternal Jewish bloodlines and mark Passover with all the ancient, complex, ritual it demands. But it wouldn’t feel authentic either. Because regardless of my genetics and that side of my ancestry, I didn’t grow up with those rituals.

My husband and I had different upbringings when it came to religion. But we both had parents who, having provided us with their beliefs, allowed us to go our own way and come to our own conclusions. My own children’s upbringing has been even more secular than mine. Not devoid of meaning. Just not locked into one kind of meaning.

Their minds need space to breathe and be curious. To realise that beliefs can be helpful scaffolding, but that meaning lives deep inside them. It just needs stillness and sometimes adversity to appear.

And should my children’s curiosity one day lead them towards finding meaning in the belief in the resurrection of Jesus or in the rituals of Passover, or any other belief system that enriches their lives and harms no one, they won’t find any resistance from their parents.

You may also find this post of interest:

Silent Night Instead Of Chaotic Christmas

Guilty Of Postnatal Psychosis

(Content Note: suicide and infanticide are mentioned in this post)

Who am I?

I am a veterinarian.

I had my first baby at 32.

I developed postnatal psychosis after the birth of that baby.

I had no history of mental illness before that.

I have a perfectionist personality.

This is me.

But given this information, you could mistake me for Melissa Arbuckle.

If you’ve read even just the headlines this week, you will know Melissa’s baby Lily died in horrific circumstances, as a direct result of Melissa’s undiagnosed postnatal psychosis and depression.

Melissa’s story is an important one. But I have yet to read a story by a journalist who gets the narrative of postnatal psychosis (or any form of psychosis) right. Journalism around psychosis, even decent journalism, focusses on the sensational.

But despite the inevitable sensationalism, in this case the journalists got one thing right. They investigated the lead up to this horror story. And that shows us the number of times this horrific outcome could have been prevented.

Melissa’s baby was born in April 2021.

The Age reports ‘Maternal health notes showed that as early as May 19 the new mother revealed she was having difficulty coping and became teary, later telling a lactation consultant she felt ‘out of control’.

According to News.com ‘Victoria’s Supreme Court heard that in the weeks leading up to Lily’s death, Ms Arbuckle had been ‘really down’ and she believed she injured her baby after rocking her bassinet too vigorously.’

She hadn’t injured her baby at that point, but her thoughts (believing she had injured her baby) were delusional, for weeks before her daughter’s death.

The Age also reports ‘The night before the incident, Arbuckle told her husband she was having suicidal thoughts, but assured him she could never go through with it.’

Lily died and Melissa nearly died after being struck by a train on the following day, July 11 2021.

Melissa was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis the day after her daughter died.

When I think of all the points on this timeline that Melissa’s and Lily’s odds could have been dramatically improved, anger steals my breath.

Regarding the Maternal health notes made in May 2021:

‘Maternal health notes’ imply a nurse or midwife assessed Melissa at some point and, aside from making some notes about her difficulty coping and being teary, did nothing.

Midwives and nurses need to be taught: The baby blues and mild anxiety are not always the cause of a teary mother who is having difficulty coping. They need to know when and how to refer a new mother for assessment with a psychologist, psychiatrist, a mother baby unit, or at least a GP. And they need to err on the side of caution!

I am not surprised a lactation consultant didn’t know what to do with a mother feeling out of control. Lactation consultants tend to be laser focussed on getting breast milk into babies at all costs. But again – educating lactation consultants to look far enough beyond ‘latching issues’ and ‘milk supply’ to consider referral to qualified mental health care professionals when red flags are raised, would be a good idea.

In the weeks before Lily’s death, when Melissa is described as ‘really down’ – these were the weeks that preceded the night before Lily’s death.

The night when Melissa told her husband she was having suicidal thoughts.

From my standpoint and lived experience, I struggle to give Melissa’s husband much benefit of the doubt here. I understand (based on the article in The Age) that her husband lost his own father to suicide as a teenager. So, there is possibly a barrier of unresolved grief and trauma that prevented him from reacting appropriately to his wife’s symptoms.

But presumably he noticed Melissa being ‘really down’ for those weeks. Did he attempt to get help for her? And if not then, what was stopping him when she expressed suicidal thoughts to him on that night? The fact that she claimed she wouldn’t act on those thoughts? Did he not consider the amount of mental pain one needs to be in just to have suicidal thoughts?

For everyone reading this: If anyone ever expresses suicidal thoughts to you, PLEASE ACT! Even if there is no option but an ambulance to the nearest hospital. And if the person experiencing suicidal thoughts tells you they won’t act on them, not only are they too unwell to make that assessment, they are also suffering intensely and need help!

Yes, our public mental health system needs a lot of improvement, and there are nowhere near enough public mother baby units available. But even if the ideal of a private psychiatric hospital with a mother baby unit, was not available or an option for Melissa and Lily, a public hospital might have given them a fighting chance.

Back for a moment to the journalists reporting on psychosis. They tend to give all the characters surrounding the person living the horror of psychosis a voice, even if some of those voices are irrelevant and add to the stigma psychosis is already steeped in.

In Melissa’s case that person is her baby’s great aunt. In The Age article, this great aunt doesn’t want to be named, but she does suck up more than her share of oxygen. She has publicly expressed that she thinks Melissa’s actions were ‘catastrophic’ and ‘cruel’.  Catastrophic – absolutely. But ‘cruel’ implies the malicious intent of someone whose mental health is totally uncompromised. She used the words ‘Melissa’s actions’ but what she communicates is ‘Melissa is a cruel woman, and that is why she killed her baby.’

To that great aunt, I would say this:

If people like you didn’t perpetuate the stigma surrounding illnesses which feature psychosis by giving uninformed stigmatising quotes to journalists, then Lily’s father may have had some clue about what to do when presented with the symptoms of severe mental illness that were obvious in his poor wife for months before they led to such unbearable pain for everyone. If you want to blame something, blame this horrible illness, in the same way you might blame cancer for taking loved ones too soon.

News.com reports ‘The case has revealed just how quickly the 32-year-old’s life spiralled out of control after she developed severe major post-partum depression and psychosis following the birth of her daughter in April 2021.’

Melissa’s life didn’t spiral out of control quickly. She developed a life-threatening illness, the symptoms of which were either ignored or not acted on for months, until it was too late. Reporting it was quick, implies it was too quick to do anything about.

My postnatal psychosis set in by day 6 of first-time motherhood. By days 7 and 8 I was completely detached from reality, denying knowledge of my baby and my husband.

And when I was accurately diagnosed with postnatal psychosis in the safety of a mother baby unit in a private psychiatric hospital, my husband asked what he should have done if this had happened at home. This is what he was told:

‘Call an ambulance. Postnatal psychosis is a psychiatric emergency, but it is treatable.’

My greatest sympathy and compassion go out to Melissa. She was failed at so many points.

My memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published last year and (among many other events) includes details of my experiences with Postnatal Psychosis. You can find an excerpt here: Book and it is available to buy online, including at Booktopia, Fishpond, and Amazon. If you are Brisbane based, you can also buy it at Avid Reader and Riverbend bookshops and Ruby Red Jewellery at 107 Romea St. The Gap.

If buying a new book is not in your budget, Abductions is also available to borrow from the Brisbane City Council Library Catalogue.

Other Thought Food posts that may interest you are:

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

Welcome To Motherhood

Lifeline 13 11 14

Bipolar Day 2022 – Great Inequality

Well

I remember my response the first time my psychiatrist suggested I could have an underlying bipolar disorder. That it had been the fountain of chaos that erupted in the form of postnatal psychosis the first time it came to call.

Denial. I believed he was telling me as a duty of care, because that was the case for some people. But not me.

I remember my response and where I was when he confirmed my diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder several years later.

He was standing at the door to my hospital room that looked like a stack of post it notes had thrown up all over the walls. They were covered in technicolour squares that I had scribbled random ideas on and reminders of where I had put my fountain pen or my toothbrush.

Unwell

I had no short-term memory. My thoughts raced delusionally down corridors in my brain that had been emptied of the rational. At night, I wrote and wrote thousands of mostly nonsensical words. Sleep wouldn’t come, even with high doses of medications. I didn’t want sleep to come anyway. It ate into my thinking and writing time.

But back to that moment when I looked up at my psychiatrist in my neon rainbow dump of a room and asked: ‘Postnatal psychosis or bipolar?’

He didn’t torture me with hesitation. Just delivered the sentence: ‘Definitely bipolar!’

Those words spread through my insides like a cold, nasty liquid. For nearly four years I had teetered on the edge of believing that my mood disorder would be confined to the perinatal period like so many other women. That there would be an end to it.

‘Definitely bipolar’ felt like a life sentence. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe my sick feeling. Then that sickeningness was replaced by questions I cringe at now:

‘How can I subject my children to a mother with this illness? How can I ever achieve anything again?

I was very achievement oriented back then, and self-stigma told me vicious lies.

It will be 16 years in August since bipolar disorder flew fiery through my life the first time. I am glad I didn’t know what was ahead of me then because fear would have told me I wasn’t strong enough to get to the other side of hell so often.

If I could go back now, I would tell myself that although my life would be different, it would still be my life. I would tell myself that my entire relationship with fear would change because of this illness. For the better.

That I repeatedly reach points of wellness where I stretch out my hands and grab fear by the shoulders. I stare deep into its eyes and compare it to what I feel during psychosis. And I find most everyday fears evaporate in the memories of what I’ve survived.

I wish I had known that my children would benefit from having a mother with insight, not only into her illness, but life. A life I’d describe as good.

I am not naïve enough to believe I’ve had these empowering experiences through force of will, intelligence, doing the work, taking the medication, fairy dust…

I will say this repeatedly in different mediums and articles, because it is important to acknowledge, again and again and again: I live with immense privilege. I am a straight, white, cis-gendered tertiary educated woman with no concurrent disabilities, who can afford private health insurance.

It is helpful that I have worked to gain insight into my symptom pattern. Exercising and taking medication that works for me, is also crucial. I am not shackled by addictions to substances that could derail my stability. But every one of those things would be much harder to enact and maintain, without my privilege.

My privilege does not mean I haven’t suffered. It doesn’t invalidate my experience, but it must be acknowledged for context every time I tell my story, otherwise that story is shallow, loses meaning, and does a great disservice to the many people who live with this illness, but without privilege to boost them to the head of the line when it comes to accessing the best care, and being the most supported they possibly can be, during the challenge that is living with this chronic, intermittent, potentially fatal illness.

You may also be interested in:

The Well Times

My 2018 World Mental Health Day

World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression

Mental Health Snobbery

Is stigma surrounding mental illness only generated by people who have never been mentally ill?

No.

There is a version of the S-word that lurks below polite conversations about ‘stigma surrounding mental illness’. It occurs amongst people who experience mental ill health, and it is camouflaged by the notion that we are all in this together and all experience a similar level of stigma.

But we are not, and we do not.

I first became aware of this after my encounter with acute Postnatal Psychosis, and the rupture from reality that accompanied it. My experience didn’t fit the binary mould of the common Perinatal Mood Disorders: Perinatal Anxiety (PNA) or Perinatal Depression (PND).

Over time, I discovered that (not all but some) mothers who have experienced PND or PNA, especially if it is mild, carry harsh opinions about those of us who need medication and hospitalisation or who live with other diagnoses.

Some examples:

I once read an account by a woman who was able to resolve her mild PNA by going to a special mother’s group, which, she wrote:

‘Thankfully didn’t have any loonies in it, just normal mums who were struggling a bit.’

Another time, when I was hospitalised in the Mother Baby Unit of a private psychiatric hospital, I heard a group of mothers cackling in the common room:

‘At least we aren’t like the real crazies in the rest of the hospital.’

This snobbery irritated me at the time. Several years later, I became one of the ‘real crazies’ (patients in the main hospital) and… felt sad for these women who left their experience of mental illness with the same narrow mindset they had entered it with.

That said, most of us start the ride into mental ill health with biases.

I remember during my first admission, two of the mothers in the Mother Baby Unit were having ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy). I didn’t have any strong conscious opinions about ECT. But if I’d been asked, I suspect I’d have said: ‘That will never be me.’

Six weeks later, that was me.

ECT is still one of the most stigmatised treatments. Some of the strongest perpetrators of that stigma are those living with mental illness who have not had ECT.

 A couple of years ago, I encountered another patient in the hospital to whom ECT had been suggested as a treatment option. She asked me about my experience, and then said:

‘Well, I am a scientist and need my brain to work properly, so I can’t consider having ECT.’

I swallowed the prickly implication she had just hurled my way and thought of the surgery I had performed, the book I’d written, all the ways I’d successfully used my brain post ECT. I avoided that person for my remaining admission.

Patients new to mental illness often inadvertently extend their self-stigma to others.

During my last admission another patient told me that they had been in hospital for a week and that they were worried about the length of their stay. They asked me how long I had been in for. I replied: ‘This admission? Three weeks’

They visibly recoiled. Their thoughts may as well have been printed on their forehead:

‘More than one admission? Three times the length of my stay? And you are still here?’

I didn’t add that for me, three weeks was a minimum length stay, that in the past I had spent months hospitalised, that I would never be cured. Instead, I said:

‘Just take one day at a time, and don’t compare yourself to anyone. Everyone is different.’

But I know it can be tempting to play the comparison game. When I feel frustrated and vulnerable, my thoughts can turn poisonous:

‘Must be nice, to only have to take one medication or none.’

 Knowing very well that there is nothing nice about having to take even one medication or being unwell, even if you don’t need medications.

And that moves us on to the medication debates.

Before I came down with Postnatal Psychosis and Bipolar Disorder, I was a reluctant medication taker. I wasn’t specifically anti psychiatric medications. It had just never occurred to me that I would need them. Then I got so incredibly sick, that the prospect of refusing something that might help me was ludicrous.

Today the debates around psychiatric medication stigma tire me, because it is simple. If you don’t need medication to help manage your mental illness, that is awesome for you, but it doesn’t make you stronger, or better than anyone who does.

Anti-medication stances are a luxury not everyone can afford. Voicing that stance without acknowledging the accompanying privilege, can stigmatise those who do need medication to manage their illness.

And appearances can be deceiving. Someone experiencing moderate or mild symptoms without access to good mental health care, may suffer more than someone, like me, whose symptoms and treatments may look worse on paper (psychosis, ECT, etc) but who has had consistent access to excellent quality mental health care.

No one’s lived experience should be used to minimise or stigmatise someone else’s.

So, whether this is your first and only episode of mental illness or it is one of many, or you’ve been lucky enough to never experience one,  when you form an opinion about others living with mental illness, please replace judgement with compassion and think before you speak or write.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression

Welcome To Motherhood

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 1

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 2

The Well Times

What does well look like for you?

I have painted many pictures of myself when a Bipolar episode knocks me out of my life for a while.

But what about my well times?

I don’t identify with the cartoonish cliché of Bipolar Disorder. I don’t spend each day either drowning in depression or being supersized by mania. This depiction of the illness lacks nuance. It’s a stereotype wheeled out for memes or lazy reporting.

I can only speak about the fingerprint of my own experience. Severe, but well managed.  

Sure – when I am unwell, I tend towards very unwell. I won’t sugar coat that.

But, for me…for me – when I am well, I am well…well.

In my well times my life is not a daily struggle. If anything, I struggle less than many ‘mentally healthy’ people. Thanks to my Bipolar Disorder, my box of psychological tools to deal not only with my illness but life in general – is full. But before it thundered into my life, my toolbox contained the equivalent of a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers.

I am well now.

And it looks a little like this…

It is settling into myself. It is being alert to all I am capable of. It is a beautiful, clear, hard-won self-knowledge

It can be simple things – being able to read and drive and go to the shops, immerse myself in my family.

But it is more than the simple things.

It is actively pursuing my edge, courting the possibility of foundering, because I know the feeling of foundering will be fleeting compared to the dull ache of regret which could plague me for years.

A couple of weeks ago an interesting job opportunity dropped into my direct messages. Both it and I were great on paper. Veterinary qualifications and experience. Writing qualifications and experience. Listed as the first requirements.

 It lit the spark I needed to update my CV, which had been languishing back in 2015.

I applied for it. I was invited to interview.

And perhaps for the first time I thought about what I wanted, rather than blindly throwing whatever I needed at it to get the job.

And so, I clicked ‘join meeting’ with all the skills and experience I could bring (for example writing well) and all that I couldn’t (for example managing stakeholders).

I came away thinking – I could do this, but do I want to? If offered the position I think my ego may have convinced me to squash myself into a shape I didn’t naturally fill, just to prove I could.

Thankfully, being authentic in the interview paid off.

Having a way with words was more important to me, and stakeholder management was more important to them.

And when I got the email thanking me for my time but telling me that I wouldn’t be progressing further in the application process, I felt – a sharp little sting and then… relief, because I really didn’t want to squash myself into someone I wasn’t.

There is always a danger in well times.

It is the fear of what may happen in the unwell times.

There are times, even when perfectly well, I have to resist the pull to sit in a metaphorical corner rocking with my hands over my eyes doing nothing, because I know what has happened to me, could happen again.

I’ve felt that pull many times. I have resisted it many times. Over time I’ve gathered proof that resisting is the only way to have the life I want, even if it is a life lived with this illness. Without that resistance I would lack a lot. My second child and my self-worth top a long list.

Most recently that resistance has gifted me an updated CV and a stronger sense of who I am and what I want.

I know in the last couple of years, mental unease has crept into many people’s lives and distorted their thoughts, feelings, and view of life. It’s a foreign and frightening landscape to find yourself in. And finding your way back to the well times can feel impossible.

For me, the first steps back to wellness always start with a couple of questions:

What does well look like for you?

Does your toolbox contain more than a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers?

You may also like to check out:

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

My Mental Health Toolbox

On Uncertainty

Am I A Stay-At-Home Mum?

Taken around 2008 – consent to share given in 2022

My 11 year old clobbered me with this question recently, and it felt complicated.

I say ‘clobbered’ because – for me – the words ‘stay at home mum’ come with baggage. This phrase and I have an uneasy history. My judgement started early.

As a child I never dreamt of future motherhood.  At thirteen my family and I moved from Germany to Australia. The change in schools was ‘resilience building.’ The first year or two I learnt to live with being intermittently bullied. Then, to my relief, at the end of grade ten several of my tormentors left school. They were either pregnant or would soon be.

The idea of motherhood, when linked to these girls who had taken such joy in making my life hell, became abhorrent.

Homing in on my goal of becoming a vet drove me through my last two years of school and into university. I worked hard, and with tunnel visioned arrogance. I saw children as a hindrance and the women who devoted their lives to staying at home and looking after them as little more than shepherdesses tending their flock while life passed them by.

When Michael (my now husband) and I started going out I spent the first years of our relationship reiterating that I would never want children. My career would always come first. He supported me.

8 years later we married and moved to the UK to work and travel. After we returned to Australia I continued working and started a second university degree.

Then, somewhere between 31 and 32, I sensed I would regret not trying to have a baby. It took one month to conceive that first baby. The plan was for me to stay at home in the beginning and go from there.

The universe laughed heartily.

I spent close to the first four months of motherhood in the mother baby unit of a psychiatric hospital. Along with parenthood I was served postnatal psychosis, catatonic depression, electroconvulsive therapy, and a lot of medication. I had no history of mental illness before the birth.

 At times I was too unwell to look after my baby. And even when I could – my survival and care had to come before caring for my baby. I didn’t have the luxury of martyrdom. My baby and husband needed me alive.

Eventually I recovered from that episode of illness. But as much as I loved my baby, I found the stay-at-home mum loop of feeding, cleaning, settling, on endless repeat mind numbingly dull.

I returned to veterinary work part time.  

My work re-engaged my brain. A day’s work felt like I had achieved tangible results, instead of running on the hamster wheel of domesticity all day.

Three years later, we had a carefully considered second baby whose arrival was also accompanied by a savage return of psychosis, mania, depression and a now definitive diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder.

Once I’d recovered, I struggled with the same aspects of stay-at-home motherhood I had with my first baby and returned to part time veterinary work.

Veterinary work is not particularly compatible with motherhood.

Shift ending times are academic. Needing to be home by a set time after work guarantees an emergency turning up, a regular appointment blowing out, or needing to catch up on phone calls and notes.

Childcare centres with their sharp closing times were not an option. My husband took over childcare when he wasn’t working. My mum helped too. But we largely relied on a nanny to cover my work shifts during the week.

By the time the nanny had been paid, my hourly rate sat at around $15 hour – to consult, perform, diagnostic tests, soft tissue surgery, dentistry, radiography, radiology, pharmacology, emergency medicine, euthanasia – for my patients and to communicate effectively and compassionately with my clients.

I worked for my sanity rather than the money.

At one point I switched to weekend work to make it a little more financially worthwhile. My husband was the stay-at-home parent for those days. He worked weekdays. We tag-teamed parenting and never had any time together as a family.

Veterinary work is rewarding.

It is also emotionally and mentally demanding. Many clients carry anxieties into the consulting room with their pet. At the end of a workday I had little emotional energy left for my family because I’d spent it on my clients.

Thankfully my children’s demands on my emotional energy were minimal when they were little.

But now, at 15 and nearly 12, it is all about being emotionally available.  And unlike changing a nappy or cleaning up pureed fruit, sensing where on their emotional barometer they sit and responding appropriately, is something I don’t believe can be outsourced.

Just over 2 years ago I stepped away from veterinary work.  In large part to focus on having my book published and explore my writing interests further, but also to be there for my children at ages when I feel they need me most.

I am grateful we can afford this choice.

My thoughts on stay-at-home motherhood have thankfully changed since I was fifteen. But some flinty fragments of my old views persist. I still don’t like the term ‘stay at home mum’. It implies too much domesticity, and that the bearer of this title has no interests outside of her children.

I would be a terrible mother if I hadn’t built a career first, and if I didn’t have interests outside of mothering. But the balance has shifted from shoving my family around the demands of an unyielding career to finding interests and opportunities that drape themselves more gently around the needs of my family.

So, in answer to ‘Am I a stay at home mum?’ My answer is ‘Sometimes.’

My memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published in April 2021 and is available through most online booksellers including Amazon, Booktopia, and Fishpond. You can find an excerpt here Book

You may also like to check out these links

Welcome To Motherhood

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Gentle Shoots Of Hope

I entered this year softly. Sparkling into it from one minute to the next, without expectation. But finding joy on the other side of the second hand.

I could now spend a paragraph on the 2020/2021 disclaimer for happiness, the guilty acknowledgement of everyone who may be suffering, that feels as though it has become mandatory whenever you write or talk about anything remotely good happening to you in pandemic times.

But I won’t, because in this moment it feels disingenuous. The events of the last couple of years may have thrown it into sharper relief, but virus or not there have always been people who have it worse than me and those who have it better.

So – no disclaimers. We’ve all had challenges from the dung heap of life thrown at us. I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason. But I do believe that it is the rubbish times that make magic moments shine when we happen upon them.

I spent New Year’s Eve last year (2020/2021) in hospital – just one day in a holiday package that started with an admission on Boxing Day. I didn’t feel well enough for people. Including my husband and children. Dinner came with a serve of ‘seasonal vegetables’ leached of colour and boiled into malodourous oblivion. Dessert was my nightly mouthful of dry medications washed down with tepid water. Long before midnight I was obliterated by that medication and happy to be so. Joy was not part of the equation.

When it came to thinking about New Year’s Eve plans for last year, I had only recently discharged from hospital after another Bipolar flare. A brief 3 week admission starting in late October that bled well into November.

I juggled the idea of having friends join us for what is a special evening for me.

From the ages of six to thirteen I grew up in Germany, in a culture that celebrates New Year’s Eve joyfully and raucously. I remember towers of champagne glasses filled and overflowing with bubbles from the top tier down. There was music and animated conversation, which gave way to the fireworks at midnight. People bought their fireworks from the supermarket and let them rip into the newborn year from their snowy backyards.

On New Year’s Eve 2000 I introduced my (then new) husband Michael to this way of celebrating. We were living in the UK, but had travelled back to Germany for the holidays. We spent that New Year’s Eve with Sandra, one of my closest friends, and Thomas – her partner, and their friends. We had raclette, lots of drinks, and laughed so hard. Just before midnight, we climbed into our coats, boots, hats, scarves, and gloves and walked, stumbling ever so slightly, down to the beautiful lake Sandra and I had spent childhood summers swimming in and childhood winters ice skating on. It was freezing. Too cold to feel our faces. The whole village was there. The air smelt of nothing but fireworks. We were in our twenties and euphoric.

Thomas died barely six weeks ago. The loss of someone we loved has been compounded for me because I can’t hug his wife – my lifelong friend whose hand I used to hold as we jumped into a New Year.

New Year’s Eve in Australia is different. It is the hot afterthought to a showy Christmas. The vibe around New Years for many Australians is ‘Meh – can’t be bothered.’ or it’s a night of heavy drinking that culminates in a headache on New Year’s morning and a set of resolutions, which won’t last past January.

And yet I celebrate the ending and beginning of years…when I can. In part it is fuelled by nostalgia. It is also because I have learnt to celebrate things while I can, because there will be times when I have no choice whether I get to celebrate or not. There are times when I am too unwell. Times when it’s overboiled vegetables instead of home cooking.

Not celebrating can also be a missed opportunity for making memories. Memories of joyous hours, which become part of everyone’s narrative. Memories that become unspeakably precious in hindsight when we have lost those we shared them with.

And so, I sent out some invitations and had a beautiful night.

There were candles and sparklers and laughter across an increasingly messy tablecloth as the night moved on. We ate pistachio baclava with mint and rosewater syrup and white peach sorbet for dessert.

By 2 am the house was buzzing. I had picked up my older child and two of their friends from another party to join the other couple of kids already at home for a sleepover. In the early hours of this New Year my house was steeped in happiness.

For me, 2022 has started with love and energy, and out of the losses and difficulties of the previous year I sense gentle shoots of hope are emerging.

One of the positives of 2021 was that my memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published. For an excerpt and more info click here Book

You may like to check out how some of my other years have gone in these posts:

2020 Ends In Hospital

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

2018 – The Year I:

Invisible Damage

9.30 pm at the medication station.

I confirm my name and date of birth. A nurse hands me a tiny paper cup. It rattles slightly, this mix of yellow, white, and orange lolly shapes.

‘See if that looks right.’

I never go on looks alone. I recite the contents of the 13 tablets back to the nurse, as though I were the one prescribing and dispensing:

‘750mg Lithium, 50mg agomelatine, 100mg quetiapine XR, 150 mg regular quetiapine, 1mg clonazepam, and 10mg of temazepam (prn)’.

Just before I swallow them, my mouth feels full of loose teeth.

And then I drift down a dimly lit blue carpeted corridor that ends in an opaque glass window covered in giant blown dandelions, until I am back in my room.

I feel so removed from my life I may as well be orbiting it in a spaceship.

I feel the anxious tug deep in my belly, knowing the longer I orbit, the longer and harder my earthling reintegration will be.

Outside of these corridors, this mission to heal my brain, my family pushes and pulls itself into an unnatural, temporary shape. Each member forced to stretch and thin out to cover the hole of my absence.

My family hurts in ways I can barely imagine, while the hurt in my brain lands me in this other world.

It feels as though my family is the only family to contort itself for as long and as often as mine does every time I get sick. It doesn’t matter that they are all resilient and used to it. It doesn’t matter that we manage it as well as anyone possibly could.

I don’t want my illness infiltrating my children’s’ growing years. But it does. Each time a little more.

This frustration doesn’t negate my gratitude for having access to a hospital that allows me whatever time it takes to treat acute episodes of this illness. But at the same time my gratitude sometimes feels like petrol when I attempt to douse the flames of frustration with it.

I know people feel relieved when I announce I am coming home. I don’t share their relief because it is not an easy slotting back into place. It is tearing my way back into a family that has been forced to operate without me. It is blinding and muting myself to all the tiny little things …and the bigger ones that they have had to do differently to survive the lack of me.

And yet, I know that my absence from my family is less damaging to them than my symptomatic presence would be, when I am barely safe in my own company. My distress at having no memory or concentration, at being loaded like a gun with pathological irritability, losing touch with reality – these are not things I want to subject my husband or children to.  It would shred us into irreparable pieces. So, I choose the lesser of the damages.

Even as I hate to think about the scar tissue left behind, I know I can repair the stretching, thinning induced by my absence, given time.

That time starts at discharge.

I will be home to begin work to repair while I work to reintegrate…possibly within days.

PS: The list of medications included in this piece is a snapshot of one evenings’ medications for me in hospital. It should never be used as a comparison to anyone else’s medication. Psychiatric medication regimes are highly individualised and often change over time. A medication combination that works well for one person can be a disaster for someone else, even if they share a diagnosis. Always consult a psychiatrist before taking any psychiatric medications. If that’s not an option, then a GP

You may also like to read:

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

The place from where my words usually come is wrapped in wet cotton wool. I am in hospital.

For years now my prodromal signs of loss of concentration and short term memory – which can be precursors to either a manic/psychotic episode or a depressive episode – have always landed on the manic/psychotic side.

This time the signs were the same. My psychiatrist and I gambled, counted on the past history of manic psychotic, adjusted medication accordingly.

Only it went the other way. I flattened, unhelpful phrases trudged like a battalion of soldiers through my soggy brain: …better off without you…. Everyone. 

There is no need for alarmed raising of eyebrows. This is not my first go on this merry-go-round.

Those derogatory words and phrases are completely alien to me. I can see them for what they are. Just a clinical sign. Nothing more, nothing less. They don’t prompt me to hatch self destructive plans. They prompt me towards my psychiatrist, and towards hospital, because the world feels like sandpaper on my soft brain. The hospital won’t fix it quick, but it will bandage the raw areas while they heal.

At this level I find depressive symptoms are easier to manage, easier to live with than manic symptoms…unless of course I plummet to the complete paralysis of catatonic depression…and then it’s just as horrid, possibly worse.

I may expand on this comparison of symptoms  in the future. For now there is no concentration, and motivation feels like riding a slug to catch up with a leopard made of quicksilver. There is literally no point.

I do own a new hospital mug. The design is fresh, green, paisley, floral… It is sprightly. It’s the  small things that make it less bad.

2020 Ends In Hospital

Insight: The Essential Ingredient

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

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