I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled
‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.
I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.
She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.
When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.
I had an interview with a PhD student from Melbourne Uni last week. It was for a study into what can be done to improve media reporting around severe mental illness (SMI) to reduce stigma. The media is largely responsible for the way people like me are perceived by the general public. So, I was delighted to contribute to this study.
Our trusted news sources are slickly practiced at generating gory headlines that draw eyeballs to them like magnets. If SMI is thought to contribute to a crime, it is either ignored or thrown into the story as a cold, hard after thought. Something that can’t be changed and is barely acknowledged as an illness.
The main characters in these horrific accounts may have an undiagnosed, poorly managed, or unmanaged SMI, but the journalist in the by-line doesn’t dig deep enough to expose the reasons for this:
Society does not care about or for us in the same way they do for others with serious, chronic, intermittent potentially fatal illnesses.
I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a wash cloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.
I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:
‘Are you ok?’
I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:
I recently removed the key to the dangerous drugs safe in the veterinary practice I’ve just resigned from, from my key ring to return it. And as I did so, I thought:
‘I wonder if my suicidal ideations will change now?’
I’ll come back to that.
I also recalled how often I’d heard the following over the last twenty years in practice:
‘My son/daughter/nephew wants to be a vet when they grow up.’
Always uttered under the impression that veterinary work is a dream job. But the dream can morph into a nightmare. There is currently a shortage of vets (in part) because our burn out and suicide rates are sky-high.
So why, after dedicating years to entering this prized profession, do many vets want out?
When I was eighteen, a boy said something to me that stopped time.
He shouldn’t have been talking. We were in a Maths class. The teacher’s voice, rendered unintelligible by the subject matter, the heat, and the swoosh of the ceiling fans, was no match for the boy’s words:
‘A ship is safe in harbour, but it wasn’t designed to stay there.’
A bubble formed around us. An understanding bloomed…until the teacher’s reprimand broke the moment. But he had articulated who I wanted to be. Someone who leaves the harbour of their life. Someone who wouldn’t get stuck in their comfort zone.
It seems Christmas tends to wound us. Just judging by all the calls to look after ourselves at this time of year. Every day brings a fresh wave of breezy yet cautionary social media posts urging us to practice ‘self-care’ more now than ever. And apparently, grief and illness don’t take a break for this most wonderful time of the year. Who knew?
It is true that the expectation to be happy because it’s Christmas (both unspoken and sung loudly) adds unnecessary pressure to already busy lives. It is not in today’s Christmas’s nature to nurture.
For a holiday supposedly espousing kindness, joy and happiness, it doesn’t heal the hurts the year might have inflicted on us. If anything, it deepens our wounds because it insists we turn ourselves inside out to please the world, rather than recovering from the demands of the year. Perhaps, if we approached Christmas less as something that will inevitably leave us feeling worn out and stressed, we wouldn’t need to heed social media advice to ‘look after ourselves over the festive season’.
What if Christmas were all about replenishing ourselves as opposed to needing self-care as damage control?