Blog Posts

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Welcome to year 2.

The frantic newness of the pandemic has worn off, although the announcement of a lockdown still triggers an anxiety that (for some people) expresses itself in toilet paper hunger.

As we move into the second year of life with Covid I feel as though I am part of sick game of involuntary musical statues. During intervals of relative local stability we all dance to the music of few restrictions. But there is a sinister undertone – our movement can be stilled instantly when the Covid puppet master stops that music and we are all turned to stone for a while.

When Covid cancelled our family trip to Heron Island this time last year it was disappointing, but I countered it with perspective, a stiff upper lip. After all what was a lost holiday in the big scheme of things? So many people were worse off.

So, we rebooked the Heron Island trip for this year. We’d been due to leave on March 30. The anticipation of it had built joyously for the whole family. I was particularly looking forward to it. Our last family holiday in December was marred by the onset of a bipolar episode the day after we arrived that saw me unable to enjoy it and heralded more hospital time. 2020 Ends In Hospital

I am stable now.

Over the weekend two of us dutifully took Covid tests for minor sniffles, both of which returned negative with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled departure.

When I woke up on Monday morning, the day before we were due to leave, I actually thought we would make it. And then news of the 3 day Brisbane lockdown broke, and my joy turned to misery. Our household was plunged into mourning. There were tears, cries of shock, and lead filled stomachs as we processed this loss for a second year in a row.

Is my wording a bit dramatic?

Are you itching to respond with the catch cry of this first world country, the mantra of our year?

 ‘It’s ok because others have it worse than you.’

Does that make it ok?

Should this fact completely invalidate our experience or feelings? Does our disappointment, grief and anger have anything to do with someone else’s (potentially worse) experience?

No. It is totally unrelated.

 And often swallowing our feelings through gritted teeth can be unhealthier than just vomiting them out and moving on.

I first encountered the results of suppressing my emotions because ‘others had it worse’ the night before my daughter’s first birthday, thirteen years ago.

The condensed version of the time surrounding her birth (if you haven’t already read about it in some of my other posts) is this: A 32 hour labour on 2 hours sleep, developing postnatal psychosis 7 days later, a month later catatonic depression, months in a psychiatric hospital, electroconvulsive therapy and much medication, and finally home by the time my baby was 4 months old.

As I recovered, I practiced a lot of gratitude for my healthy baby, which in itself is not a problem, but I had not allowed myself to process my feelings about that time before I plunged into gratitude.

The night before her first birthday I was out to dinner with friends. I could not stop thinking about what had been about to happen to me the year before. On the way home I pulled into the maternity hospital car park and lost it.

I wailed, tears and snot streaming down my face. It was ugly. But I finally owned my grief, and silenced the pernicious little voice in my head that had been telling me that I had no right to my feelings because I had a healthy baby and  ‘others had it so much worse’.

It was only once I’d allowed myself to feel my feelings that I could move on baggage free and feel genuine empathy for those who, in the big scheme of things, had experienced worse.

I am not naturally inclined to drama. I am all for perspective. At times I have been quick to paper over my children’s strong emotions with perspective, not because it is helpful to them in the moment, but because it lessens my discomfort at their distress.

Perspective serves an important purpose. If it is timed right. Once the initial urgent feelings have been dealt with and released, perspective can help us move on with our compassion for others intact. But forcing it too soon can trap us in resentment and on the exhausting hamster wheel of pretending we’re ok, when we’re not.

 Perspective (however well intentioned) would have been an unwelcome guest in our house just after the news of the holiday cancellation broke. However, 2 days later it had just started to soothe me with the knowledge that it could indeed have been much worse.

Proof that this could have been much worse came just now. The Brisbane lockdown ends at noon today. Covid has pressed play again. Brisbane people get to dance into their Easter holidays.

For me? Right now? Perspective has again momentarily retreated.

Excuse me while I go away and vomit up my feelings about the military precision with which our holiday was assassinated. We were turned to stone over the exact two days when we needed to be dancing.

I will welcome perspective back once I have emptied myself of this minor resentment and am keeping everything crossed, that maybe the music won’t be stopped on our third rebooking in September.

You may also like to check out:

Making Sense Of It (introduces the concept of a ‘tantrum allowance’)

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

The mental load 2.0 : Airing your dirty dishes on socials

huge heap of dirty disgusting dishes in the sink waiting to be washed by unreliable flatmate

Has it really come to this?

To the women who document their displeasure about the unequal distribution of their mental load passive aggressively on social media:

The likes and laughing emojis you get from hundreds of strangers might give you a quick sugar hit of instant validation, but will they solve the issue of your unequally distributed mental load, or will it just corrode what sounds like the already leaking vessel of your marriage further?

The writers appear to feel more solidarity with the anonymous commenters than with the person they are in a partnership with. Underneath the jokes sits violently simmering resentment.

Let me back pedal to the source of my lack of admiration for this approach for a moment.

The first was a recent article a woman wrote about the (extensive) difficulty she was having getting her dog to feed her husband. Sorry her husband to feed the dog – although with the tone she used to describe her husband’s ineptitude, she could easily have meant it the other way around.

The second – I think it was on Youtube – an account of a woman who ‘went on strike’ and stopped washing the dishes and then posted updates about the ‘apocalypse’ unfolding in her house as a result of this. Piles of dirty dishes. The husband in question using a baby spoon to stir his coffee rather than doing the dishes.

I am not trivialising or dismissing the message these women are attempting to send their partners, but their delivery is conflicting.

In one breath it’s attempting humour and in the next red-hot anger.

Clearly we are not dealing with one of those minor sources of marital discord that can be shrugged off as a normal part of any relationship here.

The unequal distribution of the mental/domestic load is real and needs to be taken seriously. But is turning it into a farce and publicly infantilising the people whose behaviour you want to change the way to go about it?

Returning to the article about feeding the dog for a moment. The writer explicitly stated that in the four years she had off work outside the home, before returning to her career, she took on 100% of the domestic load. Feeling (rightly) entitled to a break, she then seemed surprised when the hand over of one chore (feeding the dog) didn’t run as smoothly as she wanted it to.

She also displayed another classic trait of the mental load martyr: overcomplicating a simple task, by insisting on her husband’s dog being fed a thermomix cooked diet for the sole reason that she thought ‘It made the dog’s coat shiny’.

Having read her article, I posted the following response:

As a small animal vet: The best diet for your dog is a high quality dry biscuit, something like hills science diet, water, and (if your dog tolerates them well) fresh raw bones for their teeth. You are wasting everyone’s time, energy, and to be honest a lot of words in your article on preparing fresh food for your dog. 

As for the distribution of mental load: You mention that in your four years off you shouldered 100% of the domestic load. Why? Did you both consider your husband less of a parent or part of the household in that time? If he worked long hours, he may not have been able to do as much of it as you, but does that mean he should have done nothing in that time? If he had been living in a hypothetical share house instead of your family during the time he worked long hours, would his housemates have been happy to do his laundry, dirty dishes, and feed his dog?

So maybe setting the bar so low during those years is making it harder now? The martyrdom of women shouldering and complaining about the mental load is real. Change your dog’s diet for everyone’s sake – including your dog’s. Tell your husband if he doesn’t feed his dog you will report him to the RSPCA. If you stop treating your husband like a an inept toddler, he might stop acting like one.

To be clear – I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving your partner a wake up call to shoulder their share of the domestic load, by letting things slide. But make a choice – it’s either something funny that you don’t really care about that you post on social media, or it is a serious issue in your relationship, in which case yes, let the dishes pile up until your partner gets the message, but don’t then simultaneously trivialise and weaponise it by posting it on social media. Doing so might get you the hit of anonymous likes, but it’s not going to solve the problem in your relationship.

I have previously written about the equitable division of mental and domestic load in my relationship. Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility We both have careers. We share two children, and a menagerie of pets, and all the mental load. I have been called ‘lucky’ because of this.

I am not lucky.

I made a choice to be with my husband. We work on communicating well and from the very beginning of our relationship I have never given him the illusion that I would carry 100% of the domestic load.

But if either of us ever resorted to shaming the other on social media, if we had a significant issue in our marriage (such as the unequal distribution of the domestic load) I suspect we would each seriously re-examine our choice to stay with each other.

Post script: This post is not in any way aimed at those living with or who have escaped domestic violence or who are living with mental illness or any other disadvantage. It was intended as a prompt to reflect for the women who do not live with domestic violence, but do live with straight, white, cis-gender, non-disabled, privilege and who have choices but prefer martyrdom.

You may also like to check out:

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Your Mental Illness? Make It Your Narrative

CN: brief non specific mentions of suicide, trauma, and eating disorders

If you have lived experience of mental illness, who tells your story?

Or even just fills in the blanks?

Silence about lived experience of mental illness from those who live with it is a frustrating paradox. Silence breeds stigma. Stigma breeds silence.

And there is a certain hypocrisy to complaining about the stigma if we choose silence.

I don’t say this lightly or without understanding the complexities of speaking out about our lived experiences.

I don’t live with an unprocessed trauma underlying my mental illness. Nor have I experienced treatment (or lack thereof) in the public mental health system. So, I have no right to speak about the ability or willingness of people to share their lived experience in these circumstances. I live with straight, white, cis-gendered, able bodied privilege. This means my path to diagnosis and high quality mental health care has been smoother than for those who don’t. All these factors make sharing my experiences easier.

One of the things I love about writing this blog is having ultimate control of my narrative. I don’t get paid for my posts. But I also don’t answer to anyone.

But I did recently have my voice stolen for a bit and I loathed the experience.

I’ve done some media interviews over the years Radio And Podcast Interviews and have generally felt empowered by and happy with the outcomes. Until this most recent one.

I agreed to it before I knew it would be written in first person based on a phone interview with me, but not written by me.

I was sent the article to fact check before it was published. The facts were correct. I hadn’t been misquoted, but it sounded nothing like me. It made me feel less than who I am. I was able to suggest some alterations. But even once my changes were incorporated the final article still felt clumsy. I would not have published it as one of my posts.

The journalist who interviewed me didn’t even tell me when the article was published. I found out when another journalist (who’d read the article) contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to interview for another ‘first person’ article written by them, about my experience of psychosis.

I politely declined. This (second) publication’s articles are sensationalist, pumped out to shock the masses and exploit the contributors. It would have been a hatchet job on my values. The opposite of empowering those with lived experience, educating those without.

I have no hesitation broaching my experience of psychosis with individuals, organisations, or the media, but only on my terms. Stories of psychosis are still in a different category to those of anxiety and depression. The media is not as used to them. They have to be handled with care and controlled by the person telling them.

I don’t even like my family or friends speaking for me about my illness. Not because I don’t trust them, but because I have more practice at relaying my experience with context and nuance.

However, disclosure around mental illness without an awareness of how to do it safely can be damaging, even dangerous. Whether you disclose your experience to one person, several, or in the media, yours and your audience’s safety must be your first priority.

If disclosure is likely to compromise your current mental health or retraumatise you, then you are not in the right space for it.

Especially if you are sharing with a wider audience you have to consider that some of that audience may be living through an episode of mental illness at the time of your disclosure and be particularly vulnerable to any information you share.

Content notes at the beginning of any article or interview containing triggering subjects for example suicide or trauma give your consumer the choice about whether they feel well enough to read/watch/listen on.

There are safe ways to relay distressing experiences to your audience. For example sharing an experience of a suicide attempt can help open up vital conversations around suicide and lessen stigma. But sharing explicit details about methods can be harmful to anyone in your audience who may be experiencing suicidal ideations. Similarly specific details about body weight, diet, or exercise should be left out of a safe disclosure around eating disorders.

Sharing your experience of mental illness is a personal decision. You have the absolute right not to.

But think about this – If you live with a mental illness and choose silence, you are leaving a space, for someone else less qualified to speak for you. A hole shaped like you, to be filled with more stigma.

If we give the world a void instead of our voices, it will fill it with its own assumptions. So, if you are well enough and able to do so – set your terms and boundaries, choose your conduit and gift the world your story.

I decided not to publish the link to the external article mentioned in this post. If you are interested in reading it to compare its style to my usual posts feel free to message or email me and I will share it individually.

You may also be interested in:

Media-Made Monsters

Don’t Call Conspiracy Theorists Crazy

Vulnerability And The Exploitation Of Kanye West

Trauma And Bipolar Disorder: Chicken Or Egg?

Photo by haik ourfal on Unsplash

Content Note: This post mentions trauma. It does not include specific details.

It’s a little acknowledged truth that sometimes bipolar disorder does not spring from a history of trauma. On my first admission to hospital and every admission since, I have been asked whether trauma smoulders in my past, and keeps the fire of my bipolar disorder burning.

Up until relatively recently parents were still automatically blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And while abusive parenting can be a contributing factor to these illnesses, and parents can pass on a genetic predisposition to a highly heritable mental illness such as bipolar disorder, beyond that, a parent isn’t responsible. As for my upbringing – my parents were not perfect. But they were loving and supportive. They were not a source of trauma.

I searched for years for some of the more common culprits of a trauma history (such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) hiding in the shadows. I ran a fine-toothed comb through my entire living memory for evidence. For something to explain the existence and severity of my bipolar 1 disorder.

After the second time I got sick, I began to wonder if I was missing something. If I had blocked out something horrible? I spent close to a year working with both my psychologist and psychiatrist to try and unearth a tangible cause for the god awfulness that had descended on me. And I came across a lot of things in this archaeological dig through my psyche.

Among many happy memories. I found sadness, exclusion, some bullying. I found burnout and disappointment. I found ambition and perfectionism. I found drive. I found questionable decisions. I found some experiences that my psychiatrist raised his eyebrows at, but when my psychologist worked through them with me, we found no symptoms of PTSD, no persistent feelings of powerlessness. I found experiences that were difficult and unpleasant and challenging.

But I did not find trauma.

Ironically, the only trauma I have ever experienced came with this illness in the form of psychosis, especially the first episode. Nothing I have experienced before or since that first time comes close to the hell of psychosis.

For me, the sudden onset of this severe psychiatric symptom contributed to its traumatic footprint. One week I was due to give birth to my first baby, with no history of mental illness. The following week I inhabited a terrifying alternate reality that no one else could see, in a psychiatric hospital Special Care Unit, tipping highly medicated breastmilk down the sink, while my husband looked after our new baby at home. For me, the experience of psychosis is the definition of terror and powerlessness.

The trauma of psychosis left its mark. After my second episode I started having panic attacks. I had never had them before. They were linked to the fear of psychosis recurring.

It took a long time to process what happened to me and to learn to live with the ongoing implications of this illness. But I am fortunate it was an acute trauma, not chronic or complex, and not of childhood onset. It didn’t happen at a time when my brain was still developing and more vulnerable to this kind of assault.

I have worked towards having excellent insight, which means I now recognise the precursor symptoms of mania, which can lead to psychosis. The early detection of symptoms and acting on them immediately have meant it’s been six years now since I’ve experienced true symptoms of psychosis. The deep sense of powerlessness has eased. In my case the trauma was a side effect of my bipolar disorder, not a causal factor.

But I sense I am in the minority. Of the people I know who also live with bipolar disorder many carry a history of trauma and/ or complex PTSD with them which, occurred before the emergence of their bipolar disorder.

I do not have the complication of a contributing trauma to re-trigger episodes of illness and to work through. These days, I don’t have a knotted web of psychological issues to untangle before my medication can get to work. I also think letting go of my resentful feelings at being landed with this illness has been somewhat easier because I can’t lay blame or direct my anger at anyone or anything  specific for causing this sickness.

And I am grateful for all of that.

If this post has brought up difficult feelings or symptoms for you and you are struggling, please contact your mental health professional. If you are in crisis (and in Australia) please phone LIFELINE on 13 11 14

Further reading:

Insight: The Essential Ingredient

My First Time

Misunderstood Mania

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

I recently encountered Covid  restrictions and a lockdown as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. And while the specifics are relevant, my experience was more complex than donning a mask and staying inside. But let’s start with the specifics.

There is the loss of the hospital dining room and its well-stocked salad bar. This normally bright spacious room filled with chatter and choice has closed, gone into mourning. The ability to choose your own food and sit where you liked – a small token of independence – replaced by a tray delivered to your room at 7am, 12 pm, and 5pm with a sharp rap at the door. You get little choice and a small window to eat before the kitchen staff are back to collect your tray.

There is not being able to leave the hospital grounds until discharge. No opportunity to test where you are at with a short visit home. Another small freedom lost, and you become totally reliant on visitors to bring you anything you might need from the outside world. Until restrictions turn to lockdown and the visitors are banned from visiting.

All staff start wearing masks, and the buzz of their anxiety fills the hallways like a swarm of bees. Within a few days patients are told to wear masks anytime they are outside their rooms.

For anyone who has lived on this planet for the last year, none of these restrictions or lockdown conditions will sound unusual. Everyone has lived some version of them.

But my experience of them as a psychiatric hospital inpatient was different to my experience of them when I’ve been well and at home.

Here’s why:

Even with access to an excellent private psychiatric hospital, being an inpatient strips me of autonomy and leaves me feeling as vulnerable as a slug on a busy highway.

The admission process alone – which includes providing a urine sample for drug testing and the thorough inspection of your bags (for any means of self-harm or suicide) by two gloved nurses – is a humiliating experience.

 It screams: ‘You cannot be trusted’ and whispers sharply: ‘We are in charge of you now.’

It’s made worse if the nurses attempt light conversation about the contents of my bag.

‘‘That looks like a good book…’

I don’t have the energy for it, and it makes me feel like a toddler they are trying to distract from something unpleasant.

As a patient in a psychiatric hospital I frequently lose the right to my feelings. For example:

One of my admitting symptoms (usually prodromal to mania) can be intense pathological irritability. It is completely different to feeling irritable in a normal context. And it is not the same as the irritability I feel when I am forced to interact with one of the nurses whose attitude grates on me even when I’m well.

 I try to be polite, but when my tone slides into curt, she cocks her head and says:

‘Your irritability levels are quite high today.’ before self-importantly noting this down as a symptom for the day. And I am powerless, because if I protest that would just be further proof of my mental illness to her.

And then there are the cringeworthy names I am called, mostly by nurses and kitchen staff:

‘Dear, Darling, Love.’

 I am ‘Darling’ to only my mother. ‘Love’ never fails to sound derogatory to me. As for ‘Dear’ – one of my worst and earliest hospital experiences involved being called ‘Dear’:

Fourteen and a half years ago when I was less than a week into my first episode of mental illness, I experienced a severe psychotic episode. I was led into the Special Care Unit (the highest security locked ward) of the psychiatric hospital by two nurses, one gripping each elbow.  On the way there, one of these nurses said:

‘Don’t worry Dear. You won’t remember any of this in the morning.’

The next morning I was so sedated by the (necessary) medication I‘d been given, I may not have looked as though I had any memory of the horrors of psychosis. But I remembered all of it. The proof is in the account of that night in my memoir being published this year.

If I knew where to find the nurse who called me ‘Dear’ (on that occasion), I would give her a copy to show her just how much a patient experiencing florid psychosis can remember.

There are many other factors that contribute to my sense of infantilisation in hospital. But elaborating on them would take me well over my word limit. So I’ll leave it here, for now.

Thankfully this recent admission was short (two and a half weeks) but the combination of the inherent lack of autonomy in being a psychiatric inpatient and the above mentioned  Covid factors hugely amplified my vulnerability.

And I have never felt so powerless.

You may also like to check out:

2020 Ends In Hospital

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

On Uncertainty

2020 Ends In Hospital

I am going into hospital later today.

And I am aching to get there, straining towards the moment I close the door to my hospital room on a world I am the wrong shape for right now.

How did I get here this time?

Fourteen days ago I had a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Just a Bipolar 1 Disorder monthly maintenance appointment. I was completely asymptomatic.

Thirteen days ago I left for our beach holiday and forgot to pack my swim wear. Subtle. I mean that could happen to anyone. Right? But by the following morning I was symptomatic alright. My short term memory and concentration were dissolving like sugar cubes in boiling water.

A buzzing pressure behind my eyes radiated up my forehead. I knew from bitter experience, if I did nothing, soon that buzzing could make me second guess what was real or not.

That was symptomatic enough to page my psychiatrist on a Saturday morning. It’s only the second time I’ve paged him out of hours in 14 years. He called back in under three minutes.

Over the last nearly two weeks, the first of which I stayed at the beach, he telephone consulted with me every second day, adjusting medications, a little more of this, a little more often of that. I slipped from my bed gratefully into the ocean, timing the most sedating medications for times when I’d be in bed not the ocean. I seemed a little better, maybe? But then not.

Back home we continued every second day phone consults, adjustments. This is by far not the sickest I have ever been (although psychosis and catatonic depression requiring ECT to reverse, do set a very low bar)

So why would I want to go into hospital, rather than continue treatment at home?

Here’s why:

The surface of my brain feels as though it is covered in papercuts and being surrounded by people and noise is like having lemon juice dribbled over the cuts.

Trying to hold in the irritability of being around people and noise (including my close family) is like being intensely nauseous with someone threatening to punish you if you vomit.

One of the parameters I use to assess how close I am to needing to go into hospital is ‘the sandwich test’. Think about the amount of concentration and short term memory it takes to make a sandwich – nothing fancy, just two slices of bread, some butter and one topping. For most healthy, able bodied, able brained adults, this is not a challenging task.

Right now – I can still make a sandwich, but it’s a challenge. I am making a decision, based on past experiences, not to wait with hospitalisation until challenge becomes an impossibility.

As for the seasonal timing – Christmas and New Years celebrations? I am veteran enough in the management of this illness to know it has no knowledge of nor respect for holidays and anniversaries. I could list my tenth and fifteenth wedding anniversaries as times spent in hospital, a longed for trip to Paris cancelled because of recent hospitalisation, and that would be the beginning of a list so long I’ve forgotten most of it. These times are just human constructs. If it swallows them I don’t dwell on them.

Instead I celebrate the unscathed special occasions extra hard, to make up for the times there is nothing.

The final reason for going into hospital now, is because I can access this level of care. I am fortunate to have the option of going into a private psychiatric hospital when I am sick. The standard of hospital care I will receive will be excellent. It will far exceed anything the public psychiatric hospital system has to offer.

I loathe getting sick enough to need hospital support. But perhaps even more than this I loathe the hypocrisy of someone with my privilege not utilising that support because of some misguided stigmatising ideas about what it means to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

I am profoundly grateful I can afford care in a good private psychiatric hospital. And part of my own recovery, once I’ve stabilised medically, is to remember there are many people living with this illness, and other severe mental illnesses, who are learning to live with them with far less support and privilege than I have. When my recovery feels hard I focus on this:

If I access the supports I am fortunate to have, I am more likely to be around for long enough to help raise awareness of the inequality between our private and public mental health hospital systems, and work towards our public mental health hospital system actually supporting some of our most vulnerable when they need it most.

If you are new to Thought Food and would like to know a little bit about who I am when I am well, you may like to check out:

Who Am I ?

Radio And Podcast Interviews

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

I had an interesting conversation with one of my children this morning.

They opened with this:

‘Why don’t you give me something to celebrate my report card?’

 They paused briefly before elaborating: ‘It’s just that my friends who also got good marks are all talking about the presents their parents gave them for it, and they ask me what I got and I have to tell them I just got a pat on the back and a “well done”.’

Where to begin? Maybe with a little context:

For their entire school careers (so far) I have placed no pressure on my children to achieve academically and almost no importance on the marks they get. Providing they are not falling so far behind that they need additional support, and they are doing their best – I am not invested in the outcome. The only two report parameters I care about are their effort and their behaviour.

So far neither of my children have needed additional learning support. This is something I am grateful for, don’t take for granted, and I definitely don’t take any credit for.

I do my best to make sure they get enough sleep and have a decent breakfast before school. I pay for their uniforms, books, excursions, and other school related expenses. I try to give them an emotionally healthy home to return to after each day at school. And while their academic achievements may be built on this foundation, they are very much their own.

The child who began this conversation with me this morning happens to consistently get very high marks across their report card. None of these marks, or the awards received because of them, have ever been incentivised by my husband or I.

Of course, we are proud of our children when they do well, and we tell them, but we are not about to start rewarding high marks with extravagant material possessions. Here are some of the questions I asked my child to help explain why:

‘Do you feel good about getting a fantastic report card, just for the sake of it?’

‘Do you think the most important thing about you is the marks you get?’

‘For the kids getting the fancy presents for getting good marks – do you think they might feel pressure from their parents to get those marks? ’

‘And what happens if one of those kids has a really ordinary year – for example they get sick, or they have a rough time with their friendships and feel sad, and their marks slip below excellent? How will it make those kids feel if they don’t get the good marks and the presents, because of things that are out of their control?’

‘When those kids grow up and do something really well at work and don’t get presents for it, – because that is not the way the grown up world works – will they feel let down?’

‘And say for example I did give you a fancy big present for getting great marks, would you go to school and tell everyone about it?

I got different answers for each question, but the answer to the last one was (thankfully) a resounding ‘No.’

Whether you choose to reward your kids materially for academic achievement is your decision.

I don’t, because it feels like a slippery slope. It adds pressure. I don’t believe getting top grades at school is a marker for future happiness or success in life. I place more importance on developing my children’s emotional intelligence and mental health than their academic achievements.

I want my children to know that their worth as a person has nothing to do with the marks they get at school.

Living vicariously through your children by either shoving them into the same life path as you followed or wanting them to do better than you did, or (even worse) validating your parenting through your children’s achievements, can all present as pushing them to achieve academically. The problem is these motivations revolve completely around the parents’ needs. They have nothing to do with the child.

But if you want to give your kid a Nintendo switch for their straight A report, please give it with a side of humility and sensitivity. Teach them that doing well at school – while yes it may be the result of their hard work – is not a given for all kids.

Some kids work harder than your kid ever will and will never get top marks. Other kids are not privileged enough to get the basics for good academic achievements (breakfast, a desk to study at). Still others live with a diagnosis whose symptoms make it impossible for them to win any awards.

And none of those kids need to hear yours bragging about their report rewards.

You may also like to check out:

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

My new little niece

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths which received a lot of attention, especially in the US and resulted in me doing a couple of podcast interviews.

The second one was released recently and dives deeply into my work life before and after the onset of Bipolar 1 Disorder, and the adjustments I had to make for it to be sustainable. It hopefully goes some way towards dissolving the myth that it is impossible to function highly when living with a severe mental illness.

I was interviewed by Dr Kimberley Khodakah and you can find that episode here:

https://anchor.fm/time-to-paws/embed/episodes/Living-a-good-life-despite-everything-el0eqc/a-a3o42u4

The other veterinary podcast episode with Dr Andy Roark https://drandyroark.com/cone-of-shame-episode-30-unspoken-truths-about-covid-19/ came out in May. This one is a bit more veterinary industry oriented than Kimberley’s.

Happy listening!

If you are interested, you can find all of my radio and podcast interviews here:

Radio And Podcast Interviews

The Cost Of Canine Anxiety

Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

A baby or child fatally injured by a dog.

Every few months a fresh headline proclaims a new tragedy. Having worked as a vet in small animal practice for twenty years, these cases frustrate me because they are often preventable.

Pointing fingers at shell shocked, grieving parents is neither kind nor helpful. But as a society it is our responsibility to be better educated about how to integrate our canine companions into our lives more safely. This means considering our dogs’ mental health as we should the mental health of all our family members.

To further explore the subject of canine behaviour in relation to cohabiting with children I exchanged messages with my friend Leonie, also a vet who is not only passionate about treating canine behavioural issues appropriately but has also done further study in this area. And I thought I’d share some of the key points we discussed, which not all dog owners may be aware of:

By far the most common cause of canine aggression is anxiety that has been ignored or not addressed appropriately.

Dog owners need to be better educated about early canine anxiety signs, which the dog uses to communicate its discomfort. These signs include, but are not limited to: lip licking, yawning, averted gaze (often misinterpreted as submission), whale eye (when any of the white part of the eye is showing), panting, pacing, and neediness (often misinterpreted as love).

Dogs should not be punished for showing anxiety around a child. This will just increase that anxiety in future interactions and cause the dog to lose trust in their emotional advocate (the adult).

The time to get behavioural advice is when the dog shows anxiety around anyone, not just a child. Don’t wait until anxious behaviour converts to aggressive behaviour.

If anxiety and/or aggression are part of your dog’s behavioural issue, do not seek help from a dog trainer. Seek advice from a vet first.

Your vet is likely to first rule out any physical causes of anxiety and/or aggression. This usually starts with a thorough physical examination, but may also include further diagnostic tests such as blood tests or X-rays etc. Pain or feeling unwell can change even the most placid dog’s behaviour. Once a physical cause can be confidently ruled out, it can be classified as a behavioural issue. In this case a referral to a vet with a keen interest in behavioural medicine (preferably someone who has done some further study in this area) may be recommended.

If you are considering adopting a rescue dog, think very carefully about whether your family and home is going to meet all of that dog’s physical and mental health needs. Rescue animals are prone to anxiety disorders due to previous loss of attachment figures (owners). Animals are also rehomed because they have an anxiety disorder, which exacerbates it further.

Another less common cause of dogs injuring children is prey drive. This is based on instinct. It is a subconscious response that can be triggered by noise and/or movement and could cause a dog to treat a small noisy child or baby as its prey. Even some play is an inhibited form of prey drive (seek and chase during hunting), and particularly if the dog is bigger and stronger than the child this interaction could result in significant injuries to or death of the child.

Prey drive is more developed in some dogs than others. Knowing your dog well and (if their prey drive is strongly developed) keeping them away from children (and other smaller dogs) can avoid a tragic outcome.

It comes down to this:

Before you bring a dog into your family – educate yourself about dog behaviour.

If you as the adult(s) in the household make the decision to have both children and dogs in that household, then you are responsible for the physical and mental wellbeing of both. Generally speaking, neither the child nor the dog has an adult human’s judgement or emotional regulation, and depending on the age of the child they may not be capable of reading the subtle signs of canine emotional discomfort that can precede aggressive behaviour.

If you live with both dogs and children it is your responsibility to model and teach your children empathy, respect, and good behaviour towards animals, from the earliest age possible.

And the one nonnegotiable rule is:

Never leave a dog and a child under the age of 12 (or over 12 if they have not been taught how to read a dog’s body language and respond appropriately) together without the close and careful supervision of a responsible adult who can interpret the dog’s behaviour as well as they can the child’s.

And when I say never I mean not even for the length of time it takes you to go to the toilet.

If we can accept that knowing about canine behaviour is just as important a part of being a responsible dog owner as knowing about keeping your dog physically healthy, it will mean fewer children are injured by dogs, and fewer dogs will die by euthanasia for a potentially preventable behavioural issue.

With thanks to Dr Leonie Thom for contributing to this post.

Please note that a full exploration of all the causes of aggressive canine behaviour is beyond the scope of this post. The information in this post is general and not intended to replace a veterinary consultation.

You may also be interested in:

Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths

Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

Not So Body Positive

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

Written for Queensland Mental Health Week 2020

At some point you will get it wrong.

It will be well intentioned. It may come from a place of not wanting to replicate your own upbringing or the mistakes you think other parents are making. And it will probably be informed by your experiences and biases.

I’ve always known this…in theory.

But the other day my fourteen-year-old daughter courteously yet clearly served my imperfections in this area up to me. This was no teenage tantrum. It wasn’t even an argument. It was simply a conversation in which I was presented with unpalatable information about myself, and then had to choose what I did with it.

It started simply:

‘Mum, can I please get TikTok? Remember I asked you about it a month ago, and you said you’d think about it.?’

‘Mmhm.’

For context – she gained Snapchat and Instagram over the last few months, to my knowledge has not abused any of her privileges, and right now appears to be in good mental health.

So, we talk about how she’d manage seeing distressing content if it popped up. I probe her with her worst-case scenario.

‘What about animal cruelty?’ I say and follow it with a graphic example.

‘I’d talk to someone about it.’ She answers calmly.

‘Who would you talk to?’

She doesn’t hesitate: ‘Well definitely not you! Probably Dad.’

‘Why not me?’ I ask,

‘You and your mental health stuff – you’d blow it all out of proportion, take me to a psychiatrist, have me medicated and force me into years of therapy.’

I did ask.

And while she is wrong about the imagined consequences of telling me she saw some distressing social media content, she is right about something else.

I am hypersensitised, filled with knowledge of the very worst mental illness has to offer. And not just my own. Every time I go into hospital, I share that space with others who are going through their own worsts.

When I see young inpatients often only four or five years older than my eldest child with bandaged wrists or cutting scars, bolts of fear shoot through me. Fear that one day my children could hurt like that.

Every time after my Bipolar 1 Disorder has put me through hell I am frozen by the threat that I will have given this illness to my children. I know that (beyond not introducing significant trauma to their lives and warning them of the dangers of drugs that can trigger the genetic component of this illness) there is nothing I can do to outparent it. But I still try.

After I got sick I was determined my children would grow up in a family that was open about mental illness. There would be no shame and no stigma. They would know from a young age where I was going when I went into hospital and why.

The knowledge that sometimes mental illness sprouts in childhood and adolescence is heavy and made heavier by the fact that sometimes it is fertilised (even in the absence of major trauma) by parents unwittingly invalidating their children’s’ feelings or experiences.

I never wanted to be that parent. And I am not. But I may have made the opposite mistake.

 By unintentionally force feeding my children my concerns around mental health, could it cause them to turn away from the very tools that could help them should they run into a mental health crisis?

Mental health is stitched into the fabric of our family’s conversations partly due to my lived experience, but also because of what I do. My children have never known a time when I haven’t been a vocal mental health advocate. I write about it. I talk about it frequently – sometimes quite publicly.  

And if I dig deep into my motivation for wanting to change the way mental illness is perceived and treated, my children are at the core of it. That motivation is as simple as it is unrealistic:

I want to fix our mental health system so that it can help rather than harm my children should they ever experience mental illness.

I am loathe to admit it but yes sometimes all my motivation, knowledge and focus, can morph into hypervigilance, ready to pounce on the very whisper of something not being right with my children’s thought patterns.  And in my futile efforts to protect them from my worst nightmares, at times I probably veer dangerously close to pathologizing their emotions, which can be as damaging as not acknowledging them at all.  

I do this reflexively even as I know that parenting out of the fear of what could happen is even worse than living your own life ruled by fear.

And yet, deep down I know that if either of my children get sick it won’t be my fault or TikTok’s. If that happens, hopefully their father’s less informed love will be the perfect counterweight to remind me that while my knowledge might be useful in some situations, at other times applying the full weight of it can be like attempting to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Ineffective and potentially damaging.

Post scripts:

It was a yes to TikTok.

While I am deeply grateful that right now neither of my children require psychiatric care, my advocacy work will continue, because it is grim out there. I caught up with a friend recently whose child does need a child psychiatrist urgently. The waiting time to get an appointment with a private child psychiatrist is currently twelve months.

Or there’s the public hospital Emergency Room if symptoms become life threatening while you wait…

Published with full permission from the fourteen year old who also helpfully pointed out I’d misspelt TikTok in the previous draft.

You may also like to check out:

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

As Mothers Of Sons

As Mothers Of Daughters

Is YouTube Rotting Our Brains?