Blog Posts

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

Deciding To Hope

To hope or not to hope?

In one week my immediate family and I are leaving for a holiday on Heron Island. That was a difficult sentence to commit to. Not the sentence, just one word.

‘Are’

The certainty inherent in those three letters. Articulating it feels like I am going to jinx it, like I will alter the course of history, even though I know that’s impossible.

This is our third attempt at this holiday. The first was over Easter 2021. I almost needn’t follow that up with any explanation. To use a recently much reworked cliché -everyone was in the same boat…or in our case not in the boat bound for our holiday destination.

It was a time of global holiday cancellations. We were all still invigorated by the adrenaline of the early days of a pandemic many believed could be conquered and left behind.

We rebooked our holiday for Easter this year. But in a twist of acutely painful timing our city was locked down. Ironically only for 3 days. But they were the exact 3 days we were meant to travel to Heron Island.

By the time that little lockdown ended, everyone else was off to enjoy their Easter camping trips. We were left feeling slapped, as though we had been singled out by the universe to miss out on our holiday.

But we rebooked again. For next week. Knowing it might not eventuate this time either.

And about three weeks ago doom crept into the family. We began to censor ourselves and each other. Snapping ‘If it happens!’ if anyone dared mention anything to do with the holiday. We shot each other down with sarcasm and repressed feelings as though expressing any plans, hope or joy associated with this holiday would save us the disappointment if it had to be cancelled again.

So, just under three weeks ago our family decided – that instead of clenching everything, and white knuckling it through this will-we-wont-we time, we would allow ourselves to feel the joyful anticipation of this holiday.

We began to talk about what snacks we’d take on the car trip. What we were looking forward to most. We wondered if we would see clown fish. We started making packing lists.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about mindlessly Pollyanna-ing the reality we live in. All four of us are abundantly aware that things can look like they are going ahead one day only to have them snatched away in a minute.

While it is true that right now we have no control over whether our holidays or special events will be cancelled at the last minute – it is also true that we never did, we just weren’t as acutely aware of it.

But we can choose how we feel in the lead up to planned events. We can choose to anticipate disappointment or anticipate joy. Whether it ends up being disappointment or joy is almost irrelevant because it isn’t about the eventual outcome. It is about how we feel right now.

We can choose to scrunch ourselves into a ball of anxious negativity. But for what? Being able to say ‘See I told you it would be cancelled’ if it is cancelled? Like a sort of sick Schadenfreude directed at ourselves.

Or we can choose a more relaxed, positive attitude that coexists with the knowledge that it may be cancelled, but that the anticipation is pleasant. If the holiday goes ahead we will have had a much nicer lead up to it, than having to spend the first few days unclenching from the negativity.

If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t have wrecked the preceding few weeks with dread.

Choosing to have low expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment is not only flawed, but in these times of immense uncertainty it doesn’t serve us well. It robs us of joy. The brave thing to do is hope in the face of uncertainty regardless of whether that hope ever grows into reality.

That said, I have two disclaimers for the hope approach.

The first is that the ability to conjure hope relies on reasonable mental health. Someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially those featuring depression or anxiety will no more be able to think themselves into hope than a diabetic can think their blood glucose levels into the correct range. They will need the right treatment for them before hope can become a choice again.

The second is that if you are attempting this with children, they need to be old enough/emotionally mature enough to understand that the hope does not guarantee the holiday.

For today, everyone in my family is well enough to hope that by mid next week we will get to see those clown fish and soak in the endless blues of the sky and the ocean surrounding our tiny Island destination.

You may also like to check out:

On Uncertainty

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Freedom Fighter? I Have Some Questions

Original image from ABC news has been altered

I am curious about where you are coming from. And it’s good to have a curious mind, isn’t it? So, I wanted to ask you some questions.

You know how you won’t take advice about Covid prevention from the doctors who believe in Covid (ie the majority of doctors)?

Are you aware that these are the same doctors you get your general medical advice from?

Here’s a specific scenario:

Let’s say one of your children came off their bike and… actually that raises another question – do your children wear bike helmets? I don’t want to make assumptions here, because in the same way you ‘have an immune system’ to protect you against Covid, I’m sure you are aware your children ‘have a cranium (skull bone)’ to protect them from head injury?

Do you view a bike helmet as an artificial and unnecessary device when the body has a perfectly good natural bony protection against brain injuries? Or am I drawing unreasonable conclusions about your beliefs here?

My apologies – I digress. It’s that curious mind of mine.

Let’s just say your child comes off their bike, knocks their head (helmeted or not), passes out, wakes up, and vomits. What do you do?

In that situation I would take my kid to the emergency department of the nearest hospital, but maybe you wouldn’t? From what I know about you so far, you and I make very different medical decisions.

But for the purpose of this piece of writing I will assume you do go to your nearest hospital’s emergency department. And if this is the case, my question to you is this:

Do you realise that most (if not all) of the doctors you encounter in the hospital believe we are in the middle of a global Covid pandemic and will advise that a combination of masks, widespread testing, selective quarantine, and vaccines are helpful measures to manage it?

And if you are aware of this, and you don’t trust their expertise when it comes to advice about Covid, how do you trust those same doctors to treat your child’s head injury?

How do you cherry pick which parts of your doctor’s expertise to trust?

If you take your child to hospital, do you jump onto Google before you leave and consult the same sources you do for your Covid information about the best way to treat a potential concussion in a child?

Or would you delay the care of your child’s head injury until you found a doctor who also believed masks are unnecessary and that Covid vaccines are part of a giant human experiment?

I mean, any doctor will treat your child. They have sworn an oath to treat everyone – neo-Nazis, child molesters, murderers – sorry, not equating you or your child with any of these demographics – just making the point that the doctor you see will treat your head injured child (even if they fundamentally disagree with your stance on ‘your freedoms’).

If you are reading this in Australia, you live in a first world country. If you have access to social media – and especially if you occupy an influencer space – there is a good chance you have enough to eat, a roof over your head, and access to first world medical care – including a hospital emergency department if your kid sustains a head injury.

You have an abundance of freedom.

If where you get your information from tells you not to be vaccinated – it may be inaccurate – but you do have the freedom to take that advice.

But when it comes to your refusal to follow other public health directives (masks, testing, etc), this is not about your freedom. This is about your unwillingness to accept any inconvenience. This is about you putting yourself first 100% of the time. It is you putting your convenience and comfort above the health and lives of everyone else, especially the many vulnerable people you share this country with.

So to my last question:

If you accuse the medical and scientific communities’ advice of curtailing your freedom when it inconveniences you, but then choose to rely on the mainstream health system when you have a medical emergency – Is that not the definition of hypocrisy?

Further reading

Medical Decision Making And The Wallpaper Effect

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

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

Welcome To Motherhood

(A letter from the mother I am today to the mother I was about to become)

Hello Anita in 2006,

I am writing to you from fifteen years in the future. You are about to have your first baby. You earnestly believe you have to know it all now.

You don’t and you can’t.

You have imagined who the person you are about to meet will be. But a newborn is full of secrets. It takes time to get to know your child.

I am making cinnamon scrolls and listening to Mozart at dawn on your baby’s fifteenth birthday. I remember her at just a few days old. I looked into the unfathomable darkness of her gaze and felt as though I was being interviewed for a job I had no qualifications for.

What have I learnt since then?

For everything you get ‘right’ parenting wise, you get something else ‘wrong’. Can I make a suggestion? Let go now of the idea of right and wrong. It barely exists. As long as you are not wilfully abusive towards your child, the rest are just lucky bullseyes and unfortunate missteps from which you learn. The things you think are important now will be things you won’t care about in the future.

For example – your baby will be born by caesarean and be breastfed for seven days. You don’t need to know why right now. But I can reassure you that fifteen years on, how she was born and how she was fed as a baby are irrelevant.

I know this information shocks you, because you are welded to the sticky stories you were fed at prenatal yoga and hospital classes. It’s not your fault that you believe this stuff. You don’t know better.

Always remember that even (perhaps especially) in times when you are completely baffled about what to do next, you know your child better than any expert. I remember when your baby moved into toddler age, she would have epic tantrums, that went forever.

I read a parenting book, which advised the best thing to do was to firmly hug your tantruming toddler. The pressure of the hug was meant to calm their nervous system. I tried this with our little girl. It escalated her further, and the tantrums would then take double the time to resolve.

I can smile about it now, because after years of learning who she is, I know that when she gets upset, one of the first things she needs is space. The hugs are helpful later.

Don’t believe the cliches cloaking motherhood. You don’t need to martyr yourself to be a good mother. Unfortunately, you will learn that in challenging circumstances. But you will learn it and be a happier and better mother for it.

Then there are generalisations. For years beforehand I was fearful of ‘the teenage years’ because we are fed horror stories. I don’t assume her remaining teenagerhood will be devoid of challenging times. But so far, I think – give me a teenager over a baby anytime. We can communicate. She can share her sense of humour with me. I know the things she cares about, and what she doesn’t.

I love the physical independence of a teenager. She sleeps through the night, goes to the toilet on her own, can make herself food, can catch a bus, and arrange her own catch ups with her friends.

No one ever tells you that (if you have lived with your child since their birth) you won’t just be dropped into parenting a teenager. By the age of fifteen you will have had fifteen years of getting to know what works for them and what doesn’t.

Lastly please remember – motherhood doesn’t happen in a vacuum for anyone. We are fed images and text and given lectures on the ideal way to parent. But often these are presented in a vacuum – as though nothing else aside from mothering were happening in your life.

As though when you are mothering you are somehow immune to life.

Immune to relationship break ups, job losses, bereavement and grief, homelessness, pandemics, diagnoses you never could have predicted, and all that can go astray in a life.

And while these things may temporarily compromise the ‘quality’ of your parenting, they are also what can make you a better parent in the longer term. They are the things that can teach your children that life is not perfect, and most importantly that their mother is not perfect.

Children don’t need a perfect mother. They need a mother who is genuine. Who tries her best. Who is able to admit when she has stuffed up. Who is vulnerable. Who, rather than sweeping away all the challenges in her children’s’ path, can sit with her child and agree that some things are just shit. And who after sitting with the difficulty can point to something that is good. Whether that’s a stack of banana pancakes, or the child themselves.

Welcome to motherhood!

Love

Anita in 2021

The beginning of motherhood also heralded the beginning of Bipolar 1 Disorder for me, starting with postnatal psychosis on day 7. To read more about this, you might like to check out a sample of my memoir here Book

Other posts of interest may be:

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

Medical Decision Making And The Wallpaper Effect

Thassos Island, Greece- Ouzo and olives at sunset -long before I had to make medical decisions for myself
.

Let’s play a game.

Imagine being recommended a medication that you were told could lower your risk of dying. But to be fully informed before taking it, you were first required to spend 24 hours in a room wallpapered with all the potential risks and side effects of taking that medication printed in large, bold font.

The words all over that wallpaper are:

Dizziness, nausea, weight gain, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, vomiting, back pain, migraines, suicidality, paraesthesia, restless leg syndrome, blurred vision, ringing in the ears, eczema, itchiness, hives, agitation, irritability, nightmares, confusion, muscle pain, swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat that may cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing, impaired concentration, poor memory, hair loss, decreased thyroid function, hepatitis, liver failure, hallucinations, slurred speech, kidney failure, trouble walking, tremors, seizures, coma, death

After 24 hours you are let out of the room and presented with the medication. Would you take it?

I’ve had some experience assessing health related risk versus benefit. Professionally I’ve done it with every animal I have recommended a treatment or diagnostic test for, from the simple (routine vaccinations) to the complex (invasive surgery in a patient who is already unwell).

But perhaps my personal experience of taking psychiatric medications on and off for the last 15 years is more relevant. The above list is just a sample of the potential side effects of some of my medications. If I printed them all out, and then wall papered my house with them, I could easily torture myself into not taking any of them.

This is the wallpaper effect.

I don’t disregard any of the words on that list. I know someone who almost died as a direct result of taking one of the medications I take. I have recently been diagnosed with decreased thyroid function, very likely as a direct result of taking one of my medications, There have been other medications I have tried and had to discontinue because of side effects.

And to put the risks I am working with into perspective: Common side effects for many of these medications are considered able to affect up to 1 in 10 people, uncommon side effects may affect up to 1 in 100 people, and rare side effects – so the more serious ones in the above list – may affect up to 1 in 1000 people.

As risks go, they are not exactly tiny.

And yet I opt to religiously take these potentially life-threatening medications. Why? Because the risk of side effects (in me, at the moment) is less than the risk of my Bipolar 1 Disorder symptoms being poorly controlled.

I have a higher risk of both a poor quality of life and death from my Bipolar 1 Disorder if it is unmedicated than I do from my current medication regime. My risk of death if I do nothing to manage this illness sits between 15%-20% (including not only suicide but non intentional causes of death due to manic or psychotic symptoms, which can include increased risk taking, hypersexuality, poor judgement and delusional thinking).

Thanks to modern medicine, humans in first world countries  are confronted with death less often. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that death can be avoided if we ‘do our research’ and make the right choices.

Speaking of ‘research’: True research is not a google search. Neither is it being spoon-fed unsubstantiated claims on social media by someone who couldn’t make their way through one research paper if they tried, let alone the hundreds it would take to qualify what they were doing as actual research. Research is something academics, including scientists and some medical doctors, are trained to do. It is rigorous, unbiased, and a skill that takes years to learn.

I believe the choices most of us make about our health have less to do with ‘research’ and more to do with the biases our environment soaks us in.

If you see mobile morgues or dead bodies outside your window, you are more likely to want the vaccination that reduces the chances of you dying from what killed the people outside your window, even if the vaccine carries a very small risk of death.

If you don’t know anyone who has died from that same illness, but you are marinated in the announcement of a potentially fatal side effect of the vaccine every time you look at a screen, you are likely to be more reluctant to be vaccinated than someone in the first group.

The scientific risk of death due to side effect is identical in both populations but the human response is different according to which narrative is shoved into our malleable brains. The capacity to weigh true risk against benefit flies away.

And that is why I choose not to live in a house wallpapered with my medication side effects.

On Uncertainty

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

A couple of weeks ago I found myself being shouted at by another parent.

Someone semi well known, a parent to several children. This person has their fingers in a few pies, some might be called parenting advice adjacent, but to my knowledge they lack formal qualifications.

They delivered their passionate message via Facebook couched as a public service to ALL parents. I am wary of all unsolicited parenting advice. My aversion to it stems from my first pregnancy and early first-time motherhood.

Back then I eagerly soaked up all the information, like a stray kitten lapping up a saucer of milk. The need to have a vaginal birth. How essential breastfeeding would be for my baby.

I made myself sick on information.

In fact, had I stubbornly clung to it, that information could have killed both my baby and I. (A baby in the posterior position, postnatal psychosis brought on (in part) by sleep deprivation, a lot of medication to treat the postnatal psychosis that passed into breastmilk).

But back to the Facebook tirade I found difficult to look away from.

The message was completely overshadowed by the breathless anxiety in its delivery. I’ve never been a proponent of parenting out of the fear of what could happen based on general information. The topic of this particular rant is almost irrelevant because it could have been about anything. It happened to be about Tick Toc. More specifically a call to ban it from our children’s devices.

Personally, I would not give my primary school student access to any social media. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Personally, I believe banning Tick Toc from high school students’ phones rather than letting them have it and teaching them about the dangers, is a bit like banning sex instead of providing good quality sex education. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Reflexively banning anything because you’ve come across some frightening information about it will just make it more appealing to many teenagers. Like the kid who has never been allowed sugar… But stop I am straying from the point I am trying to make, which come to think of it can still be made with the kid who has never been allowed sugar.

Take two kids with the same parent and apply the No Sugar rule.

It might work perfectly for one kid who is pretty compliant, naturally eats a wide variety of foods, and happens to love taking vegetable muffins for lunches. They grow into an adult who carries their childhood eating habits into adulthood and live happily ever after.

The other kid might be more rebellious. They might gorge on sugar at every birthday party they go to and resent their parents’ strict (though well intentioned) food rules. They trade their vegetable muffins for chocolate bars at school lunches. They feel guilt and shame associated with eating sugar and grow into adulthood with disordered eating that takes years of intensive therapy to manage.

Whether it is sugar or social media – I no longer make blind decisions based only on external information (be it expert or the anecdotal variety hurled at me by social media). I aim to interpret parenting information in the context of my child(ren) and my family before I lay down any laws.

Favouring my intuition over information isn’t easy. In other areas of my life – such as my veterinary work and the management of my Bipolar 1 Disorder, I have always relied heavily on information to help me make decisions.

But I can’t count the number of times information (even expert information) has failed me as a parent.

In this age we are assaulted by information wherever we look. It can overwhelm and make us doubt our knowledge of our children. And if we let it, the information and opinion overload becomes a stick to beat ourselves to an indecisive mess with.

It has taken me years and plenty of mistakes to marry my intuition and knowledge of my children with a scant amount of trustworthy information to find the formula that works (not all but) a lot of the time, for this family.

I am not against parents sharing information and opinions. I share my own frequently. This post is a case in point. But I find it helpful to remember that ultimately we need little information to parent well, and it is information most parents agree on anyway:

Love your children unconditionally; provide them with food, water, shelter, the opportunity to exercise, and the best medical care you can access; don’t expose them to any forms of abuse; teach them how to navigate the world they inhabit; and if you are fortunate enough to be able to – provide them with an education.

Beyond that, you can ignore what everyone else is doing. It’s down to what works for you and your child.

You may also like to check out:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

If you enjoy my writing, my recently published memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life is available on most online bookselling platforms including Amazon, Fishpond, and Booktopia. You can find an excerpt here: Book

Work Leave For Mental Illness If You Are Not Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka’s decision to step back from her job for reasons of mental ill health has stirred up a lot of debate in the last week. And yes, it’s great that she is being open about her mental ill health being the reason for this decision.

But Naomi Osaka is not representative of most people who experience mental ill health during their working life. The main reason is that (financially) Naomi can afford to take enough time off to recover.

I don’t point this out to minimise her suffering. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It will make you feel equally shit whether you are wealthy or not. But the luxury of time off for an employee to recover fully from an episode of mental illness is not one many workplaces will or even can accommodate.

This week several experts have stated that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees living with a mental illness, that these employees have a right to time off and to have their work modified to accommodate that mental illness.

I have mixed feelings about this. I feel exasperated, bemused, and tired. Because these earnest, well intentioned experts have no idea how mental illness and work mix in the real world.

The first time I experienced mental illness (postnatal psychosis followed by rebound depression) I was hospitalised for close to four months. ‘Luckily’ for my employer I was on maternity leave, so absolutely no thought had to be put into managing my absence, because it had already been planned for.

After I recovered, I continued to work as a small animal vet for another 12 years before taking a break to have my book published. In those 12 years I experienced a severe Bipolar 1 episode on average every 2-3 years. When I say severe, I mean requiring hospitalisation for weeks or months on end followed by a gradual re-integration to life outside the hospital.

Here are the two deal breakers my illness presents to most work places:

Firstly, for me, the onset of episodes of illness is sudden – ie between 24-48 hours. There is no time to plan or find someone to fill in.

Secondly, when I’ve had to phone work to say I would not be in for my next shift, I’d have to follow that with ‘I have no idea how long I will need off’.

Again – luckily for my employers – in those 12 years I was a casual employee. This meant I was effectively fired each time I got sick.

The practice I worked for was not doing anything illegal, and from a practical and financial point of view they could not have indefinitely held a position open for me. Each time I eventually recovered, and because there is almost never a shortage of work for vets – new hours were found for me. But me being able to slot back into the same workplace each time was due to the nature of the industry, not due to any laws to protect my position and income.

I am privileged, and thankfully my husband could support our family without my wage when I got sick. But my survival and roof over my head have had absolutely nothing to do with my workplaces being able to accommodate my mental illness.

Just because it isn’t legal to fire people or make their life hell because they live with mental illness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I know plenty of people who live with this reality.

This injustice occurs because of a gargantuan power imbalance between an employee who lives with a mental illness and their employer. Whether employers are aware of it or not: They hold all the power. Here’s why:

Stigma still prevents many people from disclosing they live with a mental illness to their employer – especially when they are asymptomatic. Once that person becomes symptomatic, they are likely to struggle just to get through each day or hour. Symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, distorted thinking, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, panic attacks, and non-existent self-esteem, (to list just a few) make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to not only schedule a meeting with their boss or with HR, but then present at that meeting as a fully functioning human being.

And if they do, and their boss discriminates against them they often don’t have the mental resilience and the finances for a legal battle to bring their discriminating employer to justice.  

These employees will often just go quietly –because that is all they have the energy for. Then their employer gets to shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Well it was the employee’s choice to leave!’

I am grateful to Naomi Osaka for cracking open the conversation about mental ill health at work a little wider. If it causes even one employer to stop and consider that the playing field between them and an employee who lives with mental illness isn’t even, it will be a good thing.

But there is still a long way to go before people who disclose their mental illness at work can expect to be treated the same as anyone who discloses a physical illness.

To read a bit more about my work life, you might like to check out my recently published memoir: Book and how it came to life: Welcome To The World ‘Abductions’

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