Blog Posts

Don’t Bright Side Me

I don’t have 800 articulate words tied up in a neat bright-side bow in me today. So this instagram post it is. For context I am now into into my third week in hospital. Some of the manic symptoms are settling. The caption accompanying this instagram post is:

The symptoms are horrible, but it is never just about the symptoms. The symptoms and connotations severe mental illness carry with it. leave me staring at the rubble of my identity during and in the aftermath of every episode. It is never just about the symptoms…

#bipolar1disorder #vulnerability #psychiatrichospital #mentalillness #stigma #identityloss #thoughtfood #abductionsfrommybeautifullife

Other reading:

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

A Sinister Manicure

The inky shine of my DIY manicure is pathognomonic of a manic episode.

As is my daily step count doubling – not intentionally, not because of some romanticised elation of mania, but because my short term memory is so poor I have been constantly retracing my steps, wandering from room to room driven by a purpose that evaporates as soon as I arrive where I think I’m meant to be. Constantly. Not just the odd moment of forgetfulness everyone encounters.

My inner life speeds up. Thoughts, speech.  When I glance at my watch it is always half an hour earlier than I anticipate it will be.

I scrunch up, frustrated at the snail’s pace of the rest of the world. 

In the early years of this illness I didn’t register that scrunching, and would inflict bruises and scratches  on myself in these frustrated moments. A day or two later, I’d stare at the violent discolouration and scabs on my skin, and be completely unable to recall how they got there.

The pressure of mania feels like my own adaptation of the fairy tale ‘the red shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen. Instead of being cursed to dance until I die or my feet are cut off, I feel cursed to keep moving and doing. The further it drags me into its clutches the harder it becomes to stop and rest. Ironically exhaustion fuels mania. At its worst I am lucky to get an hour or two with a generous handful of sedating antipsychotics, sleeping tablets, anxiolytics, and sedating antidepressants on board.

Restoring sleep helps chase mania away. To be clear (for me) insomnia borne of mania is not something that can be alleviated with chamomile tea, lavender oil, or good sleep hygiene. I need the handfuls of medication. I need an environment conducive not just to rest, but an environment so controlled it feels like a bandage around my brain when the rest of the world acts like sandpaper on it.

You may say: ‘Just stop doing stuff and rest at home.’

That would be like me saying to you the next time you come down with gastro: ‘Just stop vomiting.’

As for my handfuls of heavy duty psychiatric medications – I learnt a long time ago I experience minimal side effects from most of them. I learnt that, in the midst of a manic vortex, those medications don’t cure me, but they make the sand-papered-brain feeling bearable. I learnt that the old wives tale of psychiatric medications stealing your creativity is bullshit for me.

My creativity is devoured by my symptoms of Bipolar 1 Disorder. I expect this post won’t be as concise as I’d like. Maybe a bit clunky. There may be typos that escape me because I don’t have the capacity to run it through my usual editing loops. But one thing is certain: If I were currently unmedicated, this piece of writing either wouldn’t exist, or it would be almost incomprehensible.

And that is why I am in hospital, swallowing medication by the handful and painting my nails midnight blue.

You may also be interested in reading these posts:

Misunderstood Mania

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

A Lack Of Cats

Our kittens, Lily and Lucy, came before the children. Quiet purrers and beautiful blinkers. Velvet furred links to another lifetime. They came before my Bipolar Disorder.

In my chaotic first few months of motherhood, on a visit home from the psychiatric hospital with my baby, the cats were not impressed. The baby startled and squawked in her rocker, and the cats stalked around the noise and movement, with twitching tails and wide suspicious eyes.

Their suspicion was justified about three years later when that baby – now a toddler – ‘posted’ Lucy through my bedroom louvres out into the garden via a drop of several metres. When I found her meowing on the lawn Lucy was unimpressed, but thankfully uninjured. I sat my toddler down for a talk about treating pets kindly and keeping our indoor cats indoors.

The Easter long weekend the year the cats were eight years old I was mid prep for a family lunch when my now seven-year-old daughter called:

‘Mum, there’s vomit in the cat’s room.’

I abandoned the sprawl of recipe books and followed my daughter’s voice to clarify whose vomit it was. There were patches of it dotting the floor, and the smell of partly digested cat biscuits and bile hung in the air. Cat vomit. And Lily looked flat. I lifted her up and palpated her painful, tense abdomen.

A couple of days before, I had caught her chewing something, but she had shot away when I’d approached. By the time I’d caught her, her empty mouth had concerned me, but I decided to wait and see.

I’d waited and now I was seeing.

The time frame and signs were textbook for whatever she had probably swallowed being stuck somewhere in her gut now. She’d need surgery.

I rang around for a nurse who was free to help me, arranged to meet at the veterinary clinic we both worked at, and loaded a very unhappy Lily into the car.

The incision for an exploratory laparotomy is long. From the bottom end of the sternum to the pubic bone. The exploratory part is methodical. You start with the stomach and visually and manually examine your way down the lengths of intestines. As I worked my way down Lily’s normal looking gut I began to doubt my decision to go in without an X-ray.

And then there it was. A lump. I exteriorised it and exhaled, relieved. The affected intestine was inflamed but not perforated and confined to five centimetres. One simple incision to retrieve…a scrunched-up length of metallic gift-wrapping ribbon.

Lily recovered fully from her surgery, but both cats were mostly confined to their room and cat run, if unsupervised, after that. They were both string, hair tie and ribbon obsessed, and I could not guarantee a house free of these items with a seven and a four year old in the house.

My cat ladies grew into elderly and then old ladies. Of the two, Lucy was always more outgoing and friendly. Lily formed relationships on her own terms and was more skittish. But when we lost Lucy last year, Lily became cuddly.

My now fifteen-year-old daughter, grew into one of Lily’s favourite people. She brought her into her bed and hand fed her morsels of chicken, tuna, or steak. In return Lily was a quietly purring source of warmth, love, and comfort.

Two weeks ago Lily declined rapidly, looking all of her seventeen years, within twenty four hours. Suddenly her bones stood out. Her coat morphed from meticulously groomed to dull. She no longer looked like herself.

I took her to one of the large veterinary emergency centres, requested blood and urine tests, and waited with a deep aching knowledge. In the end she made the decision to let her go – not easy – but black and white. Her blood test results were disastrous. Kidney parameters and blood glucose levels through the roof. I’d have thought twice about tackling both of these issues in a cat half her age.

We gathered to stroke her soft head and thank her for being part of our family for so long. And I whispered my love into her beautiful ears as she slipped gently out of my life.

That night I sat next to the empty cat bed and sobbed my way past midnight.

Two weeks later, I still startle sharply when I enter the cats’ room and am met with absence.  

And when the grief hits my children in great stormy waves, I remind them that there is only one way to avoid this feeling, and that is never to have the love of a pet in your life.

You may also like to check out these:

Goodbye My Thought Food Cover Girl

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

Writing On A Tightrope

What is the thing that could unseat you from your life?

For me it is attempting to control things beyond my control. This urge originates in my DNA and is exacerbated by living with Bipolar 1 Disorder. When this illness sweeps in unannounced and for however long it pleases, it rips my sense of control apart. The rebuild is always hard work.

And while I have learnt to loosen my grip a little more each time I recover, control of the control issues is still a process in progress.  

My kryptonite is sick children.

Over the last six weeks, various illnesses, hospital admissions and a surgery between my two children have threatened to overwhelm my relatively well-honed CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) skills. Neither child was ever in acute danger, yet I battled the clench reflex of control. I loathe feeling as though I am not in the driver’s seat of my life. This time I was on a bumpy road trip I never consented to, delegated to a back seat with no seatbelts and poorly locking doors.

But something unexpected helped.

At the end of April, I started a five week online Creative Writing Course with the Australian Writers Centre. Three to four hours a week to cover course material and submit an assignment. No penalty for not submitting the assignment, other than missing out on feedback from the lecturer.

I completed two weeks without distractions before the illnesses descended.

I immediately indulged in some classic black and white thinking and catastrophising and thought I’d abandon the writing course. Thankfully CBT skills prevailed: Neither child was on life support, and doing some of the course would be better than doing nothing.

I decided to do the minimum I needed to submit an assignment each week. Surprise, surprise – the writing was a welcome relief from the stress of sick children. Spinning and shaping words into new work left me feeling more in control of my world. The gentle nudge of an assignment due, felt as though someone had handed me a balancing pole as I walked my tightrope.

We are (hopefully) through the worst (of the sicknesses) now. The course finished a couple of weeks ago. But I thought I’d share two of the creative writing assignments I submitted, for those who are interested. Both are a scene with a 200-word limit.

I hope you enjoy this foray into another branch of my writing life:

Assignment 1:

Anton pulled on his fur lined hat with the ear flaps, leather gloves, woollen scarf, and snow jacket. He collected his fishing rod and box and left for the lake just as dawn poked its pink fingers through the patchy clouds. Snow crunched like fine gravel under his boots and his breath came in clouds.

He loved the peace and solitude of ice fishing. Some winters the lake froze into a clear pane of glass, and you could see fish moving sluggishly under the ice. This winter, the ice had incorporated snow, until it was as opaque as wedding cake icing.

Anton had barely lowered his line into the ice hole and himself onto the bench when he felt it. Not the usual twitch of a fish, but a heaviness.

He reeled in his line and squinted.

Waterweeds.

His stiff fingers untangled the dark green filaments around his hook. The curtain of weeds hid something fleshy, something covered in blood vessels. It had a cord, like a length of blue wool dangling from its belly.

It had ten fingers and ten toes.

 A gasp shot from Anton’s mouth. His fingers trembled across his chest in the sign of the cross.

Assignment 2:

It’s 2022. I should be used to wearing a mask by now. And yet, I suddenly notice the itchy edges on my cheeks. My breath moves hot and thick and sour inside it. Outside the mask (for a sip of water) the dry air is laundered with disinfectant, hand sanitiser and soap.

The bedside chair is designed to exacerbate my sore back. All the other parents’ anxieties hum around us. My own worries are a fistful of wriggling worms trapped in my stomach.

Th attempts to jolly up this space with zoo animals on the curtains dividing each bay, and jungle scenes on random walls, have failed miserably. The fluorescent lights erase all beauty. Behind my son’s bed a multicoloured cluster of tubes and canisters, buttons and power points sit patiently waiting for the terrible moments when they are called to action.

My boy’s soft hand is invaded by a plastic tube, covered in gauze, and clutches ‘Scrat’ his tiny plush toy wombat. The nails-down-a-blackboard screech of a toddler in the next bay jerks me upright. My back spasms.

In this place time obeys different rules, and my heart in its chest full of quicksand keeps beating, somehow.

You may also like to check out:

The Well Times

The Four Minute Teacher’s Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I generally keep my parent teacher interviews to four questions:

How is my child’s behaviour?

Are they making an effort?

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

Does the teacher have any concerns about my child?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole interaction took exactly four minutes.

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

You may also like to check out these other posts:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Easter Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

As for the meaning of Easter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also find this post of interest:

Silent Night Instead Of Chaotic Christmas

Guilty Of Postnatal Psychosis

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

Who am I?

I am a veterinarian.

I had my first baby at 32.

I developed postnatal psychosis after the birth of that baby.

I had no history of mental illness before that.

I have a perfectionist personality.

This is me.

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

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

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

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

Melissa’s baby was born in April 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding the Maternal health notes made in May 2021:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To that great aunt, I would say this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Thought Food posts that may interest you are:

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

Welcome To Motherhood

Lifeline 13 11 14

Bipolar Day 2022 – Great Inequality

Well

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

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

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

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

Unwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in:

The Well Times

My 2018 World Mental Health Day

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

Mental Health Snobbery

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

No.

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

But we are not, and we do not.

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six weeks later, that was me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that moves us on to the medication debates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

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

Welcome To Motherhood

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 1

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 2

The Well Times

What does well look like for you?

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

But what about my well times?

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

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

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

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

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

I am well now.

And it looks a little like this…

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

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

But it is more than the simple things.

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

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

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

I applied for it. I was invited to interview.

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

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

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

Thankfully, being authentic in the interview paid off.

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

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

There is always a danger in well times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does well look like for you?

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

You may also like to check out:

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

My Mental Health Toolbox

On Uncertainty

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