Blog Posts

Losing My Senses

I have never been so grateful to smell cat shit in my life.

But let’s add some context for that sentence.

A few weeks ago, I went out for a friend’s birthday dinner in a small, busy restaurant. Indoors, noisy. There was a lot of leaning in and speaking loudly to hear and be heard. Within a couple of hours, tongue bitten from sitting across from someone who told me they didn’t believe Covid vaccinations had been sufficiently tested for safety, I was ready for home.

Three days later tiny terrorists held me hostage in my room. I was tethered to my bed by sticky tissues and vicious spike proteins digging in to my respiratory tract. Sick, but not my usual sort of sick. I cancelled plans for the week ahead as Covid leapt through the family. And I marvelled at how easy it felt compared to cancelling things for a Bipolar hospital admission. In 2023 everyone can relate to Covid cancellations.

Prior to contracting Covid, the things I was most concerned about, should I be infected, were likely to be things of no concern to most people. I am grateful I don’t live with any type of immunocompromise or chronic respiratory condition. Neither does anyone in my family. And yet I have continued to wear a mask to the shops without caring what people think.

Because I am vulnerable to collateral Covid damage.

Anything that potentially interferes with my sleep or ability to exercise increases my risk of a Bipolar episode. Covid does both. Then there is long Covid. The stress of living with this nasty reality would skyrocket my risk of multiple Bipolar episodes. And then there is losing my senses of taste and smell. As someone who begins to feel depressed if these senses diminish with a cold, the prospect of potentially losing them long term or permanently was horrifying.

I imagine everyone values their senses differently. When it comes to reasons to breathe, I am someone for whom smelling is as important as oxygenation. I don’t mean I am someone who just appreciates nice perfume and the smell of freshly ground coffee – although I do.

I am also someone who knows the smell of my husband’s sternal notch, the dip between his collar bones at the base of his throat. It is an olfactory hug, a smell I could pick out of a line-up of other sternal notches.

I know the softest fur behind my kittens’ ears smells of butter and air. The smell of garlic sizzling in olive oil or a chocolate cake just ready to be taken out of the oven are pure dopamine hits for me.

So, when Covid blindfolded my sense of smell on day five, and in doing so kidnapped one of my greatest sources of joy and information, I panicked…enough to google how long this was likely to last. It can be as little as five days…but sometimes this black out lasts for 6-12 months or is permanent.

This loss of smell was not like the kind I’ve experienced with a head cold. It wasn’t associated with nasal congestion. My nose was clear and breathing air in a world apparently devoid of all scents and odours. I realised quickly that aside from the discombobulation and depression of living with no nose, there were practical difficulties. Sniffing potentially spoilt milk – nothing. Toast burning to charcoal – nothing. A rotting potato decomposing in a black pool of noxious liquid at the back of the potato storage drawer – totally undetected.

Without smell to accompany it, my sense of taste was reduced to only being able to differentiate sweet from salty foods.

I began to bargain in my head. Which of my other senses would I give up in exchange for my sense of smell? Impossible. I don’t want to lose any of my senses.

Thankfully, for me, the blindfold loosened within ten days. I began to smell around the edges of the world again. Strong smells returned intermittently and then faded away again. The fading times lessened. I discovered the foul stench of the decomposing potato that had been reverse air freshening the kitchen for at least a week. Cat shit re-entered my nasal vocabulary. And with time so have the subtleties of air and butter on kitten fur,

As for the Bipolar risk factors that accompany my visit from Covid, I’ll have to wait and see. The last couple of months have carried other stressors with them too. From experience, my Bipolar episodes tend to sit back patiently while the risk factors peak and the stress unfolds, and then set in as a special treat once things settle down.

So I am moving carefully through the world with my fingers crossed, while I enjoy being back in the world of the smelling.

You may also like to check out

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Mental Illness And Humour

I don’t joke about mental illness.

And when anyone around me does, even if it’s about their own experience, I feel as though I am trapped in a cube of thick glass, a scream frozen in my mouth.

I’ve wanted to write about why I feel this way for a long time but have discarded the topic again and again. I know many people use humour to help them live with their mental illness. But I’ll come back to that.

Onto my reasons for not being able to take these jokes.

At its simplest, I don’t believe we have eradicated sufficient stigma to safely joke about what living with a mental illness means.

It might look like we are making progress, but it’s an illusion.

Sure, our baby steps skim the surface of the most palatable mental illnesses. Anxiety that resolves with mindfulness, or depression that is sorted with some exercise and early morning sun exposure.

The ‘brave’ disclosure of taking (a respectably small amount of) medication for anxiety or depression, has shed a lot of stigma in recent years.

But dive below the surface and things get uncomfortable for many. Think psychosis, psychiatric hospital admissions, Electroconvulsive Therapy etc.). The world still largely deals with this discomfort as though it is a teenager trapped in a car with a parent talking sex education. Sulky silence, avoiding eye contact, and wisecracks.

Then there is the constant energy sap of explaining.

Let’s take some experiences I’ve had recently.

First came the media requests for my opinion on whether Kanye West’s antisemitic hate speech, racism, and misogyny were caused by his bipolar disorder. You can find my responses here:

https://www.mamamia.com.au/mental-illness-can-happen-to-anyone/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/podcasts/the-quicky/kanye-bipolar

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/article/kanye-west-is-in-the-news-for-the-wrong-reasons-how-do-we-include-his-bipolar-disorder-in-the-conversation/fuocnelxj

Suffice to say I wasn’t laughing as I wrote and spoke.

Next it was a question at the end of the Q and A for one of my library author talks about my memoir, Abductions From My Beautiful Life.

‘Hi, I’ve read your book. I noticed there is no violence in it. Is that true?’

I asked, ‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s just that whenever you read about people with mental illness, they are always violent. So, I was surprised not to find this in your book.’

An ache swamped my chest. Everyone in the room waited for my answer to this jagged question.

I explained that the media often stigmatises mental illness by reporting violent outcomes devoid of context or humanity. I explained that, yes violence occurs, but the mentally ill are more likely to be victims not perpetrators. I explained that when someone’s violence is rooted in their mental illness it is too often not a case of them slipping through the cracks. It’s a case of there being more cracks than solid ground.

And that no I have not edited any violence from my book. Aside from the violence psychosis visited on my brain, there wasn’t any.

I was thanked for my explanation.

But it shouldn’t take me or anyone else to explain that most people who live with severe mental illness are not violent, antisemitic, misogynistic, racists.

While I am well, I choose to explain it again and again and again, because silence leaves a space for the public to draw their own conclusions when Kanye behaves badly, or poor journalism demonises the vulnerable. But the constant explaining leaves me with no energy to laugh about any of it.

When I can, I push back against memes and social media posts that joke about my worst nightmares, or even just sprinkle stigmatising language around like poison disguised as fairy dust. ‘Psycho’ ‘nuthouse’ ‘mental’…

When I point out these ‘errors’ in the comments sections I am often told I can’t take a joke’. I’m told to ‘get a life’ ‘lighten up’, ‘fuck off’, or that ‘it’s just a meme’.

And when I am not well enough to push back and explain, the world continues to fill in the blanks, and papers over its discomfort with another meme.

So, does anyone get to joke about mental illness?

In my opinion:

If humour surrounding mental illness is part of a private conversation between people with lived experience who share enough history to gauge what is appropriate, I have no problem with it.

If you live with a mental illness and find being humorous about your experience is helpful to your recovery and maintaining stability, go ahead…

But have the grace to acknowledge you don’t represent everyone. Consider whether your jokes hide self-stigma. And if you choose to share your humour publicly, ask yourself if the benefits to you outweigh the risk of potentially generating more stigma.

Also – if you share jokes or memes online that perpetuate negative stereotypes around mental illness – don’t tell me to ‘lighten up’ when I call them out.

Lastly – If you have no lived experience of mental illness, don’t joke about it.

As long as the status quo assumes that the perpetration of violence and mental illness go hand in hand, we are still lightyears away from a point when everyone can laugh safely.

You may also like to check out:

Mind Your Language Katy Perry

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness

Reset

The virtual shouting stops on the boat. My compulsion to check the noise evaporates with the loss of signal, the lack of Wi-Fi.  Once the grey green water of the harbour becomes ocean, the colour of a newborn’s eyes. A colour that holds the answers to everything.

When we arrive two hours later the blue changes again. Transparent and vibrant like blue heaven jelly. A giant bowl of it. Viewed from above the sharks and turtles and rays could be gummi lollies, if they weren’t moving. If they hadn’t been moving through these waters for thousands of years. Long before we came with all the awkward gear that allows us to breathe under water.

One of the first days. On the five-minute boat trip to the outer reef. We squint. It looks like a flipper, just piercing the glassy water in the distance. A dolphin? We draw closer. Engine cut. And there – barely below the surface, four metres of magnificence, mouth parts welcoming plankton. Silver, grey, black, and white – a giant silk handkerchief shimmering in the sun, billowing on the tide. A manta ray, gracing us with a moment of awe.

On another day it is dolphins, close enough to see their skin shining in the sunlight with each arc above the water.

Snorkelling off the beach. Impossibly sleek reef sharks glide close. Black and white tipped. Small eyed. Large nosed. Clown fish dart in and out of their protective anemones. Symbiosis. Ears submerged I hear parrot fish crunching coral. Their jewel tones on steroids and perfect fin flaps almost make even me believe in a god.

I hover clumsily next to unperturbed turtles. They breakfast while my breath moves noisily through my snorkel.  Blank black eyes focussed on each mouthful of sea grass or coral. The patterns on their heads and shells are intricate as fingerprints. Neck skin concertinaed in wrinkles. And when one glides off unhurried, I flap along beside her, eager to witness her surface for breath.

Each evening the birds return to the island. Hundreds and hundreds fly in on the sunset as it paints a golden red carpet on the water. I could walk into forever on it. In thirty seconds, a minute at most, as a reminder that the earth still turns, the last of the sun slips into the sea like a burning coin.

In between snorkels I read. Paper and ink books. Several.

For a week, whenever I close my eyes, fish, coral, sea stars, sea cucumbers, velvety clam lips, swirling fish, play on the inside of my eyelids. I didn’t take a camera into the water with me this time. Too distracting. I take my eyelid footage with me instead.

The release from screen suction untethers me from the endless frenetic opinions and largely meaningless activity social media hurls into my brain. This passively acquired ‘content’ vacuums up my time and energy and adds nothing to my life.

I arrive home. Feelings mixed. I could have stayed and stayed. I am also relieved. The tension of possibly forgetting either or both of the two separately packed sets of medication I travel with releases. The fear of my Bipolar disorder wrecking our holiday evaporates. Because it didn’t happen. This time. It doesn’t have a good track record for respecting holidays.

I love being removed from the rest of the world. But there is a flip side. Travelling somewhere remote with no access to doctors, pharmacists and no means of contacting them, means I travel with an undercurrent of fear. The potential of having especially a psychotic episode when cut off from all of the support I need to treat it, fills me with horror.

My re-entry into signal, Wi-Fi, and responsibilities is an opportunity for a reset. Pruning and muting the unnecessary followings. Being a bit more mindful about the world my phone dumps into my head when I pick it up. Reading paper and ink books at bedtime…

And when things get hectic again – because they will – I will dip into one of my favourite pieces of footage from the time away:

On the last day. In the water. Just off the edge of the reef. Magic appears with the majestic passage of three mantas below us. Close enough for sunlight to make them shine and glisten with each leisurely flap of their wings. Impossible for anything else to exist in this bubble of time. They gradually dissolve into the deep and leave behind joy, a lifelong memory, and an elated expression on my daughter’s face.

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

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