I liken comparing myself to others to a landscape of skin. In some areas that skin is as thick as a crocodile’s. Very little penetrates it. Take social media. I came to it old enough to have a solid sense of myself. My self-esteem and body image didn’t grow up in the glare of Instagram. FOMO generated by someone else’s curated holiday/body/green smoothie/adorable family snaps is foreign to me.
Other tracts of skin are a little thinner but still not easily breached, a bit like a callused heel. My career path and choices have held few twinges of comparison. Maybe in the early years of my veterinary career I did some comparing. But that was part of the trek of working out what sort of vet I wanted to be.
Writing and advocacy work have only evolved in the last few years, and I view other people’s work in these areas as something to either aspire to or steer away from. Yes, it’s comparison, but a cool, dispassionate kind.
Then there are the areas of soft skin, vulnerable, but hidden away too deeply to be strip searched by comparisons. My relationship with my husband fits here, I couldn’t compare us to anyone else, because what we have is as unique as a fingerprint.
Then there’s skin ripped open at unnatural angles.
For me, the taste of my rubber snorkel mouthpiece, the smell of seawater and the sight of pink coral with black fish darting around it, was the beginning. I was about four, snorkelling in the shallows on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea. That defined me. Indelibly.
But mostly, what defines me only does so temporarily. Eventually those moments, decisions and experiences split open and peel away like dead eucalyptus bark to reveal fresh influences and redefinitions.
I remember the first time I felt desired. A look like lightning in the middle of a lake. And a sentence.
‘You are not like other girls. You are better.’
It shaped a part of me that felt proud to be different. We laughed at those ‘other girls’, whose sole ambition in life was wifedom and motherhood, women who threw themselves at him while we toyed with each other. My emotions stayed safely walled off from the chaos of love.
Everyone knows depression is bad. But does this mean mania is good because it supposedly sits at the opposite end of the bipolar spectrum?
Mania is often painted as the cartoonish counterpoint to depression. Perpetually bright, happy, and fun. But it is not fun. It is the character in a horror movie who starts out friendly but then morphs into someone with sinister, glowing eyes.
Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?
It came five days into parenthood. I was lying on the floor in my maternity hospital room crying because I was trying to outrun a jaguar chasing me towards a cliff. Things were starting to go very wrong in my brain.
In the following months, when my mind warped and writhed in the grip of psychosis and later catatonic depression, and when what started out as postnatal psychosis turned out to be a first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, I could not imagine things being worse.
When I ask my psychiatrist that question, he always answers honestly:
‘I don’t know how long, but you will get you better.’
That ‘I don’t know’ even when it’s followed by a promise of eventual wellness, is brutal.
Many years ago, my husband and I took part in a cycling trip over the Pyrenees from the south of France into Spain. The route followed the same path as the Tour de France sometimes does. The first day took us up the Col du Tourmalet, one of the longest and steepest climbs. We rode around twenty kilometres to the base of the mountain and then climbed for close to another twenty, each one steeper than the last, the air getting thinner and thinner.
The last two kilometres were gruelling. Mist closed in. We could barely see the drop off the edge of the mountain. We rode on our lowest gears. Our bones turned into burning jelly and our lungs felt as though they were trying to extract oxygen from water. We were forced to stop to catch our breath every twenty or thirty metres.
But there were markers to show us we were getting closer to the top. Mental footholds in the misty, painful, breathless soup. We had answers to ‘How much longer?’. And with them came hope and the tenacity to keep going. Although it was unbelievably challenging, we had an end point to work towards.
‘My daughter never visits me in hospital. She doesn’t like this place.’
An elderly woman told me this in a private psychiatric hospital several years ago. Sadness dripped from her words.
The thought of visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital (especially for the first time) can leave people feeling: Awkward. Uncomfortable. Fearful. Repulsed. Guilty. Ashamed. Misinformed. Unsure. To name a few.
Do you believe stigma around taking medication for mental illness exists?
Or put it this way:
If you had to choose, would you rather disclose that you were taking insulin or psychiatric medication (antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers etc) to your employer, your family, your friends, and a room full of strangers? And why?