These Fires

 

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Are racking up an invisible bill.

Most would agree that even just seeing the billowing smoke, the hellish glow, buckled tin roofs, smouldering ash, the ghostly silhouettes of dead animals lining the roads into obliterated small towns, even when viewed from the safe parts of the country and the globe, even when the horror is confined to a steady scroll behind a screen, is overwhelming. The helplessness bruises our emotions. We can be forgiven for making a donation, posting something derogatory about our inept prime minister and then switching off our screens for a bit.

For the fire fighters, the people in masks in boats under those bloodied skies there can be no thought other than surviving one hour or minute to the next. The same goes for the emergency services, the army personnel, those with loved ones in the danger zones, those who have lost loved ones.

But what about the rest of us. Yes, we can donate to the Red Cross or Celeste Barber or any of the other funds set up to try and help deal with this unprecedented crisis. We can go shopping and buy things on a list that are needed by the emergency services.

But then what – what to do we do next?

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My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

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Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?

I have.

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.

But they could have been.

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Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

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2010 My daughter visiting her little brother and I in the mother/baby unit of the psychiatric hospital

‘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.

What do you say and do if that’s you?

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My Mental Health Toolbox

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This week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address for one of the departments at PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). As part of this I ran through some of the things I have found helpful to help me monitor and manage my mental health.

I got some really positive feedback after the presentation and requests for the list of things that help me with my mental health. So I thought I’d share that list as a post here:

EARLY WARNING SIGNS AND INSIGHT:

In this context insight is the ability to identify early signs of mental ill health in yourself. This is much more challenging than it sounds, because signs of mental illness can masquerade as normal feelings and emotions.

For example – irritability and sadness are part of the normal spectrum of human emotions, but if they are overwhelming and persistent and interfere with normal functioning, they can also be symptoms of depression.

It can take time to identify their intensity or persistence as abnormal. The other challenge is that when we are well, we can often think our way out of sadness or irritability. But when they become symptoms that is impossible.

Someone affected by symptoms of a mental illness can no more think their way out of them than someone with a nasty case of gastro can think themselves out of their vomiting and diarrhoea.

But whereas vomiting and diarrhoea are obvious signs of illness (both to the person experiencing them and everyone around them) it takes insight to recognise when symptoms of mental illness emerge.

For me early warning signs can be an inability to sleep even with a lot of medication, intense irritability, and poor short-term memory and concentration.

Early warning signs are different for everyone. By learning what ours are we can be proactive about seeking help rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen.

For further reading on an example of insight into a depressive episode you can go to: Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

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Who Holds You When You’re Broken?

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I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled

‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.

I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.

She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.

When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.

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2018 – The Year I:

Thought about homelessness, after I witnessed displaced people with cardboard placards to explain their belongings smudging the busy and important streets of Sydney in the first days of the new year. My emotional barometer flicked between pity, sadness, relief, and settled on horror because this could still be me one day. The Right To A Home

Went to work. After twenty years the neural pathways for running a consultation competently and compassionately, for reading who I am in a room with, and being a shock absorber for their anxieties and concerns, are so well-worn they are almost automatic. Contrary to popular belief (and this photo), we spend much less time playing with puppies and kittens, than we do using our communication skills to explain, empathise, and advise our way to the best outcome for our patients via their owners.20170619_130857

Felt it come for me. In February, over two days. My sanity stepped into quicksand. Mania swallowed me. I called into work sick. I said goodbye to my family. I went into hospital. Battened down my hatches and prepared for the usual long stay. Only to be pleasantly surprised. Four weeks in hospital. That’s short for me.

Lost my job. I do every time I get sick.

Opened new neural pathways by setting up a website, which enabled me to write and publish this blog. My technological ineptitude is boundless, so the existence of Thought Food is a minor miracle.

Supported three men. All stepping through the sticky tar of depression at some point this year. All blindsided by the ferocious nature of this beast. All strong, kind, intelligent, undeserving.

Exercised most days. Ate green vegetable omelets for breakfast some days and Nutella on toast with mug loads of coffee on others. #NotFitspo

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Welcomed Clarence, our baby Stimsons python into the family. He is the lowest maintenance pet I have encountered. Gentle, inquisitive, and only needs to be fed every seven to ten days.

Continued to receive rejection after rejection of the manuscript for my memoir from publishers via one of the best literary agents in the country. Each one stings. Each one frustrates. According to publishers’ feedback the quality of the writing is great, but it’s not commercial enough. In other words: No one wants to read about psychosis if you haven’t killed someone in the throes of it or at the very least been picked up wandering the streets nude and ranting.

Began considering self-publishing the manuscript for my memoir.

Climbed back into some weekend work.

Heard my mother’s voice tell me my father had nearly died after a massive heart attack. Seeing him on day two after triple bypass surgery, comatose, tubes and wires snaking in and out of him, and the comforting blips and beeps and numbers flashing on familiar screens was easier than seeing him on day four, awake, in agony with each movement. He survived. My Father’s Heart Broke

Applied for, was accepted into, and completed the SANE Peer Ambassador training program. The glow of being in a room with others who went through hell, survived, and are now well enough to use that experience for good, still warms me. And I finally feel I’m not advocating on my own anymore. The Chosen Ones

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Gathered friends for dinners and lunches to enable my love of cooking, baking, great food and wine, and conversation…so much conversation.

 

 

 

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Became familiar with the inside of an ambulance courtesy of seven night time trips to hospital in ten days. My son developed partial seizures lasting up to ninety minutes each. Relief flooded me when his MRI scan was clear (of brain tumours) and he was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy (infinitely more manageable). Lessons For A Control Freak

Clung to small wins amongst the manuscript rejections. Three posts published on Mamamia, one on SANE, and a submission for Dr Mark Cross’s book on anxiety accepted.

https://www.mamamia.com.au/mental-illness-language/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/symptoms-of-postnatal-psychosis/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/signs-of-depression/

Narrowly avoided a second hospital admission in October. I pounced on the onset of a depressive episode with an emergency psychiatrist appointment, a medication adjustment and slashed away all commitments except exercise for several weeks. Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Became a spokes person for the Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study, and suggested edits to make the language in the main study survey more consistent and less stigmatising. Most of my edits were approved and included less than twenty-four hours before the study launched. A clip of some of my participation and how to participate in the study can be found here:

https://www.geneticsofbipolar.org.au/hear-from-study-participants-alex-anita/

Attended my first ever non-veterinary conference: ‘Empowering online advocates’ and came away feeling much more hopeful than the trip to Sydney in January had left me. #HealtheVoicesAU

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Discovered the joy of camping, absolutely enabled and enhanced by beautiful friends who supplied (and set up) most of the gear.

Resigned from veterinary work. Ostensibly to stop straddling several worlds and free up more time and energy for writing, mental health advocacy, and my children. That is all true. But I am also bone crushingly tired of the cycle. Work, get sick, lose employment because the nature of my illness means I can’t give a date when I’ll be well enough to return, and I can be sick for months. Then I clamber my way back into a demanding profession you can only inhabit when you are functioning at 100% of your capability. I expend time, energy, and money to do enough CPD (continuing professional development) to keep my registration up to date…only to lose it all again the next time I get sick. The plan is two years off. Then see where I’m at.

Received a handwritten Christmas card and instant scratchie from my pharmacist… one of my six medications alone costs $30/week. Treatment

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Reminded you to end the year saying no when your gut tells you to, and being kind to yourself when you feel like doing the opposite.

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Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

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(Contains Confronting Content)

The amnesia of good mental health is powerful. When I’m well I struggle to conjure up what a depressive episode feels like. I can’t remember not being able to think my way out of it. I can even understand how easy it could be (without the experience of this insidious symptom) to dismiss those who suffer it as weak or lazy. This inaccurate, hurtful labeling occurs when people fail to understand the fundamental differences between a psychological challenge and a psychiatric symptom.

Continue reading “Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?”