Honoured, Grateful, And Guilty: A Tangled Family History

image tangled family history

The strands in my children’s heritage are tightly intertwined, multicultural, and impossible to untwist from each other. History labels their predecessors perpetrators and victims, depending on which of their ancestral branches you examine.

A photograph of my maternal great grandmother hangs in my hallway. She looks serious. In mid 1920s Warsaw. Dark haired and dark eyed. My grandmother, aged three or four, stands next to her in a light dress, their arms linked.

My maternal great grandmother was too attached to her country. Fatally so. To me, she is a cautionary tale of the danger of fastening yourself too tightly to one part of the world.

But I only know fragments of her story:

My grandmother (in the light dress) was about nine or ten when she emigrated from the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to Australia with her parents.

Shortly after their arrival, my great grandmother looked around at the vast, bright country she found herself in and decided it was too foreign for her. She pressed some coins into my grandmother’s hand and sailed back.

To Warsaw.

In doing so she inflicted a lifetime of trauma on my grandmother and signed her own death warrant. Her life was erased by the Holocaust that ripped through the country she chose over her daughter. A daughter who would be orphaned in the vast, bright country at twelve, when her father died just a couple of years later.

My parents’ wedding photograph also hangs in my hallway. Taken in Duesseldorf, 1971. My mother’s dark hair. Dark eyes. My father’s white blond hair. Blue eyes.

I was born in Germany, lived in Saudi Arabia from ages one to five and returned to Germany just before my sixth birthday, in time to start school.

Many German born children of my generation were infused with guilt. We read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr in primary school. The older grades took school excursions to former Nazi concentration camp sites. This shameful chapter in Germany’s history was rightly not denied or underplayed.

And the whole world pointed its finger at us. At least it felt that way when I moved to Brisbane with my family aged thirteen.

Almost as soon as I started school, a chunky, pimply, blond boy in my year began greeting me with a Nazi salute and yelling ‘Heil Hitler!’ every time he saw me. The other kids stared as though I were personally responsible for Hitler’s actions. Each time it happened I was swallowed by a boiling pit of mortification and anger.

I already owned my German guilt. Guilt with a twist. The country I’d been born in, whose language I spoke flawlessly, that was home to all of my friends, whose seasons, landscapes, and culture I loved, had in recent history been responsible for the genocide of my mother’s family’s people.

My guilt and that knowledge had already curdled uncomfortably inside me, before that boy began hurling the only, and highly offensive, reference point he had for German people, at me.

My maternal grandfather’s Jewish roots can be traced back to 16th Century Portugal. It is one half of where my children’s dark eyes come from. Their high foreheads and cheekbones travelled from Latvia and Germany via my father. The shape of their chins can be traced back to English ancestors from my husband’s family.

My children are both first and seventh generation white Australians.

It is messy alright.

My ancestors didn’t happen to be in Australia when white people invaded and began inflicting trauma that is still ongoing on the First Nations People. But my husband’s predecessors landed here as missionaries ten years after the first fleet.

Does any good ever come from entering a foreign country aiming to convert its peoples to a belief system not their own?

I don’t believe so. No matter what the intent.

And no matter how much I love the descendants of those missionaries, my guilt echoes around that family history. It feels similar to the guilt I felt as a German child of the early eighties.

Yet, guilt on its own achieves nothing unless it pushes us towards acknowledgement and action.

Over the last weeks I have researched and asked advice from people with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage on wording an acknowledgement of Country and its First Nation Peoples to include in my book. I am so grateful for their time and knowledge.

I am still working on the exact wording. But I plan to include this (slightly reworded) content from an acknowledgement by the Climate Justice Union:

‘I appreciate I have much to learn about the oldest continuous living culture. I am listening, seeing, and learning.’

We are all capable of listening, seeing, and learning – in some form.

And when my children look at their own hallway photographs one day, I hope they will be proud of their incredible hybrid vigour, know where they came from, but also that they are honoured and should be thankful to travel safely over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

You can find an excerpt of my book, which is due to be published this year (Covid permitting) here:  Book  and the story of  the book’s journey here: Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Alex pregnancy and Elsa
End of 2009

My mental illness was born with my first baby.

I never considered my mental health as part of the decision to have a baby, because when I first fell pregnant within a month of trying, I had never experienced mental illness.

The pregnancy was uneventful.

Then I went into a thirty-three hour labour on two hours sleep. This severe sleep deprivation and the swirling hormone levels woke a slumbering monster, a genetic predisposition, which ensured that by the time my baby was one week old, psychosis had wrenched me away from reality. I found myself in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital trying to explain my way out of my delusions, while my husband and mother cared for my daughter at home.

Welcome to motherhood.

Continue reading “World Maternal Mental Health Day: It’s Not All Postnatal Depression”

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

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I am not home schooling my children at the moment.

That implies a level of competence that far exceeds my attempts to provide a bit of supervision while they do what could pass for some form of schoolwork.

In fact, what I am doing could no more be called ‘home schooling’ than calling what my children’s teacher does when they are at school, ‘veterinary surgery’.

The new educational arrangements have made me ask myself this over the last week:

Are there any professions (apart from teachers) who are being asked to convey how to do their whole job to the general public in a very short time, using only online resources? I can’t think of any.

Yet suddenly teachers are expected to translate their university degree and years of practical experience into a format that parents with no training or experience in education can apply to their unwitting children at home.

And there will be some parents who will anticipate the same results as when their kids are being taught at school by the teacher.

I accepted a long time ago that I have no interest in the intricacies of how my children’s education is delivered. And I am not expecting to suddenly become enthusiastic about it, just because external circumstances have changed.

I do care about my children’s education. But my role and the teacher’s role in providing that education are clearly defined and there is little overlap.

I view these as my roles:

To love my children unconditionally and make sure they know it. To set clear boundaries for them. I am privileged to be able to afford to feed them, clothe them, and buy their educational resources. To do my best to allow them a good night’s sleep in a room free of devices, during the school term. To offer them a decent breakfast and a packed lunch, or at least the ingredients to make them. To offer them support in completing homework or schoolwork set by their teacher.

And to make myself available for communication with their teachers at any time.

I regard teachers with awe for the job they do. I know from friends who are teachers the high levels of empathy, patience, resilience, and emotional intelligence, among many other skills, they draw on to do their work well.

I also respect my children’s teachers enough not to encroach on the territory of their expertise.

When I attend parent teacher interviews, I only tend to ask four questions:

‘Does my child seem mostly happy and engaged? Is their behaviour appropriate? Are there any areas they are falling behind in? And, Is there anything else you would like me to know?’

Do you know what I never ask about?

The curriculum. Because I trust the teacher to know it inside out.

I feel for the parents who ask in depth questions related to the curriculum during parent/teacher information sessions, because right now they may struggle with the concept that they can’t single handedly provide their child’s school education at home, no matter how much they research the curriculum.

From an epidemiology point of view, at the time of writing, I believe the best place for my children is at home. But at the same time, my care factor for the quality of my children’s academic education ranks way below how much I care for not only my mental health, but the collective mental health of my family.

I acknowledge that while the two cares might not be mutually exclusive for many households, in mine – they don’t always sit well together. I may be biased by my own life experience, but that experience tells me this:

If my children fall behind in the curriculum, I am confident they will eventually catch back up to where they each normally sit. And they won’t be alone in that experience.

Yet if I tried to deliver the full curriculum to my children at home, I would transfuse the stress of my unsuccessful attempts into them. Over time, their mental health would suffer. Mine might suffer to the point of me having to be hospitalised again.

It would make as much sense as my children’s teachers attempting to perform surgery on their dog with only my online instructions to guide them through.

So, the alternative of my children having to work harder to catch up when this is over feels fairly benign. And this doesn’t mean they are doing nothing now. It just means I don’t hold myself to the unattainable standard of replicating my children’s in school educational experience at home.

And I could be way off here, but I imagine whenever I eventually return my children to their formal school based education – their teachers may prefer those children with their mental health relatively intact and their academic knowledge lagging, rather than the other way around.

(Additional note: The veterinary surgery analogies were drawn from my experience of working as a small animal vet.)

You may also be interested in:

The Other Curve Being Flattened

The Comparison Trap

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

The Other Curve Being Flattened

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Mental health extremes in our house. Where does everyone at your place sit? By the end of this post you might have a better idea.

The Covid pandemic feels as though it has equalised our collective mental health. Or if not equalised, then it has certainly ‘flattened’ the mental health curve.

Most people who live with a mental illness have at some point experienced unpleasant times with no fixed end point, over which they have little control. And now the rest of the world is being forced to experience this too.

I imagine everyone’s mental experience of this pandemic differs based on their mental health history (among other factors). But it’s fair to say that right now most, if not all, of us are experiencing some form of mental discomfort.

On the surface, those who live with mental illness appear to be most vulnerable to this. But, this demographic may not be as at risk as we think.

As someone who lives with a severe mental illness but is currently relatively asymptomatic, I feel surprisingly resilient…for now.

Having previously lived through the rock-solid horror of psychosis, the inevitable Covid anxiety that flits through my brain now feels relatively easy to manage. I have an arsenal of finely honed tools to combat it. All that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and individual sessions with my psychologist are coming in handy.

I am also familiar with having my freedom restricted at times. When I am on fifteen-minute observations in hospital, I can’t go outside. At my sickest I have been too unwell for visitors. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I have at least previously encountered similar conditions to the ones I am living with now.

But what about everyone else?

Many people had been living with mild to moderate undiagnosed or poorly managed anxiety and/or depression for several months or years before Covid hit. I am particularly concerned for this group.

They don’t have solid medical and social support systems in place yet. The all-encompassing Covid generated stress is the perfect trigger for worsening symptoms. And accessing good mental health care quickly and efficiently may become even harder than it usually is.

Depression and anxiety symptoms can make the sufferer feel isolated even if they are closely surrounded by loved ones. Social distancing – so essential to manage virus transmission – will exacerbate symptoms of mental ill health in this group.

Then there are the people who have never lived with mental ill health.

They may never have experienced racing thoughts, heart palpitations, chest pain, irritability, distractibility, gastrointestinal signs such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea due to anxiety, a low mood, insomnia, incessant worry, or any other mental and physical symptoms that can arise due to stress and/or mental ill health.

These people may not know why they are experiencing symptoms or have the psychological skills to put them in perspective. So, they will suffer more than they need to.

But there is good news in the quagmire of black headlines we are sucked into daily.

We can use our own mental health histories to help ourselves and others in this crisis.

Here’s how:

If you live with mental illness and are currently symptomatic, your sole focus must be to do what you can to get well. I know from my experience I am of no help to anyone if I am symptomatic. It’s a cliché but one that applies here:

‘Put your own oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with theirs’.

Firstly, contact the medical professionals you would usually consult when you are symptomatic – whether that’s your psychiatrist, psychologist, GP, community health workers, or psychiatric hospital.

Limit your exposure to the news to once a day – if that. If you have family or friends who can reliably update you on the essential news only, do that. Immersing yourself in the details, is of no practical value, and it can make you feel worse.

Use the same tools you would usually use to distract yourself when you are living through an episode of illness. Eat regularly and well. Don’t consume alcohol or recreational drugs. And move your body in some way, even if it’s small, every single day.

If you live with mental illness and are currently asymptomatic be vigilant but not obsessed. Just because this time is stressful, doesn’t mean developing an episode of illness is inevitable.

Your oxygen mask will consist of continuing to take medication (if you take it), keeping your regular appointments with your psychologist, psychiatrist or GP where possible, eating regularly and well, exercising most days, avoiding or minimising alcohol consumption, and practising whatever psychological skills (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that you have learnt over the course of your illness.

Be aware of any news developments that have practical ramifications for you, but don’t marinate in the news. Once you have done all this and whatever else you need to stay well – consider this:

You can offer support to those who are struggling mentally, those who have never experienced symptoms of mental ill health. Reassurance that their symptoms are survivable with the right care, could mean a lot to someone who is new to these issues.

That said – only do this if you have the mental energy to spare – otherwise just look after yourself.

To those who sense they may have been living with anxiety or depression for a while and it is worsening: All the suggestions with regards to eating well and exercise apply. Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or other recreational drugs. It will make things worse. Getting the right help is also crucial.

I am acutely aware that accessing good mental health care is a challenge in this country even when we are not mid crisis, but some excellent online resources to start with are: Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and SANE (Links at the bottom of this post)

To all the people who have never lived with mental illness: Distraction, exercise, eating well, and maintaining social connections via technology are a good start. Don’t self medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. If you are still experiencing symptoms related to anxiety or depression (as listed above) then the online resources at the bottom of this post may be useful, or make an appointment with your GP as a starting point.

And one more thing…

Once you have done what you need to help yourself – take stock of how this situation is making you feel. And then imagine feeling like this for much longer periods of time than this pandemic will last.

Imagine feeling like this but the pandemic didn’t exist and people around you made you feel as though your symptoms weren’t real.

Then translate your feelings into compassion. And when you feel like yourself again (and you will), extend some sympathy and support to those whose mental illness lasts a lifetime.

And to everyone: We can use our individual experiences of mental health and ill health to support each other through this strange new world and into a kinder future.

So look at who you are sharing your living space with at the moment and consider starting a conversation about where on the spectrum of mental health and illness you and your housemates or family sit. Then think about how you could help each other psychologically.

My own household is one of extremes (regarding the adults). I live with severe mental illness, currently asymptomatic. My husband has never experienced mental illness.

So, when he expressed frustration a couple of days ago about his attention span feeling like that of a gold fish, I said:

‘Yes, I know it sucks feeling like that. But it will be ok.’

And I gave him a hug – something which I believe (at the time of writing) is still acceptable and safe to do in a household in which no one is symptomatic or has returned a positive Covid test.

 

Disclaimer:

This post is based only on my own experience and anecdotal evidence.

For professional mental health advice please contact your psychiatrist, GP, or for more mental health and ill health information check out the following links, all three of which are currently set up to deal with questions about Covid related mental health issues:

SANE https://www.sane.org/

Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Lifeline https://www.lifeline.org.au/

You may also like to check out these other Thought Food posts:

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Mental Illness Doesn’t Respect Deadlines

My Mental Health Toolbox

What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

 

 

Interruption To Regular Programming

red white and yellow medication pills
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

I am in hospital, compromised by my standard symptoms that precede a manic or depressive episode. Looking more manic at this point though. The three symptoms are: lack of concentration, loss of short term memory, and pathological irritability.

If you have never been ravaged by them, then listing these symptoms can make it sound as though I am just a bit ditzy and cranky.

So wrong.

It’s going to take it out of me but let me see if I can paint a more accurate portrait of this beast. I am not yet so sick that it has silenced me.

The memory loss and lack of concentration leave my brain moth eaten. Holding onto thoughts long enough to articulate them takes a lot of effort. It is like using tweezers to try and catch tiny fish darting around in a big aquarium.

And the irritability? Surely as a rational, compassionate human being I should not feel so permanently unreasonable. I always insert the word ‘pathological’ in front of this symptom to try and describe just how out of control the stream of swear words is that run through my head when I am surrounded by people within ten metres of my personal space.

I say ‘pathological’ to describe the feeling of having hundreds of mosquito bites, my hands tied, and someone running a feather over the bites while they make fun of me. Sometimes it feels more like I’ve been sandpapered and then doused in lemon juice.

It is excruciating.

I will eventually get better. I always do. I know in time I will have the reserves to write properly again, and I will eventually go home and continue to rehabilitate. But for now, any spare energy is going towards doing what I need to do to get well, and if anything is left over it is going towards giving some moral support to my husband and children. So there may be some time between posts.

I always hope it won’t be too long but have been here often enough to know that it will take the time it takes and focusing on it won’t speed my recovery.

Stay tuned.

You may also be interested in:

Misunderstood Mania

My First Time

 

 

The Resignation: One Year On

resignation foto

Just over a year ago I unclenched  and allowed myself to fall. I’d been peering over the ledge of a complete break from veterinary work for a couple of years, eyes scrunched shut against the change. The reality of not being able to do everything at once and do it well, a splinter in my thumb – impossible to ignore.

Continue reading “The Resignation: One Year On”

The Comparison Trap

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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.

Continue reading “The Comparison Trap”

What Defines You?

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.

I was defined by my untouchable smugness.

Continue reading “What Defines You?”

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

BCPND visit 2010
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?

Continue reading “Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?”

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

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Photo by Wei Ding on Unsplash

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?

Continue reading “Psychiatric Medication And Stigma”