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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Is YouTube Rotting Our Brains?

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I hear voices.

Shouting. Shrill. Pressured. I am in my kitchen, unable to make out words. Just a stream of urgent noise. Where is it coming from? The TV in the spare room? Surely not. TV conversations dip and rise. Even cartoon voices change in cadence and timbre. The noise coming from the spare room is barely human. This could be how I’d sound if I were to record myself when manic. As irritating as a whinging toddler, as grating as fingernails down a chalk board.

So, who is trapped in my spare room generating this awful sound?

Continue reading “Is YouTube Rotting Our Brains?”

As Mothers Of Daughters

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(Some Confronting Content Ahead)

The day I found out my first baby was a girl, I cried. Until that moment I hadn’t thought much about gender. So, the heaviness that settled on my shoulders when the ultrasound revealed it, was unexpected. The weight of believing I had to be the perfect female role model for a daughter momentarily choked the joy of having one out of me.

I could have saved myself my perfectionist’s tears. We started out in a fire, my girl and I. And all my irrelevant worries were incinerated, in the ferocious blaze. Continue reading “As Mothers Of Daughters”

As Mothers Of Sons

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(Confronting Content Ahead)

A young man in the inner circle of one of my work colleagues died earlier this year. I didn’t know him, have few details, but the devastation written on my work mate’s face said it all. And the details I do know are telling:

He suffered from depression.

But he was going really well.

And then he died…unexpectedly…by suicide.

Tragically, the unexpected element in this scenario is such a common postscript to male suicide it could almost be described as a hallmark. A third of all deaths in young men are due to suicide. As the mother of a son this statistic makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and hide behind these words:

‘That would never happen to us.’

But I know enough to know that sticking one’s head in the sand just adds to the risk. Unfortunately, there will always be a percentage of unpreventable suicides, but even reducing the statistics would be some comfort. So how do we do that?

Maybe a starting point is to recognise the emotional differences between girls and boys, and how we react to those differences. I haven’t researched this scientifically, and every family is different – but here’s what I’ve noticed in mine:

My daughter and I talk a lot. Ad nauseum. I know her emotional barometer almost as well as my own. My son is easy-going, unless he’s tired and/or hangry. He demonstrates his affection physically with a hug or wanting a tickle. Whereas his sister demonstrates it by saying: ‘I love you’.

A lot of my son’s verbal output revolves around Pokemon Go and food. Because of this it can be easy to dismiss what is going on in his head as uncomplicated. I do it sometimes. Life gets busy and he seems ok. But it’s a mistake, because when I give him the right time and space he shows me he has plenty of other thoughts, and that his worries and fears are often no different to his sister’s, but the way he processes them is.

Without wanting to stereotype, or discount individual personality differences, my perception is that while our daughters often wear their emotions on the outside, our sons’ emotional barometers are internal organs. Sometimes we have no idea where they are at until the pressure is at exploding point. In little boys that might be a meltdown, or a quiet sadness. It might be something that can be soothed with a cuddle and a casual chat about what’s bothering them.

But what about bigger boys? As tweens, teens, and young men they don’t sit on their mum’s lap and cry when their thoughts don’t make sense. They tend to stay quiet. Sometimes too quiet.

There are no simple solutions. But we can start by teaching our little boys how to communicate emotional pain long before they grow into young men. And if they do give us hints that all is not right in their world we should take serious notice. Just because they might not express their emotions as noisily as their sisters doesn’t mean our response to their distress should be any less urgent.

While we work towards getting better public mental health services, there are things we can do for our boys and young men. We have to educate them about the link between substance abuse and mental illness, particularly if there is a history of mental illness in the family. And if our young man has a mental illness with depressive or delusional symptoms we must learn to sit with the following discomfort:

Talking about suicide, is much safer than silence.

We need to eradicate stigma! Suicidality is so often a symptom of a mental illness. Stigma blocks the dissemination of information about how such illness can be successfully managed. Parents must understand that it doesn’t matter how much you love and support your child, if that child is sick – whether it’s cancer or a mental illness – you do not have the professional knowledge, skills, or resources to save that child on your own.

Private Health insurance often gives you better choices, but if that’s not an option there are places to go for help. For 12-25 year olds Headspace https://headspace.org.au/  is a good starting point. Your GP can provide psychology and psychiatry referrals. But perhaps one of the most important things you can do for your son (or any other young man in your life) is to be vigilant in the face of his silence.

The image accompanying this post is a favourite of my son. He’s less than a week old. Three generations of hands cradle him – my mother’s, mine, and my daughter’s.

Things have changed since it was taken. These days my son can hold up his own head, but he still needs his family to show him how to open up, not shut down when he’s feeling vulnerable. We need to show him every, single day that we support his emotional health, and that even when he is much taller, hairier, and physically stronger than us, we will continue to have his back.

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

Wedding Breakfast Spoiled

Suicide Watch

Lessons For A Control Freak

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Image courtesy of Flow Magazine

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with control. I rely on having it a little too much. Throw me an unexpected traffic jam, and I’ll feel no more or less anxious than the next person. However, when control goes AWOL from the bigger areas of my life my stress levels sky rocket.

I have been seeing my psychologist for years now. Some visits neither of us have to work hard to tweak things. But whenever there’s a larger life issue I’m struggling with, my distress almost always comes down to my lack of control over an undesirable situation. For me one of the worst-case scenarios are sleep deprivation  combined with the stress of a sick child. The reason this combination is so triggering is that it is kryptonite to my defences against a bipolar episode. (Sleep deprivation especially accompanied by stress is a major risk factor for developing manic and psychotic episodes)

This said, I firmly believe the universe sometimes sits back stroking its chin and assesses where I’m at. And then as though giving me a cosmic performance review, it points out areas for improvement, and gives me the opportunities to practice the life skills I lack. Clearly, I still need a lot of practice accepting a lack of control, because I have been sent the following homework:

Continue reading “Lessons For A Control Freak”

Birthday Conversations

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August is birthday month for me, several family members and friends, and is heralded by jasmine buds pointing their tender, pink noses at the sun all through late July. If I had no devices to track time with, I’d know August is here when those buds burst open into white flowers, suddenly like popcorn, perfuming the air with the anticipation of a fresh year.

Given how excited I get over cake and a party you could be forgiven for thinking I’m six. I’m about to turn forty-five. And I’m finding increasingly that people of my vintage grimace at, rather than celebrate being a year older. This puzzles me for several reasons. Still being alive is one of them. Then of course there’s cake.

I would also hate to be younger.

Continue reading “Birthday Conversations”

Modern Martyrdom

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In our first world society martyrdom is more insidious than the lick of flames on skin, the sizzle as fire catches hair. If you don’t count what can happen on social media, we don’t have public disembowellings. And the causes we sacrifice ourselves for are often not great, necessary, or noble.

Martyrdom today is working until midnight every night doing a job you hate until it breaks you, without investigating your options. It is smugly telling your mothers’ group that you breastfed your baby as your cracked nipples dripped blood, because you were doing what was ‘best for your baby’. It’s going to work even though you’ve got the flu, because you believe you are indispensable. It is having Sunday lunch with your extended family every week even though it drains you emotionally.

Most of us fall into the trap of martyring ourselves for something at some stage. I did so early on in my career.

Continue reading “Modern Martyrdom”