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

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

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I have spent the last five weeks in a psychiatric hospital for management of a Bipolar 1 Disorder episode.

I am no longer sick. But still fragile. Like an egg without its shell. I always reach a point on the return to wellness where I can get no better in the controlled bubble world of the hospital. A point where staying longer is of no benefit and can even become detrimental.

I ventured back out into the world at the end of last week. A world that hasn’t grown any softer in my absence. It is the same hustling harsh, bruising, breaking place it always has been, but perhaps more so. No one was fighting over toilet paper five weeks ago.

That said, after any admission for a Bipolar episode, jumping back into my life can feel like steel wool on newborn skin in the early days.

No one can tell by looking at me when I leave the hospital that I need rehab and resilience building before I am ok again. For me, on average that takes the same amount of time I was hospitalised for. So, in this case – another five weeks.

People tend to be congratulatory about me being well enough to come home. I don’t want to be a downer. I am grateful to be home. But just because I’m out of hospital it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over. It can look like it is slinking away not to be seen again for a couple of years. But appearances can be deceiving.

Once, this illness spent a whole year of my life bouncing me in and out of hospital so often, I got dizzy. By the end of that year, in which most months had held a hospital admission for me, it had nearly killed me. So, that’s why I don’t think about exhaling as soon as I am home.

Today is my fourth day at home. I am still acclimatising. But I also recognise something unexpectedly positive borne of the last five weeks.

Being in hospital with Bipolar symptoms has prepared me for the Covid-19 headlines very nicely.

I get a sense from these headlines and the empty toilet paper and pasta aisles in the supermarket that many people are panicking, or at least are very worried by the uncertainty they are being force fed right now.

I am still in the mindset it took to get through my last five weeks. I lived that time (and do every time I go into hospital) in two-day increments. Why? because it is pointless to look or plan any further ahead. Neither I nor my psychiatrist could fortune tell what would happen. Five weeks of observing, tweaking medication or not, and then waiting another two days before assessing again.

To be clear, there is a difference between not taking something seriously, and choosing to engage only in what is in front of you. I take my Bipolar Disorder seriously, especially when it flares. But does that mean it would be helpful to spend my entire admission panicking that this is the time I become a permanent inpatient (they exist)?

Or should I break it into chunks the size of a couple of days and hit repeat, until at some unknown time in the future I am out the other side?

I’ve spent early admissions, years ago, engaging in the first option but have learnt that the way through with the least energy wasted is the second one.

In the same way, I take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. But you won’t find me panic buying or worrying about whether or when it will end. Breaking this issue down into two-day increments feels helpful to me right now. Every two days (or sooner if the headlines change dramatically) I reassess the basics: Do I and my immediate family have enough food, water, medication and accommodation for the next two days? I am fortunate. So, far the answer has been yes.

Is there any point in trying to predict what might happen next month or even next week, and worrying about it?

None!

Because no one knows where we will be then. You can only act on the information you have at the time.  And if right now your basic needs are met and you are well, don’t buy more and more and more food or toilet paper (unless you are doing it for the vulnerable members of our population).

Breaking the overwhelm of a difficult situation with no known endpoint into smaller portions lessens the strain on our mental health and preserves our energy for more productive tasks.

And if we do it often enough that’s what will get us to the other side of this situation too.

 

You may also be interested in:

What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

Interruption To Regular Programming

Update 27.2.2020

 

Update 27.2.2020

focus photography of sea waves
Photo by Emiliano Arano on Pexels.com

And so, we enter week four in hospital.

I emerged from the manic symptoms about a week ago. Pummelled into exhaustion by the high doses of Lithium and antipsychotic medication, and by the manic episode itself. Even in a hospital setting, taking all the right medication, and having good insight into the symptoms, manic episodes accrue a negative energy balance. It means when you eventually recover you are depleted, bone tired.

And this is where it gets tricky:

That exhaustion can mimic rebound depressive symptoms. One improves with rest and dialling back the antipsychotic medication. The other progresses beyond exhaustion to include other insidious signs that envelop you in a black, poisonous mist. Appetite drops off. The words ‘zero fucks left to give’ cast in a concrete block take up residence in your skull. Motivation evaporates and has to be faked until it decides to return in its own sweet time.

For a week now my psychiatrist and I have been watching and waiting. At first, we were both hopeful. We even (stupidly) dared to imagine I could be well enough to discharge by the end of this week. There is a reason we have a policy of never looking more than two to three days ahead when I’m in hospital. It’s because this illness has taught us – there is no point.

My psychiatrist entered my room mid morning today, looked at me back in bed and said

‘This isn’t good. You’re usually out walking.’

I turned towards him.

I don’t like it when his face arranges itself into concern within ten seconds of seeing me. It confirms what I already know. It also reassures me, because it is evidence of how well he knows me.

I have tilted towards depression, in the opposite direction to where I was headed when I was admitted.

This means we change our treatment plan in the opposite direction. We will cut back the Lithium and we will increase one of the two antidepressants I take. We will give it two or three days.

UNLESS…

My mood begins to shift back up before then, in which case I will inform the nurses and they will page my psychiatrist for further instructions. We don’t want to risk another ascent into mania. I’m not reaching for a YoYo or rollercoaster metaphor here, because they both imply the possibility of fun, which this decidedly is not!

The other switch over is the behavioural management of active Bipolar symptoms. For me it means telling myself to do the opposite to what my body wants me to do. So during a manic episode I should seek out quiet environments, be on my own, try not to overexercise. During a depressive episode it means kicking myself out of bed, engaging with others, and above all else exercise, exercise, and then exercise some more.

What a mind fuck.

While I continue to wait out my life in two to three day increments, I don’t feel inclined toward gratitude. But that’s largely depressive symptoms talking. So, I will do the opposite and stubbornly find something to be grateful for. Here we go:

I am grateful that at their current level my depressive symptoms are much easier to manage and tolerate than my manic symptoms were. The intense manic irritability has disappeared, and my concentration and short-term memory have mostly returned…for now.

 

You may also like to check out:

Interruption To Regular Programming

Misunderstood Mania

Mental Illness Doesn’t Respect Deadlines

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health