Writing On A Tightrope

What is the thing that could unseat you from your life?

For me it is attempting to control things beyond my control. This urge originates in my DNA and is exacerbated by living with Bipolar 1 Disorder. When this illness sweeps in unannounced and for however long it pleases, it rips my sense of control apart. The rebuild is always hard work.

And while I have learnt to loosen my grip a little more each time I recover, control of the control issues is still a process in progress.  

My kryptonite is sick children.

Over the last six weeks, various illnesses, hospital admissions and a surgery between my two children have threatened to overwhelm my relatively well-honed CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) skills. Neither child was ever in acute danger, yet I battled the clench reflex of control. I loathe feeling as though I am not in the driver’s seat of my life. This time I was on a bumpy road trip I never consented to, delegated to a back seat with no seatbelts and poorly locking doors.

But something unexpected helped.

At the end of April, I started a five week online Creative Writing Course with the Australian Writers Centre. Three to four hours a week to cover course material and submit an assignment. No penalty for not submitting the assignment, other than missing out on feedback from the lecturer.

I completed two weeks without distractions before the illnesses descended.

I immediately indulged in some classic black and white thinking and catastrophising and thought I’d abandon the writing course. Thankfully CBT skills prevailed: Neither child was on life support, and doing some of the course would be better than doing nothing.

I decided to do the minimum I needed to submit an assignment each week. Surprise, surprise – the writing was a welcome relief from the stress of sick children. Spinning and shaping words into new work left me feeling more in control of my world. The gentle nudge of an assignment due, felt as though someone had handed me a balancing pole as I walked my tightrope.

We are (hopefully) through the worst (of the sicknesses) now. The course finished a couple of weeks ago. But I thought I’d share two of the creative writing assignments I submitted, for those who are interested. Both are a scene with a 200-word limit.

I hope you enjoy this foray into another branch of my writing life:

Assignment 1:

Anton pulled on his fur lined hat with the ear flaps, leather gloves, woollen scarf, and snow jacket. He collected his fishing rod and box and left for the lake just as dawn poked its pink fingers through the patchy clouds. Snow crunched like fine gravel under his boots and his breath came in clouds.

He loved the peace and solitude of ice fishing. Some winters the lake froze into a clear pane of glass, and you could see fish moving sluggishly under the ice. This winter, the ice had incorporated snow, until it was as opaque as wedding cake icing.

Anton had barely lowered his line into the ice hole and himself onto the bench when he felt it. Not the usual twitch of a fish, but a heaviness.

He reeled in his line and squinted.

Waterweeds.

His stiff fingers untangled the dark green filaments around his hook. The curtain of weeds hid something fleshy, something covered in blood vessels. It had a cord, like a length of blue wool dangling from its belly.

It had ten fingers and ten toes.

 A gasp shot from Anton’s mouth. His fingers trembled across his chest in the sign of the cross.

Assignment 2:

It’s 2022. I should be used to wearing a mask by now. And yet, I suddenly notice the itchy edges on my cheeks. My breath moves hot and thick and sour inside it. Outside the mask (for a sip of water) the dry air is laundered with disinfectant, hand sanitiser and soap.

The bedside chair is designed to exacerbate my sore back. All the other parents’ anxieties hum around us. My own worries are a fistful of wriggling worms trapped in my stomach.

Th attempts to jolly up this space with zoo animals on the curtains dividing each bay, and jungle scenes on random walls, have failed miserably. The fluorescent lights erase all beauty. Behind my son’s bed a multicoloured cluster of tubes and canisters, buttons and power points sit patiently waiting for the terrible moments when they are called to action.

My boy’s soft hand is invaded by a plastic tube, covered in gauze, and clutches ‘Scrat’ his tiny plush toy wombat. The nails-down-a-blackboard screech of a toddler in the next bay jerks me upright. My back spasms.

In this place time obeys different rules, and my heart in its chest full of quicksand keeps beating, somehow.

You may also like to check out:

The Well Times

The Four Minute Teacher’s Gift

A giant digital clock rules the room. It ticks down the allotted six minutes in seconds, and an unignorable alarm leaves no one in any doubt of when their time is up. The space has a frenetic speed dating vibe.

But this is not speed dating. These are parent teacher interviews. And many of the parents are there to squeeze the most out of the teachers and every second they have with them.

I admire the teachers for being able to give the right information about the right kid to the right parents, respectfully and diplomatically. And I feel compassion for them because they are the shock absorber for a new parent’s emotions every six minutes. I’ve heard (from teacher friends) those emotions can be intense and not always politely expressed.

Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and too often disrespected by parents who should know better than to take out their frustrations on those who dedicate their career to educating our children. Parents should have the insight to recognise that their child’s learning outcomes are the result of many factors. What the teacher is doing is only one variable.

A child’s ability to function happily at school is affected by many things that their teacher has no control over.

Teachers (generally) have no control over whether a child has had a decent breakfast, no breakfast, or a slurpie for breakfast before they arrive at school. They don’t control whether that child is given the space to express their emotions safely at home, and whether they are given unconditional love and support in challenging times. Teachers often have no control over whether they have an adequate number of teacher aides and other support staff for the class they are allocated. Teachers don’t control whether a child has an undiagnosed and/or unmanaged medical condition that affects the child’s behaviour.

I appreciate that for many parents giving their child food, a safe home, and appropriate medical care, is something they are unable to provide. If a child lives with a medical condition or disability that is poorly understood or inadequately supported by the school, or if a parent suspects their child is being abused by a teacher, of course they must advocate for their child. But these instances are not what this post is about.

This post is about the parents who live with none of the above circumstances, stopping to appreciate what a fantastic job most teachers do with our children. This post is about stopping before you abuse or accuse a teacher of being responsible for aspects of your child’s development that they are just not responsible for.

I approach parent teacher interviews with empathy for my children’s teachers, even the teachers who other parents whisper sharply about. Over the ten years that I have had a child or children at school I have learnt that some years my children have brilliant teachers whom they love and work well with.

Some years their teachers do a good, solid job. And some years they have teachers who they don’t click with, who may not handle difficult situations in the classroom as well as one of the brilliant teachers might have. These last teachers may not be my children’s favourites, but they haven’t broken my children either. Because (unless a teacher is abusive) the ‘not breaking the children’ responsibility is largely mine and my husband’s.

I generally keep my parent teacher interviews to four questions:

How is my child’s behaviour?

Are they making an effort?

Are there any areas where they are falling behind enough to warrant additional support?

Does the teacher have any concerns about my child?

The answers tell me more than a six-minute gallop through their work books would.

I’ve found high school involves fewer parent teacher interviews. So, when the notification option to book in for parent teacher interviews was emailed out recently, I asked each child if they wanted me to book any interviews. The year 7 child nominated a teacher he wanted me to catch up with. I asked if there was anything in particular he wanted me to mention, and he said:

‘No. I just really want you to meet my favourite teacher.’

The interview was last night. Just after the screech of the alarm ending the previous parent’s time, I sat down opposite my child’s favourite teacher. We introduced ourselves. She sipped hot tea from a big, green mug. Her voice was a little hoarse. A Covid leftover. She asked me what I’d like to cover. I told her:

‘He just wanted me to meet his favourite teacher.’

The teacher’s whole face smiled: ‘That has made my day.’

We briefly touched on my usual questions and as I stood up, I said: ‘Thank you for everything you do.’

The whole interaction took exactly four minutes.

The teacher stood with me and smiled again: ‘I’ve got two minutes left to get a fresh cup of tea before the next one.’

You may also like to check out these other posts:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Mental Health Snobbery

Is stigma surrounding mental illness only generated by people who have never been mentally ill?

No.

There is a version of the S-word that lurks below polite conversations about ‘stigma surrounding mental illness’. It occurs amongst people who experience mental ill health, and it is camouflaged by the notion that we are all in this together and all experience a similar level of stigma.

But we are not, and we do not.

I first became aware of this after my encounter with acute Postnatal Psychosis, and the rupture from reality that accompanied it. My experience didn’t fit the binary mould of the common Perinatal Mood Disorders: Perinatal Anxiety (PNA) or Perinatal Depression (PND).

Over time, I discovered that (not all but some) mothers who have experienced PND or PNA, especially if it is mild, carry harsh opinions about those of us who need medication and hospitalisation or who live with other diagnoses.

Some examples:

I once read an account by a woman who was able to resolve her mild PNA by going to a special mother’s group, which, she wrote:

‘Thankfully didn’t have any loonies in it, just normal mums who were struggling a bit.’

Another time, when I was hospitalised in the Mother Baby Unit of a private psychiatric hospital, I heard a group of mothers cackling in the common room:

‘At least we aren’t like the real crazies in the rest of the hospital.’

This snobbery irritated me at the time. Several years later, I became one of the ‘real crazies’ (patients in the main hospital) and… felt sad for these women who left their experience of mental illness with the same narrow mindset they had entered it with.

That said, most of us start the ride into mental ill health with biases.

I remember during my first admission, two of the mothers in the Mother Baby Unit were having ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy). I didn’t have any strong conscious opinions about ECT. But if I’d been asked, I suspect I’d have said: ‘That will never be me.’

Six weeks later, that was me.

ECT is still one of the most stigmatised treatments. Some of the strongest perpetrators of that stigma are those living with mental illness who have not had ECT.

 A couple of years ago, I encountered another patient in the hospital to whom ECT had been suggested as a treatment option. She asked me about my experience, and then said:

‘Well, I am a scientist and need my brain to work properly, so I can’t consider having ECT.’

I swallowed the prickly implication she had just hurled my way and thought of the surgery I had performed, the book I’d written, all the ways I’d successfully used my brain post ECT. I avoided that person for my remaining admission.

Patients new to mental illness often inadvertently extend their self-stigma to others.

During my last admission another patient told me that they had been in hospital for a week and that they were worried about the length of their stay. They asked me how long I had been in for. I replied: ‘This admission? Three weeks’

They visibly recoiled. Their thoughts may as well have been printed on their forehead:

‘More than one admission? Three times the length of my stay? And you are still here?’

I didn’t add that for me, three weeks was a minimum length stay, that in the past I had spent months hospitalised, that I would never be cured. Instead, I said:

‘Just take one day at a time, and don’t compare yourself to anyone. Everyone is different.’

But I know it can be tempting to play the comparison game. When I feel frustrated and vulnerable, my thoughts can turn poisonous:

‘Must be nice, to only have to take one medication or none.’

 Knowing very well that there is nothing nice about having to take even one medication or being unwell, even if you don’t need medications.

And that moves us on to the medication debates.

Before I came down with Postnatal Psychosis and Bipolar Disorder, I was a reluctant medication taker. I wasn’t specifically anti psychiatric medications. It had just never occurred to me that I would need them. Then I got so incredibly sick, that the prospect of refusing something that might help me was ludicrous.

Today the debates around psychiatric medication stigma tire me, because it is simple. If you don’t need medication to help manage your mental illness, that is awesome for you, but it doesn’t make you stronger, or better than anyone who does.

Anti-medication stances are a luxury not everyone can afford. Voicing that stance without acknowledging the accompanying privilege, can stigmatise those who do need medication to manage their illness.

And appearances can be deceiving. Someone experiencing moderate or mild symptoms without access to good mental health care, may suffer more than someone, like me, whose symptoms and treatments may look worse on paper (psychosis, ECT, etc) but who has had consistent access to excellent quality mental health care.

No one’s lived experience should be used to minimise or stigmatise someone else’s.

So, whether this is your first and only episode of mental illness or it is one of many, or you’ve been lucky enough to never experience one,  when you form an opinion about others living with mental illness, please replace judgement with compassion and think before you speak or write.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma

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

Welcome To Motherhood

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 1

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 2

The Well Times

What does well look like for you?

I have painted many pictures of myself when a Bipolar episode knocks me out of my life for a while.

But what about my well times?

I don’t identify with the cartoonish cliché of Bipolar Disorder. I don’t spend each day either drowning in depression or being supersized by mania. This depiction of the illness lacks nuance. It’s a stereotype wheeled out for memes or lazy reporting.

I can only speak about the fingerprint of my own experience. Severe, but well managed.  

Sure – when I am unwell, I tend towards very unwell. I won’t sugar coat that.

But, for me…for me – when I am well, I am well…well.

In my well times my life is not a daily struggle. If anything, I struggle less than many ‘mentally healthy’ people. Thanks to my Bipolar Disorder, my box of psychological tools to deal not only with my illness but life in general – is full. But before it thundered into my life, my toolbox contained the equivalent of a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers.

I am well now.

And it looks a little like this…

It is settling into myself. It is being alert to all I am capable of. It is a beautiful, clear, hard-won self-knowledge

It can be simple things – being able to read and drive and go to the shops, immerse myself in my family.

But it is more than the simple things.

It is actively pursuing my edge, courting the possibility of foundering, because I know the feeling of foundering will be fleeting compared to the dull ache of regret which could plague me for years.

A couple of weeks ago an interesting job opportunity dropped into my direct messages. Both it and I were great on paper. Veterinary qualifications and experience. Writing qualifications and experience. Listed as the first requirements.

 It lit the spark I needed to update my CV, which had been languishing back in 2015.

I applied for it. I was invited to interview.

And perhaps for the first time I thought about what I wanted, rather than blindly throwing whatever I needed at it to get the job.

And so, I clicked ‘join meeting’ with all the skills and experience I could bring (for example writing well) and all that I couldn’t (for example managing stakeholders).

I came away thinking – I could do this, but do I want to? If offered the position I think my ego may have convinced me to squash myself into a shape I didn’t naturally fill, just to prove I could.

Thankfully, being authentic in the interview paid off.

Having a way with words was more important to me, and stakeholder management was more important to them.

And when I got the email thanking me for my time but telling me that I wouldn’t be progressing further in the application process, I felt – a sharp little sting and then… relief, because I really didn’t want to squash myself into someone I wasn’t.

There is always a danger in well times.

It is the fear of what may happen in the unwell times.

There are times, even when perfectly well, I have to resist the pull to sit in a metaphorical corner rocking with my hands over my eyes doing nothing, because I know what has happened to me, could happen again.

I’ve felt that pull many times. I have resisted it many times. Over time I’ve gathered proof that resisting is the only way to have the life I want, even if it is a life lived with this illness. Without that resistance I would lack a lot. My second child and my self-worth top a long list.

Most recently that resistance has gifted me an updated CV and a stronger sense of who I am and what I want.

I know in the last couple of years, mental unease has crept into many people’s lives and distorted their thoughts, feelings, and view of life. It’s a foreign and frightening landscape to find yourself in. And finding your way back to the well times can feel impossible.

For me, the first steps back to wellness always start with a couple of questions:

What does well look like for you?

Does your toolbox contain more than a pair of tweezers and some toenail clippers?

You may also like to check out:

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

My Mental Health Toolbox

On Uncertainty

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

The place from where my words usually come is wrapped in wet cotton wool. I am in hospital.

For years now my prodromal signs of loss of concentration and short term memory – which can be precursors to either a manic/psychotic episode or a depressive episode – have always landed on the manic/psychotic side.

This time the signs were the same. My psychiatrist and I gambled, counted on the past history of manic psychotic, adjusted medication accordingly.

Only it went the other way. I flattened, unhelpful phrases trudged like a battalion of soldiers through my soggy brain: …better off without you…. Everyone. 

There is no need for alarmed raising of eyebrows. This is not my first go on this merry-go-round.

Those derogatory words and phrases are completely alien to me. I can see them for what they are. Just a clinical sign. Nothing more, nothing less. They don’t prompt me to hatch self destructive plans. They prompt me towards my psychiatrist, and towards hospital, because the world feels like sandpaper on my soft brain. The hospital won’t fix it quick, but it will bandage the raw areas while they heal.

At this level I find depressive symptoms are easier to manage, easier to live with than manic symptoms…unless of course I plummet to the complete paralysis of catatonic depression…and then it’s just as horrid, possibly worse.

I may expand on this comparison of symptoms  in the future. For now there is no concentration, and motivation feels like riding a slug to catch up with a leopard made of quicksilver. There is literally no point.

I do own a new hospital mug. The design is fresh, green, paisley, floral… It is sprightly. It’s the  small things that make it less bad.

2020 Ends In Hospital

Insight: The Essential Ingredient

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

Deciding To Hope

To hope or not to hope?

In one week my immediate family and I are leaving for a holiday on Heron Island. That was a difficult sentence to commit to. Not the sentence, just one word.

‘Are’

The certainty inherent in those three letters. Articulating it feels like I am going to jinx it, like I will alter the course of history, even though I know that’s impossible.

This is our third attempt at this holiday. The first was over Easter 2021. I almost needn’t follow that up with any explanation. To use a recently much reworked cliché -everyone was in the same boat…or in our case not in the boat bound for our holiday destination.

It was a time of global holiday cancellations. We were all still invigorated by the adrenaline of the early days of a pandemic many believed could be conquered and left behind.

We rebooked our holiday for Easter this year. But in a twist of acutely painful timing our city was locked down. Ironically only for 3 days. But they were the exact 3 days we were meant to travel to Heron Island.

By the time that little lockdown ended, everyone else was off to enjoy their Easter camping trips. We were left feeling slapped, as though we had been singled out by the universe to miss out on our holiday.

But we rebooked again. For next week. Knowing it might not eventuate this time either.

And about three weeks ago doom crept into the family. We began to censor ourselves and each other. Snapping ‘If it happens!’ if anyone dared mention anything to do with the holiday. We shot each other down with sarcasm and repressed feelings as though expressing any plans, hope or joy associated with this holiday would save us the disappointment if it had to be cancelled again.

So, just under three weeks ago our family decided – that instead of clenching everything, and white knuckling it through this will-we-wont-we time, we would allow ourselves to feel the joyful anticipation of this holiday.

We began to talk about what snacks we’d take on the car trip. What we were looking forward to most. We wondered if we would see clown fish. We started making packing lists.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about mindlessly Pollyanna-ing the reality we live in. All four of us are abundantly aware that things can look like they are going ahead one day only to have them snatched away in a minute.

While it is true that right now we have no control over whether our holidays or special events will be cancelled at the last minute – it is also true that we never did, we just weren’t as acutely aware of it.

But we can choose how we feel in the lead up to planned events. We can choose to anticipate disappointment or anticipate joy. Whether it ends up being disappointment or joy is almost irrelevant because it isn’t about the eventual outcome. It is about how we feel right now.

We can choose to scrunch ourselves into a ball of anxious negativity. But for what? Being able to say ‘See I told you it would be cancelled’ if it is cancelled? Like a sort of sick Schadenfreude directed at ourselves.

Or we can choose a more relaxed, positive attitude that coexists with the knowledge that it may be cancelled, but that the anticipation is pleasant. If the holiday goes ahead we will have had a much nicer lead up to it, than having to spend the first few days unclenching from the negativity.

If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t have wrecked the preceding few weeks with dread.

Choosing to have low expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment is not only flawed, but in these times of immense uncertainty it doesn’t serve us well. It robs us of joy. The brave thing to do is hope in the face of uncertainty regardless of whether that hope ever grows into reality.

That said, I have two disclaimers for the hope approach.

The first is that the ability to conjure hope relies on reasonable mental health. Someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially those featuring depression or anxiety will no more be able to think themselves into hope than a diabetic can think their blood glucose levels into the correct range. They will need the right treatment for them before hope can become a choice again.

The second is that if you are attempting this with children, they need to be old enough/emotionally mature enough to understand that the hope does not guarantee the holiday.

For today, everyone in my family is well enough to hope that by mid next week we will get to see those clown fish and soak in the endless blues of the sky and the ocean surrounding our tiny Island destination.

You may also like to check out:

On Uncertainty

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Welcome To Motherhood

(A letter from the mother I am today to the mother I was about to become)

Hello Anita in 2006,

I am writing to you from fifteen years in the future. You are about to have your first baby. You earnestly believe you have to know it all now.

You don’t and you can’t.

You have imagined who the person you are about to meet will be. But a newborn is full of secrets. It takes time to get to know your child.

I am making cinnamon scrolls and listening to Mozart at dawn on your baby’s fifteenth birthday. I remember her at just a few days old. I looked into the unfathomable darkness of her gaze and felt as though I was being interviewed for a job I had no qualifications for.

What have I learnt since then?

For everything you get ‘right’ parenting wise, you get something else ‘wrong’. Can I make a suggestion? Let go now of the idea of right and wrong. It barely exists. As long as you are not wilfully abusive towards your child, the rest are just lucky bullseyes and unfortunate missteps from which you learn. The things you think are important now will be things you won’t care about in the future.

For example – your baby will be born by caesarean and be breastfed for seven days. You don’t need to know why right now. But I can reassure you that fifteen years on, how she was born and how she was fed as a baby are irrelevant.

I know this information shocks you, because you are welded to the sticky stories you were fed at prenatal yoga and hospital classes. It’s not your fault that you believe this stuff. You don’t know better.

Always remember that even (perhaps especially) in times when you are completely baffled about what to do next, you know your child better than any expert. I remember when your baby moved into toddler age, she would have epic tantrums, that went forever.

I read a parenting book, which advised the best thing to do was to firmly hug your tantruming toddler. The pressure of the hug was meant to calm their nervous system. I tried this with our little girl. It escalated her further, and the tantrums would then take double the time to resolve.

I can smile about it now, because after years of learning who she is, I know that when she gets upset, one of the first things she needs is space. The hugs are helpful later.

Don’t believe the cliches cloaking motherhood. You don’t need to martyr yourself to be a good mother. Unfortunately, you will learn that in challenging circumstances. But you will learn it and be a happier and better mother for it.

Then there are generalisations. For years beforehand I was fearful of ‘the teenage years’ because we are fed horror stories. I don’t assume her remaining teenagerhood will be devoid of challenging times. But so far, I think – give me a teenager over a baby anytime. We can communicate. She can share her sense of humour with me. I know the things she cares about, and what she doesn’t.

I love the physical independence of a teenager. She sleeps through the night, goes to the toilet on her own, can make herself food, can catch a bus, and arrange her own catch ups with her friends.

No one ever tells you that (if you have lived with your child since their birth) you won’t just be dropped into parenting a teenager. By the age of fifteen you will have had fifteen years of getting to know what works for them and what doesn’t.

Lastly please remember – motherhood doesn’t happen in a vacuum for anyone. We are fed images and text and given lectures on the ideal way to parent. But often these are presented in a vacuum – as though nothing else aside from mothering were happening in your life.

As though when you are mothering you are somehow immune to life.

Immune to relationship break ups, job losses, bereavement and grief, homelessness, pandemics, diagnoses you never could have predicted, and all that can go astray in a life.

And while these things may temporarily compromise the ‘quality’ of your parenting, they are also what can make you a better parent in the longer term. They are the things that can teach your children that life is not perfect, and most importantly that their mother is not perfect.

Children don’t need a perfect mother. They need a mother who is genuine. Who tries her best. Who is able to admit when she has stuffed up. Who is vulnerable. Who, rather than sweeping away all the challenges in her children’s’ path, can sit with her child and agree that some things are just shit. And who after sitting with the difficulty can point to something that is good. Whether that’s a stack of banana pancakes, or the child themselves.

Welcome to motherhood!

Love

Anita in 2021

The beginning of motherhood also heralded the beginning of Bipolar 1 Disorder for me, starting with postnatal psychosis on day 7. To read more about this, you might like to check out a sample of my memoir here Book

Other posts of interest may be:

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

The Parenting Trap – Is Information The Enemy?

A couple of weeks ago I found myself being shouted at by another parent.

Someone semi well known, a parent to several children. This person has their fingers in a few pies, some might be called parenting advice adjacent, but to my knowledge they lack formal qualifications.

They delivered their passionate message via Facebook couched as a public service to ALL parents. I am wary of all unsolicited parenting advice. My aversion to it stems from my first pregnancy and early first-time motherhood.

Back then I eagerly soaked up all the information, like a stray kitten lapping up a saucer of milk. The need to have a vaginal birth. How essential breastfeeding would be for my baby.

I made myself sick on information.

In fact, had I stubbornly clung to it, that information could have killed both my baby and I. (A baby in the posterior position, postnatal psychosis brought on (in part) by sleep deprivation, a lot of medication to treat the postnatal psychosis that passed into breastmilk).

But back to the Facebook tirade I found difficult to look away from.

The message was completely overshadowed by the breathless anxiety in its delivery. I’ve never been a proponent of parenting out of the fear of what could happen based on general information. The topic of this particular rant is almost irrelevant because it could have been about anything. It happened to be about Tick Toc. More specifically a call to ban it from our children’s devices.

Personally, I would not give my primary school student access to any social media. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Personally, I believe banning Tick Toc from high school students’ phones rather than letting them have it and teaching them about the dangers, is a bit like banning sex instead of providing good quality sex education. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Reflexively banning anything because you’ve come across some frightening information about it will just make it more appealing to many teenagers. Like the kid who has never been allowed sugar… But stop I am straying from the point I am trying to make, which come to think of it can still be made with the kid who has never been allowed sugar.

Take two kids with the same parent and apply the No Sugar rule.

It might work perfectly for one kid who is pretty compliant, naturally eats a wide variety of foods, and happens to love taking vegetable muffins for lunches. They grow into an adult who carries their childhood eating habits into adulthood and live happily ever after.

The other kid might be more rebellious. They might gorge on sugar at every birthday party they go to and resent their parents’ strict (though well intentioned) food rules. They trade their vegetable muffins for chocolate bars at school lunches. They feel guilt and shame associated with eating sugar and grow into adulthood with disordered eating that takes years of intensive therapy to manage.

Whether it is sugar or social media – I no longer make blind decisions based only on external information (be it expert or the anecdotal variety hurled at me by social media). I aim to interpret parenting information in the context of my child(ren) and my family before I lay down any laws.

Favouring my intuition over information isn’t easy. In other areas of my life – such as my veterinary work and the management of my Bipolar 1 Disorder, I have always relied heavily on information to help me make decisions.

But I can’t count the number of times information (even expert information) has failed me as a parent.

In this age we are assaulted by information wherever we look. It can overwhelm and make us doubt our knowledge of our children. And if we let it, the information and opinion overload becomes a stick to beat ourselves to an indecisive mess with.

It has taken me years and plenty of mistakes to marry my intuition and knowledge of my children with a scant amount of trustworthy information to find the formula that works (not all but) a lot of the time, for this family.

I am not against parents sharing information and opinions. I share my own frequently. This post is a case in point. But I find it helpful to remember that ultimately we need little information to parent well, and it is information most parents agree on anyway:

Love your children unconditionally; provide them with food, water, shelter, the opportunity to exercise, and the best medical care you can access; don’t expose them to any forms of abuse; teach them how to navigate the world they inhabit; and if you are fortunate enough to be able to – provide them with an education.

Beyond that, you can ignore what everyone else is doing. It’s down to what works for you and your child.

You may also like to check out:

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

If you enjoy my writing, my recently published memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life is available on most online bookselling platforms including Amazon, Fishpond, and Booktopia. You can find an excerpt here: Book

Work Leave For Mental Illness If You Are Not Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka’s decision to step back from her job for reasons of mental ill health has stirred up a lot of debate in the last week. And yes, it’s great that she is being open about her mental ill health being the reason for this decision.

But Naomi Osaka is not representative of most people who experience mental ill health during their working life. The main reason is that (financially) Naomi can afford to take enough time off to recover.

I don’t point this out to minimise her suffering. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It will make you feel equally shit whether you are wealthy or not. But the luxury of time off for an employee to recover fully from an episode of mental illness is not one many workplaces will or even can accommodate.

This week several experts have stated that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees living with a mental illness, that these employees have a right to time off and to have their work modified to accommodate that mental illness.

I have mixed feelings about this. I feel exasperated, bemused, and tired. Because these earnest, well intentioned experts have no idea how mental illness and work mix in the real world.

The first time I experienced mental illness (postnatal psychosis followed by rebound depression) I was hospitalised for close to four months. ‘Luckily’ for my employer I was on maternity leave, so absolutely no thought had to be put into managing my absence, because it had already been planned for.

After I recovered, I continued to work as a small animal vet for another 12 years before taking a break to have my book published. In those 12 years I experienced a severe Bipolar 1 episode on average every 2-3 years. When I say severe, I mean requiring hospitalisation for weeks or months on end followed by a gradual re-integration to life outside the hospital.

Here are the two deal breakers my illness presents to most work places:

Firstly, for me, the onset of episodes of illness is sudden – ie between 24-48 hours. There is no time to plan or find someone to fill in.

Secondly, when I’ve had to phone work to say I would not be in for my next shift, I’d have to follow that with ‘I have no idea how long I will need off’.

Again – luckily for my employers – in those 12 years I was a casual employee. This meant I was effectively fired each time I got sick.

The practice I worked for was not doing anything illegal, and from a practical and financial point of view they could not have indefinitely held a position open for me. Each time I eventually recovered, and because there is almost never a shortage of work for vets – new hours were found for me. But me being able to slot back into the same workplace each time was due to the nature of the industry, not due to any laws to protect my position and income.

I am privileged, and thankfully my husband could support our family without my wage when I got sick. But my survival and roof over my head have had absolutely nothing to do with my workplaces being able to accommodate my mental illness.

Just because it isn’t legal to fire people or make their life hell because they live with mental illness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I know plenty of people who live with this reality.

This injustice occurs because of a gargantuan power imbalance between an employee who lives with a mental illness and their employer. Whether employers are aware of it or not: They hold all the power. Here’s why:

Stigma still prevents many people from disclosing they live with a mental illness to their employer – especially when they are asymptomatic. Once that person becomes symptomatic, they are likely to struggle just to get through each day or hour. Symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, distorted thinking, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, panic attacks, and non-existent self-esteem, (to list just a few) make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to not only schedule a meeting with their boss or with HR, but then present at that meeting as a fully functioning human being.

And if they do, and their boss discriminates against them they often don’t have the mental resilience and the finances for a legal battle to bring their discriminating employer to justice.  

These employees will often just go quietly –because that is all they have the energy for. Then their employer gets to shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Well it was the employee’s choice to leave!’

I am grateful to Naomi Osaka for cracking open the conversation about mental ill health at work a little wider. If it causes even one employer to stop and consider that the playing field between them and an employee who lives with mental illness isn’t even, it will be a good thing.

But there is still a long way to go before people who disclose their mental illness at work can expect to be treated the same as anyone who discloses a physical illness.

To read a bit more about my work life, you might like to check out my recently published memoir: Book and how it came to life: Welcome To The World ‘Abductions’

Goodbye My Thought Food Cover Girl

Lucy – photo by Elsa

A dull ache sits in my centre. My cat Lucy, immortalised next to my old red keyboard on my Thought Food home page, is gone.

2 days ago the vet in me woke to a 16 year old depressed, immobile, incontinent feline patient. I  needed more information before communicating with the cat’s owner, who was also me. The owner could read the vet’s face though and it made her feel as though a cactus was growing in her chest.

The vet came back with information later in the day.

Hypothermia, likely anaemia hiding under haemoconcentration, severe azotemia in the face of likely hyposthenuria, severe hyperglycaemia, and elevated ALT

At that point the owner and the vet in me began to overlap, like a Venn diagram, and both parts of me knew enough to know this:

None of these big words gave us a definitive diagnosis. To get to the big word that was causing the multi organ system problems indicated by a physical exam and first round of blood tests, we’d need to enter a new level of the diagnostics game. And with each new diagnostic test we’d opt for we’d open up the possibility of needing still more tests to get to the bottom of it.

What justifies further diagnostics in veterinary medicine?

The chance that the definitive diagnosis is something treatable or manageable to the point of returning the patient to a good quality of life.

When I started work as a small animal vet in 1998 we had fewer diagnostic and treatment options available for pets. It is good to have more options now. There are absolutely cases where we can return animals to a great quality of life where they would have been euthanased when I first graduated.

But this advanced knowledge also complicates matters, particularly when it comes to caring for our geriatric pets.

People often assume that the hardest part of being a vet is euthanasing animals. Yes, it can be devastating. But I have always found it equally as hard, if not harder, to hand hold people through the process of coming to terms with the fact that it is time to euthanase, while their pet is put through diagnostics and treatments that may prolong life but do nothing for quality of life.

An internal medicine specialist may well have wanted to know exactly what the cause of my cat’s abnormal blood results were before giving me their blessing to euthanase.

And, with those blood test results, had my cat been 2 instead of 16, I still would have stopped to consider that euthanasia could be the end point. But I would have gone ahead with more diagnostics because the chances of them leading to an outcome with a good quality of life for my cat would have been higher.

But I also knew that had I insisted on a definitive diagnosis 2 days ago, Lucy could have spent her last days scared, in a fluorescently lit hospital having rectal temperatures, blood and urine samples taken at regular intervals with no knowledge of why it was happening. Had she been able to come home it would have been heavily medicated, and still not feeling 100%.

When I weighed this with the tiny chance that she was suffering something treatable with a chance of return to good health – the risk of putting her through fear and pain for nothing at the age of 16 was not one I was willing to take.

Instead we made the hard choice.

Instead all four of her people cuddled her. We whispered in her little round ears and wet her fur with our tears. And I stroked her velvet neck as she drifted off into anaesthesia and then away into death.

Later that night I laid down next to Lucy’s siter, Lily and burst into deep sobs. These cats entered my life before the mental illness that came with my human children. With Lucy I have lost another part of me that existed before everything changed irreversibly…and not all for the better. The waves of grief beach unexpected thoughts and feelings.

When I work, I am not brutally honest with a vulnerable client if they ask me ‘What would you do in this situation?’ I stick to the facts, lay out probabilities as best I can and make sure euthanasia is part of the conversation so that they can make their own informed decision, in as much as their own time as their pet’s welfare allows.

But if the vet in me had been advising the cat owner in me for Lucy, I would not have held back. I would have said:

‘We can do every diagnostic test under the sun and you will probably get an answer, but we are doing it for you, not for your pet.’

Just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should.

In loving memory of Lucy (14.2.2005 – 7.5.2021)

You can find some of my other veterinary content in these posts:

The Cost Of Canine Anxiety

Veterinary Work And Bipolar Disorder: A Podcast Interview

Veterinary Work In The Time Of Covid-19: Unspoken Truths

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