Losing My Senses

I have never been so grateful to smell cat shit in my life.

But let’s add some context for that sentence.

A few weeks ago, I went out for a friend’s birthday dinner in a small, busy restaurant. Indoors, noisy. There was a lot of leaning in and speaking loudly to hear and be heard. Within a couple of hours, tongue bitten from sitting across from someone who told me they didn’t believe Covid vaccinations had been sufficiently tested for safety, I was ready for home.

Three days later tiny terrorists held me hostage in my room. I was tethered to my bed by sticky tissues and vicious spike proteins digging in to my respiratory tract. Sick, but not my usual sort of sick. I cancelled plans for the week ahead as Covid leapt through the family. And I marvelled at how easy it felt compared to cancelling things for a Bipolar hospital admission. In 2023 everyone can relate to Covid cancellations.

Prior to contracting Covid, the things I was most concerned about, should I be infected, were likely to be things of no concern to most people. I am grateful I don’t live with any type of immunocompromise or chronic respiratory condition. Neither does anyone in my family. And yet I have continued to wear a mask to the shops without caring what people think.

Because I am vulnerable to collateral Covid damage.

Anything that potentially interferes with my sleep or ability to exercise increases my risk of a Bipolar episode. Covid does both. Then there is long Covid. The stress of living with this nasty reality would skyrocket my risk of multiple Bipolar episodes. And then there is losing my senses of taste and smell. As someone who begins to feel depressed if these senses diminish with a cold, the prospect of potentially losing them long term or permanently was horrifying.

I imagine everyone values their senses differently. When it comes to reasons to breathe, I am someone for whom smelling is as important as oxygenation. I don’t mean I am someone who just appreciates nice perfume and the smell of freshly ground coffee – although I do.

I am also someone who knows the smell of my husband’s sternal notch, the dip between his collar bones at the base of his throat. It is an olfactory hug, a smell I could pick out of a line-up of other sternal notches.

I know the softest fur behind my kittens’ ears smells of butter and air. The smell of garlic sizzling in olive oil or a chocolate cake just ready to be taken out of the oven are pure dopamine hits for me.

So, when Covid blindfolded my sense of smell on day five, and in doing so kidnapped one of my greatest sources of joy and information, I panicked…enough to google how long this was likely to last. It can be as little as five days…but sometimes this black out lasts for 6-12 months or is permanent.

This loss of smell was not like the kind I’ve experienced with a head cold. It wasn’t associated with nasal congestion. My nose was clear and breathing air in a world apparently devoid of all scents and odours. I realised quickly that aside from the discombobulation and depression of living with no nose, there were practical difficulties. Sniffing potentially spoilt milk – nothing. Toast burning to charcoal – nothing. A rotting potato decomposing in a black pool of noxious liquid at the back of the potato storage drawer – totally undetected.

Without smell to accompany it, my sense of taste was reduced to only being able to differentiate sweet from salty foods.

I began to bargain in my head. Which of my other senses would I give up in exchange for my sense of smell? Impossible. I don’t want to lose any of my senses.

Thankfully, for me, the blindfold loosened within ten days. I began to smell around the edges of the world again. Strong smells returned intermittently and then faded away again. The fading times lessened. I discovered the foul stench of the decomposing potato that had been reverse air freshening the kitchen for at least a week. Cat shit re-entered my nasal vocabulary. And with time so have the subtleties of air and butter on kitten fur,

As for the Bipolar risk factors that accompany my visit from Covid, I’ll have to wait and see. The last couple of months have carried other stressors with them too. From experience, my Bipolar episodes tend to sit back patiently while the risk factors peak and the stress unfolds, and then set in as a special treat once things settle down.

So I am moving carefully through the world with my fingers crossed, while I enjoy being back in the world of the smelling.

You may also like to check out

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Mental Illness And Humour

I don’t joke about mental illness.

And when anyone around me does, even if it’s about their own experience, I feel as though I am trapped in a cube of thick glass, a scream frozen in my mouth.

I’ve wanted to write about why I feel this way for a long time but have discarded the topic again and again. I know many people use humour to help them live with their mental illness. But I’ll come back to that.

Onto my reasons for not being able to take these jokes.

At its simplest, I don’t believe we have eradicated sufficient stigma to safely joke about what living with a mental illness means.

It might look like we are making progress, but it’s an illusion.

Sure, our baby steps skim the surface of the most palatable mental illnesses. Anxiety that resolves with mindfulness, or depression that is sorted with some exercise and early morning sun exposure.

The ‘brave’ disclosure of taking (a respectably small amount of) medication for anxiety or depression, has shed a lot of stigma in recent years.

But dive below the surface and things get uncomfortable for many. Think psychosis, psychiatric hospital admissions, Electroconvulsive Therapy etc.). The world still largely deals with this discomfort as though it is a teenager trapped in a car with a parent talking sex education. Sulky silence, avoiding eye contact, and wisecracks.

Then there is the constant energy sap of explaining.

Let’s take some experiences I’ve had recently.

First came the media requests for my opinion on whether Kanye West’s antisemitic hate speech, racism, and misogyny were caused by his bipolar disorder. You can find my responses here:

https://www.mamamia.com.au/mental-illness-can-happen-to-anyone/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/podcasts/the-quicky/kanye-bipolar

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/article/kanye-west-is-in-the-news-for-the-wrong-reasons-how-do-we-include-his-bipolar-disorder-in-the-conversation/fuocnelxj

Suffice to say I wasn’t laughing as I wrote and spoke.

Next it was a question at the end of the Q and A for one of my library author talks about my memoir, Abductions From My Beautiful Life.

‘Hi, I’ve read your book. I noticed there is no violence in it. Is that true?’

I asked, ‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s just that whenever you read about people with mental illness, they are always violent. So, I was surprised not to find this in your book.’

An ache swamped my chest. Everyone in the room waited for my answer to this jagged question.

I explained that the media often stigmatises mental illness by reporting violent outcomes devoid of context or humanity. I explained that, yes violence occurs, but the mentally ill are more likely to be victims not perpetrators. I explained that when someone’s violence is rooted in their mental illness it is too often not a case of them slipping through the cracks. It’s a case of there being more cracks than solid ground.

And that no I have not edited any violence from my book. Aside from the violence psychosis visited on my brain, there wasn’t any.

I was thanked for my explanation.

But it shouldn’t take me or anyone else to explain that most people who live with severe mental illness are not violent, antisemitic, misogynistic, racists.

While I am well, I choose to explain it again and again and again, because silence leaves a space for the public to draw their own conclusions when Kanye behaves badly, or poor journalism demonises the vulnerable. But the constant explaining leaves me with no energy to laugh about any of it.

When I can, I push back against memes and social media posts that joke about my worst nightmares, or even just sprinkle stigmatising language around like poison disguised as fairy dust. ‘Psycho’ ‘nuthouse’ ‘mental’…

When I point out these ‘errors’ in the comments sections I am often told I can’t take a joke’. I’m told to ‘get a life’ ‘lighten up’, ‘fuck off’, or that ‘it’s just a meme’.

And when I am not well enough to push back and explain, the world continues to fill in the blanks, and papers over its discomfort with another meme.

So, does anyone get to joke about mental illness?

In my opinion:

If humour surrounding mental illness is part of a private conversation between people with lived experience who share enough history to gauge what is appropriate, I have no problem with it.

If you live with a mental illness and find being humorous about your experience is helpful to your recovery and maintaining stability, go ahead…

But have the grace to acknowledge you don’t represent everyone. Consider whether your jokes hide self-stigma. And if you choose to share your humour publicly, ask yourself if the benefits to you outweigh the risk of potentially generating more stigma.

Also – if you share jokes or memes online that perpetuate negative stereotypes around mental illness – don’t tell me to ‘lighten up’ when I call them out.

Lastly – If you have no lived experience of mental illness, don’t joke about it.

As long as the status quo assumes that the perpetration of violence and mental illness go hand in hand, we are still lightyears away from a point when everyone can laugh safely.

You may also like to check out:

Mind Your Language Katy Perry

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness

Don’t Bright Side Me

I don’t have 800 articulate words tied up in a neat bright-side bow in me today. So this instagram post it is. For context I am now into into my third week in hospital. Some of the manic symptoms are settling. The caption accompanying this instagram post is:

The symptoms are horrible, but it is never just about the symptoms. The symptoms and connotations severe mental illness carry with it. leave me staring at the rubble of my identity during and in the aftermath of every episode. It is never just about the symptoms…

#bipolar1disorder #vulnerability #psychiatrichospital #mentalillness #stigma #identityloss #thoughtfood #abductionsfrommybeautifullife

Other reading:

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

From Holiday To Hospital In Under A Month

Bipolar Day 2022 – Great Inequality

Well

I remember my response the first time my psychiatrist suggested I could have an underlying bipolar disorder. That it had been the fountain of chaos that erupted in the form of postnatal psychosis the first time it came to call.

Denial. I believed he was telling me as a duty of care, because that was the case for some people. But not me.

I remember my response and where I was when he confirmed my diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder several years later.

He was standing at the door to my hospital room that looked like a stack of post it notes had thrown up all over the walls. They were covered in technicolour squares that I had scribbled random ideas on and reminders of where I had put my fountain pen or my toothbrush.

Unwell

I had no short-term memory. My thoughts raced delusionally down corridors in my brain that had been emptied of the rational. At night, I wrote and wrote thousands of mostly nonsensical words. Sleep wouldn’t come, even with high doses of medications. I didn’t want sleep to come anyway. It ate into my thinking and writing time.

But back to that moment when I looked up at my psychiatrist in my neon rainbow dump of a room and asked: ‘Postnatal psychosis or bipolar?’

He didn’t torture me with hesitation. Just delivered the sentence: ‘Definitely bipolar!’

Those words spread through my insides like a cold, nasty liquid. For nearly four years I had teetered on the edge of believing that my mood disorder would be confined to the perinatal period like so many other women. That there would be an end to it.

‘Definitely bipolar’ felt like a life sentence. Devastated doesn’t begin to describe my sick feeling. Then that sickeningness was replaced by questions I cringe at now:

‘How can I subject my children to a mother with this illness? How can I ever achieve anything again?

I was very achievement oriented back then, and self-stigma told me vicious lies.

It will be 16 years in August since bipolar disorder flew fiery through my life the first time. I am glad I didn’t know what was ahead of me then because fear would have told me I wasn’t strong enough to get to the other side of hell so often.

If I could go back now, I would tell myself that although my life would be different, it would still be my life. I would tell myself that my entire relationship with fear would change because of this illness. For the better.

That I repeatedly reach points of wellness where I stretch out my hands and grab fear by the shoulders. I stare deep into its eyes and compare it to what I feel during psychosis. And I find most everyday fears evaporate in the memories of what I’ve survived.

I wish I had known that my children would benefit from having a mother with insight, not only into her illness, but life. A life I’d describe as good.

I am not naïve enough to believe I’ve had these empowering experiences through force of will, intelligence, doing the work, taking the medication, fairy dust…

I will say this repeatedly in different mediums and articles, because it is important to acknowledge, again and again and again: I live with immense privilege. I am a straight, white, cis-gendered tertiary educated woman with no concurrent disabilities, who can afford private health insurance.

It is helpful that I have worked to gain insight into my symptom pattern. Exercising and taking medication that works for me, is also crucial. I am not shackled by addictions to substances that could derail my stability. But every one of those things would be much harder to enact and maintain, without my privilege.

My privilege does not mean I haven’t suffered. It doesn’t invalidate my experience, but it must be acknowledged for context every time I tell my story, otherwise that story is shallow, loses meaning, and does a great disservice to the many people who live with this illness, but without privilege to boost them to the head of the line when it comes to accessing the best care, and being the most supported they possibly can be, during the challenge that is living with this chronic, intermittent, potentially fatal illness.

You may also be interested in:

The Well Times

My 2018 World Mental Health Day

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

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

Gentle Shoots Of Hope

I entered this year softly. Sparkling into it from one minute to the next, without expectation. But finding joy on the other side of the second hand.

I could now spend a paragraph on the 2020/2021 disclaimer for happiness, the guilty acknowledgement of everyone who may be suffering, that feels as though it has become mandatory whenever you write or talk about anything remotely good happening to you in pandemic times.

But I won’t, because in this moment it feels disingenuous. The events of the last couple of years may have thrown it into sharper relief, but virus or not there have always been people who have it worse than me and those who have it better.

So – no disclaimers. We’ve all had challenges from the dung heap of life thrown at us. I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason. But I do believe that it is the rubbish times that make magic moments shine when we happen upon them.

I spent New Year’s Eve last year (2020/2021) in hospital – just one day in a holiday package that started with an admission on Boxing Day. I didn’t feel well enough for people. Including my husband and children. Dinner came with a serve of ‘seasonal vegetables’ leached of colour and boiled into malodourous oblivion. Dessert was my nightly mouthful of dry medications washed down with tepid water. Long before midnight I was obliterated by that medication and happy to be so. Joy was not part of the equation.

When it came to thinking about New Year’s Eve plans for last year, I had only recently discharged from hospital after another Bipolar flare. A brief 3 week admission starting in late October that bled well into November.

I juggled the idea of having friends join us for what is a special evening for me.

From the ages of six to thirteen I grew up in Germany, in a culture that celebrates New Year’s Eve joyfully and raucously. I remember towers of champagne glasses filled and overflowing with bubbles from the top tier down. There was music and animated conversation, which gave way to the fireworks at midnight. People bought their fireworks from the supermarket and let them rip into the newborn year from their snowy backyards.

On New Year’s Eve 2000 I introduced my (then new) husband Michael to this way of celebrating. We were living in the UK, but had travelled back to Germany for the holidays. We spent that New Year’s Eve with Sandra, one of my closest friends, and Thomas – her partner, and their friends. We had raclette, lots of drinks, and laughed so hard. Just before midnight, we climbed into our coats, boots, hats, scarves, and gloves and walked, stumbling ever so slightly, down to the beautiful lake Sandra and I had spent childhood summers swimming in and childhood winters ice skating on. It was freezing. Too cold to feel our faces. The whole village was there. The air smelt of nothing but fireworks. We were in our twenties and euphoric.

Thomas died barely six weeks ago. The loss of someone we loved has been compounded for me because I can’t hug his wife – my lifelong friend whose hand I used to hold as we jumped into a New Year.

New Year’s Eve in Australia is different. It is the hot afterthought to a showy Christmas. The vibe around New Years for many Australians is ‘Meh – can’t be bothered.’ or it’s a night of heavy drinking that culminates in a headache on New Year’s morning and a set of resolutions, which won’t last past January.

And yet I celebrate the ending and beginning of years…when I can. In part it is fuelled by nostalgia. It is also because I have learnt to celebrate things while I can, because there will be times when I have no choice whether I get to celebrate or not. There are times when I am too unwell. Times when it’s overboiled vegetables instead of home cooking.

Not celebrating can also be a missed opportunity for making memories. Memories of joyous hours, which become part of everyone’s narrative. Memories that become unspeakably precious in hindsight when we have lost those we shared them with.

And so, I sent out some invitations and had a beautiful night.

There were candles and sparklers and laughter across an increasingly messy tablecloth as the night moved on. We ate pistachio baclava with mint and rosewater syrup and white peach sorbet for dessert.

By 2 am the house was buzzing. I had picked up my older child and two of their friends from another party to join the other couple of kids already at home for a sleepover. In the early hours of this New Year my house was steeped in happiness.

For me, 2022 has started with love and energy, and out of the losses and difficulties of the previous year I sense gentle shoots of hope are emerging.

One of the positives of 2021 was that my memoir Abductions From My Beautiful Life was published. For an excerpt and more info click here Book

You may like to check out how some of my other years have gone in these posts:

2020 Ends In Hospital

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

2018 – The Year I:

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?

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’

%d bloggers like this: