Picture your life. When everything is going fairly well. How much space between your skin and its boundaries? Are you booked to the hilt? What happens when the unexpected stressors hit? A sick child, a death in the family, a redundancy, a relationship break-down? Do you have the wriggle room to absorb some of the shock and stay afloat? Or does the thought of these boulders coming at you make your chest constrict, because you know that if anything else is piled on top of you now, you will go under?
Lessons For A Control Freak
I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with control. I rely on having it a little too much. Throw me an unexpected traffic jam, and I’ll feel no more or less anxious than the next person. However, when control goes AWOL from the bigger areas of my life my stress levels sky rocket.
I have been seeing my psychologist for years now. Some visits neither of us have to work hard to tweak things. But whenever there’s a larger life issue I’m struggling with, my distress almost always comes down to my lack of control over an undesirable situation. For me one of the worst-case scenarios are sleep deprivation combined with the stress of a sick child. The reason this combination is so triggering is that it is kryptonite to my defences against a bipolar episode. (Sleep deprivation especially accompanied by stress is a major risk factor for developing manic and psychotic episodes)
This said, I firmly believe the universe sometimes sits back stroking its chin and assesses where I’m at. And then as though giving me a cosmic performance review, it points out areas for improvement, and gives me the opportunities to practice the life skills I lack. Clearly, I still need a lot of practice accepting a lack of control, because I have been sent the following homework:
(Confronting Content Ahead)
I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.
In our first world society martyrdom is more insidious than the lick of flames on skin, the sizzle as fire catches hair. If you don’t count what can happen on social media, we don’t have public disembowellings. And the causes we sacrifice ourselves for are often not great, necessary, or noble.
Martyrdom today is working until midnight every night doing a job you hate until it breaks you, without investigating your options. It is smugly telling your mothers’ group that you breastfed your baby as your cracked nipples dripped blood, because you were doing what was ‘best for your baby’. It’s going to work even though you’ve got the flu, because you believe you are indispensable. It is having Sunday lunch with your extended family every week even though it drains you emotionally.
Most of us fall into the trap of martyring ourselves for something at some stage. I did so early on in my career.
I had an entirely different post planned and almost ready to go this week. I lost momentum, and its tone remained whiny, even with repeated editing. So instead, here are some snapshots of my last couple of weeks:
Brisbane takes it’s sweet time moving into autumn and winter. The hot days and humid nights seem to loiter for longer every year. Then one day you realise that air conditioning is unecessary and sweat is no longer a constant companion to skin. The introduced species of trees begin to glow sunset colours before they shed their summer coats, and brittle leaves scuttle along the footpaths.
The Best Friends
I don’t have a best friend. I have several.
My first best friend and I shared the ages five to thirteen in a tiny village in southern Germany. We explored our world freely. The church bells and the colour of the sky were our only reminders of when to go home. We played in the woods. We watched frogspawn turn into tadpoles. We climbed trees. We built igloos and snowmen. We ate wild raspberries and blackberries straight off the hedge. We rode our bikes everywhere. Then, one rainy October afternoon, everything changed.
Talking About Mental Illness With Children
‘Mum, can your Bipolar kill you?’
The ten-year-old asked me out of nowhere a year or so ago. And I had been well, for a couple of years at that stage. I always find, the longer I am out of hospital, the more of my life I reclaim, the harder it becomes to imagine ever getting that sick again. So, the instant answer that flashed behind my eyes was:
‘No, of course not darling.’
Because after all, the thought of dying is too horrible to bear, let alone articulate. But bitter, repeated experience with the pattern of my illness has taught me that while it’s good to be optimistic when I’m well, I know at some point I will get sick again, and while I am extremely fortunate to have access to excellent care, the nature of the illness means there is a small chance it could kill me.
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