Everyone knows depression is bad. But does this mean mania is good because it supposedly sits at the opposite end of the bipolar spectrum?
Mania is often painted as the cartoonish counterpoint to depression. Perpetually bright, happy, and fun. But it is not fun. It is the character in a horror movie who starts out friendly but then morphs into someone with sinister, glowing eyes.
When I ask my psychiatrist that question, he always answers honestly:
‘I don’t know how long, but you will get you better.’
That ‘I don’t know’ even when it’s followed by a promise of eventual wellness, is brutal.
Many years ago, my husband and I took part in a cycling trip over the Pyrenees from the south of France into Spain. The route followed the same path as the Tour de France sometimes does. The first day took us up the Col du Tourmalet, one of the longest and steepest climbs. We rode around twenty kilometres to the base of the mountain and then climbed for close to another twenty, each one steeper than the last, the air getting thinner and thinner.
The last two kilometres were gruelling. Mist closed in. We could barely see the drop off the edge of the mountain. We rode on our lowest gears. Our bones turned into burning jelly and our lungs felt as though they were trying to extract oxygen from water. We were forced to stop to catch our breath every twenty or thirty metres.
But there were markers to show us we were getting closer to the top. Mental footholds in the misty, painful, breathless soup. We had answers to ‘How much longer?’. And with them came hope and the tenacity to keep going. Although it was unbelievably challenging, we had an end point to work towards.
This week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address for one of the departments at PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). As part of this I ran through some of the things I have found helpful to help me monitor and manage my mental health.
I got some really positive feedback after the presentation and requests for the list of things that help me with my mental health. So I thought I’d share that list as a post here:
EARLY WARNING SIGNS AND INSIGHT:
In this context insight is the ability to identify early signs of mental ill health in yourself. This is much more challenging than it sounds, because signs of mental illness can masquerade as normal feelings and emotions.
For example – irritability and sadness are part of the normal spectrum of human emotions, but if they are overwhelming and persistent and interfere with normal functioning, they can also be symptoms of depression.
It can take time to identify their intensity or persistence as abnormal. The other challenge is that when we are well, we can often think our way out of sadness or irritability. But when they become symptoms that is impossible.
Someone affected by symptoms of a mental illness can no more think their way out of them than someone with a nasty case of gastro can think themselves out of their vomiting and diarrhoea.
But whereas vomiting and diarrhoea are obvious signs of illness (both to the person experiencing them and everyone around them) it takes insight to recognise when symptoms of mental illness emerge.
For me early warning signs can be an inability to sleep even with a lot of medication, intense irritability, and poor short-term memory and concentration.
Early warning signs are different for everyone. By learning what ours are we can be proactive about seeking help rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen.
Here’s a paradox: My mental health improved after I developed a mental illness. When I am not symptomatic (which is a lot of the time) my mental health is fantastic. It is possibly better than that of many people who don’t live with a mental illness. Here’s why:
Mental illness can teach you a lot about mental health, because it confronts you with the choice to change the way you approach your life.
Have you ever tried rescuing someone who doesn’t want to be rescued?
There’s the itchy frustration of being able to see they need help. You do everything in your power to help them, but they want none of it.
We had the following teachable situation take place in our household recently:
My daughter loves birds and started feeding the sulphur crested cockatoos in our garden. Word of the new food source got around. Each day more arrived. One morning the cohort included a scruffy straggler. He was bullied by the others. His point of difference was a plastic cone around his neck, almost identical to the Elizabethan collars we put on dogs and cats to prevent them chewing out their stitches.
But this was a school sports marker. The cockatoo had poked its head through it. I assume out of curiosity or to get to food in the middle of it. And now it was stuck. It could still eat, but not well. We thought hard about how we could help this bird. I suspected removing the cone wouldn’t be difficult if we could only catch it.
It flew off as soon as we got anywhere near it. My daughter phoned Australia Zoo who referred her to a wildlife organisation, who referred us to the RSPCA. I explained the dilemma and sent pictures of the cone headed bird. The RSPCA delivered a large metal dog crate and we rigged the door with string, so that we could close it remotely.
It started on the paper bag that the breakfast toast came in. First, I shook out the crumbs to give me an even writing surface. I had no other paper. I was inside the SCU (Special Care Unit), in a psychiatric hospital in August 2006, emerging from my first psychotic episode. And as the medication slowed my boiling brain, a miniscule part of me, took in my environment and thought:
‘I am one step away from a padded cell. Unbelievable. But while I am here, I will record as much as I can, because not many people experience this.’
So, I made my words tiny to fit as much detail as I could onto the toast bag.
Over a year later I wrote an account of my psychotic episode based on that bag and some diary entries. My supervisor for my Master of Arts in Writing Editing and Publishing read it.
‘This is really good writing. You should consider expanding it into a memoir.’