Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Welcome to year 2.

The frantic newness of the pandemic has worn off, although the announcement of a lockdown still triggers an anxiety that (for some people) expresses itself in toilet paper hunger.

As we move into the second year of life with Covid I feel as though I am part of sick game of involuntary musical statues. During intervals of relative local stability we all dance to the music of few restrictions. But there is a sinister undertone – our movement can be stilled instantly when the Covid puppet master stops that music and we are all turned to stone for a while.

When Covid cancelled our family trip to Heron Island this time last year it was disappointing, but I countered it with perspective, a stiff upper lip. After all what was a lost holiday in the big scheme of things? So many people were worse off.

So, we rebooked the Heron Island trip for this year. We’d been due to leave on March 30. The anticipation of it had built joyously for the whole family. I was particularly looking forward to it. Our last family holiday in December was marred by the onset of a bipolar episode the day after we arrived that saw me unable to enjoy it and heralded more hospital time. 2020 Ends In Hospital

I am stable now.

Over the weekend two of us dutifully took Covid tests for minor sniffles, both of which returned negative with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled departure.

When I woke up on Monday morning, the day before we were due to leave, I actually thought we would make it. And then news of the 3 day Brisbane lockdown broke, and my joy turned to misery. Our household was plunged into mourning. There were tears, cries of shock, and lead filled stomachs as we processed this loss for a second year in a row.

Is my wording a bit dramatic?

Are you itching to respond with the catch cry of this first world country, the mantra of our year?

 ‘It’s ok because others have it worse than you.’

Does that make it ok?

Should this fact completely invalidate our experience or feelings? Does our disappointment, grief and anger have anything to do with someone else’s (potentially worse) experience?

No. It is totally unrelated.

 And often swallowing our feelings through gritted teeth can be unhealthier than just vomiting them out and moving on.

I first encountered the results of suppressing my emotions because ‘others had it worse’ the night before my daughter’s first birthday, thirteen years ago.

The condensed version of the time surrounding her birth (if you haven’t already read about it in some of my other posts) is this: A 32 hour labour on 2 hours sleep, developing postnatal psychosis 7 days later, a month later catatonic depression, months in a psychiatric hospital, electroconvulsive therapy and much medication, and finally home by the time my baby was 4 months old.

As I recovered, I practiced a lot of gratitude for my healthy baby, which in itself is not a problem, but I had not allowed myself to process my feelings about that time before I plunged into gratitude.

The night before her first birthday I was out to dinner with friends. I could not stop thinking about what had been about to happen to me the year before. On the way home I pulled into the maternity hospital car park and lost it.

I wailed, tears and snot streaming down my face. It was ugly. But I finally owned my grief, and silenced the pernicious little voice in my head that had been telling me that I had no right to my feelings because I had a healthy baby and  ‘others had it so much worse’.

It was only once I’d allowed myself to feel my feelings that I could move on baggage free and feel genuine empathy for those who, in the big scheme of things, had experienced worse.

I am not naturally inclined to drama. I am all for perspective. At times I have been quick to paper over my children’s strong emotions with perspective, not because it is helpful to them in the moment, but because it lessens my discomfort at their distress.

Perspective serves an important purpose. If it is timed right. Once the initial urgent feelings have been dealt with and released, perspective can help us move on with our compassion for others intact. But forcing it too soon can trap us in resentment and on the exhausting hamster wheel of pretending we’re ok, when we’re not.

 Perspective (however well intentioned) would have been an unwelcome guest in our house just after the news of the holiday cancellation broke. However, 2 days later it had just started to soothe me with the knowledge that it could indeed have been much worse.

Proof that this could have been much worse came just now. The Brisbane lockdown ends at noon today. Covid has pressed play again. Brisbane people get to dance into their Easter holidays.

For me? Right now? Perspective has again momentarily retreated.

Excuse me while I go away and vomit up my feelings about the military precision with which our holiday was assassinated. We were turned to stone over the exact two days when we needed to be dancing.

I will welcome perspective back once I have emptied myself of this minor resentment and am keeping everything crossed, that maybe the music won’t be stopped on our third rebooking in September.

You may also like to check out:

Making Sense Of It (introduces the concept of a ‘tantrum allowance’)

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

The mental load 2.0 : Airing your dirty dishes on socials

huge heap of dirty disgusting dishes in the sink waiting to be washed by unreliable flatmate

Has it really come to this?

To the women who document their displeasure about the unequal distribution of their mental load passive aggressively on social media:

The likes and laughing emojis you get from hundreds of strangers might give you a quick sugar hit of instant validation, but will they solve the issue of your unequally distributed mental load, or will it just corrode what sounds like the already leaking vessel of your marriage further?

The writers appear to feel more solidarity with the anonymous commenters than with the person they are in a partnership with. Underneath the jokes sits violently simmering resentment.

Let me back pedal to the source of my lack of admiration for this approach for a moment.

The first was a recent article a woman wrote about the (extensive) difficulty she was having getting her dog to feed her husband. Sorry her husband to feed the dog – although with the tone she used to describe her husband’s ineptitude, she could easily have meant it the other way around.

The second – I think it was on Youtube – an account of a woman who ‘went on strike’ and stopped washing the dishes and then posted updates about the ‘apocalypse’ unfolding in her house as a result of this. Piles of dirty dishes. The husband in question using a baby spoon to stir his coffee rather than doing the dishes.

I am not trivialising or dismissing the message these women are attempting to send their partners, but their delivery is conflicting.

In one breath it’s attempting humour and in the next red-hot anger.

Clearly we are not dealing with one of those minor sources of marital discord that can be shrugged off as a normal part of any relationship here.

The unequal distribution of the mental/domestic load is real and needs to be taken seriously. But is turning it into a farce and publicly infantilising the people whose behaviour you want to change the way to go about it?

Returning to the article about feeding the dog for a moment. The writer explicitly stated that in the four years she had off work outside the home, before returning to her career, she took on 100% of the domestic load. Feeling (rightly) entitled to a break, she then seemed surprised when the hand over of one chore (feeding the dog) didn’t run as smoothly as she wanted it to.

She also displayed another classic trait of the mental load martyr: overcomplicating a simple task, by insisting on her husband’s dog being fed a thermomix cooked diet for the sole reason that she thought ‘It made the dog’s coat shiny’.

Having read her article, I posted the following response:

As a small animal vet: The best diet for your dog is a high quality dry biscuit, something like hills science diet, water, and (if your dog tolerates them well) fresh raw bones for their teeth. You are wasting everyone’s time, energy, and to be honest a lot of words in your article on preparing fresh food for your dog. 

As for the distribution of mental load: You mention that in your four years off you shouldered 100% of the domestic load. Why? Did you both consider your husband less of a parent or part of the household in that time? If he worked long hours, he may not have been able to do as much of it as you, but does that mean he should have done nothing in that time? If he had been living in a hypothetical share house instead of your family during the time he worked long hours, would his housemates have been happy to do his laundry, dirty dishes, and feed his dog?

So maybe setting the bar so low during those years is making it harder now? The martyrdom of women shouldering and complaining about the mental load is real. Change your dog’s diet for everyone’s sake – including your dog’s. Tell your husband if he doesn’t feed his dog you will report him to the RSPCA. If you stop treating your husband like a an inept toddler, he might stop acting like one.

To be clear – I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving your partner a wake up call to shoulder their share of the domestic load, by letting things slide. But make a choice – it’s either something funny that you don’t really care about that you post on social media, or it is a serious issue in your relationship, in which case yes, let the dishes pile up until your partner gets the message, but don’t then simultaneously trivialise and weaponise it by posting it on social media. Doing so might get you the hit of anonymous likes, but it’s not going to solve the problem in your relationship.

I have previously written about the equitable division of mental and domestic load in my relationship. Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility We both have careers. We share two children, and a menagerie of pets, and all the mental load. I have been called ‘lucky’ because of this.

I am not lucky.

I made a choice to be with my husband. We work on communicating well and from the very beginning of our relationship I have never given him the illusion that I would carry 100% of the domestic load.

But if either of us ever resorted to shaming the other on social media, if we had a significant issue in our marriage (such as the unequal distribution of the domestic load) I suspect we would each seriously re-examine our choice to stay with each other.

Post script: This post is not in any way aimed at those living with or who have escaped domestic violence or who are living with mental illness or any other disadvantage. It was intended as a prompt to reflect for the women who do not live with domestic violence, but do live with straight, white, cis-gender, non-disabled, privilege and who have choices but prefer martyrdom.

You may also like to check out:

Your Mental Load = Your Responsibility

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

Rewards For Reports: Entitled or Deserved?

Trauma And Bipolar Disorder: Chicken Or Egg?

Photo by haik ourfal on Unsplash

Content Note: This post mentions trauma. It does not include specific details.

It’s a little acknowledged truth that sometimes bipolar disorder does not spring from a history of trauma. On my first admission to hospital and every admission since, I have been asked whether trauma smoulders in my past, and keeps the fire of my bipolar disorder burning.

Up until relatively recently parents were still automatically blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And while abusive parenting can be a contributing factor to these illnesses, and parents can pass on a genetic predisposition to a highly heritable mental illness such as bipolar disorder, beyond that, a parent isn’t responsible. As for my upbringing – my parents were not perfect. But they were loving and supportive. They were not a source of trauma.

I searched for years for some of the more common culprits of a trauma history (such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) hiding in the shadows. I ran a fine-toothed comb through my entire living memory for evidence. For something to explain the existence and severity of my bipolar 1 disorder.

After the second time I got sick, I began to wonder if I was missing something. If I had blocked out something horrible? I spent close to a year working with both my psychologist and psychiatrist to try and unearth a tangible cause for the god awfulness that had descended on me. And I came across a lot of things in this archaeological dig through my psyche.

Among many happy memories. I found sadness, exclusion, some bullying. I found burnout and disappointment. I found ambition and perfectionism. I found drive. I found questionable decisions. I found some experiences that my psychiatrist raised his eyebrows at, but when my psychologist worked through them with me, we found no symptoms of PTSD, no persistent feelings of powerlessness. I found experiences that were difficult and unpleasant and challenging.

But I did not find trauma.

Ironically, the only trauma I have ever experienced came with this illness in the form of psychosis, especially the first episode. Nothing I have experienced before or since that first time comes close to the hell of psychosis.

For me, the sudden onset of this severe psychiatric symptom contributed to its traumatic footprint. One week I was due to give birth to my first baby, with no history of mental illness. The following week I inhabited a terrifying alternate reality that no one else could see, in a psychiatric hospital Special Care Unit, tipping highly medicated breastmilk down the sink, while my husband looked after our new baby at home. For me, the experience of psychosis is the definition of terror and powerlessness.

The trauma of psychosis left its mark. After my second episode I started having panic attacks. I had never had them before. They were linked to the fear of psychosis recurring.

It took a long time to process what happened to me and to learn to live with the ongoing implications of this illness. But I am fortunate it was an acute trauma, not chronic or complex, and not of childhood onset. It didn’t happen at a time when my brain was still developing and more vulnerable to this kind of assault.

I have worked towards having excellent insight, which means I now recognise the precursor symptoms of mania, which can lead to psychosis. The early detection of symptoms and acting on them immediately have meant it’s been six years now since I’ve experienced true symptoms of psychosis. The deep sense of powerlessness has eased. In my case the trauma was a side effect of my bipolar disorder, not a causal factor.

But I sense I am in the minority. Of the people I know who also live with bipolar disorder many carry a history of trauma and/ or complex PTSD with them which, occurred before the emergence of their bipolar disorder.

I do not have the complication of a contributing trauma to re-trigger episodes of illness and to work through. These days, I don’t have a knotted web of psychological issues to untangle before my medication can get to work. I also think letting go of my resentful feelings at being landed with this illness has been somewhat easier because I can’t lay blame or direct my anger at anyone or anything  specific for causing this sickness.

And I am grateful for all of that.

If this post has brought up difficult feelings or symptoms for you and you are struggling, please contact your mental health professional. If you are in crisis (and in Australia) please phone LIFELINE on 13 11 14

Further reading:

Insight: The Essential Ingredient

My First Time

Misunderstood Mania

2020 Ends In Hospital

I am going into hospital later today.

And I am aching to get there, straining towards the moment I close the door to my hospital room on a world I am the wrong shape for right now.

How did I get here this time?

Fourteen days ago I had a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Just a Bipolar 1 Disorder monthly maintenance appointment. I was completely asymptomatic.

Thirteen days ago I left for our beach holiday and forgot to pack my swim wear. Subtle. I mean that could happen to anyone. Right? But by the following morning I was symptomatic alright. My short term memory and concentration were dissolving like sugar cubes in boiling water.

A buzzing pressure behind my eyes radiated up my forehead. I knew from bitter experience, if I did nothing, soon that buzzing could make me second guess what was real or not.

That was symptomatic enough to page my psychiatrist on a Saturday morning. It’s only the second time I’ve paged him out of hours in 14 years. He called back in under three minutes.

Over the last nearly two weeks, the first of which I stayed at the beach, he telephone consulted with me every second day, adjusting medications, a little more of this, a little more often of that. I slipped from my bed gratefully into the ocean, timing the most sedating medications for times when I’d be in bed not the ocean. I seemed a little better, maybe? But then not.

Back home we continued every second day phone consults, adjustments. This is by far not the sickest I have ever been (although psychosis and catatonic depression requiring ECT to reverse, do set a very low bar)

So why would I want to go into hospital, rather than continue treatment at home?

Here’s why:

The surface of my brain feels as though it is covered in papercuts and being surrounded by people and noise is like having lemon juice dribbled over the cuts.

Trying to hold in the irritability of being around people and noise (including my close family) is like being intensely nauseous with someone threatening to punish you if you vomit.

One of the parameters I use to assess how close I am to needing to go into hospital is ‘the sandwich test’. Think about the amount of concentration and short term memory it takes to make a sandwich – nothing fancy, just two slices of bread, some butter and one topping. For most healthy, able bodied, able brained adults, this is not a challenging task.

Right now – I can still make a sandwich, but it’s a challenge. I am making a decision, based on past experiences, not to wait with hospitalisation until challenge becomes an impossibility.

As for the seasonal timing – Christmas and New Years celebrations? I am veteran enough in the management of this illness to know it has no knowledge of nor respect for holidays and anniversaries. I could list my tenth and fifteenth wedding anniversaries as times spent in hospital, a longed for trip to Paris cancelled because of recent hospitalisation, and that would be the beginning of a list so long I’ve forgotten most of it. These times are just human constructs. If it swallows them I don’t dwell on them.

Instead I celebrate the unscathed special occasions extra hard, to make up for the times there is nothing.

The final reason for going into hospital now, is because I can access this level of care. I am fortunate to have the option of going into a private psychiatric hospital when I am sick. The standard of hospital care I will receive will be excellent. It will far exceed anything the public psychiatric hospital system has to offer.

I loathe getting sick enough to need hospital support. But perhaps even more than this I loathe the hypocrisy of someone with my privilege not utilising that support because of some misguided stigmatising ideas about what it means to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital.

I am profoundly grateful I can afford care in a good private psychiatric hospital. And part of my own recovery, once I’ve stabilised medically, is to remember there are many people living with this illness, and other severe mental illnesses, who are learning to live with them with far less support and privilege than I have. When my recovery feels hard I focus on this:

If I access the supports I am fortunate to have, I am more likely to be around for long enough to help raise awareness of the inequality between our private and public mental health hospital systems, and work towards our public mental health hospital system actually supporting some of our most vulnerable when they need it most.

If you are new to Thought Food and would like to know a little bit about who I am when I am well, you may like to check out:

Who Am I ?

Radio And Podcast Interviews

Mental Health Parenting Truths 101

Written for Queensland Mental Health Week 2020

At some point you will get it wrong.

It will be well intentioned. It may come from a place of not wanting to replicate your own upbringing or the mistakes you think other parents are making. And it will probably be informed by your experiences and biases.

I’ve always known this…in theory.

But the other day my fourteen-year-old daughter courteously yet clearly served my imperfections in this area up to me. This was no teenage tantrum. It wasn’t even an argument. It was simply a conversation in which I was presented with unpalatable information about myself, and then had to choose what I did with it.

It started simply:

‘Mum, can I please get TikTok? Remember I asked you about it a month ago, and you said you’d think about it.?’

‘Mmhm.’

For context – she gained Snapchat and Instagram over the last few months, to my knowledge has not abused any of her privileges, and right now appears to be in good mental health.

So, we talk about how she’d manage seeing distressing content if it popped up. I probe her with her worst-case scenario.

‘What about animal cruelty?’ I say and follow it with a graphic example.

‘I’d talk to someone about it.’ She answers calmly.

‘Who would you talk to?’

She doesn’t hesitate: ‘Well definitely not you! Probably Dad.’

‘Why not me?’ I ask,

‘You and your mental health stuff – you’d blow it all out of proportion, take me to a psychiatrist, have me medicated and force me into years of therapy.’

I did ask.

And while she is wrong about the imagined consequences of telling me she saw some distressing social media content, she is right about something else.

I am hypersensitised, filled with knowledge of the very worst mental illness has to offer. And not just my own. Every time I go into hospital, I share that space with others who are going through their own worsts.

When I see young inpatients often only four or five years older than my eldest child with bandaged wrists or cutting scars, bolts of fear shoot through me. Fear that one day my children could hurt like that.

Every time after my Bipolar 1 Disorder has put me through hell I am frozen by the threat that I will have given this illness to my children. I know that (beyond not introducing significant trauma to their lives and warning them of the dangers of drugs that can trigger the genetic component of this illness) there is nothing I can do to outparent it. But I still try.

After I got sick I was determined my children would grow up in a family that was open about mental illness. There would be no shame and no stigma. They would know from a young age where I was going when I went into hospital and why.

The knowledge that sometimes mental illness sprouts in childhood and adolescence is heavy and made heavier by the fact that sometimes it is fertilised (even in the absence of major trauma) by parents unwittingly invalidating their children’s’ feelings or experiences.

I never wanted to be that parent. And I am not. But I may have made the opposite mistake.

 By unintentionally force feeding my children my concerns around mental health, could it cause them to turn away from the very tools that could help them should they run into a mental health crisis?

Mental health is stitched into the fabric of our family’s conversations partly due to my lived experience, but also because of what I do. My children have never known a time when I haven’t been a vocal mental health advocate. I write about it. I talk about it frequently – sometimes quite publicly.  

And if I dig deep into my motivation for wanting to change the way mental illness is perceived and treated, my children are at the core of it. That motivation is as simple as it is unrealistic:

I want to fix our mental health system so that it can help rather than harm my children should they ever experience mental illness.

I am loathe to admit it but yes sometimes all my motivation, knowledge and focus, can morph into hypervigilance, ready to pounce on the very whisper of something not being right with my children’s thought patterns.  And in my futile efforts to protect them from my worst nightmares, at times I probably veer dangerously close to pathologizing their emotions, which can be as damaging as not acknowledging them at all.  

I do this reflexively even as I know that parenting out of the fear of what could happen is even worse than living your own life ruled by fear.

And yet, deep down I know that if either of my children get sick it won’t be my fault or TikTok’s. If that happens, hopefully their father’s less informed love will be the perfect counterweight to remind me that while my knowledge might be useful in some situations, at other times applying the full weight of it can be like attempting to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Ineffective and potentially damaging.

Post scripts:

It was a yes to TikTok.

While I am deeply grateful that right now neither of my children require psychiatric care, my advocacy work will continue, because it is grim out there. I caught up with a friend recently whose child does need a child psychiatrist urgently. The waiting time to get an appointment with a private child psychiatrist is currently twelve months.

Or there’s the public hospital Emergency Room if symptoms become life threatening while you wait…

Published with full permission from the fourteen year old who also helpfully pointed out I’d misspelt TikTok in the previous draft.

You may also like to check out:

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

As Mothers Of Sons

As Mothers Of Daughters

Is YouTube Rotting Our Brains?

On Uncertainty

Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2020

How does uncertainty make you feel?

I ask because uncertainty is having a moment right now. It galloped in with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the further we get into it the more it seems to be digging itself into our awareness.

I used to be deeply uncomfortable with the pebble of uncertainty in the shoe of my life. I liked to know what was ahead. It gave me a (false) sense of control and the misguided belief that just because I couldn’t see uncertainty in my life, it didn’t exist. I deluded myself for decades that when there were no clouds on the horizon, the course of my life was somehow more certain than if I could see trouble ahead.

Then all the certainty in my life was put through a paper shredder within five days of my first baby’s birth.

I got my new baby experience with a side of florid postnatal psychosis severe enough to warrant admission to the locked Special Care Unit of a psychiatric hospital. My sense of certainty and control over my life went down the toilet.

After I’d recovered from this psychotic episode I felt entitled to some certainty. I wanted to know this nightmare was over. And I wanted a guarantee it would never happen again.

So when my psychiatrist mentioned ‘a possible underlying Bipolar Disorder’ and that it would ‘take three to five years to know for sure’, the inside of my head threw a combination of a tantrum and a pity party.

When I got sick again after three years, after seven years, and after nine years and my diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder was confirmed, I still felt entitled. Entitled because: ‘hadn’t I suffered enough yet?’ Entitled to not have to tiptoe through my life with everything clenched, waiting for the next time this thing pounced.

I have only recently acquired some degree of acceptance of the uncertainty this illness introduced into my life. I didn’t enjoy the last two episodes in 2018 and early 2020, but I also didn’t waste energy resisting them. In the same way I no longer spend any of my resources anxiously wondering when it will happen next and how bad it will be, because without wanting to sound nauseatingly Zen, the truth is: It will be what it will be when it will be.

Uncertainty exists in everyone’s life every day. But instead of it floating along in the background, right now it is constantly being rammed down our throats. It’s like having a nasty little gremlin on your shoulder whispering over and over again:

‘You do realise bad things could happen to you at any minute’, when the true risk of something bad happening to you is probably not that different to pre-Covid times.

For our mental health to survive this pandemic we have to learn to live with uncertainty, because the end of it is nowhere in sight. And just like my psychiatrist couldn’t give me any certainty when I first got sick, the smartest scientists in the world aren’t able to accurately answer this question about Covid-19: Will it ever be over, and if so when?

Uncertainty is an uninvited, kicking, snoring bedfellow. So how do we get comfortable with it?

First we tease out what about this situation we can control and what we can’t. For example, we can’t control the flow of information that feeds our uncertainties rushing over us every day, but we can control how much of it we absorb.

And once we’ve done what is in our control to help ourselves, we have to try and unclench from the need to know what is going to happen next. We need to stop trying to know and plan for a future that is like a spiderweb in a storm. Here’s what I mean:

During one of my admissions to hospital I sat staring out of the window of my room feeling as though there was no point in doing the work to rebuild myself because my future was too uncertain, my illness could tear me apart again anytime.

Over a couple of days of intermittent staring I noticed a spider in its web just outside my window. Every night it stormed. Rain, wind, a couple of times hail tore chunks out of the web, at times almost destroying it.

That spider showed me the way out of my tangled thoughts, by not only rebuilding every time after its pristine web was wrecked, but doing so in the face of the risk of the same thing happening again, whether the next day or in a year.

The sword of an uncertain future has hung over every single one of us since the day we were born. Nothing has changed there. It is just up to us whether we choose to battle with uncertainty and lose, or whether we accept that being alive will always mean living with uncertainty, pandemic or no pandemic.

You may also like to check out:

Lessons For A Control Freak

The Other Curve Being Flattened

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness

Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2020

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and I feel a little conflicted about highlighting it. There are a lot of positives to having dedicated days or weeks to draw our attention to mental health. But I also believe we need to approach these awareness days with a little caution. It’s too easy to post or repost something related to the topic, tick the box of doing good and move on with our days.

Ironically these tokenistic efforts are becoming more common as awareness around mental ill health grows, especially when we don’t have to move beyond the comfort of our keyboards to feel as though we are achieving change. Of course it is good that there is more awareness, tolerance and marginally less stigma surrounding mental ill health than there was fifty or even twenty years ago. But we have to make sure we don’t replace the old insensitivities with their more modern counterparts.

I have written about my dislike of RUOK day before RUOK Day: Full Disclosure and this year I heard another perspective that reenforced my reasons for disliking this day. When I am well, my psychiatrist appointments usually consist of me requesting scripts for any medications I am running low on, a brief check in with how I’m going and then we chat about the state of the world, my advocacy work, his psychiatry work. This year one of my appointments happened to fall around RUOK day and we talked about the pros and cons of this day. I expressed my opinion and my psychiatrist referenced one of his patients coming in on RUOK day in distress because they were bombarded by people they knew asking them if they were ok. People they didn’t hear from for the rest of the year. People who were probably well intentioned, but using them as the token mentally ill person in their lives, to tick the box of having asked: RUOK?

Awareness around mental ill health should not be confined to one day or one week of the year. Episodes of mental illness flare unpredictably and feel as though they will never end. This feeling is fed by the fact that no one can tell you when it will end. There are good days and worse days. There are days when the risk of it turning into a terminal illness skyrockets. Someone may have a spectacularly good day on RUOK day, a calm and uneventful mental health week, but be suicidal sometime in April or on Christmas day, when it is all too easy to be under the impression that we showed our support for those among us living with mental illness back in mental health week, and Christmas day is busy and by April we are into Caesarean awareness month and IBS awareness month.

 So what can we do to be meaningfully aware of the impact mental ill health has on those of us who live with it, and what can we do to support them for more than a day or a week of the year?

Everyone who lives with mental illness is different and everyone’s experience is different even if they live with the same diagnosis. So, I don’t speak for everyone.

For me – I don’t need to be asked how I am. I have enough insight into my Bipolar 1 Disorder to know when I need to seek help. I am fortunate to have good support systems in place, so I don’t tend to feel lonely or isolated.

For me it is all about the language people use. Hearing or seeing stigmatising language either in the media, on social media, or spoken, punches me in the gut. When I am confronted with words like nuts, crazy, lunatic, psycho, mental institution, – the list is long – it belittles me. It strips away the facts of my life, my healthy functional relationships, my personality, my university degrees, my profession, my interests, my sense of humour and it reduces me to a hellish caricature of who the misinformed masses believe someone mentally ill is.

So, think about how you write and speak around me. If you hear or see someone else perpetuating stigmatising language around mental illness, call it out. Do so politely, but raise awareness of it. I do it as often as I can, but I also get tired of being told to shut up, get over it, or that I am overreacting.

Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do for someone in your life who lives with mental ill health is not to automatically ask them how they are, but to ask them what you can do to make them feel valued and supported all year round. They may answer: ‘Ask me how I am’ in which case you are doing it meaningfully and mindfully, not because it is a certain day of the year.

All that said, Happy World Mental Health Day everyone. In honour of it also being Queensland Mental Health Week from 10th-18th Oct I am aiming to drop a few additional posts in Thought Food this week.

Look after yourselves and each other!

You may also like to check out:

RUOK Day: Full Disclosure

Mind Your Language Katy Perry

Don’t Call Conspiracy Theorists Crazy

The ‘Breast Is Best’ Myth

Alex baby foto
Alex March 2010

Last week was breastfeeding awareness week, and the irritation I feel when I see strong pro-breastfeeding messaging flared. I usually bite my tongue and suppress my politically incorrect opinions about this emotive subject. I don’t care about how anyone chooses to feed their baby. But I do care that the ‘breast is best’ myth is still being drip fed to (especially first time) mothers like a sugary subtle poison.

Fourteen years ago I had my first baby. I lapped up all the breastfeeding propaganda from the hospital antenatal classes and my antenatal yoga classes. Because I trusted these sources.

And they didn’t exactly feed me falsehoods. But they did imply a mother who switched to formula before she had exhausted every possible option to keep breast feeding was not doing the best for her baby. Posters in the maternity hospital told me that exhaustion, blood streaming from cracked nipples and tears streaming down your face were all worthwhile prices to pay to feed your baby this liquid gold.

After going into thirty three hours of labour on two hours sleep, my daughter was delivered by caesarean. I fell asleep as I was being stitched up. The midwives wasted no time. I woke with a start, in recovery to find my baby attached to my left breast. It was so important to these midwives that my baby attached ‘immediatley’ that they didn’t even do me the courtesy of allowing me to wake up before making this most intimate of introductions.

The focus on the holy grail of establishing breastfeeding in the maternity hospital was so strong that I sat up for three hours at a time thinking I was feeding my baby, when she was comfort sucking for most of that time. It left me exhausted and my back a wall of pain from sitting in the ‘feeding chair’.

Now, if that were the worst of it, I would have probably gullibly pushed through all further discomfort to establish and continue breastfeeding. Had I succeeded, I would have probably felt proud of myself. And after being told time and time again children who are breastfeed are healthier, smarter, more empathetic, and more likely to poop rainbows, I may even have been arrogant enough  to attribute all of my daughter’s future, health, smarts, and empathy to my valiant efforts to persist with breastfeeding. (She has yet to poop out a rainbow – but I can live with that.)

But within a week of her birth, whether or not I breastfed was injected with some desperately needed perspective. She was at home with her father, contentedly guzzling formula while I was tipping my breastmilk, tainted with antipsychotics, down the sink in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital. I had come down with postnatal psychosis and I was clinging to my life with my fingernails.

To my credit, I quickly forgave myself for ceasing my ‘breastfeeding journey’ 7 days into motherhood. And I didn’t look back. I had been too sick to ever be riddled with the guilt I saw in other mothers who had been less unwell but had also made the smart choice (for them) to stop.

But we shouldn’t need extreme circumstances to justify feeding our baby formula to anyone. Breastfeeding is a personal choice. Nothing more. Nothing less. But our society has turned it into a religion. And it’s opt out not opt in.  We are all automatically given anti formula education classes antenatally and then baptised in breastfeeding once the baby is born.

The high priests of this religion are lactation consultants and midwives who set ironclad commandments and rule with fear. The fear of harming our babies with our actions.

The pressure to breastfeed is a known contributor to and risk factor for developing perinatal mental illness. Mental illness that can leave a baby motherless if it is severe. Unlike the maternity hospital midwives, the nurses in the mother baby unit in the private psychiatric hospital I was an inpatient in don’t pressure new mothers about how to feed their babies.

But they do spend a lot of time undoing the damage done by overzealous midwives and lactation consultants who have bullied new mothers into believing they will hurt their baby if they consider formula anytime earlier than as a last resort.

For my second baby I had one breastfeeding aim: Get some colostrum into him. He went onto formula at day 7, just like my daughter. And just like my daughter, now you wouldn’t be able to pick what he was fed as a baby.

Breastfeeding is cheaper than formula feeding. It is more environmentally friendly. It is the safest and most convenient way of feeding a baby in a third world country and/or if you don’t have regular access to clean water or formula. If your baby is premature and/or has underlying health conditions for which a paediatrician has recommended breastfeeding or expressed breast milk, then – for that baby – breast is best.

But if your baby is full term, healthy, you have access to clean water and can afford to buy formula, then (beyond the first few days’ worth of colostrum) whether you choose to formula feed or breastfeed is as irrelevant to your baby’s wellbeing as the colour of your underwear while you’re doing it.

 

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My First Time

Don’t Try This At Home: Schooling

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I am not home schooling my children at the moment.

That implies a level of competence that far exceeds my attempts to provide a bit of supervision while they do what could pass for some form of schoolwork.

In fact, what I am doing could no more be called ‘home schooling’ than calling what my children’s teacher does when they are at school, ‘veterinary surgery’.

The new educational arrangements have made me ask myself this over the last week:

Are there any professions (apart from teachers) who are being asked to convey how to do their whole job to the general public in a very short time, using only online resources? I can’t think of any.

Yet suddenly teachers are expected to translate their university degree and years of practical experience into a format that parents with no training or experience in education can apply to their unwitting children at home.

And there will be some parents who will anticipate the same results as when their kids are being taught at school by the teacher.

I accepted a long time ago that I have no interest in the intricacies of how my children’s education is delivered. And I am not expecting to suddenly become enthusiastic about it, just because external circumstances have changed.

I do care about my children’s education. But my role and the teacher’s role in providing that education are clearly defined and there is little overlap.

I view these as my roles:

To love my children unconditionally and make sure they know it. To set clear boundaries for them. I am privileged to be able to afford to feed them, clothe them, and buy their educational resources. To do my best to allow them a good night’s sleep in a room free of devices, during the school term. To offer them a decent breakfast and a packed lunch, or at least the ingredients to make them. To offer them support in completing homework or schoolwork set by their teacher.

And to make myself available for communication with their teachers at any time.

I regard teachers with awe for the job they do. I know from friends who are teachers the high levels of empathy, patience, resilience, and emotional intelligence, among many other skills, they draw on to do their work well.

I also respect my children’s teachers enough not to encroach on the territory of their expertise.

When I attend parent teacher interviews, I only tend to ask four questions:

‘Does my child seem mostly happy and engaged? Is their behaviour appropriate? Are there any areas they are falling behind in? And, Is there anything else you would like me to know?’

Do you know what I never ask about?

The curriculum. Because I trust the teacher to know it inside out.

I feel for the parents who ask in depth questions related to the curriculum during parent/teacher information sessions, because right now they may struggle with the concept that they can’t single handedly provide their child’s school education at home, no matter how much they research the curriculum.

From an epidemiology point of view, at the time of writing, I believe the best place for my children is at home. But at the same time, my care factor for the quality of my children’s academic education ranks way below how much I care for not only my mental health, but the collective mental health of my family.

I acknowledge that while the two cares might not be mutually exclusive for many households, in mine – they don’t always sit well together. I may be biased by my own life experience, but that experience tells me this:

If my children fall behind in the curriculum, I am confident they will eventually catch back up to where they each normally sit. And they won’t be alone in that experience.

Yet if I tried to deliver the full curriculum to my children at home, I would transfuse the stress of my unsuccessful attempts into them. Over time, their mental health would suffer. Mine might suffer to the point of me having to be hospitalised again.

It would make as much sense as my children’s teachers attempting to perform surgery on their dog with only my online instructions to guide them through.

So, the alternative of my children having to work harder to catch up when this is over feels fairly benign. And this doesn’t mean they are doing nothing now. It just means I don’t hold myself to the unattainable standard of replicating my children’s in school educational experience at home.

And I could be way off here, but I imagine whenever I eventually return my children to their formal school based education – their teachers may prefer those children with their mental health relatively intact and their academic knowledge lagging, rather than the other way around.

(Additional note: The veterinary surgery analogies were drawn from my experience of working as a small animal vet.)

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The Other Curve Being Flattened

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Mental health extremes in our house. Where does everyone at your place sit? By the end of this post you might have a better idea.

The Covid pandemic feels as though it has equalised our collective mental health. Or if not equalised, then it has certainly ‘flattened’ the mental health curve.

Most people who live with a mental illness have at some point experienced unpleasant times with no fixed end point, over which they have little control. And now the rest of the world is being forced to experience this too.

I imagine everyone’s mental experience of this pandemic differs based on their mental health history (among other factors). But it’s fair to say that right now most, if not all, of us are experiencing some form of mental discomfort.

On the surface, those who live with mental illness appear to be most vulnerable to this. But, this demographic may not be as at risk as we think.

As someone who lives with a severe mental illness but is currently relatively asymptomatic, I feel surprisingly resilient…for now.

Having previously lived through the rock-solid horror of psychosis, the inevitable Covid anxiety that flits through my brain now feels relatively easy to manage. I have an arsenal of finely honed tools to combat it. All that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and individual sessions with my psychologist are coming in handy.

I am also familiar with having my freedom restricted at times. When I am on fifteen-minute observations in hospital, I can’t go outside. At my sickest I have been too unwell for visitors. It doesn’t mean I like it, but I have at least previously encountered similar conditions to the ones I am living with now.

But what about everyone else?

Many people had been living with mild to moderate undiagnosed or poorly managed anxiety and/or depression for several months or years before Covid hit. I am particularly concerned for this group.

They don’t have solid medical and social support systems in place yet. The all-encompassing Covid generated stress is the perfect trigger for worsening symptoms. And accessing good mental health care quickly and efficiently may become even harder than it usually is.

Depression and anxiety symptoms can make the sufferer feel isolated even if they are closely surrounded by loved ones. Social distancing – so essential to manage virus transmission – will exacerbate symptoms of mental ill health in this group.

Then there are the people who have never lived with mental ill health.

They may never have experienced racing thoughts, heart palpitations, chest pain, irritability, distractibility, gastrointestinal signs such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea due to anxiety, a low mood, insomnia, incessant worry, or any other mental and physical symptoms that can arise due to stress and/or mental ill health.

These people may not know why they are experiencing symptoms or have the psychological skills to put them in perspective. So, they will suffer more than they need to.

But there is good news in the quagmire of black headlines we are sucked into daily.

We can use our own mental health histories to help ourselves and others in this crisis.

Here’s how:

If you live with mental illness and are currently symptomatic, your sole focus must be to do what you can to get well. I know from my experience I am of no help to anyone if I am symptomatic. It’s a cliché but one that applies here:

‘Put your own oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with theirs’.

Firstly, contact the medical professionals you would usually consult when you are symptomatic – whether that’s your psychiatrist, psychologist, GP, community health workers, or psychiatric hospital.

Limit your exposure to the news to once a day – if that. If you have family or friends who can reliably update you on the essential news only, do that. Immersing yourself in the details, is of no practical value, and it can make you feel worse.

Use the same tools you would usually use to distract yourself when you are living through an episode of illness. Eat regularly and well. Don’t consume alcohol or recreational drugs. And move your body in some way, even if it’s small, every single day.

If you live with mental illness and are currently asymptomatic be vigilant but not obsessed. Just because this time is stressful, doesn’t mean developing an episode of illness is inevitable.

Your oxygen mask will consist of continuing to take medication (if you take it), keeping your regular appointments with your psychologist, psychiatrist or GP where possible, eating regularly and well, exercising most days, avoiding or minimising alcohol consumption, and practising whatever psychological skills (for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that you have learnt over the course of your illness.

Be aware of any news developments that have practical ramifications for you, but don’t marinate in the news. Once you have done all this and whatever else you need to stay well – consider this:

You can offer support to those who are struggling mentally, those who have never experienced symptoms of mental ill health. Reassurance that their symptoms are survivable with the right care, could mean a lot to someone who is new to these issues.

That said – only do this if you have the mental energy to spare – otherwise just look after yourself.

To those who sense they may have been living with anxiety or depression for a while and it is worsening: All the suggestions with regards to eating well and exercise apply. Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or other recreational drugs. It will make things worse. Getting the right help is also crucial.

I am acutely aware that accessing good mental health care is a challenge in this country even when we are not mid crisis, but some excellent online resources to start with are: Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and SANE (Links at the bottom of this post)

To all the people who have never lived with mental illness: Distraction, exercise, eating well, and maintaining social connections via technology are a good start. Don’t self medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. If you are still experiencing symptoms related to anxiety or depression (as listed above) then the online resources at the bottom of this post may be useful, or make an appointment with your GP as a starting point.

And one more thing…

Once you have done what you need to help yourself – take stock of how this situation is making you feel. And then imagine feeling like this for much longer periods of time than this pandemic will last.

Imagine feeling like this but the pandemic didn’t exist and people around you made you feel as though your symptoms weren’t real.

Then translate your feelings into compassion. And when you feel like yourself again (and you will), extend some sympathy and support to those whose mental illness lasts a lifetime.

And to everyone: We can use our individual experiences of mental health and ill health to support each other through this strange new world and into a kinder future.

So look at who you are sharing your living space with at the moment and consider starting a conversation about where on the spectrum of mental health and illness you and your housemates or family sit. Then think about how you could help each other psychologically.

My own household is one of extremes (regarding the adults). I live with severe mental illness, currently asymptomatic. My husband has never experienced mental illness.

So, when he expressed frustration a couple of days ago about his attention span feeling like that of a gold fish, I said:

‘Yes, I know it sucks feeling like that. But it will be ok.’

And I gave him a hug – something which I believe (at the time of writing) is still acceptable and safe to do in a household in which no one is symptomatic or has returned a positive Covid test.

 

Disclaimer:

This post is based only on my own experience and anecdotal evidence.

For professional mental health advice please contact your psychiatrist, GP, or for more mental health and ill health information check out the following links, all three of which are currently set up to deal with questions about Covid related mental health issues:

SANE https://www.sane.org/

Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Lifeline https://www.lifeline.org.au/

You may also like to check out these other Thought Food posts:

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Mental Illness Doesn’t Respect Deadlines

My Mental Health Toolbox

What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

Psychiatric Medication And Stigma