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…
What is the thing that could unseat you from your life?
For me it is attempting to control things beyond my control. This urge originates in my DNA and is exacerbated by living with Bipolar 1 Disorder. When this illness sweeps in unannounced and for however long it pleases, it rips my sense of control apart. The rebuild is always hard work.
And while I have learnt to loosen my grip a little more each time I recover, control of the control issues is still a process in progress.
My kryptonite is sick children.
Over the last six weeks, various illnesses, hospital admissions and a surgery between my two children have threatened to overwhelm my relatively well-honed CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) skills. Neither child was ever in acute danger, yet I battled the clench reflex of control. I loathe feeling as though I am not in the driver’s seat of my life. This time I was on a bumpy road trip I never consented to, delegated to a back seat with no seatbelts and poorly locking doors.
But something unexpected helped.
At the end of April, I started a five week online Creative Writing Course with the Australian Writers Centre. Three to four hours a week to cover course material and submit an assignment. No penalty for not submitting the assignment, other than missing out on feedback from the lecturer.
I completed two weeks without distractions before the illnesses descended.
I immediately indulged in some classic black and white thinking and catastrophising and thought I’d abandon the writing course. Thankfully CBT skills prevailed: Neither child was on life support, and doing some of the course would be better than doing nothing.
I decided to do the minimum I needed to submit an assignment each week. Surprise, surprise – the writing was a welcome relief from the stress of sick children. Spinning and shaping words into new work left me feeling more in control of my world. The gentle nudge of an assignment due, felt as though someone had handed me a balancing pole as I walked my tightrope.
We are (hopefully) through the worst (of the sicknesses) now. The course finished a couple of weeks ago. But I thought I’d share two of the creative writing assignments I submitted, for those who are interested. Both are a scene with a 200-word limit.
I hope you enjoy this foray into another branch of my writing life:
Anton pulled on his fur lined hat with the ear flaps, leather gloves, woollen scarf, and snow jacket. He collected his fishing rod and box and left for the lake just as dawn poked its pink fingers through the patchy clouds. Snow crunched like fine gravel under his boots and his breath came in clouds.
He loved the peace and solitude of ice fishing. Some winters the lake froze into a clear pane of glass, and you could see fish moving sluggishly under the ice. This winter, the ice had incorporated snow, until it was as opaque as wedding cake icing.
Anton had barely lowered his line into the ice hole and himself onto the bench when he felt it. Not the usual twitch of a fish, but a heaviness.
He reeled in his line and squinted.
His stiff fingers untangled the dark green filaments around his hook. The curtain of weeds hid something fleshy, something covered in blood vessels. It had a cord, like a length of blue wool dangling from its belly.
It had ten fingers and ten toes.
A gasp shot from Anton’s mouth. His fingers trembled across his chest in the sign of the cross.
It’s 2022. I should be used to wearing a mask by now. And yet, I suddenly notice the itchy edges on my cheeks. My breath moves hot and thick and sour inside it. Outside the mask (for a sip of water) the dry air is laundered with disinfectant, hand sanitiser and soap.
The bedside chair is designed to exacerbate my sore back. All the other parents’ anxieties hum around us. My own worries are a fistful of wriggling worms trapped in my stomach.
Th attempts to jolly up this space with zoo animals on the curtains dividing each bay, and jungle scenes on random walls, have failed miserably. The fluorescent lights erase all beauty. Behind my son’s bed a multicoloured cluster of tubes and canisters, buttons and power points sit patiently waiting for the terrible moments when they are called to action.
My boy’s soft hand is invaded by a plastic tube, covered in gauze, and clutches ‘Scrat’ his tiny plush toy wombat. The nails-down-a-blackboard screech of a toddler in the next bay jerks me upright. My back spasms.
In this place time obeys different rules, and my heart in its chest full of quicksand keeps beating, somehow.
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.
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.
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?
I confirm my name and date of birth. A nurse hands me a tiny paper cup. It rattles slightly, this mix of yellow, white, and orange lolly shapes.
‘See if that looks right.’
I never go on looks alone. I recite the contents of the 13 tablets back to the nurse, as though I were the one prescribing and dispensing:
‘750mg Lithium, 50mg agomelatine, 100mg quetiapine XR, 150 mg regular quetiapine, 1mg clonazepam, and 10mg of temazepam (prn)’.
Just before I swallow them, my mouth feels full of loose teeth.
And then I drift down a dimly lit blue carpeted corridor that ends in an opaque glass window covered in giant blown dandelions, until I am back in my room.
I feel so removed from my life I may as well be orbiting it in a spaceship.
I feel the anxious tug deep in my belly, knowing the longer I orbit, the longer and harder my earthling reintegration will be.
Outside of these corridors, this mission to heal my brain, my family pushes and pulls itself into an unnatural, temporary shape. Each member forced to stretch and thin out to cover the hole of my absence.
My family hurts in ways I can barely imagine, while the hurt in my brain lands me in this other world.
It feels as though my family is the only family to contort itself for as long and as often as mine does every time I get sick. It doesn’t matter that they are all resilient and used to it. It doesn’t matter that we manage it as well as anyone possibly could.
I don’t want my illness infiltrating my children’s’ growing years. But it does. Each time a little more.
This frustration doesn’t negate my gratitude for having access to a hospital that allows me whatever time it takes to treat acute episodes of this illness. But at the same time my gratitude sometimes feels like petrol when I attempt to douse the flames of frustration with it.
I know people feel relieved when I announce I am coming home. I don’t share their relief because it is not an easy slotting back into place. It is tearing my way back into a family that has been forced to operate without me. It is blinding and muting myself to all the tiny little things …and the bigger ones that they have had to do differently to survive the lack of me.
And yet, I know that my absence from my family is less damaging to them than my symptomatic presence would be, when I am barely safe in my own company. My distress at having no memory or concentration, at being loaded like a gun with pathological irritability, losing touch with reality – these are not things I want to subject my husband or children to. It would shred us into irreparable pieces. So, I choose the lesser of the damages.
Even as I hate to think about the scar tissue left behind, I know I can repair the stretching, thinning induced by my absence, given time.
That time starts at discharge.
I will be home to begin work to repair while I work to reintegrate…possibly within days.
PS: The list of medications included in this piece is a snapshot of one evenings’ medications for me in hospital. It should never be used as a comparison to anyone else’s medication. Psychiatric medication regimes are highly individualised and often change over time. A medication combination that works well for one person can be a disaster for someone else, even if they share a diagnosis. Always consult a psychiatrist before taking any psychiatric medications. If that’s not an option, then a GP
Imagine being recommended a medication that you were told could lower your risk of dying. But to be fully informed before taking it, you were first required to spend 24 hours in a room wallpapered with all the potential risks and side effects of taking that medication printed in large, bold font.
The words all over that wallpaper are:
Dizziness, nausea, weight gain, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, vomiting, back pain, migraines, suicidality, paraesthesia, restless leg syndrome, blurred vision, ringing in the ears, eczema, itchiness, hives, agitation, irritability, nightmares, confusion, muscle pain, swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and/or throat that may cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing, impaired concentration, poor memory, hair loss, decreased thyroid function, hepatitis, liver failure, hallucinations, slurred speech, kidney failure, trouble walking, tremors, seizures, coma, death
After 24 hours you are let out of the room and presented with the medication. Would you take it?
I’ve had some experience assessing health related risk versus benefit. Professionally I’ve done it with every animal I have recommended a treatment or diagnostic test for, from the simple (routine vaccinations) to the complex (invasive surgery in a patient who is already unwell).
But perhaps my personal experience of taking psychiatric medications on and off for the last 15 years is more relevant. The above list is just a sample of the potential side effects of some of my medications. If I printed them all out, and then wall papered my house with them, I could easily torture myself into not taking any of them.
This is the wallpaper effect.
I don’t disregard any of the words on that list. I know someone who almost died as a direct result of taking one of the medications I take. I have recently been diagnosed with decreased thyroid function, very likely as a direct result of taking one of my medications, There have been other medications I have tried and had to discontinue because of side effects.
And to put the risks I am working with into perspective: Common side effects for many of these medications are considered able to affect up to 1 in 10 people, uncommon side effects may affect up to 1 in 100 people, and rare side effects – so the more serious ones in the above list – may affect up to 1 in 1000 people.
As risks go, they are not exactly tiny.
And yet I opt to religiously take these potentially life-threatening medications. Why? Because the risk of side effects (in me, at the moment) is less than the risk of my Bipolar 1 Disorder symptoms being poorly controlled.
I have a higher risk of both a poor quality of life and death from my Bipolar 1 Disorder if it is unmedicated than I do from my current medication regime. My risk of death if I do nothing to manage this illness sits between 15%-20% (including not only suicide but non intentional causes of death due to manic or psychotic symptoms, which can include increased risk taking, hypersexuality, poor judgement and delusional thinking).
Thanks to modern medicine, humans in first world countries are confronted with death less often. It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that death can be avoided if we ‘do our research’ and make the right choices.
Speaking of ‘research’: True research is not a google search. Neither is it being spoon-fed unsubstantiated claims on social media by someone who couldn’t make their way through one research paper if they tried, let alone the hundreds it would take to qualify what they were doing as actual research. Research is something academics, including scientists and some medical doctors, are trained to do. It is rigorous, unbiased, and a skill that takes years to learn.
I believe the choices most of us make about our health have less to do with ‘research’ and more to do with the biases our environment soaks us in.
If you see mobile morgues or dead bodies outside your window, you are more likely to want the vaccination that reduces the chances of you dying from what killed the people outside your window, even if the vaccine carries a very small risk of death.
If you don’t know anyone who has died from that same illness, but you are marinated in the announcement of a potentially fatal side effect of the vaccine every time you look at a screen, you are likely to be more reluctant to be vaccinated than someone in the first group.
The scientific risk of death due to side effect is identical in both populations but the human response is different according to which narrative is shoved into our malleable brains. The capacity to weigh true risk against benefit flies away.
And that is why I choose not to live in a house wallpapered with my medication side effects.
A dull ache sits in my centre. My cat Lucy, immortalised next to my old red keyboard on my Thought Food home page, is gone.
2 days ago the vet in me woke to a 16 year old depressed, immobile, incontinent feline patient. I needed more information before communicating with the cat’s owner, who was also me. The owner could read the vet’s face though and it made her feel as though a cactus was growing in her chest.
The vet came back with information later in the day.
Hypothermia, likely anaemia hiding under haemoconcentration, severe azotemia in the face of likely hyposthenuria, severe hyperglycaemia, and elevated ALT
At that point the owner and the vet in me began to overlap, like a Venn diagram, and both parts of me knew enough to know this:
None of these big words gave us a definitive diagnosis. To get to the big word that was causing the multi organ system problems indicated by a physical exam and first round of blood tests, we’d need to enter a new level of the diagnostics game. And with each new diagnostic test we’d opt for we’d open up the possibility of needing still more tests to get to the bottom of it.
What justifies further diagnostics in veterinary medicine?
The chance that the definitive diagnosis is something treatable or manageable to the point of returning the patient to a good quality of life.
When I started work as a small animal vet in 1998 we had fewer diagnostic and treatment options available for pets. It is good to have more options now. There are absolutely cases where we can return animals to a great quality of life where they would have been euthanased when I first graduated.
But this advanced knowledge also complicates matters, particularly when it comes to caring for our geriatric pets.
People often assume that the hardest part of being a vet is euthanasing animals. Yes, it can be devastating. But I have always found it equally as hard, if not harder, to hand hold people through the process of coming to terms with the fact that it is time to euthanase, while their pet is put through diagnostics and treatments that may prolong life but do nothing for quality of life.
An internal medicine specialist may well have wanted to know exactly what the cause of my cat’s abnormal blood results were before giving me their blessing to euthanase.
And, with those blood test results, had my cat been 2 instead of 16, I still would have stopped to consider that euthanasia could be the end point. But I would have gone ahead with more diagnostics because the chances of them leading to an outcome with a good quality of life for my cat would have been higher.
But I also knew that had I insisted on a definitive diagnosis 2 days ago, Lucy could have spent her last days scared, in a fluorescently lit hospital having rectal temperatures, blood and urine samples taken at regular intervals with no knowledge of why it was happening. Had she been able to come home it would have been heavily medicated, and still not feeling 100%.
When I weighed this with the tiny chance that she was suffering something treatable with a chance of return to good health – the risk of putting her through fear and pain for nothing at the age of 16 was not one I was willing to take.
Instead we made the hard choice.
Instead all four of her people cuddled her. We whispered in her little round ears and wet her fur with our tears. And I stroked her velvet neck as she drifted off into anaesthesia and then away into death.
Later that night I laid down next to Lucy’s siter, Lily and burst into deep sobs. These cats entered my life before the mental illness that came with my human children. With Lucy I have lost another part of me that existed before everything changed irreversibly…and not all for the better. The waves of grief beach unexpected thoughts and feelings.
When I work, I am not brutally honest with a vulnerable client if they ask me ‘What would you do in this situation?’ I stick to the facts, lay out probabilities as best I can and make sure euthanasia is part of the conversation so that they can make their own informed decision, in as much as their own time as their pet’s welfare allows.
But if the vet in me had been advising the cat owner in me for Lucy, I would not have held back. I would have said:
‘We can do every diagnostic test under the sun and you will probably get an answer, but we are doing it for you, not for your pet.’
Just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should.
You can find some of my other veterinary content in these posts:
For the last 14 years this emotion and I have had a complicated relationship. Before that, I experienced its giddy joy like anyone else.
It greeted me on the first days of longed-for holidays.
I experienced it on planes during take-off. In that moment of palpable lift, when the wheels left the ground and I shed gravity for a while.
It swooped through my body when I’d meet my childhood best friend, Sandra, at airports and train stations in different countries after years of separation.
Many moments of elation were tied to achievement. School grades, University degrees, getting jobs, have all elicited it. A psychologist would grimace at that, but there you have it.
But when I was nearly 33 something happened that warped elation for me.
I gave birth to my first baby.
The birth of a baby is usually viewed as the ultimate source of elation. Much is made of the overjoy of brand-new mothers.
But I was brewing something sinister when I went into my 33 hour labour on 2 hours sleep. That sleep deprivation, and the massive shift in hormones after the birth became the key that fitted the genetic lock for my dormant Bipolar 1 Disorder. It introduced itself violently, as an episode of postnatal psychosis when my baby was seven days old.
Three and a half years later I did get a day of pure elation after the carefully managed birth of my second baby. But I took none of it for granted, as though I had an inkling the psychosis would be back at the six week mark.
Psychosis in Bipolar Disorder is often preceded by mania. For some people mania is preceded by hypomania, which is like an artificial sweetener to the sugar of real elation. Same same, but different.
I do experience hypomania, but it is transient. Blink and you’ll miss it before it progresses to the high speed car chase of mania. I don’t spend weeks feeling fantastic about everything. But I’ve lived through enough hypomania to make me wary of true elation.
I force my elation through an airport security like checkpoint before I allow myself to feel it, because I know it could be the hypomanic second that precedes a manic episode.
So when elation wings its way into my heart, I put it through my metal detector of questions: How are you sleeping? Any racing thoughts? How’s your memory and concentration? Any sense of urgency, a pressure in the part of your brain right behind your eyes?
But right now I am truly elated.
Even my psychiatrist agreed I am entitled to it, after I handed him my third baby a couple of days ago.
My third baby is of the paper variety. Its newborn smell is that of fresh new books. Its gestation period has been longer than a human’s, longer than an elephant’s. 14 years from first words to published.
This baby’s name is ‘Abductions From My Beautiful Life’, nicknamed ‘Abductions’, and it is my memoir.
You will find my DNA all through it. My many selves. The child, teenager, university student, veterinarian, mother, psychiatric inpatient and outpatient, writer, mental health advocate, partner, and friend.
I wrote this book because there are not enough first-person accounts of severe mental illness, especially those featuring psychosis. I wanted to dissolve some of the misconceptions about people who live with severe mental illness, and the stigma that accompanies them.
The road to get this book published has been long, rough, expensive, paved with barely-existent patience, blood, sweat, many tears, diplomacy, and a lot of rejection.
It seems– books that deal frankly with mental illness (other than depression and anxiety) are too prickly for many publishers to touch – or to quote the feedback my agent and I got time and time again:
‘It is beautifully written, and an important story, but it is not commercial enough’ ie it will not make us any money, so we won’t go near it.
After several years of rejections, I did finally find a way to have it published, via a contributory contract with a publishing house in London that I supplemented with my own freelance cover designer and freelance copyeditor, to ensure it was published to a professional standard.
To the countless Australian publishers who passed on this book because ‘although beautifully written, it was not commercial enough’ – I say:
This book was never intended to be the next Harry Potter, or 50 Shades of Grey. But having finally published it I am elated because I have given the people who might be interested, the opportunity to read this allegedly ‘well written important story’.
An opportunity they may never have had if I had given up on it. So if you are one of those interested readers, you now get to decide whether or not you like it, rather than having an anonymous wall of publishers tell you what you should or shouldn’t be reading.
All reviews, feedback, and comments are welcome. For now you can leave them in the Comments section of this post, or email me at email@example.com
And if you do enjoy Abductions or find it meaningful and you can think of someone else it might resonate with, recommend it to them or maybe even gift them a copy.
Publication, purchasing, and launching information:
Abductions From My Beautiful Life will be published on Friday 30.4.2021
You can preorder it now and continue to order it once it is published from:
To begin with I am planning several smaller private launches over the next few weeks and months rather than one big one. They will probably take place at my house to work as flexibly as possible with ever changing Covid restrictions. But the format will be similar to a traditional launch with drinks, discussion of the book, maybe a reading, and books for sale and for signing, or if you’ve pre-bought your book you can bring it along to be signed.
If you live in or are passing through Brisbane and would be interested in coming along to one of these smaller launches, please email (anitalink73@gmailcom) or Instagram DM me @anitalinkthoughtfood so that I am aware of your interest when I send out invitations.
I will post further information about launches as they evolve.
For more on how ‘Abductions’ came into being you might like to check out:
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.
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.