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

 

 

RUOK Day: Full Disclosure

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Doing the talking, not the asking on RUOK day 2019

 

How was everyone’s RUOK day? Did you ask anyone? Did you get asked? Did you post or share something on social media about it, and feel good about participating?

As someone who lives with a severe mental illness I felt as though I should welcome RUOK day with open arms, that I should be thankful that someone was paying attention to ‘us’… for a day.

But I didn’t feel what the day wanted me to.

What did I feel? For starters, a little infantilised. And please before people send me enraged messages that that is not how they felt and that I am spoiling the fun for everyone, hear me out.

Continue reading “RUOK Day: Full Disclosure”

Misunderstood Mania

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What do you know about mania?

Everyone knows depression is bad. But does this mean mania is good because it supposedly sits at the opposite end of the bipolar spectrum?

Mania is often painted as the cartoonish counterpoint to depression. Perpetually bright, happy, and fun. But it is not fun. It is the character in a horror movie who starts out friendly but then morphs into someone with sinister, glowing eyes.

Mania assaults your senses.

Continue reading “Misunderstood Mania”

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

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Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?

I have.

It came five days into parenthood. I was lying on the floor in my maternity hospital room crying because I was trying to outrun a jaguar chasing me towards a cliff. Things were starting to go very wrong in my brain.

In the following months, when my mind warped and writhed in the grip of psychosis and later catatonic depression, and when what started out as postnatal psychosis turned out to be a first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, I could not imagine things being worse.

But they could have been.

Continue reading “My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System”

My Mental Health Toolbox

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This week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address for one of the departments at PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). As part of this I ran through some of the things I have found helpful to help me monitor and manage my mental health.

I got some really positive feedback after the presentation and requests for the list of things that help me with my mental health. So I thought I’d share that list as a post here:

EARLY WARNING SIGNS AND INSIGHT:

In this context insight is the ability to identify early signs of mental ill health in yourself. This is much more challenging than it sounds, because signs of mental illness can masquerade as normal feelings and emotions.

For example – irritability and sadness are part of the normal spectrum of human emotions, but if they are overwhelming and persistent and interfere with normal functioning, they can also be symptoms of depression.

It can take time to identify their intensity or persistence as abnormal. The other challenge is that when we are well, we can often think our way out of sadness or irritability. But when they become symptoms that is impossible.

Someone affected by symptoms of a mental illness can no more think their way out of them than someone with a nasty case of gastro can think themselves out of their vomiting and diarrhoea.

But whereas vomiting and diarrhoea are obvious signs of illness (both to the person experiencing them and everyone around them) it takes insight to recognise when symptoms of mental illness emerge.

For me early warning signs can be an inability to sleep even with a lot of medication, intense irritability, and poor short-term memory and concentration.

Early warning signs are different for everyone. By learning what ours are we can be proactive about seeking help rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen.

For further reading on an example of insight into a depressive episode you can go to: Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Continue reading “My Mental Health Toolbox”

What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

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Photo by Jony Ariadi on Unsplash

Here’s a paradox: My mental health improved after I developed a mental illness. When I am not symptomatic (which is a lot of the time) my mental health is fantastic. It is possibly better than that of many people who don’t live with a mental illness. Here’s why:

Mental illness can teach you a lot about mental health, because it confronts you with the choice to change the way you approach your life.

Continue reading “What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health”

Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf

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It started on the paper bag that the breakfast toast came in. First, I shook out the crumbs to give me an even writing surface. I had no other paper. I was inside the SCU (Special Care Unit), in a psychiatric hospital in August 2006, emerging from my first psychotic episode. And as the medication slowed my boiling brain, a miniscule part of me, took in my environment and thought:

‘I am one step away from a padded cell. Unbelievable. But while I am here, I will record as much as I can, because not many people experience this.’

So, I made my words tiny to fit as much detail as I could onto the toast bag.

Over a year later I wrote an account of my psychotic episode based on that bag and some diary entries. My supervisor for my Master of Arts in Writing Editing and Publishing read it.

‘This is really good writing. You should consider expanding it into a memoir.’

Continue reading “Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf”

Lies Of Omission: What You’re Never Told

Psycho Killer Shatters Young Family!’

Thoughts?

I had an interview with a PhD student from Melbourne Uni last week. It was for a study into what can be done to improve media reporting around severe mental illness (SMI) to reduce stigma. The media is largely responsible for the way people like me are perceived by the general public. So, I was delighted to contribute to this study.

Our trusted news sources are slickly practiced at generating gory headlines that draw eyeballs to them like magnets. If SMI is thought to contribute to a crime, it is either ignored or thrown into the story as a cold, hard after thought. Something that can’t be changed and is barely acknowledged as an illness.

The main characters in these horrific accounts may have an undiagnosed, poorly managed, or unmanaged SMI, but the journalist in the by-line doesn’t dig deep enough to expose the reasons for this:

Society does not care about or for us in the same way they do for others with serious, chronic, intermittent potentially fatal illnesses.

Continue reading “Lies Of Omission: What You’re Never Told”

My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent

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I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a wash cloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.

I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:

‘Are you ok?’

‘No.’

I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:

‘Did I just try to drown my baby?’

Continue reading “My Mental Illness Makes Me A Better Parent”

Lessons For A Control Freak

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Image courtesy of Flow Magazine

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with control. I rely on having it a little too much. Throw me an unexpected traffic jam, and I’ll feel no more or less anxious than the next person. However, when control goes AWOL from the bigger areas of my life my stress levels sky rocket.

I have been seeing my psychologist for years now. Some visits neither of us have to work hard to tweak things. But whenever there’s a larger life issue I’m struggling with, my distress almost always comes down to my lack of control over an undesirable situation. For me one of the worst-case scenarios are sleep deprivation  combined with the stress of a sick child. The reason this combination is so triggering is that it is kryptonite to my defences against a bipolar episode. (Sleep deprivation especially accompanied by stress is a major risk factor for developing manic and psychotic episodes)

This said, I firmly believe the universe sometimes sits back stroking its chin and assesses where I’m at. And then as though giving me a cosmic performance review, it points out areas for improvement, and gives me the opportunities to practice the life skills I lack. Clearly, I still need a lot of practice accepting a lack of control, because I have been sent the following homework:

Continue reading “Lessons For A Control Freak”