For me, the taste of my rubber snorkel mouthpiece, the smell of seawater and the sight of pink coral with black fish darting around it, was the beginning. I was about four, snorkelling in the shallows on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea. That defined me. Indelibly.
But mostly, what defines me only does so temporarily. Eventually those moments, decisions and experiences split open and peel away like dead eucalyptus bark to reveal fresh influences and redefinitions.
I remember the first time I felt desired. A look like lightning in the middle of a lake. And a sentence.
‘You are not like other girls. You are better.’
It shaped a part of me that felt proud to be different. We laughed at those ‘other girls’, whose sole ambition in life was wifedom and motherhood, women who threw themselves at him while we toyed with each other. My emotions stayed safely walled off from the chaos of love.
Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?
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.
‘My daughter never visits me in hospital. She doesn’t like this place.’
An elderly woman told me this in a private psychiatric hospital several years ago. Sadness dripped from her words.
The thought of visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital (especially for the first time) can leave people feeling: Awkward. Uncomfortable. Fearful. Repulsed. Guilty. Ashamed. Misinformed. Unsure. To name a few.
This week I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address for one of the departments at PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers). As part of this I ran through some of the things I have found helpful to help me monitor and manage my mental health.
I got some really positive feedback after the presentation and requests for the list of things that help me with my mental health. So I thought I’d share that list as a post here:
EARLY WARNING SIGNS AND INSIGHT:
In this context insight is the ability to identify early signs of mental ill health in yourself. This is much more challenging than it sounds, because signs of mental illness can masquerade as normal feelings and emotions.
For example – irritability and sadness are part of the normal spectrum of human emotions, but if they are overwhelming and persistent and interfere with normal functioning, they can also be symptoms of depression.
It can take time to identify their intensity or persistence as abnormal. The other challenge is that when we are well, we can often think our way out of sadness or irritability. But when they become symptoms that is impossible.
Someone affected by symptoms of a mental illness can no more think their way out of them than someone with a nasty case of gastro can think themselves out of their vomiting and diarrhoea.
But whereas vomiting and diarrhoea are obvious signs of illness (both to the person experiencing them and everyone around them) it takes insight to recognise when symptoms of mental illness emerge.
For me early warning signs can be an inability to sleep even with a lot of medication, intense irritability, and poor short-term memory and concentration.
Early warning signs are different for everyone. By learning what ours are we can be proactive about seeking help rather than waiting for symptoms to worsen.
Here’s a paradox: My mental health improved after I developed a mental illness. When I am not symptomatic (which is a lot of the time) my mental health is fantastic. It is possibly better than that of many people who don’t live with a mental illness. Here’s why:
Mental illness can teach you a lot about mental health, because it confronts you with the choice to change the way you approach your life.
Have you ever tried rescuing someone who doesn’t want to be rescued?
There’s the itchy frustration of being able to see they need help. You do everything in your power to help them, but they want none of it.
We had the following teachable situation take place in our household recently:
My daughter loves birds and started feeding the sulphur crested cockatoos in our garden. Word of the new food source got around. Each day more arrived. One morning the cohort included a scruffy straggler. He was bullied by the others. His point of difference was a plastic cone around his neck, almost identical to the Elizabethan collars we put on dogs and cats to prevent them chewing out their stitches.
But this was a school sports marker. The cockatoo had poked its head through it. I assume out of curiosity or to get to food in the middle of it. And now it was stuck. It could still eat, but not well. We thought hard about how we could help this bird. I suspected removing the cone wouldn’t be difficult if we could only catch it.
It flew off as soon as we got anywhere near it. My daughter phoned Australia Zoo who referred her to a wildlife organisation, who referred us to the RSPCA. I explained the dilemma and sent pictures of the cone headed bird. The RSPCA delivered a large metal dog crate and we rigged the door with string, so that we could close it remotely.
In the beginning I struggled to accurately identify the source of my discomfort. First, I felt cranky. Then defensive. Sentences coiled through my head, arguing my case to non-existent judges.
And then the fantasy started:
The sanctity of an operating theatre. Me doing surgery. A space where competence is nonnegotiable and where logic rules supreme. A space where superfluous emotion is rinsed off in the scrub sink. The flat mineral smell of iodine, hands held up, so drips go down. The linearity of actions. Being handed packets – the hand towel, the gown and gloves, instruments. All sterile. A clean slate for this one patient, this one surgery. The fantasy is not about wanting to re-enter veterinary practice. It is about control. The thought of having that degree of control over a situation makes me shiver with longing right now.