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?’

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Our Vets Are Dying For Your Pets

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Image courtesy of Cascade Veterinary Hospital

Contains Confronting Content

I recently removed the key to the dangerous drugs safe in the veterinary practice I’ve just resigned from, from my key ring to return it. And as I did so, I thought:

‘I wonder if my suicidal ideations will change now?’

I’ll come back to that.

I also recalled how often I’d heard the following over the last twenty years in practice:

‘My son/daughter/nephew wants to be a vet when they grow up.’

Always uttered under the impression that veterinary work is a dream job. But the dream can morph into a nightmare. There is currently a shortage of vets (in part) because our burn out and suicide rates are sky-high.

So why, after dedicating years to entering this prized profession, do many vets want out?

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Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

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When I was eighteen, a boy said something to me that stopped time.

He shouldn’t have been talking. We were in a Maths class. The teacher’s voice, rendered unintelligible by the subject matter, the heat, and the swoosh of the ceiling fans, was no match for the boy’s words:

‘A ship is safe in harbour, but it wasn’t designed to stay there.’

A bubble formed around us. An understanding bloomed…until the teacher’s reprimand broke the moment. But he had articulated who I wanted to be. Someone who leaves the harbour of their life. Someone who wouldn’t get stuck in their comfort zone.

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Silent Night Instead Of Chaotic Christmas

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Childhood Christmas memories (early 1980s)

It seems Christmas tends to wound us. Just judging by all the calls to look after ourselves at this time of year. Every day brings a fresh wave of breezy yet cautionary social media posts urging us to practice ‘self-care’ more now than ever. And apparently, grief and illness don’t take a break for this most wonderful time of the year. Who knew?

It is true that the expectation to be happy because it’s Christmas (both unspoken and sung loudly) adds unnecessary pressure to already busy lives. It is not in today’s Christmas’s nature to nurture.

For a holiday supposedly espousing kindness, joy and happiness, it doesn’t heal the hurts the year might have inflicted on us. If anything, it deepens our wounds because it insists we turn ourselves inside out to please the world, rather than recovering from the demands of the year. Perhaps, if we approached Christmas less as something that will inevitably leave us feeling worn out and stressed, we wouldn’t need to heed social media advice to ‘look after ourselves over the festive season’.

What if Christmas were all about replenishing ourselves as opposed to needing self-care as damage control?

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2018 – The Year I:

Thought about homelessness, after I witnessed displaced people with cardboard placards to explain their belongings smudging the busy and important streets of Sydney in the first days of the new year. My emotional barometer flicked between pity, sadness, relief, and settled on horror because this could still be me one day. The Right To A Home

Went to work. After twenty years the neural pathways for running a consultation competently and compassionately, for reading who I am in a room with, and being a shock absorber for their anxieties and concerns, are so well-worn they are almost automatic. Contrary to popular belief (and this photo), we spend much less time playing with puppies and kittens, than we do using our communication skills to explain, empathise, and advise our way to the best outcome for our patients via their owners.20170619_130857

Felt it come for me. In February, over two days. My sanity stepped into quicksand. Mania swallowed me. I called into work sick. I said goodbye to my family. I went into hospital. Battened down my hatches and prepared for the usual long stay. Only to be pleasantly surprised. Four weeks in hospital. That’s short for me.

Lost my job. I do every time I get sick.

Opened new neural pathways by setting up a website, which enabled me to write and publish this blog. My technological ineptitude is boundless, so the existence of Thought Food is a minor miracle.

Supported three men. All stepping through the sticky tar of depression at some point this year. All blindsided by the ferocious nature of this beast. All strong, kind, intelligent, undeserving.

Exercised most days. Ate green vegetable omelets for breakfast some days and Nutella on toast with mug loads of coffee on others. #NotFitspo

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Welcomed Clarence, our baby Stimsons python into the family. He is the lowest maintenance pet I have encountered. Gentle, inquisitive, and only needs to be fed every seven to ten days.

Continued to receive rejection after rejection of the manuscript for my memoir from publishers via one of the best literary agents in the country. Each one stings. Each one frustrates. According to publishers’ feedback the quality of the writing is great, but it’s not commercial enough. In other words: No one wants to read about psychosis if you haven’t killed someone in the throes of it or at the very least been picked up wandering the streets nude and ranting.

Began considering self-publishing the manuscript for my memoir.

Climbed back into some weekend work.

Heard my mother’s voice tell me my father had nearly died after a massive heart attack. Seeing him on day two after triple bypass surgery, comatose, tubes and wires snaking in and out of him, and the comforting blips and beeps and numbers flashing on familiar screens was easier than seeing him on day four, awake, in agony with each movement. He survived. My Father’s Heart Broke

Applied for, was accepted into, and completed the SANE Peer Ambassador training program. The glow of being in a room with others who went through hell, survived, and are now well enough to use that experience for good, still warms me. And I finally feel I’m not advocating on my own anymore. The Chosen Ones

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Gathered friends for dinners and lunches to enable my love of cooking, baking, great food and wine, and conversation…so much conversation.

 

 

 

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Became familiar with the inside of an ambulance courtesy of seven night time trips to hospital in ten days. My son developed partial seizures lasting up to ninety minutes each. Relief flooded me when his MRI scan was clear (of brain tumours) and he was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy (infinitely more manageable). Lessons For A Control Freak

Clung to small wins amongst the manuscript rejections. Three posts published on Mamamia, one on SANE, and a submission for Dr Mark Cross’s book on anxiety accepted.

https://www.mamamia.com.au/mental-illness-language/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/symptoms-of-postnatal-psychosis/

https://www.mamamia.com.au/signs-of-depression/

Narrowly avoided a second hospital admission in October. I pounced on the onset of a depressive episode with an emergency psychiatrist appointment, a medication adjustment and slashed away all commitments except exercise for several weeks. Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

Became a spokes person for the Australian Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study, and suggested edits to make the language in the main study survey more consistent and less stigmatising. Most of my edits were approved and included less than twenty-four hours before the study launched. A clip of some of my participation and how to participate in the study can be found here:

https://www.geneticsofbipolar.org.au/hear-from-study-participants-alex-anita/

Attended my first ever non-veterinary conference: ‘Empowering online advocates’ and came away feeling much more hopeful than the trip to Sydney in January had left me. #HealtheVoicesAU

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Discovered the joy of camping, absolutely enabled and enhanced by beautiful friends who supplied (and set up) most of the gear.

Resigned from veterinary work. Ostensibly to stop straddling several worlds and free up more time and energy for writing, mental health advocacy, and my children. That is all true. But I am also bone crushingly tired of the cycle. Work, get sick, lose employment because the nature of my illness means I can’t give a date when I’ll be well enough to return, and I can be sick for months. Then I clamber my way back into a demanding profession you can only inhabit when you are functioning at 100% of your capability. I expend time, energy, and money to do enough CPD (continuing professional development) to keep my registration up to date…only to lose it all again the next time I get sick. The plan is two years off. Then see where I’m at.

Received a handwritten Christmas card and instant scratchie from my pharmacist… one of my six medications alone costs $30/week. Treatment

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Reminded you to end the year saying no when your gut tells you to, and being kind to yourself when you feel like doing the opposite.

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As Mothers Of Sons

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(Confronting Content Ahead)

A young man in the inner circle of one of my work colleagues died earlier this year. I didn’t know him, have few details, but the devastation written on my work mate’s face said it all. And the details I do know are telling:

He suffered from depression.

But he was going really well.

And then he died…unexpectedly…by suicide.

Tragically, the unexpected element in this scenario is such a common postscript to male suicide it could almost be described as a hallmark. A third of all deaths in young men are due to suicide. As the mother of a son this statistic makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and hide behind these words:

‘That would never happen to us.’

But I know enough to know that sticking one’s head in the sand just adds to the risk. Unfortunately, there will always be a percentage of unpreventable suicides, but even reducing the statistics would be some comfort. So how do we do that?

Maybe a starting point is to recognise the emotional differences between girls and boys, and how we react to those differences. I haven’t researched this scientifically, and every family is different – but here’s what I’ve noticed in mine:

My daughter and I talk a lot. Ad nauseum. I know her emotional barometer almost as well as my own. My son is easy-going, unless he’s tired and/or hangry. He demonstrates his affection physically with a hug or wanting a tickle. Whereas his sister demonstrates it by saying: ‘I love you’.

A lot of my son’s verbal output revolves around Pokemon Go and food. Because of this it can be easy to dismiss what is going on in his head as uncomplicated. I do it sometimes. Life gets busy and he seems ok. But it’s a mistake, because when I give him the right time and space he shows me he has plenty of other thoughts, and that his worries and fears are often no different to his sister’s, but the way he processes them is.

Without wanting to stereotype, or discount individual personality differences, my perception is that while our daughters often wear their emotions on the outside, our sons’ emotional barometers are internal organs. Sometimes we have no idea where they are at until the pressure is at exploding point. In little boys that might be a meltdown, or a quiet sadness. It might be something that can be soothed with a cuddle and a casual chat about what’s bothering them.

But what about bigger boys? As tweens, teens, and young men they don’t sit on their mum’s lap and cry when their thoughts don’t make sense. They tend to stay quiet. Sometimes too quiet.

There are no simple solutions. But we can start by teaching our little boys how to communicate emotional pain long before they grow into young men. And if they do give us hints that all is not right in their world we should take serious notice. Just because they might not express their emotions as noisily as their sisters doesn’t mean our response to their distress should be any less urgent.

While we work towards getting better public mental health services, there are things we can do for our boys and young men. We have to educate them about the link between substance abuse and mental illness, particularly if there is a history of mental illness in the family. And if our young man has a mental illness with depressive or delusional symptoms we must learn to sit with the following discomfort:

Talking about suicide, is much safer than silence.

We need to eradicate stigma! Suicidality is so often a symptom of a mental illness. Stigma blocks the dissemination of information about how such illness can be successfully managed. Parents must understand that it doesn’t matter how much you love and support your child, if that child is sick – whether it’s cancer or a mental illness – you do not have the professional knowledge, skills, or resources to save that child on your own.

Private Health insurance often gives you better choices, but if that’s not an option there are places to go for help. For 12-25 year olds Headspace https://headspace.org.au/  is a good starting point. Your GP can provide psychology and psychiatry referrals. But perhaps one of the most important things you can do for your son (or any other young man in your life) is to be vigilant in the face of his silence.

The image accompanying this post is a favourite of my son. He’s less than a week old. Three generations of hands cradle him – my mother’s, mine, and my daughter’s.

Things have changed since it was taken. These days my son can hold up his own head, but he still needs his family to show him how to open up, not shut down when he’s feeling vulnerable. We need to show him every, single day that we support his emotional health, and that even when he is much taller, hairier, and physically stronger than us, we will continue to have his back.

Talking About Mental Illness With Children

Wedding Breakfast Spoiled

Suicide Watch

Wriggle Room

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Clarence, our pet python, always leaves himself plenty of wriggle room. Even when he’s just doing the grocery shopping

Picture your life. When everything is going fairly well. How much space between your skin and its boundaries? Are you booked to the hilt? What happens when the unexpected stressors hit? A sick child, a death in the family, a redundancy, a relationship break-down? Do you have the wriggle room to absorb some of the shock and stay afloat? Or does the thought of these boulders coming at you make your chest constrict, because you know that if anything else is piled on top of you now, you will go under?

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