I’m not on drugs… I’m having a manic episode

Eighteen years ago, my mum took me to our local doctor, concerned about my sudden strange behaviour since finishing my final high school exams.  Taking one look at me, his first reaction was to tell Mum that I was obviously under the influence of drugs.

When she told him she didn’t think I would take drugs (which I never have) – he made a sarcastic remark about parents like her having “no idea at all.”

Three days later, after ordering brain scans, CAT scans and a battery of other medical tests, the local hospital concluded I was having my first acute manic  episode.

This incident sprung to mind today as I read an article in the Shepparton News about HeadSpace – Australia’s youth mental health foundation – running courses in country Victoria next month to help parents identify and intervene early with the mental health needs of their children.

As Headspace says to parents and carers on their website: “Recognising signs is the first step toward getting [your children] help.”

I couldn’t agree more.

If it wasn’t for my parents and then boyfriend (now my loving husband!) – my local GP may have dismissed the signs of my first manic episode as a teenager experimenting with drugs.  It was my parents who told him of my family history of Bipolar Disorder and the incredible stress I’d been under the weeks prior during Year 12 exams.

As parents, we are our children’s advocates:  if they start wheezing, we take them to the Doctor.  If they are struggling at school, we book a time to speak to their teacher.  So why wouldn’t we be on the lookout for signs that they are struggling with depression, anxiety or displaying other out of character behaviours.

Nobody knows our children better than us.  And we need to be aware of the symptoms of mental illness and take them seriously.

Parents in Shepparton know this better than most.  Despite the idyllic setting, this regional centre has some of the highest rates of youth suicide in Victoria.  They have learnt that mental illness is the hidden killer.

Mariska xx

Check out Headspace’s excellent mental health resources for parents and youth at www.headspace.org.au

 

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What Lindy Chamberlain taught me about bitterness

Getting out of bed at 5.30am to attend a breakfast one hour’s drive away in the City isn’t my idea of a great morning.  I’m not a morning person at the best of times.  But yesterday I did just that and was rewarded with a morning I’ll never forget.

I’ll be the first to admit that – at times – I have struggled with bitterness.  For a while there, after my diagnosis and again after I spent time in a psychiatric hospital after the birth of my first baby, I felt let down by my own body and angry at my ill-treatment at the hands of medical staff.

Which is why I found the speaker for this year’s Melbourne Prayer Breakfast, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, so gripping.

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If anyone has a reason to be bitter, it’s Lindy Chamberlain (as she’s commonly known).  Accused and convicted of murdering her nine-week-old baby daughter Azaria (pictured above with her) while camping at Uluru – then known as Ayers Rock – in 1980, Lindy maintained that she saw a dingo leave the tent where Azaria was sleeping.

After serving three years in prison with hard labour, Lindy’s conviction was overturned after the discovery of new evidence, and she was acquitted of all charges.

Standing up on the stage, in front of 1000 people, Lindy looked more like someone’s friendly mother-in-law than someone who had been to hell and back.  She started her speech by saying that she wasn’t going to talk about Azaria – or the dingo: “What happened to me is not as important as what I learned from what happened to me,” she explained.

Sitting there, listening to this woman talk about being forced to clean toilet blocks with a toothbrush, and being hated by her fellow prisoners, I couldn’t help but feel anything but deep empathy for her.  Prison didn’t sound to dissimilar from the high-dependency unit of a public psychiatric ward.

And yet, Lindy’s message was one of hope.

She challenged me (and I’m guessing everyone else in the room) to not let tragedy, or illness, or circumstances in life prevent us from living life to our full potential.

“It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s what we choose to do with it that matters,” she said – her voice cracking as she wiped away tears. While she could have become bitter and turned her back on her religion, Lindy said that she has learnt through this all that “God is not the author of hardship and pain but will guide us through it.”

I walked away from that breakfast feeling inspired. If Lindy Chamberlain can go through what she did and not be a bitter woman, then I’m going to try and follow in her footsteps.

Yes, I have bipolar disorder.  Yes, that makes life more difficult than if I didn’t have it.  But what I have learned through this illness is valuable – both to me and to others.  Those of us who have endured hardship and suffering can be “wounded healers” – sharing our own journey with others – to encourage them in their own struggles.

If we allow bitterness consume us, to corrode our self-confidence and steal our joy – then we lose the opportunity to turn a bad situation into something good.

Have you found that your experience of mental illness has enabled you to reach out to others in similar circumstances?  Has helping others helped you?  Would love to hear your comments below.

 

 

Why people with Bipolar ‘Zip It’

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Glancing through Twitter the last couple of weeks, a little icon with ‘Zip It – donate your voice‘ written on it caught my eye.  Spending my days as a fundraiser for World Vision, I’m always keen to check out what others are doing in the ever challenging quest to raise funds for charities.

Given the title, it shouldn’t have surprised me that a campaign challenging Australians to stay silent for 24 hours – was raising money for mental health charities.

So often people with a mental illness feel like we have to stay silent about what we are feeling.  Fearful of the reaction of others, we force ourselves to “zip it”.

When workplace chatter turns to mental illness, we “zip it” – not wanting to open up about our condition lest people start to treat us differently.

When we’re feeling stressed, or anxious or  like depression is starting to close in on us, we “zip it” – preferring to suffer in silence than to admit that we’re not coping as well as we’d like others to think we are.  Sadly, keeping our lips sealed, and not talking about what is going on inside, often makes what we are experiencing ten times worse.

But we’re not the only ones who “zip it” when faced with mental illness.

When we do become unwell, our loved ones around us “zip it” – trying to cope alone rather than risk embarrassing us by letting others know of our condition.  Often, their friends, colleagues or fellow church members have no idea of what they – or their acutely unwell husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother or child – is going through.

Most psychiatric hospitals are daunting places for the mentally unwell – let alone visitors.  Moving from the flower and helium balloon filled maternity ward to the high dependency unit of a nearby psychiatric hospital after becoming acutely unwell following the birth of my first baby, the lack of visitors or even ‘get well’ cards surprised me.

As someone who’s been forced to “Zip It” about my own condition on many occasions, I applaud the mental health charities of Australia for this great new campaign.  Last time I checked, it had raised almost $58,000 for the following charity partners:

You can check out the campaign for yourself at http://www.zipit.org.au

Some of you might ask why are we discussing a fundraising campaign on a blog for mums with Bipolar Disorder?  Well, because while I (and I’m guessing many of you) are still forced to “Zip It” – it doesn’t have to be like this in the future.

With awareness and education comes understanding.  If down the track any of my three children are diagnosed with a mental illness – I’d like to hope that  attitudes will have changed so much by then that they won’t think twice about discussing it with their friends or workmates.  That there will be no need to “Zip It”.

If you’ve heard of any other great fundraising campaigns for mental health charities, leave a comment below – I’m sure we’d all love to hear about them!

3 reasons why I don’t take a mental health day

Almost twenty years on from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’m getting pretty good at knowing the signs my mind and body display when they’ve been pushed to the limit.  Not being able to stop thinking about work even after I come home at night, a tight feeling in my chest and being so focused on my “to do” list that it’s 5pm before I realise I’ve skipped my lunch-break.

It’s usually around this time that I have to force myself to slow down and – if I can wrangle a meeting-free day – perhaps even  take a “mental health day”.  Only I don’t ever admit to my manager that it’s a mental health day.  It’s an “upset stomach” or a “sore throat” or some other common ailment.

With World Mental Health Day coming up on 10 October, I’ve been thinking about this – and wondering why I have never ever admitted to taking a “mental health day”.  It’s not because I’m not allowed to.  In fact, it’s clearly stated in my employee handbook that taking a mental health day is a perfectly ok use of a sick day.

So why is it that I don’t take one?  Well here it is … three reasons why I don’t take a mental health day:

1. It doesn’t feel like a good enough excuse for a day off work

Flu is catchy and noone wants to share officespace with someone who has an annoying, hacking cough.  But stress or anxiety isn’t visible.  Noone can see the tight feeling in my chest or the way my mind won’t stop racing.  Only I know that this is happening and it’s easy to put on a brave face when I’m at work.  As someone with Bipolar Disorder, I have a perfectly good reason to take a “mental health day” if I need one.  In fact, if it helps keep me healthy and functioning well, it’s actually a good thing. Much better to take a day to nip stress and anxiety in the bud than let it manifest a few weeks down the track in an episode requiring medication and professional care.  Still – when push comes to shove, I’d rather admit to being physically unwell than admit that I need a quiet, stress-free day at home.

2.  It might lead to my manager wondering about my mental health

Noone – I repeat noone – wants the person who is responsible for your future promotions, pay rises and performance reviews thinking that you are mentally unstable.  I don’t have a problem sharing about my mental illness with friends, family, church groups, readers of this blog, my Twitter followers… yet I draw the line at sharing about it with my direct manager.  I don’t want my work performance to be judged on anything except… well, my work performance.  Yes, I have Bipolar Disorder, but for 99% of the time, it doesn’t affect what I do at work.  In fact, I’ve had less sick days in the past year than most of my team members.  I don’t want my manager wondering if I can handle a big project – or whether I’ll be able to cope with a management role.  I’m a loyal, hard-working employee – and that’s all I want to be judged on.

3. It’s too embarrassing

I’ll be the first to admit it, the thought of others knowing you have a mental illness is embarrassing. While organisations like Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute have done a great job in raising awareness of illnesses such as depression in the past few years, not many people are aware of other types of mental illness – like mania or psychosis.  Usually the first reaction people have when I tell them I have a mental illness is to say “Oh, so you have postnatal depression?”  Considering my youngest is now almost four years old, I find this a bit odd.  But I understand that this is one of the few mental illnesses that people feel comfortable discussing.

When I mention that I have only ever once had a depressive episode – but that stress can lead to my mood doing the opposite, becoming manic – they look a bit confused and then quickly change topics.  Rarely has anyone actually asked me what I’ve experienced during an an actute manic epsidode or psychosis.  Maybe it’s because the word psychotic has the word “psycho” in it … but in any case, people are still a bit put off when the conversation heads in that direction.  With this in mind, I’d rather not have to explain the difference between depression and mania when I call in for a sick day.

 

So there you have it.  Three reasons why someone who has a recognised mental illness and is passionate about mental health advocacy admits to never taking an official “mental health day”.  With Australia focused on mental health this week, I hope that this is a stark reminder why we need to keep working together to stop the stigma of mental illness and to make looking after one’s mental – as well as physical – health, a perfectly acceptable reason for taking a much-needed day off work.

Are you ok with taking a “mental health day” when you need it?  Check out this website and make a promise to yourself to look after your mental health.