Motherhood

My Happy Sad Mummy: Why I’ll be reading this to my kids

My Happy Sad Mummy

Earlier this week I noticed a strange thing in my letterbox.  An actual handwritten letter – from an unfamiliar address.

Expecting a Christmas card from one of the few friends who haven’t discarded this charming tradition for a digital greeting, I ripped open the envelope.

Inside was a short note and a newspaper clipping – from the step-mum of a girl I went to high school with 18 years ago.  Strange huh?

But moments later tears pricked my eyes as I read her beautiful words – encouraging me to keep speaking up about mental illness. She also mentioned that  I might be interested in a new children’s picture book she’d read about in the local paper: My Happy Sad Mummy.

I quickly read the book review and then jumped online to order our family a copy.  For so long I’ve been searching for ways to explain my Bipolar Disorder to my young children in a way that’s easy for them to understand and doesn’t scare them.

Well, my copy of My Happy Sad Mummy arrived today and it’s fantastic. Using beautiful illustrations, it tells the story of a young girl living with a mother who experiences manic and depressive episodes.

The author, Michelle Vasiliu draws from her own experience of Bipolar Disorder, to portray the emotional rollercoaster of this illness, as a young child might perceive it.

Here’s four things I really love about this book:

1.  It doesn’t mention the label ‘Bipolar Disorder’.  I don’t fancy my chatty five year old talking about my diagnosis with kinder teachers, school friends and other random strangers in the supermarket check-out queue.

2. It emphasises the strong bond of love between the child and her mum. Despite having days when her mum struggles to get out of bed, or is caught up in manic activity, there’s no doubt in the child’s mind that her mum loves her.

3.  It’s really engaging for young children.  I’m planning on reading this story to my 3, 5 and 7 year old children every few months – gradually introducing the idea that they have a ‘Happy Sad Mummy’ too.  My older children know I take “brain medicine” every day – this will be a nice way of explaining why I need to take it.

4. It’s an example of a Bipolar mum using a painful experience to help others. Michelle’s motivation for writing the story came about after she had experienced a crisis: being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 2007. At the time, her children were three and six and Michelle wanted to alleviate their fears about what was happening. Now, she’s trying to help other mums who find themselves in the same situation.

If any of you are like me – and struggle to find the right words when talking to your children about your illness – why not check out this new book.

Mariska xx

Can you recommend any other picture books that can help mums to explain Bipolar Disorder to young children?  Got any other tips for other ways to talk about this with children?  Would love you to share them with us.

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Postpartum Management of Bipolar Disorder

This is one of the most useful things I have read regarding bipolar and pregnancy/childbirth. I wish I had read this before the birth of my first baby and highly recommend it to anyone who is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant. It’s possible to have a baby and not become unwell – but it takes preparation and having a support team at the ready.

Kitt O'Malley

International Society Bipolar Disorder

This morning I participated in a webinar sponsored by The International Society for Bipolar Disorders entitled, Postpartum Management of Bipolar Disorder: Challenges and Opportunities, led by Dr. Verinder Sharma. Bipolar disorder is commonly misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder, just as postpartum bipolar disorder is misdiagnosed as postpartum depressive disorder. Misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder has serious consequences. Reproductive events such as the birth of a child can trigger manic, hypomanic and mixed symptoms.

Studies vary as to the effect of pregnancy on bipolar disorder. For some women, pregnancy is associated with an improvement in symptoms. Childbirth and the postpartum period is a potent trigger of episodes of bipolar disorder. Psychiatric hospitalizations exponential rise during the one month postpartum period. Risk factors include being unmarried, perinatal death, and C-section. Both biological and psychosocial factors play a role. Later in life, menopause is associated with increased rapid cycling and more clinical visits…

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Daily Life

Too good for the rubbish dump

The other day, my four year old son asked me “are you a robber mum?”  In my defense, I should quickly add here that no – I am most definitely not a thief.

However, I do have a fondness for rescuing unloved, unwanted items left out for the dump truck. Case in point my lovely, new white side-board in the picture below.

Hard rubbish recycled table

Three weeks ago, it was on death-row, left out in a pile of hard rubbish – hours away from being splintered into a million pieces and on its way to the tip.

Driving past with my four year old son, I glanced it out of the corner of my eye and quickly slammed on the brakes.  Getting out of the car to take a closer look, I noted that – under a layer of grime – it was actually a beautifully shaped, elegant piece of furniture.

Somehow, I managed to get it into the back of my small hatchback car and drive it around the corner to its new home.

A bucket of soapy water, some elbow grease and a coat of fresh paint later – my new sideboard table was happily nestled in my family room.

Glancing at it while watching a DVD tonight, it made me think of myself and others with mental illness.

I’ve shared before about the time I spent acutely unwell in a psychiatric hospital after the birth of my first baby.

In a locked ward for six weeks, I can still remember the look of fear and disgust on the faces of the nurses and “carers”.  The way they seemed to look right through me – without seeing the person inside.

They didn’t see the person that I actually was – the loving wife, daughter, sister, friend and faithful employee.  They only saw me in my current state – psychotic, delusional and resistant to being medicated.

My sense of self-worth fell and I started to believe that I was  the person they saw.  That I was someone not to be listened to.  Not to be left alone.  Not to be trusted.

Being in a psychiatric ward felt like the equivalent of being put out for hard-rubbish.  My true-self and my potential overlooked because of my brokenness.

Today, like my side-table, I am one of the “lucky ones”.  I am well and I am home with my family.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder about those with a mental illness who aren’t so blessed.  Those who don’t have caring family and friends to get them the help they so desperately need.  Those who are out there tonight – roaming the streets, living rough, going hungry.

I pray that someone will notice them, see past the symptoms of their illness and – like I did with that sideboard – see their true potential.

Mariska xx

Have you ever felt like people were treating your symptoms, but not really seeing the real you?  

Mosaic picture of a hummingbird
Daily Life, Hope

What learning to mosaic taught me about mental illness

Mosaic picture of a hummingbird

There’s nothing like smashing a bunch of tiles to get stress out.  Which is why one of the things I look forward to most on our annual Summer holiday is creating another mosaic picture.

We love to take advantage of Australia’s warm Summer weather by taking the kids camping along the beautiful coastline of New South Wales. One of our favourite spots is a caravan park nestled between a stunning beach and a National Park.

It is the perfect spot for us and the kids to relax after a busy year – with lots of outdoor activities and a Kid’s Club every morning.

A few years back, while watching our three kids participating in the Kids Club, the teacher asked me if I wanted to join some other parents for a mosaic class that afternoon.   I quite like craft, so signed up on the spot – not really knowing what mosaic was or what it involved.

Four hours later, I was in my element – smashing tiles with a hammer, smearing glue over them and painstakingly selecting different shards of tile to create a picture.

It was slow-going and required concentration… forcing me to ignore the thoughts that had been whirring through my mind, and the stress of the past six months.

Ten days later, all those shards of smashed up tile had been transformed into a picture of a beautiful hummingbird, which I proudly took home to give to my mum as a gift.

Visiting her this past weekend, I noticed it hanging in her kitchen – and it made me think.

In the months leading up to its creation, I had been in the throes of a severe depressive episode.  It felt like someone had taken my life and smashed it – breaking me into unrecognisable pieces.

Yet, now as I look at that mosaic, I realise that (very slowly) the broken shards of my life have been taken and molded to form a different me.  One that is not quite the same, but equally as special.

Looking around me at my friends and family, I realise that most of us have been through something that has shattered us.  Left us feeling broken and worthless… like a pile of smashed up tiles.

Yet, there is a plan in store for us – a plan to use our pain and our hardship to show others that out of brokenness can come something beautiful.

Do you enjoy doing crafts?  Do they provide you with an outlet to help manage your condition?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Daily Life, Hope, Motherhood

3 small reasons why I stay on my medication

With charming side-effects like weight gain and hair loss, it’s pretty tempting to stop taking my mood-stabilising medication.  Each night, when I pop my pill out of its pack, something within me wants to rebel and throw it down the sink instead.

But I never do – for three small reasons.  As I write this, they’re sleeping in their beds upstairs.

As a mum with young children, I don’t have the luxury of  letting my Bipolar Disorder go unchecked.  While I might quite enjoy the feeling of hypomania – with the surges in creativity and energy and reduced need for sleep – for me this can lead to an acute manic episode, causing heartache and worry for my family.

After experiencing numerous episodes of acute mania  in my 20’s, staying on my medication and having a good relationship with my Psychiatrist means that I have avoided having an acute manic episode for over a decade.

The last time I was severely unwell was after the birth of my firstborn son – with days of insomnia following his birth culminating in me becoming seriously unwell. None of the midwives at my private maternity hospital knew what to do and sent me home.

My son was just six days old and cradled in his Daddy’s arms when l was led out of our house to a Police divvy van waiting outside – the unfortunate mode of transport to psychiatric hospitals for mentally unwell patients in Australia.

I worked hard to become well again after that traumatic episode and never want my now teenage son to witness his mum being taken to hospital again.

When my oldest son started primary school, during a very stressful time, I experienced acute depression for the first time.  I would find myself crying uncontrollably in the car on the way home from work, only to sit staring at my plate unable to speak during our family dinner.  Afterwards, instead of playing with the kids, I would curl up on my bed – while my husband spent hours patiently trying to talk me out of my anxiety.

Weekend were no longer a time for relaxation and fun.  Instead, I would be lost in my own dark world – dreading the thought of leaving the house to go back to work on Monday. Finally, I realised that what was happening wasn’t normal and went to my Psychiatrist for help.

I share this experience because – for me – modern day medicine has been life changing.

My medication may cause me to raid the pantry at night and gain oodles of weight.  It may have lowered my libido and even (one variety) caused my hair to fall out in handfuls.  

But finding the right medication for me – and staying on it – has also enabled me to live a full, happy life with my family. It meant that I could confidently go on to have two more wonderful children, even after the trauma following my eldest son’s birth.

It has given me the ability to live out my calling, working in the international aid sector.

And – as my husband has just kindly pointed out to me – being stable on my medication has also meant that he and my  family no longer have to tiptoe around my fluctuating moods, living in fear of another episode of depression or mania.

So when I hold that small yellow pill in the palm of my hand each night, I don’t throw it down the drain and hope for the best.

I take it as prescribed, in order to give my children and my family the best of me.

Mariska xx

Anger, Daily Life

Mental illness and faith

Today I came across a blog that made me sad.

Being in contact with many women like me who have bipolar disorder, there isn’t much that can shock me anymore.  Suicide attempts, psychotic episodes, cries for help in the depths of depression – our online community shares the ups and downs of life with a mental illness.

Yet, this blog – titled “Is there a link between religion and mental illness?”– was the saddest thing I have read yet.

In it, the author used a range of handpicked statistics to argue that there is a correlation between religion – and in particular Christianity – and mental illness.

What followed was a flood of responses on Twitter – both attacking and supporting the author. Knowing I am a Christian, one of my Twitter followers asked me to comment.

I never want to attack another author for their opinion, but what I will say in response is this:

She is partially right.

Religion, including Christianity, has sometimes got it wrong in regards to mental illness. It is the hidden disability in many of our churches. We have wheelchair friendly ramps and toilets, but often don’t know how to reach out to those with a mental illness.

Like in many other organisations, people in churches may feel embarrassed and like they have to hide their struggle with mental illness from others.  While we feel comfortable requesting prayer for other forms of illness, it is sometimes embarrassing to let others know we are struggling with depression, anxiety, hearing voices or mania.

But at the core of Christianity is Jesus.

A man who ignored social norms and reached out to those who were stigmatised.  In his day, they were people with Leprosy, tax collectors and women.

Jesus’ message was in direct contrast to what religious leaders of the day were teaching.  It was not a message of judgement – it was one of forgiveness, grace and hope.  His followers set up the first hospitals and soup kitchens for the poor and outcast – actions which caught the attention of all around them. Of the  25 biggest charities in Australia today, 23 are Christian organisations.

Some, like this author, argue that feeling constantly feeling guilty for ‘sinning’ is causing people to become – or stay – mentally unwell.  I admit that I have struggled with feelings of guilt after doing the wrong thing.  I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t. But knowing that I am loved anyway and forgiven – the slate wiped clean – gives me freedom.

When I was at my lowest point, sitting alone in the high-dependency unit of a public hospital psychiatric ward, my faith was the only thing that sustained me.  Everything else: my career, my health, my appearance and even my sanity, had fallen away.  To get through this time, I clung to God’s promise that He had a plan for my life, that He would give me hope and a future.  It was my faith that enabled me to forgive others for what had been done for me – rather than becoming angry and bitter.

My intention here isn’t to push my faith onto anyone else.

It’s simply to encourage those who believe some mental illness is the result of guilt caused by Christianity to go beyond the Church and all its failings.

Instead of encouraging people to abandon their faith, find out more about the person at the core of Christianity.  And join me in challenging churches to model his behavior – and become a place of acceptance and refuge for those of us who struggle with mental illness.

Mariska xx

Mariska is the founder of Bipolar Mums and has a passion for speaking about the hidden disability in Australian churches: mental illness.  She inspires churches to reach out to and support those in their community who are struggling with a mental illness.

 

 

 

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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

 

Anger, Daily Life, Despair

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.

015703-lindy-and-azaria

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.

 

 

Embarrassment, Hope, Motherhood

Why people with Bipolar ‘Zip It’

Mobile-Screensaver-Portrait-150x150

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!

Daily Life

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.