Daily Life, Hope

5 things I wish I’d said when my workmate told me he had bipolar

It’s not everyday that a colleague drops the ‘b’ bomb – revealing that they have bipolar disorder.  In fact, in the fourteen years since I started work… it’s never happened – until earlier this month.

As many of you know, I have the enormous privilege of working at a charity helping people living in poverty.  Earlier this year, a talented young man joined our team.  Fresh out of University, he quickly gained a reputation for showing extraordinary initiative and producing high quality work.

One morning, chatting casually over a coffee with him and another colleague (who I know has struggled with depression) – I told them about this blog, and my passion for de-stigmatising mental illness.

Then, out of the blue, my young workmate quietly said “I have Bipolar too”.

Stunned, I made some lame comment and eventually the conversation gradually drifted to another topic.  Driving home that night I decided I would take him out for a coffee the next day and chat about what he’d said – even offer some support if he needed it.

But the next day a bunch of meetings got in the way.  And then one day turned into two and now, a month later, I still haven’t taken him out for that coffee.  Now, bringing it up seems awkward. I was thinking about it today – and wondering what I would have said if I had taken him out for that coffee.  So here it is… five things I wish I’d said to my workmate when I had the chance:

1. Life as you know it is over

This is different from saying that your life is over.  You can still go on to live life to the full.  I have.  But life as you know it is over.  You have a serious illness and you need to take it seriously.  You need to take care of yourself.  If you do, you may no longer experience the euphoria of mania but you’ll also no longer go through debilitating depression.  Life may seem a little more boring.  But you’ll be able to hold down a job and your loved ones will be spared the drama that is life with someone yet to be diagnosed as having bipolar.

2. Get a good psychiatrist and listen to them

The key here is to listen to them. My psychiatrist says the hardest part of her job is trying to convince people that a) they have bipolar disorder and b) to stay on their medication.  It’s easy to take your medication when you’re in the depths of depression.  It’s much harder to stay on it when life seems rosy – and you start to doubt you actually have a mental illness.  I had a nurse friend once comment to me that ‘you seem fine to me… maybe you shouldn’t be taking so much medication’.  I told her that she should have seen me when I was in the high dependency ward of the local hospital’s psychiatric ward.  The truth is that my daily does of medication is what enables me to live a full, happy life.

3. Learn what your triggers are, and avoid them

I’ve learnt the hard way that stress and lack of sleep are a bad combination for me.  A bad dose of insomnia can quickly turn into a manic episode and – within days – psychosis.  Now, I never go without sleep.  For the rare night when my Seroquel isn’t enough to bring on sleep, I don’t let the clock tick past 1am without taking some other measure – like a sleeping tablet.  I always let my husband know that I’m having trouble sleeping and that I’m taking something or it.  That way, he can be on alert to make sure my symptoms aren’t getting out of control.

Stress is a little more difficult to keep in check.  By nature, I’m the type of person who likes to keep busy.  I’ve noticed at work that you’re the same.  It’s hard to say “no” when there are so many great things to get involve in, events to attend and friends and family to catch up with.  But one of the best things you can do for yourself is give yourself time to unwind, rest and relax.  For me, this means hardly ever scheduling things at night, after dinner.  Find out what level of stress you can handle and put boundaries around your “down time”.  It’s worth it.

4. Don’t hide your condition from those that matter

It’s embarrassing to tell people that you have bipolar disorder.  I spent hours deliberating if I should declare my condition on my human resources form for my new job.  And I certainly pick and choose who I tell about my condition.  That said, you owe it to yourself and your partner to tell at least a handful of close friends and family about your condition.   In the event you become unwell, you need people who love and care for you to be able to recognise the symptoms and get you help.  It’s not enough to just rely on your partner.. if you’re seriously unwell they may be in denial or not able to convince you to get help.  Get a support network around you.

5. Develop an action plan – and stick to it

One of the best things I did almost six years ago, was to write a Bipolar Action Plan.  This outlines your condition, contact details for your GP and Psychiatrist, preferred hospitals and those you want to avoid, what your triggers are and what medication you are on now and what has worked in the past.  I’ve personalised mine with details of what types of things that make my episodes worse or what seems to help.  Because I have little children, I have included instructions for who I want looking after them and a list of people who can provide other support like meals.  You don’t have kids yet, but you might like to include notes on what you want told to your manager at work or friends.  You may feel like this isn’t necessary.  But for me, having this down in writing somehow lessened my anxiety and gave me a sense of control over what would happen in the event I became unwell.

So there you have it!  Five things I would have told my workmate if I had invited him for coffee.  Now that they’re down on paper (or at least on my screen), they really don’t look that daunting.  Maybe this week I’ll finally get the guts to share them in person.

Motherhood, Pregnancy, Uncategorized

Have my meds affected my kids?

seroquelOn Tuesday night, my kids raced to the front door to greet a special visitor.  Her name was Ameka and rather than dinner, she had come to spend two hours interviewing the kids and I.  By ‘interview’ I don’t mean the journalistic kind… rather, she was there as part of a new research project into the effects on children aged 1-5 of taking anti-psychotic medication during pregnancy.

I’ve shared before about how – after a horrific experience following the birth of my first baby – I decided to go on Seroquel in the latter stages of my subsequent two pregnancies.  This wasn’t an easy decision. Before I fell pregnant the second time I went to see  one of the world’s leading specialists in women’s mental health – trying to find out more information about possible effects of anti-psychotic medication on unborn babies.

Unfortunately, at that time (five years ago) there wasn’t much research to reassure me that it was safe or not. In fact, the specialist I saw was embarking on a world-first study into the effects of Anti-Psychotic Medication on babies.  At the time, they had a database of 25 babies (all healthy!) whose development they were tracking from birth to 12 months.

Knowing how desperately needed this research was, I readily agreed to participate in the study.  The phone calls and visits continued until my each child turned one.

I must admit, I was a little disappointed when our time in the study ended. as they learn to walk, talk and really start showing their true personality. Surely studying babies only until they turned one wasn’t giving the researchers the full picture?

So I was pleased to receive a phone call last month, letting me know that Ameka, a medical student, was joining the team and continuing the research up until the age of five –  as part of her thesis.  I readily agreed for her to interview my younger two kids (now aged three and five) and I.

So that’s how we found ourselves last night, watching my youngest son (a real clown!) hopping around the room on one foot, building towers out of blocks, drawing different shapes and doing puzzles.  Watching his younger siblings pass their tests with flying colours, my high achieving oldest son hovered by… confused as to why this special guest wasn’t interested in testing him.

As she left, I couldn’t help but ask Ameka, “So… do the kids seem ok to you?”  I’ve never had any cause to doubt that they are perfectly ok. But somehow, having a medical professional agree that the medication hasn’t hampered their development at all was… reassuring.

I might have bipolar disorder.  But like any mum out there, I want the best for my children.  My prayer is that years down the track, when  other women with bipolar are preparing for pregnancy, ground-breaking research like this will mean they can be assured that looking after their own health will not harm the ones they love best.

 

 

 

Hope, Motherhood, Motivation

Why a celebrity ‘outing’ helps us all

There’s only one thing that makes waiting in a queue at the supermarket bearable… magazines at the checkout!  I’m an avid reader and can’t help myself from flicking through a magazine or two while I wait – perusing what’s going on in ‘celebrity land’.

A couple of weeks ago, I was approaching the check-out when the front cover of ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly’ caught my eye.  It wasn’t the glamorous picture of Nicole Kidman channeling Grace Kelly on the front cover that interested me, but an ‘exclusive’ with Jessica Marais: “I am bipolar”.

Australian actress Jessica Marais

For those outside of Australia, Jessica’s name might not mean much.  But for those of us ‘Down Under’, Jessica Marais (pictured above) is one of the most gorgeous, talented and best loved actresses to grace our TV screens.   When she fell in love with her on-screen boyfriend and they had a sweet baby daughter not long after, it seemed like she really was living a fairytale life.

Which is why, seeing this headline made me so curious.   I quickly bought the magazine, loaded the groceries into the car boot and sat in the front seat reading the article.

I wasn’t disappointed by Jessica’s soul-baring interview.  In it, she revealed her family had a history of bipolar disorder and how she was diagnosed at 12 years of age – after the stress of seeing her father die of a heart attack triggered her first bipolar episode.

Alongside glamorous photos of the actress, were quotes where she explained how bipolar was part of her life – but didn’t define it: “..It’s become a manageable part of my life. I acknowledge it, I know when an episode is coming on and I work hard to manage it.”

For a moment, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when Jessica pointed about she’s “had cognitive therapy training, so I choose not to be medicated.”   Part of me started thinking this comment was irresponsible, and might lead to someone suddenly going off their medication.  I also found myself thinking, “she doesn’t know what it’s like to have to be on medication… with wonderful side effects like gaining weight and having your hair fall out.” But then I caught myself, and focused on what she was doing – which was bravely sharing her story in the media in the hope it would help others:

“I just think it’s important to talk about depression. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  And the more we talk about it as a community, the more we remove the stigma.”

Hearing such an admired, high-profile mother explain her condition in such a matter-of-fact way was heart-warming.  While the article went on to mention her new film, it was clear this was more than just a cheap tactic to generate publicity.  She had put herself out there to help dispel the notion that people with bipolar disorder are not able to lead amazing, productive lives.

As a woman and a mum, this article gave me a bit of a boost… yes I have bipolar disorder, but that’s just one small part of who I am.  I am also a wife, a mother, an employee, a sister, a daughter and a friend.

Although I’m not a celebrity, I too work very hard to manage my condition.  Having had bipolar disorder since I was 18, I can now tell when anxiety is taking hold or when my mind is unable to slow down.  Sometimes, with the help of others, I’m able to nip these episodes in the bud.  Sometimes, I’m not.

In the past year, I’ve discovered the ‘blogosphere’ and enjoyed reading stories from other women in similar circumstances.  It wasn’t long ago that women with bipolar were discouraged from even having children – so reading about the many wonderful mums out there who are raising incredible children, while living with this condition, is encouraging.

So thank you to all of you out there who are bravely sharing your journey with all of us.  You may never be featured on the front cover of a magazine, but your story is every bit as incredible as Jessica’s – and there are lots of us out here who draw inspiration from you!

Daily Life, Hope

An unexpected miracle

Less than a week ago, I underwent eye surgery to remove a cataract I’d had since birth in my right eye.

In the lead up to the surgery, I was completely focused on the risks associated with the surgery: that I’d end up with no sight at all in my right eye or – even worse – that my ‘good’ left eye would be damaged.

Despite there only being a 1% chance of being left blind, this was enough to have me freaked out.  What if I never saw my children or husband again?  What if I had to give up a job I loved to stay at home – blind? What if I had to live in a bleak, dark world for the rest of my life?

I got so caught up worrying about the surgery, that I completely forgot to hope – or pray – for a miracle.  When friends and family told me they were praying for my eye to be healed, I told them my surgeon said it was impossible to get sight back in that eye.  Apparently if you can’t see out of one eye for long enough, your brain ‘switches off’ sight to that eye.

And yet, a miracle is exactly what I got.   To the surgeon’s surprise, when my bandages were removed I could see out of my right eye for the first time ever!  Five days later, I’m still in shock that I’m no longer blind in one eye.

This ‘miracle’ got me thinking… since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, have I ever really believed that one day I could be healed of it?  I’m not talking about stopping my medication to follow some unproven theory.  But what if – in the years ahead – researchers somewhere discover the cause behind bipolar disorder or a permanent ‘cure’ for the condition?

Like my attitude before my eye surgery, I’ve never allowed myself to even think of what it would be like to be cured of bipolar disorder.   No longer having to rely on daily medication, with annoying side-effects.  No longer at risk of going too ‘high’ or ‘low’. No longer having to declare my condition on insurance or work forms. And – most importantly – no longer having to worry if I will pass this condition on to my children.

When you’ve lived with a condition for a long time, you tend to resign yourself to the fact that you’re always going to have it.  I know I never expected to see out of my right eye again. If I’m honest – I don’t expect to ever be ‘cured’ of bipolar disorder.

And yet, it’s important to keep hoping for a cure… to keep urging the medical community to continue looking for answers and to keep praying for a miracle for the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by this condition.

Daily Life, Embarrassment

Out of sight, out of mind

In just over 12 hours, a surgeon is going to slice into my right eye and remove a cataract that I’ve had since I was formed in my mother’s womb.

While most people wouldn’t know it, I am practically blind in that eye.   Not that I’m complaining… apart from making me rather uncoordinated at ball sports and being unable to see 3D movies, it hasn’t really affected me too much. I can still drive and unlike older people whose eyesite deteriorates when they get a cataract, I’ve never known what it’s like to be able to see out of both my eyes.

For many years I barely gave my cataract a second thought – aside from going for yearly check-ups with my optometrist.  That was until a year or so ago, when my cataract suddenly became bigger and turned an opaque, white colour- covering most of my pupil. A few months later, my husband commented that my right eye was sometimes ‘drifting’… not quite following the other eye like it used to.

All of a sudden, something that I’d been able to hide from others all my life suddenly became noticeable. People starting asking me what was wrong with my eye – and I’d have to explain about my cataract. I became self-conscious of it and for the first time ditched my contact lenses and started wearing my glasses to work – to try and hide my eye.

A visit to an opthamologist confirmed that my cataract was no longer as harmless as it used to be and I was  booked in for surgery three weeks later.

Thinking about all of this made me wonder what it would be like if – like my cataract – my bipolar disorder suddenly became noticeable to my friends and work colleagues.

Imagine if people could tell just by looking at me that I had a mental illness? How would that affect my work prospects? Would it change people’s opinions of me?

While I don’t mind explaining about my cataract to people, I wonder if I would I feel as comfortable talking about my diagnosis with bipolar disorder? Probably not.  Both are conditions that I just happened to be born with – and yet only one of them carries social stigma.

While I’m now fairly comfortable talking about my bipolar disorder, I still like to pick and choose when, where and with whom I share my story.  And I’m still hesitant to bring it up with work colleagues.  Unlike my cataract, my bipolar disorder is something that I don’t want to be the topic of office chit-chat.

Are you comfortable with talking about your diagnosis with others?  If not, is it because you worry it will change people’s opinions of you?

Hope, Motherhood

Madness at the museum

One of the perks of having young children is that I get to visit the museum at least once a year. On our last trip, after spending a fair chunk of the afternoon looking at dinosaur bones and the reptile display, I managed to steer my hubby and kids towards a new exhibition on the human body.

While the rest of the family got caught up looking at replicas of the human skeleton, I walked ahead and found myself in a darkened room with a display on the human brain and mental illness.

Now, here I should stop and mention that despite having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have never read anything on the history of mental illness. I really had no idea what life was like for people with a mental illness 20, 50 or even 100 years ago.

And so I found myself absorbed in what I was reading: stories of people sent to mental asylums – sometimes never to be released – and people forced to endure barbaric procedures like partial labotomies – in an effort to fix their depression.

At the centre of the display was what looked like a wooden cupboard, with a small hatch for passing food through. Turns out this was a form of solitary confinement in the asylums – used for locking up people experiencing manic episodes or deemed uncontrollable.

Along the walls were photographs of these mental asylums – horrific images showing mentally unwell people being treated like prisoners, rather than unwell patients. One image was of a ‘cell’ where someone had drawn all over the walls – and amongst the scribbles were the words “Let me out!”

Standing there – I felt shocked to my core. Is this what would have happened to me – or others I know with a mental illness – had we been born 50 years ago?

Not once had I stopped to give thanks for the wide range of medication and treatments that are available today for those with mental illness. Medication that makes it possible for me to live a normal life – to be a wife, a mother and a valued employee.

Sure, I’ve had some bad experiences – and there’s still a long way to go in understanding and treating mental illnesses. But at least things are headed in the right direction. And I’m no longer at risk of  having half my brain removed in an effort to treat a depressive episode.

insane-asylum-brentwood
Patients at an insane asylum in the 1950’s.
Daily Life

Life without limits

Every couple of months, I have a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Most times, there’s not much to report, but for me these check-ups are an important way of keeping on-top of my bipolar disorder.

Last week, during one of our appointments, I mentioned to my psychiatrist that I had received a promotion at work. Invariably, this job will involve more work, more responsibility and – potentially – more stress.

Upon hearing this news, my psychiatrist commented (to my surprise) that – in fact – not all stress is bad. She told me about a successful businessman she knew, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early 40’s. Since his diagnosis, he has been so scared of stress – and what it might do to him – that he has quit his job, refuses to travel overseas and rarely leaves his home. In his case, the desire to keep all stress out of his life has actually stopped him from living life to the full.

To be honest, I could kind of see where he was coming from. Knowing that stress is a big trigger for my condition, my friends and family often warn me against taking on things that will cause too much stress. And I try to listen… in most cases.

The thing is though, I tend to agree with my psychiatrist that not all stress is bad. Without some stress in our life, we probably wouldn’t be motivated to get things done, or achieve new things.

The trick is trying to find the right balance. While a little stress before a presentation or deadline might help me to put my head down and get the job done – too much stress will see me lying awake at night, thoughts racing through my head and having difficulty sleeping.

For most people, loosing a couple of night’s sleep might just mean they need an extra strong coffee in the morning.  But for me, a string of sleepless nights could be enough to trigger a manic episode.

With this in mind, I try to keep a close eye on the level of stress in my life and – where possible – keep it as low as possible.  One of the ways I do this is to stop myself from volunteering on every committee I’m asked to join, or booking up every night of the week.  I’ve also chosen to work for an organisation that encourage work/life balance and values their employees.   After all, at the end of the day, my health and happiness are more important than the size of my paycheck.

Still, like anyone, I find stress creeping into my life.  Last year, during an especially stressful period, I went to see a psychologist.  She gave me some great tips on keeping stress – and subsequent anxiety – under control.  One of her tips was when I found myself stressing about something to take a break and do something to distract and soothe my anxious mind – like making a cup of tea, or taking a walk around the office or block.  She then suggested I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that can possibly happen?”

I found myself using this advice when dealing with my seven year old on the way to school this week.  Running late, he was starting to stress.  I casually asked him, “what’s the worst thing that could happen if you are late?” and listened as he told me he was nervous about having to go to the office to get a late pass.  I then told him that if we were late, I would walk him into school and I would tell the office staff it was my fault he was late (which it was!) and then walk him to his classroom.  This immediately calmed him down, as he realised that actually – being late wasn’t going to be the end of the world.

So the moral of the story?  I’ve learnt that stress isn’t always a bad thing – it’s how we deal with it that matters.  There are great strategies to keep our stress levels under control. I’ve just got to start putting them into practice…

Depression, Despair, Embarrassment, Motherhood, Motivation, Uncategorized

Brains or beauty: why should I have to choose?

This morning, getting ready to have my morning shower, I averted my eyes from the scales – and my reflection in the mirror.  A few days earlier, I had been shocked to see the numbers on the scale had gone up… again.

After having lost a stack of weight in the past couple of years, I’ve been struggling to stop the kilos piling back on since having to increase my medications after an episode of depression last year.

Not only that, but one of the medication, Epilim, is having another awful side-effect – causing my hair to fall out… not a great feeling for a woman.  Every time I run my hands through my hair, precious strands float away.

Like many people who have been on anti-psychotic or mood-stabilizing medications before, I know that weight gain is a well-documented side effect.  But the hair thing came as a nasty surprise.

Asking my psychiatrist about it at our next appointment, she talked me through my (very few) alternative options.  One of the drugs she suggested came with no risk of weight gain or hair loss.  “Great!” I thought.  Until she mentioned that if I noticed a rash appearing while I was taking it, I needed to get straight to a Doctor – as  it could be fatal.

Unwilling to take the risk of dying – no matter how small the odds – I’ve decided to stay on the same medications for now.  After all, they are keeping me well and after experiencing my first bout of depression, I have no desire to go back there.  I’ll just up the exercise and start eating a little healthier (which isn’t a bad thing I guess!).

Still, as a woman, I must admit that it annoys me that I have to (literally) make the decision between my brain and my beauty.

Having noticed friends facing similar weight-gain issues, I’m betting that the pharmaceutical company that manages to create a mood-stabilizing or anti-psychotic drug without this self-esteem blowing side-effect will have many satisfied customers.

What are your expriences with medication and side-effects?  What steps have you taken to counter them?  We’d love to hear from you!

Depression, Forgiveness, Motherhood, Motivation, Uncategorized

Approaching the New Year like a set of monkey bars

I’m one of those people who love to celebrate New Year’s Eve.   This year, house-sitting my parent’s small farm, we decided to invite two other families with young kids around to bring in the New Year with us.

After enjoying a barbeque dinner and games of backyard cricket and footy, we tucked the kids into bed and sat around chatting, enjoying a glass of wine and waiting to see the fireworks when the clock struck midnight.

When one of the other women suggested we take turns to say our highlight for 2013, my husband Nathan and I glanced at each other.  I don’t think either of us would say that 2013 was a great year for our family.  With business troubles and my struggles with anxiety and depression, this year has been a tough one for both of us.

Yet, sitting there, listening to others talk about their highlights (new babies, houses sold and bought etc.) I recalled something C.S Lewis once said:  ‘Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.’

This quote stuck in my mind because it reminded me of our four-year-old daughter, who loves the monkey bars but is too scared to let go with one hand to reach for the next bar.  Instead, she hangs there until, eventually, she drops.

With this in mind, my New Years resolution for 2014 is to let go of the past and start moving forward again.

Having a whole new year ahead of me feels like opening a brand new journal… crisp, new pages ready to be written upon.  And so, instead of dwelling on the past (see my post Unforgiveness: Don’t let it corrode you) I am going to look forward to the many wonderful things awaiting me this year.

Sure, our life is bound to have ups and downs and be far from perfect.  But perfect would be boring right?

Have you made a New Year’s resolution?  I would love to hear it!