What shiny pink nails taught me…

I have something to admit….  I’m a nail-biter.  I’ve got a stack of nail files in my bathroom cabinet that never get used.

My nails will no sooner start growing… then I watch a scary movie, or sit through a boring talk, and all that’s left of them is a jagged mess.

I was reminded about my poor nails this week at work, when I got chatting with a lovely colleague while making a cup of tea. Looking down, I couldn’t help but notice her lovely long, shiny pink nails wrapped around her tea cup.

Before I could stop myself, I found myself commenting on her beautiful nails – and asking what it took to keep them looking so stunning.

She enlightened me on the world of acrylic nails… and then told me something that suprised me.

Apparently – underneath the shiny exterior of her perfectly shaped pink nails – her real nails were thin and brittle. Years of applying acrylics had left them in a shocking condition.  So bad in fact that she now had no choice but to continue forking out money each month for the acrylics.

You may be wondering what nails have to do with bipolar.  Well, hang in there – I promise I have a point.

My nail revelation taught me something.  You see, there’s times in life when we as mums can be like shiny pink acrylic nails.

We present with a happy face at school pick-up or work… looking, for all the world, like we are perfect mums with perfect lives. But underneath this ‘perfect’ exterior, we can be hiding our true selves: our pain, our brittleness, our troubles.

My challenge – to myself and to you – is to acknowledge that life isn’t always shiny and perfect.  To know that life is much more like my poor nails… irregularly shaped, jagged and prone to being decimated during periods of stress.

It’s when we can show our true selves to each other, that we realise that noone has a perfect life.  Nobody has everything together all of the time.  Nobody’s life is without its own troubles.

We all have things that we struggle with – whether that be a mental illness like bipolar – or something else. We should feel free to be honest about what we are going through.

Who knows what’s going on beneath the shiny exterior of those around you?

Mariska xx

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When Depression fades… and it’s back to ‘normal, everyday life’

I’m sitting, curled up with a sneaky handful of the kid’s Easter eggs, on the couch in our family room.  For the first time in months, I’ve had the urge to write… and with the kids playing outside, I’ve actually got time to grab my laptop and start tapping away.

Only problem is… I have no idea what to write about.

After a fairly harrowing start to the year, with depression constantly nipping at my toes, I’m finally back on an even keel again.  The urge to pour out my feelings into my diary as a way to get through each day is fading.  That feeling of constant dread in the pit of my stomach is gone.  I feel like I can participate in normal life again… able to feel joy, happiness and contentment.

But writing about feeling normal doesn’t seem like an interesting topic for a blog about being a mum with a mental illness. And so, I’m sitting here – munching away on my third Easter egg  – wondering what to write about instead.

To be honest, feeling normal is probably a topic we should talk about more.

I’m sure that most of us mums have days, weeks, months or even years where life ticks along quite normally.  Times when our minds aren’t racing uncontrollably, or our stomach isn’t tied up in knots of anxiety. Periods where other mums at school pick-up – or people we meet – would have no idea of the struggles that we have faced, or those that may lie in wait, just around the corner.

For those of us who have worked hard to get back to what we see as ‘normal everyday life’ – or who work hard to have things stay that way – it’s not something that we take for granted.  Being able to participate fully in normal everyday life is a blessing. Being able to be there for our family – even on the most mundane days – is a blessing.

Sometimes it’s not until we experience a life not so ordinary, that we appreciate just how wonderful an ordinary life actually can be.

Mariska xx

Having gone through ups and downs with Bipolar, how do you feel when things seem to go back to ‘normal’?

From beach to “blah”

There’s nothing like a holiday.  For me, the anticipation starts building months in advance, really kicking into gear a few weeks before I actually depart.  During periods of stress, the planned departure date is there to daydream about – acting almost like a “finishing line” I push myself to reach.

Then there’s the holiday itself: days filled with swimming, BBQs and nature walks melting into one another, time to spend with family and friends – and (in my case)  plenty of time to read a few good books.

But holidays can’t last forever and so, last month I found myself walking back into my workplace.   After greeting my colleagues, and clearing away the clutter left from 2014, I sat staring at the computer screen.   Normally one to enjoy my work, I had to force myself to turn on the computer and start answering emails.

Days later, my apathy still hadn’t lifted. My husband assured me that experiencing post-holiday blues was quite normal, but I couldn’t help feeling like a shadow had come over me.

In the weeks that followed, my mood continued to plummet.   I couldn’t put my finger on it, but some of the joy seemed to have gone out of life.   The thought of having to summon the energy to get through another year, seemed beyond me.  Things that I could usually cope with triggered anxiety attacks.

Unspoken between my hubby and I was the thought that I might be entering another depressive episode.  Neither of us had a desire to return to that dark place.   And so we told ourselves that everything would be better after another short break – this time a week camping in a national park a couple of hours away.

Unlike our last holiday, when I had everything packed a week in advance, this time I left it to my poor hubby to get everything organised.  On the morning of our departure, I dragged myself into the car and we started our journey.

As the kilometres passed, the weight that had been hanging over me seemed to lift.  I listened to the kids’ chatter in the back seat and looked out at the road stretching before us.  I felt like I was running away from everything that had been worrying me – which was exactly what I felt like doing.

By the time we got there, I had a smile on my face again. Every time a negative thought crept into my head, I pushed it away – telling myself I would deal with it after the holiday.   I was desperately trying to recreate the “mountain top” experience of our last holiday.

And it worked.  At least until I returned home and real life started up again.

As the weeks passed – and my anxiety kept building – I had to admit that I need more than just another holiday to alleviate my low mood.  As a mum I can’t afford to not get help when I need it.

And so I went to see my psychiatrist – and walked away clutching a new prescription to help even things out. Now, I’m waiting for them to kick in.

The me I see in the mirror today is a far cry from the carefree me from a few months ago.  But I guess that, having Bipolar Disorder, these tough times are part of the package.  Along with the “mountain top” experiences, there’s going to be valleys of despair.

But when I’m struggling to follow others’ advice and “look on the bright side”, one thing I can do is look back at times like family holidays and realise that life does get better.  And there’s plenty to look forward to.

Mariska xx

PS.  Is anyone else struggling with anxiety or depression at the moment?  What do you do to help cope during down times?  I’m sure all us mums would love to hear your advice.

Slowing down is hard to do

Surfyme

My husband just walked past me, read the title of this post “Slowing down is hard to do…” and then murmured, “you seem to have managed ok!”

Considering I’ve just spent the last 14 days lazing around the pool and reading books on the beach during our family holiday, he’s probably right.

There’s something about camping that forces you to slow down.  Without TV or electric lights, I’ve been going to bed a lot earlier than usual.

And away from my desk, the pressures of work seem to have melted away… giving way to a new rhythm of breakfast, swimming at the beach, lunch, swimming in the pool, chatting with family over a BBQ dinner and then reading a novel in our cozy tent.

Yet, every now and then my tendency to overdo things slips through the cracks.   Looking forward to making another mosaic as part of the campsite’s art program, I eagerly set to work on a picture of a rosella – working on it each morning alongside my mother-in-law.

Racing to finish it, I took it back to our campsite to work on it at night.  And then because I’d finished it early, I quickly started  another picture  – pushing myself to finish it before the deadline, when the art teacher was going to help us to grout them.

Proudly holding up both mosaics for the obligatory picture (see below), the  teacher commented that I was a “typical overachiever”.

Mosaicpicture

At first, her comment struck me as a bit mean-spirited.  But then I realised: she’s right.

Rather than be happy with the first mosaic I’d done – I had pushed myself to do another one.  The activity went from something I’d enjoyed – something that helped me slow down – to something that became a burden.  Rather than read my novel, I “had” to work on my mosaic each night in the camp kitchen to get it finished in time.  By the end of the second mosaic, my hand had blisters on it from cutting tiles.

Looking back, I realise that this compulsion to push myself to do more and achieve more has always been part of my personality.

But I can also see that it’s not always a healthy thing.  It can turn enjoyable activities into a burden and it can take me away from the joy of just “being” with my family and friends.

And this tendency to go overboard – whether its with craft, work or another hobby, is something that becomes even more obvious when I’m hypomanic or manic.

Each time I look at my two new mosaics, I hope that I’ll remember this and  make more of an effort to slow down and just “be”.

Do you have a tendency to become overly “busy” or do you push yourself too hard in some areas?  Do you find this gets worse when you’re hypo-manic or manic? We’d all love to hear from you!

 

 

It’s beginning to look a lot like “Stress-mas”

Decorating a gingerbread house

Decorating a gingerbread house is a little tricky in sweltering heat!

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved Christmas.  Decorating the Christmas tree, dressing up our dolls for a nativity scene in the fireplace and spraying fake snow on the windows.

In our family, with parents who migrated to Australia from Holland, Christmas Eve was almost magical – unwrapping gifts together after walking home from Carols by Candlelight.  Christmas Day was spent with family, which in my case involved more than two dozen cousins.

As an adult, my love affair with Christmas continued.  Seeing my kids in Christmas plays, decorating the house, making gingerbread, hosting family dinners… you name it, I’m there.

But in the past few years, with struggles with anxiety, I’ve had another reaction to Christmas… to flee from being home for the holidays.

You see – in Australia – Christmas isn’t a one-off event.  The arrival of Santa also signals the start of Summer holidays.

While this sounds great in theory – and is awesome when you’re a child – in reality this often means a whole nation of stressed out mums.

In years gone by, I’ve found myself spending hours after work in overcrowded shopping centres (conveniently open 24/7) in pursuit of the “perfect” gifts.

I’ve spent hours stressing over preparations for the “perfect” Christmas dinner – and found myself in floods of tears when I haven’t been able to live up to my own expectations.

Coupled with the stress of  packing for an annual holiday, and the fact that it was the busiest period of the year for my husband’s retail store, and it’s beginning to look a lot like “Stress-mas” rather than Christmas.

Which brings me back to the point I made earlier about fleeing.

Last year, having just sold our retail store, we realised that we’d left our run too late to book a holiday in January – peak time in Australia.

So we decided to squeeze in a quick two week break before Christmas instead.

We swapped crowded shopping centers for empty stretches of beach. Took our kids to the caravan park’s pool and mini-golf instead of dragging them around to endless work, kindergarten and church break-up parties.  I even had time to make my mum a handmade mosaic for her Christmas gift.

And it was bliss.

We arrived back into town two days before Christmas, relaxed and ready to celebrate the true meaning of the day with our friends and family.

This year, we’ve taken off on a pre-Christmas break again.  And we’re taking with us both sets of parents and my sister and her family.

It seems I wasn’t the only one who liked the idea of escaping from the stress of a perfect Christmas.

Mariska xx

This post has also been published on stigmama.com – a great website about motherhood and mental illness.

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?  

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!

3 small reasons why I stay on my meds

ARC_Talk_About_Meds_Banner_Mariska

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 Type 1 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 swiftly lead to an acute manic episode, causing heartache and worry for my family.

After experiencing numerous episodes of acute mania and psychosis 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 almost eight years.

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 delusional. 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 almost eight-year-old son to witness his mum being forcibly taken to hospital again.

Last year, after a period of extreme stress, 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.  It may have lowered my libido and I may, at times, shed more hair than my pet Golden Retriever.  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 confidence to work in my dream job as a Senior Campaign Manager with an international aid organisation.

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 acute manic episode.

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

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.

 

 

 

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.