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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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!

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?

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!

Aghhhh! What happened to my body?

picture of Mariska Meldrum after finishing 5km charity run

Successfully completing my first ever 5km charity run (3rd from right)

I guarantee I’m not the only woman out there who has looked in the mirror at my post-partum body and despaired.  Gone is the smooth firm tummy – replaced with a wobbly stomach streaked with stretch-marks or a C-section scar.

I naively thought that the 21 kilograms I packed on while blissfully pregnant with my first son would magically ‘melt away’ after his birth.  I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that breastfeeding was equivalent to running a marathon everyday.

Unfortunately, after becoming acutely unwell after my son’s birth, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and put onto heavy doses of anti-psychotics and mood-stabilisers.

When I finally came home from hospital six weeks later, I curiously stepped on the scales and was devastated to find myself only 2 kilos lighter than when I was 9 months pregnant.  And my son had weighed 3.7 kilos!

Six years and two more babies later, I finally lost the last of all that ‘baby weight’ (although I’m not sure I can blame it on the baby….)

As a woman with bipolar disorder, losing weight has never been easy for me.  Staying well has always been my priority, so I’ve had to put up with the weight gain which is a side effect of the anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medications I take.

To successfully lose 21 kilograms, while remaining on my medication, took me six years of healthy eating and exercise.

After what my body and mind had been through, I was determined not to go on the latest ‘milkshake’ diet and starve it of nutrients – but to nourish it with fresh, nutritious food.

With three preschoolers around, it became even more important to me that they see their mum exercising and eating healthily.  I didn’t have the option of going to a gym during the day, but discovered I loved exercising with the kids outdoors.

An exercise class for mums got me running for the first time since high school – with my two and four year olds in the pram acting as my coaches, urging me to ‘keep running mummy – don’t stop!’

I still struggle with my eating habits (especially when I’m around chips…), but I’ve learnt that it is possible to be on medication and lose weight….slowly, but surely.

Has motherhood or medication caused you to struggle with your weight?   I’d love to hear your comments or stories.

Sharing the ups and downs of motherhood

In Australia, local governments have come up with a great way to link first-time mums with babies around the same age together in small groups.

For a period of about six weeks, a maternal and child health nurse facilitates group discussions, with topics ranging from birth experiences to concerns with baby’s feeding or sleeping(or not sleeping!) habits.  After bonding during such an intense, emotional period, many of the mums continue to meet weekly – right up until their ‘babies’ start school.

Having heard from friends about these “amazing” mother’s groups, I was keen to get involved.  Yet, it was with immense trepidation that I arrived with my seven week old baby son at the local maternal and child health centre for my first class.

When the maternal health nurse invited each mum to introduce ourselves and talk about our impressions of motherhood so far, I felt a mild sense of panic.

You see, after unexpectedly experiencing an acute manic episode five days after my son’s birth, I had spent the past six weeks in psychiatric hospitals.  My husband and family had been the ones to wean my young son off breastmilk and onto bottles, they had established a 3-hourly feed-play-sleep routine, and they had ‘mothered’ him during my absence.

When it was my turn to talk, my usual confidence deserted me.  I quickly mumbled something about having a “great, natural birth” (the truth) and how much I was loving being a mother (also the truth). Yet, despite the horrific ordeal I had just been through, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth about this.

Almost eight years on, and two more children later, the women in this original mothers group are still my good friends.  Nowadays, we tend to meet up without the kids, enjoying a dinner out or a weekend away together.

I’ve since told this group of friends about my Bipolar Disorder diagnosis, and the true story of what happened after my first son’s birth.  I’ve also listened as many of them have shared stories of illness, betrayal, unemployment and struggles with motherhood.

Through this, I’ve learnt that none of us have perfect lives.

To pretend we do, is to do ourselves – and our friends – a disservice.  It is by being honest with each other about our struggles, that we find a new depth to our friendships.

Have you felt comfortable disclosing your diagnosis with other mums in your mother’s group or children’s kindergarten, school or sporting clubs?  If not, why?