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.

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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!

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!

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.

Live life like a scone

Tonight my husband had a craving for scones (or ‘biscuits’ for those of you from America). Despite loving baking, for many years I have found the simple scone a struggle.

As a newlywed, keen to impress my in-laws, I whipped up a batch of scones.  Looking into the oven 12 minutes later, my confidence was dealt a cruel blow when I was confronted with small, hard rocks.  Even Polly, our six-month-old Golden Retriever turned her nose up at them.  And considering she’d eaten my watch and my parent’s camping tent the week before, that said a lot about my baking skills.

Fast forward thirteen years and I have finally discovered the key to a successful batch of golden, tall scones.

It turns out that scones need more than just self-raising flour to rise.  They need other scones. And not in neat, spaced out rows like biscuits.  They need to be bunched in real tight – with their edges just about touching.

Positioned like this, something magical happens.  I’m no scientist, all I know is that the scones somehow help each other on the journey upwards. And presto!  They come out of the oven as the light, fluffy scones we all love to eat with jam and cream.

Showing my four-year-old daughter how to position the scones close together on the tray tonight, something struck me.

As women, we’re like scones.  We’re built for relationships.

When the going gets tough – when the heat is on – we need close friends and family to stick close by.  If we attempt to cope all alone, it’s more than likely that we’ll struggle to meet our full potential.

For those of us living life with bipolar disorder, or another form of mental illness, it’s even more important to surround ourselves with supportive people.  My close friends and family have stuck by me through the best of times and the worst of times.

When I became unwell after my first son’s birth, our parents and my sisters helped my husband look after our six day old baby.  Other friends dropped off meals and a couple even braved the (very scary!) psychiatric ward to visit me.  In recent years, as I’ve started to get back into my career, my close circle of friends and family have built up my confidence in my abilities and encouraged me to grow.

When my daughter and I pulled those scones out of the oven tonight, they had grown so tall that from a distance they looked like one giant scone.

I guess scones are a good analogy for life.  Instead of isolating ourselves and just focusing just our own needs and wants, we should seek to be part of a supportive community, all helping each other to reach our potential – our own version of a “giant scone”!

Do you have have a group of friends or family to encourage you?  I would love to hear your thoughts below. 

Unforgiveness: Don’t let it corrode you

Many of us have been through hard times.   And it’s only natural when we’re hurt to want to revisit the source of that hurt, time and time again.

After I was subject to humiliating treatment by carers in a public psychiatric ward, I found it hard to forgive.  I came out of hospital with all sorts of plans for how I would get revenge – wanting to sue the hospital or let the media know what went on inside the walls of the locked ward of that hospital.

My family convinced me this wasn’t appropriate – that that the staff were only doing their (very hard) job.  But I felt let down by the medical profession, and angry that carers and nurses could have treated me so brutally.

Eventually, I stopped ranting and raving about their behaviour toward me and other patients.  But to be honest, it was only years later that I found it within myself to forgive them.

Those carers will never know that I’ve forgiven them.  But I knew that I needed to forgive them anyway.

We all know bitter people.  They’re the ones that no one really enjoys being around because they wallow in self-pity and seem to constantly go on about every little thing that has ever happened to them.

Like a cancerous cell or a dangerous mould spore, bitterness thrives in the dark recesses of our hearts and feeds on every new thought or spite or hatred that comes our way.  And like an ulcer aggravated by worry, or a heart condition made worse by stress, it can be physically and emotionally debilitating.

I admit that I struggled with feelings of bitterness about what had happened to me in the psychiatric ward.  I felt that the horror of my experience somehow ‘exempt’ me from the need to forgive.

But something within me knew that I needed to forgive.  Unforgiveness eats away at us until it spills out and corrodes everything around. And so, I dropped thoughts of revenge and I forgave.

While forgiving didn’t take away my pain entirely, it kept me from being sucked down into the downward spiral of resentment.

Once you are able to let go of wrongs that have been done to you, it changes everything.  It will change your relationships, your attitudes and your whole approach to living.

Forgiving isn’t a sign of weakness.  It’s a sign of strength.

Have you ever struggled with feelings of bitterness?  Have you ever had to forgive people in the medical profession, or friends and family, for the way they have treated you while you were unwell? 

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?