I know exercise is good for your mood… I just don’t wanna do it!

I’ve got something to admit.  I’ve read countless articles that talk about the benefit of exercising for people with mood disorders.  I’ve listened as researchers promote exercise as a way of relieving stress and lifting your mood.

And still… I don’t do it.

Every morning, I open one eye as my husband gets up to train for an adventure race he’s doing in Thailand this month.

And then I pull the covers closer around me and snooze until I’ve got half and hour left before I need to have school lunches made, bags packed and be driving out of the driveway for school drop off.  An hour later, I sit down at work, inhaling a cup of coffee to give me the boost I need to start my day.

Needless to say, I’m not a morning exercise type of person.

Problem is that I’m not an evening exercise type of person either.  By the time my husband and I have our three kids fed and in bed, the last thing I feel like doing is pulling on my active wear and heading out in the cold to the gym.

I could hit the treadmill collecting dust in my garage, but problem is, I’m not an exercising alone type of person.  I prefer to exercise while catching up with friends. Only problem is that we usually skip the exercise and just catch up over a cup of tea.

So this leave me in a dilemma.

If I want to be serious about my mental health, I know that I need to prioritise some form of exercise.  But it needs to be something that I can commit to without it seeming like a chore that I’d do anything to avoid.

I was dwelling on this in recent weeks when a newspaper article caught my eye, extolling the benefits of “tree walking”.  Apparently, benefits of a long walk compound when you add trees to the equation.  Being among nature, with trees around you, is now scientifically proven to boost your mood significantly.

Which brings me to my new resolution.

I am going to commit to going on a walk among trees every week – rain, hail or shine. And I’m going to find a friend who wants to come with me. Lucky for me I happen to live at the base of a mountain range, with lots of trails to choose from.

So now, I just need to get off the couch and up that mountain!

Mariska xx

Do you use exercise as a way to boost your mood or reduce stress?  I’d love to hear what you do or if you struggle with finding the motivation to exercise.

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3 lessons psych wards have learnt in the past decade

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what's changed in the last decade?

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what’s changed in the last decade?

Eight weeks ago, I did something that I swore I would never do.  I walked back through the doors of the public hospital psychiatric ward where I spent some of the worst weeks of my life, after the birth of my first baby eight years ago.

This time, I hadn’t arrived in the back of a police divvy van.  I wasn’t disoriented or confused about why I was there. My mind wasn’t racing or tricking me with delusions. And I wasn’t greeted by emergency room staff who held me down and injected me with who-knows-what.

So why was I there?

Well, it started a few weeks beforehand, when I was out walking with a group of women.  When I found out that one of the women was a nurse in the psychiatric ward where I had been a patient, I shared my story with her.

After mentioning  how shocked I was at the conditions in the ward when I was there, she invited me to come and see the changes that had taken place at the pysch ward since then.

So I summoned up all my courage, and I returned.  And here’s three ways I found this psych ward had changed in the past 8 years

  1. It’s finally hitting home: staff can make or break a psych ward

One of the biggest changes I noticed straight away in the psych ward was the staff – and their attitude towards the patients.  Eight years ago, the horrific conditions meant the hospital I was in couldn’t attract or retain staff.  They filled the gaps with temporary agency nursing staff and “carers”.

This may work in a regular hospital ward, but when you’re mentally unwell, having dedicated, committed staff  is critical.  Seeing regular faces  – rather than a steady stream of agency staff – also helps us as patients to trust our carers. When you’re struggling with psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts or delusions, a kind word or a gentle touch from nursing staff goes a long way.    Patients deserve experienced staff who are committed to their patients and the reputation of the ward they work in.

2.  It’s more than just medical help: the right atmosphere in a ward is integral

Less than two months after I left the ward eight years ago, it was demolished.  To be honest, I’m not surprised.  It was a dark, dingy place – with cramped conditions, unsuitable living areas and a small concrete courtyard where patients could walk in circles for exercise.

Entering the new purpose-built building, I immediately noticed the big picture windows, fresh colorful paint, friendly atmosphere and artwork on the walls.  The head nurse proudly showed me the art-therapy room, family visit room (with direct street entrance so kids didn’t need to walk through the ward to get there) and an outdoor eating and sports area.   There was even a dark room with bean bags, rocking chairs, weighted blankets, soft music, projected light patterns and musical instruments  – a place where people struggling with mania could go to calm or soothe themselves.

I know it’s only superficial stuff.  But sometimes, the way a place looks, smells and even feels can have such an impact on the way patients feel about being there.

3. Our voices have been heard: patients must be kept safe from harm by other patients

I’ve left the best change for last.  The biggest change that I could see was that, while they shared the dining room and common areas, men and women had separate sleeping areas.  Upon admission, female patients receive an electronic bracelet that gives them access to the female-only sleeping quarters and a small lounge room that they can retreat to if they feel unsafe.  The ward was also built with two wing that could be used as required:  one for regular mentally unwell people and the other for those displaying violent or predatory behaviour.

THIS IS INCREDIBLE, AMAZING STUFF!

I guess you’re sensing my excitement.  Well, in my mind this is a game-changer.

In this ward in the past – and most likely in many others around the world –  vulnerable, unwell female patients (and in some cases male)  have been attacked or raped by other patients.  You can’t compare a psych ward to other hospital wards – where patients are there because they are physically unwell.  Genders sharing sleeping quarters in situations where people are psychotic, delusional and not “in their right mind” – and not giving women a safe space – is a recipe for disaster.

I was reassured to see that the safety of women in this psych ward at least, is now top-of-mind for staff.  And in the case that I’m every a patient there again, I’d be very pleased to know that  staff now have the ability to separate out patients known for their violence or predatory behavior.

Have these changes been made in every psychiatric ward?

While I’d love to believe they had, I doubt it.  Less than 50 years ago conditions in psychiatric wards – or mental asylums as they were called – were barbaric.  Change has come, but lack of funds or political will means that it is slower in some places than others.

As people who know what it’s like to be mentally unwell and vulnerable, we need to band together and keep asking for change.   Without our voices, speaking up about the conditions in these wards and insisting that changes are made, others like us will continue to suffer.

Mariska xxx

Have you noticed any changes or improvements in psychiatric wards over the past decade?

 

 

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

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!

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!

Life’s a game, you’re the quarterback.

Despite being Aussies, our household is in the grip of NFL fever at the moment.  My husband, who spent part of his childhood in St Louis, Missouri, has passed his love of the sport on to our three kids.

Picture of two year old trying on NFL helmetEven our four year old daughter – who is as girly as they come – can recognise all 32 teams in the NFL, by the logos on their helmets.

This week, while watching Sunday night football (which for us in on a Monday), my six-year-old son explained what the ‘end zone’ was to me.

Basically – for those of us from Australia – this is where the team needs to get the ball to score a touchdown.

Notice the key word here: team.

Unlike Aussie Rules Football, NFL teams have a LOT of players.  Each of the 53 players has a distinct role and responsibilities – linebacker, quarterback, wide receiver and so on.

At the heart of each team is the coach – responsible for designing ‘plays’ (strategies to help the team get the ball to the ‘end zone’).  Players work hard to memorise huge folders full of different ‘plays’ before they are called out.  If they don’t, they risk not only embarrassment but serious injury.

Watching the Panthers vs Patriots this week, my mind drifted and I started to think of myself (as someone with bipolar disorder) as a quarterback and my support network as my team.

At the helm is my psychiatrist – acting like my coach and working to map out ‘plays’ or an action plan that will see me get into the ‘end zone’ (a.k.a stay well).

As quarterback, I’m usually in control of what happens around me – giving directions and communicating well with my team.

However, in the event I become unwell, I need to rely on my teammates to rally around me, and my coach to step in and call a ‘time out’ (possibly in the form of increased medication or a hospital stay).

Although it might cause initial angst, no player would begrudge his coach for putting him on the bench if he was injured.

Unlike us tough Aussies – who play with only a mouthguard – no quarterback would go out on the field without his helmet and padding.  So too, I don’t go without my daily preventative medication, that protects my most precious asset (my brain) and keeps my bipolar disorder in check.

So there you have it…. the MOST unsporty woman on the face of the earth has just written a blog comparing herself to a quarterback.  I can’t wait to see my husband’s face when he reads this!

Are you surrounded by a good team?  Do you follow the strategies or action plan set out by your psychiatrist?  I’d love to read your comments!

When you can’t say it with words

Tonight, browsing the internet, I came across a wonderful blog, with incredible images drawn by someone with bipolar disorder.

Somehow, with a simple image or two and very few words, the blog’s author managed to conjure up some of the emotions that many of us go through.

And so, in the spirit of her blog – I’m going to say no more and simply show you some of her pictures.  If you’d like to see more, I’d encourage you to take the time to visit her blog.

Thank you to http://bipolarcodex.wordpress.com/ for sharing these photos with us.

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.