Put the coffee down, and walk away…

I live in the coffee capital of Australia… maybe even of the world.  We have more coffee shops in Melbourne than in any other state – and our Baristas are  known for their world class coffee.

I still find it amazing that up until the age of 32, I’d never tasted coffee.  By that I mean real coffee. I had tried a sip of Mum’s cheap instant coffee when I was 17 – and promptly spit it out into the sink.

Since my first taste of real coffee, I’ve slowly become hooked on my “morning cuppa”.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a morning person.  It’s not helped by the medication I take each night which leaves me a bit groggy.  But my morning cuppa clears my head and leaves me ready to face the day.

Lately, I’ve been noticing my morning cuppa being followed by a midday coffee and sometimes even a sneaky afternoon coffee.  Add to that a few more cups of black tea and soon my stress hormone, called cortisol, is surging.

So what’s the problem with coffee causing raised cortisol levels?  And is this something we should be concerned as women with Bipolar?

A quick scan of the internet tells me that raised cortisol levels can not only leave you feeling anxious, fearful and angry – they can also lead to feelings of depression, lower your immune systems and increase fat in the stomach area.

Now, I’m not someone who should be lecturing on health issues, but none of these things sound appealing.  Goodness knows I spend enough time dealing with anxiety and depression.  The last thing I need is to be adding to the problem with my new love affair with coffee.

Earlier this week, I convinced myself to at least check out the herbal teas in the supermarket, telling myself they were just as satisfying as a freshly brewed coffee.  I was staggered to find dozens of different herbal teas.

As I write, I have my fingers wrapped around a steaming cup of lemon and ginger tea.  No caffeine.  No worry about insomnia or surging cortisol levels.  A truly guilt free cuppa.

I don’t think I can give up my beloved morning coffee. Or a cup of milky tea in the afternoon.  But that’s it.  The rest have to go.  And with it, all those side effects that make life as a Bipolar Mum even more difficult.

Do you find coffee gives you any side-effects?  Or are you one of those people who can drink copious amounts and still sleep like a log?  Leave your comments below.

 

 

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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.

Longing for a “sick day”

With an impending restructure at work, my days have been a bit more stress-filled than usual.  My team of six has been reduced for now to a team of three – and we’re doing our best to keep things going despite the sense of doom and gloom about the place.

In the midst of all this turmoil, staff have been dropping like flies… with record numbers of sick days.  As for me, who rarely gets sick enough to justify a day off work, I’ve been day-dreaming about taking a “sick day” to just, well… decompress.

Sick Day

Spending a day battling the flu wasn’t quite the “sick day” I’d been hoping for.

In my mind, I imagined I’d time my “sick day” for when the kids were at school/kinder so that I could sleep in ’till 10am and then go out for a brunch with my husband (who is currently studying at home).

I then planned to dig out one of my craft projects – which have been ignored for the past 2.5 years since I went back to full-time work.  And I’d end the day by picking up my kids (who would be surprised to see Mum rather than Dad waiting outside their classroom) and then welcoming them home to home-cooked cookies.

My work has an official name for days like this.  I know it’s “technically” fine to take a mental health day, but I don’t know about you – I still struggle with the idea of taking a day off when I don’t physically appear sick.

Go to work with a hacking cough or a dripping nose and people encourage you to go home and rest up.  But arrive at work crippled with anxiety, depression or stress and no-one is any the wiser.  It’s easier to hide feelings of despair, depression and hopelessness than a fever.  I worked through months of acute depression – and no-one at work noticed, until I made a point of telling them about the struggle I was having.

Not that I advocate hiding your mental illness from your employer.  I have let my manager know about my condition – and I’d like to think my employees feel comfortable enough to share with me.  Yet, I’m well aware that just telling your staff that they’re  technically allowed to take time off to deal with mental health issues doesn’t make it easy to actually do it.  We need senior staff to model that it’s actually ok.

Today, I finally got my sick day.

Only problem was, it really was a sick day.  And it struck on a Saturday morning.  Sure I got to spend the morning in bed…. but that was where I stayed for most of the weekend. And as for a leisurely lunch with my husband – well let’s just say that I wasn’t feeling up for any kind of date.  Instead of feeling free to enjoy a Monday off work… I found myself dealing with 1000’s of tissues and an aching body that didn’t want to do anything but lie down.

Moaning that “this isn’t what a sick day is meant to be like…” my husband kindly pointed out what I was after wasn’t a “sick day” but a “sickie”.  Hmm… I’d better be careful what I wish for next time.

Mariska xx

 

The hurry disease

I’ll be the first to admit it, sometimes I treat life – and motherhood – as a race.  Recently, my seven year old daughter asked me to play a game with her.  Exhausted after a long day at work, and looking forward to putting my feet up and watching Netflix, I hurried her off to bed instead.

When she dragged her feet, asking me to stand beside her while she brushed her teeth, I told her I’d come up once she was in her pyjamas and ready to be tucked in.

I wasn’t being mean… but I wasn’t being kind either.

Later that night, sitting on the couch, I realised that it wouldn’t have hurt me to spend an extra 20 minutes with my precious daughter.  I could have spent time laughing with her while she brushed her teeth. I could have let her choose the book to read – rather than picking the shortest one I could find.  I could have spent time asking her about her day and listening to her while she prayed for everything she could think of – rather than quickly reeling off a standard goodnight prayer.

Motherhood isn’t always easy.  It’s a constant choice to put someone else’s needs before your own. And sometimes I get it wrong.

I’m the first to admit that I sometimes treat motherhood like a race.  I’m so used to working fast in my workplace that I come home and expect my kids to respond just as quickly as my colleagues.

I hurry them through dinner, then get them to do their homework as quickly as possible.  I shower rather than bathe them (because it’s quicker) and then get them into bed as quickly as possible.

It’s only later – when I look back at how my impatience makes everyone feel rushed and stressed, that I regret not taking the time to slow down for my children.

Tonight, as I tried to tuck my little girl into bed and she jumped on the bed instead, I started to tell her to “hurry up”. But then I caught myself and tickled her instead – much to her delight.   And you know what?  I haven’t missed those 5 minutes at all…

Mariska xx

Do you find yourself rushing through life?  Always hurrying?  What are your tips for slowing down?

Don’t give up… ever

I like op-shopping.  There’s nothing like walking into an opportunity shop, with a purse filled with coins, and walking out with some amazing recycled finds.

At the moment, my favourite winter jacket, scarf and leather boots are all from op-shops and cost a total of AUS$18. The boots are a brand I really like and had never been worn, the jacket is a stunning blue wool and just looking at the gorgeous orange striped scarf makes me feel happy.

Me in my op shop jacket

Me rocking my op-shop jacket and scarf!

I’ve written before about how much I love taking something set for the rubbish dump and turning it into something beautiful and useful.  One of my favourite rescued pieces is the white buffet, sitting in my family room.

The last time I was in an op-shop, I came across a pile of old sheet music.  Something about the beautiful old music, printed in the 1920’s and carefully wrapped in brown paper,  caught my eye and I couldn’t leave without buying it.  I had no idea what I would do with it – my piano playing skills are a little too rusty for such complicated pieces – but I knew that I couldn’t leave it behind.

Today I woke up to the sound of rain.  Being Saturday, I was looking forward to spending some time with the kids – and a crafting afternoon sounded just about right.  While the kids made cards for friends, I pulled out some supplies and set about turning the sheet music into something special.

A few hours later, I had turned the unwanted music sheets into a couple of cute heart pictures (see below) and a bunch of unique cards for friends’ birthdays.

Recycled sheet music

A new use for old sheet music

Hanging the pictures on my wall, I was struck again by how something that seemed old and not good for anything but the bin, was – a couple of hours later – something so beautiful.

Sometimes life can leave us feeling so down, that we start thinking we’re no longer of value to society.  I know when I was sitting alone, locked in a psychiatric ward after the birth of my first baby, I started thinking that my life was pretty much over.  The fear and loathing in the eyes of the ward staff affirmed this thought – that I was no longer an educated, articulate young woman respected by those around me… but someone who had to be kept heavily medicated and away from the rest of society.

At that time, I pretty much felt like those sheets of music, once highly-valued but now abandoned and destined for the bin. And yet, looking at the new pictures on my wall – made from the recycled music sheets – I was reminded of my own journey.  Here I am, eight and a half years later, not only living with mental illness, but thriving.

Being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at the age of 18 was a huge blow.  And it’s something that I’ve had to learn to live with over the past 19 years.  But it hasn’t meant the end of life as I knew it.  I have still gone on to become a wife, a mother, an employee and a friend.

Like the sheet music transformed into something very different, my life may not look exactly like it used to – but it is beautiful in an equally special and valuable way.

My prayer is that everyone reading this who is going through hard times, will realise that while your life may not look quite like you had planned, it may well in the end turn out to be even better than you originally hoped.  Don’t ever think that your life is not worth living.  Don’t ever give up.

Mariska xx

Does anyone else love seeing the potential in things?  Got any stories or photos of your favourite op-shop finds?

For everything there is a season…

When most people think of Australia, they picture golden beaches, blue skies and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. But for those Aussies like me who live at the southern end of the country – life is a lot more varied than that.

In Melbourne, down the bottom of Australia, we have four distinct seasons: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. We go from 40 + degrees Celsius in Summer all the way down to crisp four degree days in Winter.  Weather tends to dominate a lot of our conversations – and most of the time we’re either complaining it’s too hot or too cold.

But would I swap our seasons for a life of constant warm days?  Probably not.

Seasons give a nice rhythm to life… with plenty of positives to outweigh the negatives.  Right now, we’re  suffering through frosty Winter mornings and icy evenings.  But I’m loving the freedom to get into my flannelette Pyjamas as soon as I get home from work.  And I’m spending my evenings learning how to knit and crotchet while curled up in front of a good movie.  There’s something about rainy days that seems to justify taking things a bit easy.

Watching my kids playing in piles of leaves with their cousin (below), I started thinking about how the seasons  are a good metaphor for my moods.

Kids jumping in leaves

Jumping in leaves with cousins…

Autumn

Autumn reminds me of anxiety and the first signs of depression.  There’s a sense that – despite the lovely weather – there’s bleak times ahead.  Like the leaves falling off the trees, there’s an impending feeling of gloom – like things are about to fall apart.  I need to force myself to look around and see the beauty that’s still there…  in the colour of the leaves, in the people who care for me.

Winter

Winter’s cold, dark, bleary days remind me of the dark pit of depression.  No matter how hard you try to wish it into being, there’s a lack of sunshine – or joy – and you crave warmth and comfort.  But like the bare branches – not dead but merely dormant – there is still life within me.  I just need to get through this season.

Spring

Coming out of a depression, is a bit like defrosting after a long Winter.  New buds appear on branches – just as tiny shoots of joy and hope start to appear in my life.  I look around and notice life again – feeling for the first time in a long time that I want to spend time enjoying my friends and family.   Happiness has crept up on me… bringing a smile to my face again and making me – like the trees around me – fruitful again.

Summer

Mania is hard to describe, but if I was to liken it to a season it would have to be the long, energetic, fun-filled days of Summer.  Just like I’m often taken by surprise with a nasty sunburn while having fun on the beach, so to mania is something that creeps up… disguised by seemingly endless energy and ideas.  And I end up needing protection and help to get through this season.

Living with mental illness, I’ve learnt that I need to be prepared for all seasons.  I wouldn’t venture out into the blazing sun without a hat – or the snow without some gloves.  So I can’t expect myself to face the ups and downs that come with bipolar without some form of protection – in my case, medication.

Coming to terms with this – and acknowledging it – frees me up to get on with living life.  There will be ups, and there will be downs, but life will move on – and each season will soon pass.

Mariska xx

Do the seasons have an impact on your mental health?  If so, what do you do about it?  Would love to hear!

 

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

Postpartum Management of Bipolar Disorder

This is one of the most useful things I have read regarding bipolar and pregnancy/childbirth. I wish I had read this before the birth of my first baby and highly recommend it to anyone who is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant. It’s possible to have a baby and not become unwell – but it takes preparation and having a support team at the ready.

Kitt O'Malley

International Society Bipolar Disorder

This morning I participated in a webinar sponsored by The International Society for Bipolar Disorders entitled, Postpartum Management of Bipolar Disorder: Challenges and Opportunities, led by Dr. Verinder Sharma. Bipolar disorder is commonly misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder, just as postpartum bipolar disorder is misdiagnosed as postpartum depressive disorder. Misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder has serious consequences. Reproductive events such as the birth of a child can trigger manic, hypomanic and mixed symptoms.

Studies vary as to the effect of pregnancy on bipolar disorder. For some women, pregnancy is associated with an improvement in symptoms. Childbirth and the postpartum period is a potent trigger of episodes of bipolar disorder. Psychiatric hospitalizations exponential rise during the one month postpartum period. Risk factors include being unmarried, perinatal death, and C-section. Both biological and psychosocial factors play a role. Later in life, menopause is associated with increased rapid cycling and more clinical visits…

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I’m not on drugs… I’m having a manic episode

Eighteen years ago, my mum took me to our local doctor, concerned about my sudden strange behaviour since finishing my final high school exams.  Taking one look at me, his first reaction was to tell Mum that I was obviously under the influence of drugs.

When she told him she didn’t think I would take drugs (which I never have) – he made a sarcastic remark about parents like her having “no idea at all.”

Three days later, after ordering brain scans, CAT scans and a battery of other medical tests, the local hospital concluded I was having my first acute manic  episode.

This incident sprung to mind today as I read an article in the Shepparton News about HeadSpace – Australia’s youth mental health foundation – running courses in country Victoria next month to help parents identify and intervene early with the mental health needs of their children.

As Headspace says to parents and carers on their website: “Recognising signs is the first step toward getting [your children] help.”

I couldn’t agree more.

If it wasn’t for my parents and then boyfriend (now my loving husband!) – my local GP may have dismissed the signs of my first manic episode as a teenager experimenting with drugs.  It was my parents who told him of my family history of Bipolar Disorder and the incredible stress I’d been under the weeks prior during Year 12 exams.

As parents, we are our children’s advocates:  if they start wheezing, we take them to the Doctor.  If they are struggling at school, we book a time to speak to their teacher.  So why wouldn’t we be on the lookout for signs that they are struggling with depression, anxiety or displaying other out of character behaviours.

Nobody knows our children better than us.  And we need to be aware of the symptoms of mental illness and take them seriously.

Parents in Shepparton know this better than most.  Despite the idyllic setting, this regional centre has some of the highest rates of youth suicide in Victoria.  They have learnt that mental illness is the hidden killer.

Mariska xx

Check out Headspace’s excellent mental health resources for parents and youth at www.headspace.org.au

 

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.