Hope, Motherhood

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.

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Patients at an insane asylum in the 1950’s.
Daily Life

Life without limits

Every couple of months, I have a regular appointment with my psychiatrist. Most times, there’s not much to report, but for me these check-ups are an important way of keeping on-top of my bipolar disorder.

Last week, during one of our appointments, I mentioned to my psychiatrist that I had received a promotion at work. Invariably, this job will involve more work, more responsibility and – potentially – more stress.

Upon hearing this news, my psychiatrist commented (to my surprise) that – in fact – not all stress is bad. She told me about a successful businessman she knew, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early 40’s. Since his diagnosis, he has been so scared of stress – and what it might do to him – that he has quit his job, refuses to travel overseas and rarely leaves his home. In his case, the desire to keep all stress out of his life has actually stopped him from living life to the full.

To be honest, I could kind of see where he was coming from. Knowing that stress is a big trigger for my condition, my friends and family often warn me against taking on things that will cause too much stress. And I try to listen… in most cases.

The thing is though, I tend to agree with my psychiatrist that not all stress is bad. Without some stress in our life, we probably wouldn’t be motivated to get things done, or achieve new things.

The trick is trying to find the right balance. While a little stress before a presentation or deadline might help me to put my head down and get the job done – too much stress will see me lying awake at night, thoughts racing through my head and having difficulty sleeping.

For most people, loosing a couple of night’s sleep might just mean they need an extra strong coffee in the morning.  But for me, a string of sleepless nights could be enough to trigger a manic episode.

With this in mind, I try to keep a close eye on the level of stress in my life and – where possible – keep it as low as possible.  One of the ways I do this is to stop myself from volunteering on every committee I’m asked to join, or booking up every night of the week.  I’ve also chosen to work for an organisation that encourage work/life balance and values their employees.   After all, at the end of the day, my health and happiness are more important than the size of my paycheck.

Still, like anyone, I find stress creeping into my life.  Last year, during an especially stressful period, I went to see a psychologist.  She gave me some great tips on keeping stress – and subsequent anxiety – under control.  One of her tips was when I found myself stressing about something to take a break and do something to distract and soothe my anxious mind – like making a cup of tea, or taking a walk around the office or block.  She then suggested I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that can possibly happen?”

I found myself using this advice when dealing with my seven year old on the way to school this week.  Running late, he was starting to stress.  I casually asked him, “what’s the worst thing that could happen if you are late?” and listened as he told me he was nervous about having to go to the office to get a late pass.  I then told him that if we were late, I would walk him into school and I would tell the office staff it was my fault he was late (which it was!) and then walk him to his classroom.  This immediately calmed him down, as he realised that actually – being late wasn’t going to be the end of the world.

So the moral of the story?  I’ve learnt that stress isn’t always a bad thing – it’s how we deal with it that matters.  There are great strategies to keep our stress levels under control. I’ve just got to start putting them into practice…

Depression, Despair, Embarrassment, Motherhood, Motivation, Uncategorized

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!

Depression, Forgiveness, Motherhood, Motivation, Uncategorized

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!

Depression, Despair

Be a barnacle, not a hermit crab

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A few months ago, my first episode of depression hit me out of the blue.  Having just swapped roles with my husband to take on my dream job at World Vision, I suddenly found myself under a dark cloud.

Sitting at my desk at work, I would be overcome with anxiety – wondering how I would get through the next hour, let alone the years of work ahead of me.

Being a new employee and the sole income earner for our young family, I put on a brave face in front of my colleagues.  But each night,  I spent hours despairing; from my anxiety that I wasn’t good enough for my new job, to my fear that I would lose my job.

As the weeks passed, I withdrew into my shell, losing my happy, extroverted nature and turning down invitations to catch up with friends or family members.  Even my Facebook posts stopped.  How do you announce on social media that you feel like you’re falling apart?

One particularly bad night, driving home from work, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my cheeks.  I pulled into the carpark of our local supermarket and hysterically sobbed to God: “Help me!  I don’t know what to do and I need you to help me.”

And He did.

The next night my husband and I were wondering through a shopping centre and we bumped into old, dear friends – who we hadn’t seen for many months.  When they invited us to have dinner with them, I found myself agreeing.

While the guys chatted, I poured out my heart to my friend – who kindly pointed out that it sounded like I had depression and should see my psychiatrist immediately.  The next day, she rang to make sure I had made an appointment.

This encounter gave me the strength to be honest with people.  Later that week, in church, an older woman asked me “How are you?” I answered with a candid, “Not well.  Will you pray for me?”

She did, and so did a handful of my other friends who I confided in.  They continued to text me to check how I was going, and also provided encouragement for my husband.

Some of the bible verses they sent via sms like: ‘cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you,” (1 Peter 5 verse 7) were responsible for keeping me going some days.

Tough times and depression stir the hermit crab within us. We want to hide out, run away and avoid human contact. In reality, we need community more than ever.

Cancel your escape to the Himalayas. Forget dreams of a deserted island. Instead, through the storms of life be a barnacle – and cling to the rock that is your God, friends, family or other support networks.