What Lindy Chamberlain taught me about bitterness

Getting out of bed at 5.30am to attend a breakfast one hour’s drive away in the City isn’t my idea of a great morning.  I’m not a morning person at the best of times.  But yesterday I did just that and was rewarded with a morning I’ll never forget.

I’ll be the first to admit that – at times – I have struggled with bitterness.  For a while there, after my diagnosis and again after I spent time in a psychiatric hospital after the birth of my first baby, I felt let down by my own body and angry at my ill-treatment at the hands of medical staff.

Which is why I found the speaker for this year’s Melbourne Prayer Breakfast, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, so gripping.

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If anyone has a reason to be bitter, it’s Lindy Chamberlain (as she’s commonly known).  Accused and convicted of murdering her nine-week-old baby daughter Azaria (pictured above with her) while camping at Uluru – then known as Ayers Rock – in 1980, Lindy maintained that she saw a dingo leave the tent where Azaria was sleeping.

After serving three years in prison with hard labour, Lindy’s conviction was overturned after the discovery of new evidence, and she was acquitted of all charges.

Standing up on the stage, in front of 1000 people, Lindy looked more like someone’s friendly mother-in-law than someone who had been to hell and back.  She started her speech by saying that she wasn’t going to talk about Azaria – or the dingo: “What happened to me is not as important as what I learned from what happened to me,” she explained.

Sitting there, listening to this woman talk about being forced to clean toilet blocks with a toothbrush, and being hated by her fellow prisoners, I couldn’t help but feel anything but deep empathy for her.  Prison didn’t sound to dissimilar from the high-dependency unit of a public psychiatric ward.

And yet, Lindy’s message was one of hope.

She challenged me (and I’m guessing everyone else in the room) to not let tragedy, or illness, or circumstances in life prevent us from living life to our full potential.

“It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s what we choose to do with it that matters,” she said – her voice cracking as she wiped away tears. While she could have become bitter and turned her back on her religion, Lindy said that she has learnt through this all that “God is not the author of hardship and pain but will guide us through it.”

I walked away from that breakfast feeling inspired. If Lindy Chamberlain can go through what she did and not be a bitter woman, then I’m going to try and follow in her footsteps.

Yes, I have bipolar disorder.  Yes, that makes life more difficult than if I didn’t have it.  But what I have learned through this illness is valuable – both to me and to others.  Those of us who have endured hardship and suffering can be “wounded healers” – sharing our own journey with others – to encourage them in their own struggles.

If we allow bitterness consume us, to corrode our self-confidence and steal our joy – then we lose the opportunity to turn a bad situation into something good.

Have you found that your experience of mental illness has enabled you to reach out to others in similar circumstances?  Has helping others helped you?  Would love to hear your comments below.

 

 

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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!

Taking anti-psychotics during pregnancy: is it safe?

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Women with bipolar disorder are no different from other women around the world.  Being diagnosed with bipolar doesn’t stop the desire to have a baby, or add to our family.
In the lead up to their pregnancy, most women with Bipolar Disorder are advised to go off all medication.
Yet, what about those of us at risk of relapse if we stop taking our prescribed antipsychotic medication can be detrimental to our health.  Or for those whose pregnancy was unplanned, and may have already been taking antipsychotic medication before they discover they are pregnant?
Are we doomed to rest of our pregnancy worrying about the impact on our unborn baby?

The National Register of Anti-Psychotic Medications in Pregnancy (NRAMP) is an observational, nationwide study based in Melbourne, Australia, that is aiming to provide a better understanding of antipsychotic medication use during pregnancy, birth and the first year of a baby’s life.

This world-first, innovative study will give women taking antipsychotic medications, and the medical profession, with the information we need to make informed decisions before and during pregnancy.

I participated in this study during my second and third pregnancies.  The outcome?  Two very healthy babies and no signs of the mental illness I endured after the birth of my first baby.

Here’s the lowdown on this great research project:

What does NRAMP aim to achieve?

  • Provide a better understanding of antipsychotic medication use during pregnancy, birth and for the first year of the baby’s life;
  • Allow for the development of evidence-based guidelines for the best use and effect of antipsychotic medication during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal phase;
  • Assist healthcare professionals, and women with mental illness, to make informed decisions about appropriate treatment options, and encourage safer outcomes for both mother and baby, during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal phase;
  • Enhance our knowledge regarding the care of women with mental illness during pregnancy, birth and the postnatal phase.

What’s involved in the study?

Through regular phone calls and research, NRAMP follows the journey of mother and baby during pregnancy, delivery and for the first year of the baby’s life.  The study is designed to collect and record information on maternal and neonatal health and wellbeing during this time frame.  It is not designed to provide treatment recommendations, make mental health diagnoses or pass judgment on any individual.

Who can participate in NRAMP?

  • Women who are taking, or have taken, antipsychotic medication during pregnancy;
  • Women who are pregnant or who have had a baby in the last 12 months;
  • Women who reside in Australia;
  • Women who are able to provide informed consent.

How can I join NRAMP?

Referral by your clinicians: Healthcare professionals can refer potential participants to NRAMP. Clinicians are asked to briefly discuss the study with appropriate patients, and to ask their consent to pass on contact details to NRAMP research personnel, who will then contact the potential participant to discuss participation in the study.

By self-referral: Women who are interested in participating in the study can contact the NRAMP researcher personnel directly.

Contact details:

Ms Heather Gilbert, Senior Research Nurse

Phone + 61 3 9076 6591