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

 

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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!

 

From beach to “blah”

There’s nothing like a holiday.  For me, the anticipation starts building months in advance, really kicking into gear a few weeks before I actually depart.  During periods of stress, the planned departure date is there to daydream about – acting almost like a “finishing line” I push myself to reach.

Then there’s the holiday itself: days filled with swimming, BBQs and nature walks melting into one another, time to spend with family and friends – and (in my case)  plenty of time to read a few good books.

But holidays can’t last forever and so, last month I found myself walking back into my workplace.   After greeting my colleagues, and clearing away the clutter left from 2014, I sat staring at the computer screen.   Normally one to enjoy my work, I had to force myself to turn on the computer and start answering emails.

Days later, my apathy still hadn’t lifted. My husband assured me that experiencing post-holiday blues was quite normal, but I couldn’t help feeling like a shadow had come over me.

In the weeks that followed, my mood continued to plummet.   I couldn’t put my finger on it, but some of the joy seemed to have gone out of life.   The thought of having to summon the energy to get through another year, seemed beyond me.  Things that I could usually cope with triggered anxiety attacks.

Unspoken between my hubby and I was the thought that I might be entering another depressive episode.  Neither of us had a desire to return to that dark place.   And so we told ourselves that everything would be better after another short break – this time a week camping in a national park a couple of hours away.

Unlike our last holiday, when I had everything packed a week in advance, this time I left it to my poor hubby to get everything organised.  On the morning of our departure, I dragged myself into the car and we started our journey.

As the kilometres passed, the weight that had been hanging over me seemed to lift.  I listened to the kids’ chatter in the back seat and looked out at the road stretching before us.  I felt like I was running away from everything that had been worrying me – which was exactly what I felt like doing.

By the time we got there, I had a smile on my face again. Every time a negative thought crept into my head, I pushed it away – telling myself I would deal with it after the holiday.   I was desperately trying to recreate the “mountain top” experience of our last holiday.

And it worked.  At least until I returned home and real life started up again.

As the weeks passed – and my anxiety kept building – I had to admit that I need more than just another holiday to alleviate my low mood.  As a mum I can’t afford to not get help when I need it.

And so I went to see my psychiatrist – and walked away clutching a new prescription to help even things out. Now, I’m waiting for them to kick in.

The me I see in the mirror today is a far cry from the carefree me from a few months ago.  But I guess that, having Bipolar Disorder, these tough times are part of the package.  Along with the “mountain top” experiences, there’s going to be valleys of despair.

But when I’m struggling to follow others’ advice and “look on the bright side”, one thing I can do is look back at times like family holidays and realise that life does get better.  And there’s plenty to look forward to.

Mariska xx

PS.  Is anyone else struggling with anxiety or depression at the moment?  What do you do to help cope during down times?  I’m sure all us mums would love to hear your advice.

What learning to mosaic taught me about mental illness

Mosaic picture of a hummingbird

There’s nothing like smashing a bunch of tiles to get stress out.  Which is why one of the things I look forward to most on our annual Summer holiday is creating another mosaic picture.

We love to take advantage of Australia’s warm Summer weather by taking the kids camping along the beautiful coastline of New South Wales. One of our favourite spots is a caravan park nestled between a stunning beach and a National Park.

It is the perfect spot for us and the kids to relax after a busy year – with lots of outdoor activities and a Kid’s Club every morning.

A few years back, while watching our three kids participating in the Kids Club, the teacher asked me if I wanted to join some other parents for a mosaic class that afternoon.   I quite like craft, so signed up on the spot – not really knowing what mosaic was or what it involved.

Four hours later, I was in my element – smashing tiles with a hammer, smearing glue over them and painstakingly selecting different shards of tile to create a picture.

It was slow-going and required concentration… forcing me to ignore the thoughts that had been whirring through my mind, and the stress of the past six months.

Ten days later, all those shards of smashed up tile had been transformed into a picture of a beautiful hummingbird, which I proudly took home to give to my mum as a gift.

Visiting her this past weekend, I noticed it hanging in her kitchen – and it made me think.

In the months leading up to its creation, I had been in the throes of a severe depressive episode.  It felt like someone had taken my life and smashed it – breaking me into unrecognisable pieces.

Yet, now as I look at that mosaic, I realise that (very slowly) the broken shards of my life have been taken and molded to form a different me.  One that is not quite the same, but equally as special.

Looking around me at my friends and family, I realise that most of us have been through something that has shattered us.  Left us feeling broken and worthless… like a pile of smashed up tiles.

Yet, there is a plan in store for us – a plan to use our pain and our hardship to show others that out of brokenness can come something beautiful.

Do you enjoy doing crafts?  Do they provide you with an outlet to help manage your condition?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

3 reasons why I don’t take a mental health day

Almost twenty years on from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’m getting pretty good at knowing the signs my mind and body display when they’ve been pushed to the limit.  Not being able to stop thinking about work even after I come home at night, a tight feeling in my chest and being so focused on my “to do” list that it’s 5pm before I realise I’ve skipped my lunch-break.

It’s usually around this time that I have to force myself to slow down and – if I can wrangle a meeting-free day – perhaps even  take a “mental health day”.  Only I don’t ever admit to my manager that it’s a mental health day.  It’s an “upset stomach” or a “sore throat” or some other common ailment.

With World Mental Health Day coming up on 10 October, I’ve been thinking about this – and wondering why I have never ever admitted to taking a “mental health day”.  It’s not because I’m not allowed to.  In fact, it’s clearly stated in my employee handbook that taking a mental health day is a perfectly ok use of a sick day.

So why is it that I don’t take one?  Well here it is … three reasons why I don’t take a mental health day:

1. It doesn’t feel like a good enough excuse for a day off work

Flu is catchy and noone wants to share officespace with someone who has an annoying, hacking cough.  But stress or anxiety isn’t visible.  Noone can see the tight feeling in my chest or the way my mind won’t stop racing.  Only I know that this is happening and it’s easy to put on a brave face when I’m at work.  As someone with Bipolar Disorder, I have a perfectly good reason to take a “mental health day” if I need one.  In fact, if it helps keep me healthy and functioning well, it’s actually a good thing. Much better to take a day to nip stress and anxiety in the bud than let it manifest a few weeks down the track in an episode requiring medication and professional care.  Still – when push comes to shove, I’d rather admit to being physically unwell than admit that I need a quiet, stress-free day at home.

2.  It might lead to my manager wondering about my mental health

Noone – I repeat noone – wants the person who is responsible for your future promotions, pay rises and performance reviews thinking that you are mentally unstable.  I don’t have a problem sharing about my mental illness with friends, family, church groups, readers of this blog, my Twitter followers… yet I draw the line at sharing about it with my direct manager.  I don’t want my work performance to be judged on anything except… well, my work performance.  Yes, I have Bipolar Disorder, but for 99% of the time, it doesn’t affect what I do at work.  In fact, I’ve had less sick days in the past year than most of my team members.  I don’t want my manager wondering if I can handle a big project – or whether I’ll be able to cope with a management role.  I’m a loyal, hard-working employee – and that’s all I want to be judged on.

3. It’s too embarrassing

I’ll be the first to admit it, the thought of others knowing you have a mental illness is embarrassing. While organisations like Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute have done a great job in raising awareness of illnesses such as depression in the past few years, not many people are aware of other types of mental illness – like mania or psychosis.  Usually the first reaction people have when I tell them I have a mental illness is to say “Oh, so you have postnatal depression?”  Considering my youngest is now almost four years old, I find this a bit odd.  But I understand that this is one of the few mental illnesses that people feel comfortable discussing.

When I mention that I have only ever once had a depressive episode – but that stress can lead to my mood doing the opposite, becoming manic – they look a bit confused and then quickly change topics.  Rarely has anyone actually asked me what I’ve experienced during an an actute manic epsidode or psychosis.  Maybe it’s because the word psychotic has the word “psycho” in it … but in any case, people are still a bit put off when the conversation heads in that direction.  With this in mind, I’d rather not have to explain the difference between depression and mania when I call in for a sick day.

 

So there you have it.  Three reasons why someone who has a recognised mental illness and is passionate about mental health advocacy admits to never taking an official “mental health day”.  With Australia focused on mental health this week, I hope that this is a stark reminder why we need to keep working together to stop the stigma of mental illness and to make looking after one’s mental – as well as physical – health, a perfectly acceptable reason for taking a much-needed day off work.

Are you ok with taking a “mental health day” when you need it?  Check out this website and make a promise to yourself to look after your mental health. 

 

5 things I wish I’d said when my workmate told me he had bipolar

It’s not everyday that a colleague drops the ‘b’ bomb – revealing that they have bipolar disorder.  In fact, in the fourteen years since I started work… it’s never happened – until earlier this month.

As many of you know, I have the enormous privilege of working at a charity helping people living in poverty.  Earlier this year, a talented young man joined our team.  Fresh out of University, he quickly gained a reputation for showing extraordinary initiative and producing high quality work.

One morning, chatting casually over a coffee with him and another colleague (who I know has struggled with depression) – I told them about this blog, and my passion for de-stigmatising mental illness.

Then, out of the blue, my young workmate quietly said “I have Bipolar too”.

Stunned, I made some lame comment and eventually the conversation gradually drifted to another topic.  Driving home that night I decided I would take him out for a coffee the next day and chat about what he’d said – even offer some support if he needed it.

But the next day a bunch of meetings got in the way.  And then one day turned into two and now, a month later, I still haven’t taken him out for that coffee.  Now, bringing it up seems awkward. I was thinking about it today – and wondering what I would have said if I had taken him out for that coffee.  So here it is… five things I wish I’d said to my workmate when I had the chance:

1. Life as you know it is over

This is different from saying that your life is over.  You can still go on to live life to the full.  I have.  But life as you know it is over.  You have a serious illness and you need to take it seriously.  You need to take care of yourself.  If you do, you may no longer experience the euphoria of mania but you’ll also no longer go through debilitating depression.  Life may seem a little more boring.  But you’ll be able to hold down a job and your loved ones will be spared the drama that is life with someone yet to be diagnosed as having bipolar.

2. Get a good psychiatrist and listen to them

The key here is to listen to them. My psychiatrist says the hardest part of her job is trying to convince people that a) they have bipolar disorder and b) to stay on their medication.  It’s easy to take your medication when you’re in the depths of depression.  It’s much harder to stay on it when life seems rosy – and you start to doubt you actually have a mental illness.  I had a nurse friend once comment to me that ‘you seem fine to me… maybe you shouldn’t be taking so much medication’.  I told her that she should have seen me when I was in the high dependency ward of the local hospital’s psychiatric ward.  The truth is that my daily does of medication is what enables me to live a full, happy life.

3. Learn what your triggers are, and avoid them

I’ve learnt the hard way that stress and lack of sleep are a bad combination for me.  A bad dose of insomnia can quickly turn into a manic episode and – within days – psychosis.  Now, I never go without sleep.  For the rare night when my Seroquel isn’t enough to bring on sleep, I don’t let the clock tick past 1am without taking some other measure – like a sleeping tablet.  I always let my husband know that I’m having trouble sleeping and that I’m taking something or it.  That way, he can be on alert to make sure my symptoms aren’t getting out of control.

Stress is a little more difficult to keep in check.  By nature, I’m the type of person who likes to keep busy.  I’ve noticed at work that you’re the same.  It’s hard to say “no” when there are so many great things to get involve in, events to attend and friends and family to catch up with.  But one of the best things you can do for yourself is give yourself time to unwind, rest and relax.  For me, this means hardly ever scheduling things at night, after dinner.  Find out what level of stress you can handle and put boundaries around your “down time”.  It’s worth it.

4. Don’t hide your condition from those that matter

It’s embarrassing to tell people that you have bipolar disorder.  I spent hours deliberating if I should declare my condition on my human resources form for my new job.  And I certainly pick and choose who I tell about my condition.  That said, you owe it to yourself and your partner to tell at least a handful of close friends and family about your condition.   In the event you become unwell, you need people who love and care for you to be able to recognise the symptoms and get you help.  It’s not enough to just rely on your partner.. if you’re seriously unwell they may be in denial or not able to convince you to get help.  Get a support network around you.

5. Develop an action plan – and stick to it

One of the best things I did almost six years ago, was to write a Bipolar Action Plan.  This outlines your condition, contact details for your GP and Psychiatrist, preferred hospitals and those you want to avoid, what your triggers are and what medication you are on now and what has worked in the past.  I’ve personalised mine with details of what types of things that make my episodes worse or what seems to help.  Because I have little children, I have included instructions for who I want looking after them and a list of people who can provide other support like meals.  You don’t have kids yet, but you might like to include notes on what you want told to your manager at work or friends.  You may feel like this isn’t necessary.  But for me, having this down in writing somehow lessened my anxiety and gave me a sense of control over what would happen in the event I became unwell.

So there you have it!  Five things I would have told my workmate if I had invited him for coffee.  Now that they’re down on paper (or at least on my screen), they really don’t look that daunting.  Maybe this week I’ll finally get the guts to share them in person.

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!

An unexpected miracle

Less than a week ago, I underwent eye surgery to remove a cataract I’d had since birth in my right eye.

In the lead up to the surgery, I was completely focused on the risks associated with the surgery: that I’d end up with no sight at all in my right eye or – even worse – that my ‘good’ left eye would be damaged.

Despite there only being a 1% chance of being left blind, this was enough to have me freaked out.  What if I never saw my children or husband again?  What if I had to give up a job I loved to stay at home – blind? What if I had to live in a bleak, dark world for the rest of my life?

I got so caught up worrying about the surgery, that I completely forgot to hope – or pray – for a miracle.  When friends and family told me they were praying for my eye to be healed, I told them my surgeon said it was impossible to get sight back in that eye.  Apparently if you can’t see out of one eye for long enough, your brain ‘switches off’ sight to that eye.

And yet, a miracle is exactly what I got.   To the surgeon’s surprise, when my bandages were removed I could see out of my right eye for the first time ever!  Five days later, I’m still in shock that I’m no longer blind in one eye.

This ‘miracle’ got me thinking… since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, have I ever really believed that one day I could be healed of it?  I’m not talking about stopping my medication to follow some unproven theory.  But what if – in the years ahead – researchers somewhere discover the cause behind bipolar disorder or a permanent ‘cure’ for the condition?

Like my attitude before my eye surgery, I’ve never allowed myself to even think of what it would be like to be cured of bipolar disorder.   No longer having to rely on daily medication, with annoying side-effects.  No longer at risk of going too ‘high’ or ‘low’. No longer having to declare my condition on insurance or work forms. And – most importantly – no longer having to worry if I will pass this condition on to my children.

When you’ve lived with a condition for a long time, you tend to resign yourself to the fact that you’re always going to have it.  I know I never expected to see out of my right eye again. If I’m honest – I don’t expect to ever be ‘cured’ of bipolar disorder.

And yet, it’s important to keep hoping for a cure… to keep urging the medical community to continue looking for answers and to keep praying for a miracle for the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by this condition.

Out of sight, out of mind

In just over 12 hours, a surgeon is going to slice into my right eye and remove a cataract that I’ve had since I was formed in my mother’s womb.

While most people wouldn’t know it, I am practically blind in that eye.   Not that I’m complaining… apart from making me rather uncoordinated at ball sports and being unable to see 3D movies, it hasn’t really affected me too much. I can still drive and unlike older people whose eyesite deteriorates when they get a cataract, I’ve never known what it’s like to be able to see out of both my eyes.

For many years I barely gave my cataract a second thought – aside from going for yearly check-ups with my optometrist.  That was until a year or so ago, when my cataract suddenly became bigger and turned an opaque, white colour- covering most of my pupil. A few months later, my husband commented that my right eye was sometimes ‘drifting’… not quite following the other eye like it used to.

All of a sudden, something that I’d been able to hide from others all my life suddenly became noticeable. People starting asking me what was wrong with my eye – and I’d have to explain about my cataract. I became self-conscious of it and for the first time ditched my contact lenses and started wearing my glasses to work – to try and hide my eye.

A visit to an opthamologist confirmed that my cataract was no longer as harmless as it used to be and I was  booked in for surgery three weeks later.

Thinking about all of this made me wonder what it would be like if – like my cataract – my bipolar disorder suddenly became noticeable to my friends and work colleagues.

Imagine if people could tell just by looking at me that I had a mental illness? How would that affect my work prospects? Would it change people’s opinions of me?

While I don’t mind explaining about my cataract to people, I wonder if I would I feel as comfortable talking about my diagnosis with bipolar disorder? Probably not.  Both are conditions that I just happened to be born with – and yet only one of them carries social stigma.

While I’m now fairly comfortable talking about my bipolar disorder, I still like to pick and choose when, where and with whom I share my story.  And I’m still hesitant to bring it up with work colleagues.  Unlike my cataract, my bipolar disorder is something that I don’t want to be the topic of office chit-chat.

Are you comfortable with talking about your diagnosis with others?  If not, is it because you worry it will change people’s opinions of you?

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.