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?

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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.

Live life like a scone

Tonight my husband had a craving for scones (or ‘biscuits’ for those of you from America). Despite loving baking, for many years I have found the simple scone a struggle.

As a newlywed, keen to impress my in-laws, I whipped up a batch of scones.  Looking into the oven 12 minutes later, my confidence was dealt a cruel blow when I was confronted with small, hard rocks.  Even Polly, our six-month-old Golden Retriever turned her nose up at them.  And considering she’d eaten my watch and my parent’s camping tent the week before, that said a lot about my baking skills.

Fast forward thirteen years and I have finally discovered the key to a successful batch of golden, tall scones.

It turns out that scones need more than just self-raising flour to rise.  They need other scones. And not in neat, spaced out rows like biscuits.  They need to be bunched in real tight – with their edges just about touching.

Positioned like this, something magical happens.  I’m no scientist, all I know is that the scones somehow help each other on the journey upwards. And presto!  They come out of the oven as the light, fluffy scones we all love to eat with jam and cream.

Showing my four-year-old daughter how to position the scones close together on the tray tonight, something struck me.

As women, we’re like scones.  We’re built for relationships.

When the going gets tough – when the heat is on – we need close friends and family to stick close by.  If we attempt to cope all alone, it’s more than likely that we’ll struggle to meet our full potential.

For those of us living life with bipolar disorder, or another form of mental illness, it’s even more important to surround ourselves with supportive people.  My close friends and family have stuck by me through the best of times and the worst of times.

When I became unwell after my first son’s birth, our parents and my sisters helped my husband look after our six day old baby.  Other friends dropped off meals and a couple even braved the (very scary!) psychiatric ward to visit me.  In recent years, as I’ve started to get back into my career, my close circle of friends and family have built up my confidence in my abilities and encouraged me to grow.

When my daughter and I pulled those scones out of the oven tonight, they had grown so tall that from a distance they looked like one giant scone.

I guess scones are a good analogy for life.  Instead of isolating ourselves and just focusing just our own needs and wants, we should seek to be part of a supportive community, all helping each other to reach our potential – our own version of a “giant scone”!

Do you have have a group of friends or family to encourage you?  I would love to hear your thoughts below.