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. 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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…

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!

Stay in control: be armed with an action plan!

Many things about bipolar disorder seem out of our control.  We can’t dictate when depression will hit us out of the blue, or when we’ll be left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a manic episode.

Still, there are some things that we can control.  And for those of us who are mums (or mums-to-be), with little ones depending on us, this is music to our ears.

Nearly six years ago, I was pregnant with my second child and terrified that things would go pear-shaped, like they did after my first son’s birth.

Trying to wrestle back some sense of control, I sat at the computer and wrote a Bipolar Action Plan.

This focused on manic episodes (the hallmark of my condition) and outlined a number of things – such as signs that I was becoming unwell, usual medications, contact details for my GP, psychiatrist and psychologist, and a list of the people I wanted to act as my ‘support crew’ during any future episode.

As a mum, the thought that I may not be in a state to care for, or see, my young children was terrifying.  Writing down instructions for their care, as well as that of our dog and house, was somehow soothing to my anxious brain.

For those who don’t already have a Bipolar Action Plan, I would highly recommend putting one together.  If you’re not sure where to start, why not adapt this sample one – based on the plan I put together: Bipolar Action Plan (sample). 

 Was the Bipolar Action Plan useful? I’d love to hear your feedback or suggested improvements!