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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3 lessons psych wards have learnt in the past decade

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what's changed in the last decade?

Psyciatric wards have come a long way in the last 50 years. But what’s changed in the last decade?

Eight weeks ago, I did something that I swore I would never do.  I walked back through the doors of the public hospital psychiatric ward where I spent some of the worst weeks of my life, after the birth of my first baby eight years ago.

This time, I hadn’t arrived in the back of a police divvy van.  I wasn’t disoriented or confused about why I was there. My mind wasn’t racing or tricking me with delusions. And I wasn’t greeted by emergency room staff who held me down and injected me with who-knows-what.

So why was I there?

Well, it started a few weeks beforehand, when I was out walking with a group of women.  When I found out that one of the women was a nurse in the psychiatric ward where I had been a patient, I shared my story with her.

After mentioning  how shocked I was at the conditions in the ward when I was there, she invited me to come and see the changes that had taken place at the pysch ward since then.

So I summoned up all my courage, and I returned.  And here’s three ways I found this psych ward had changed in the past 8 years

  1. It’s finally hitting home: staff can make or break a psych ward

One of the biggest changes I noticed straight away in the psych ward was the staff – and their attitude towards the patients.  Eight years ago, the horrific conditions meant the hospital I was in couldn’t attract or retain staff.  They filled the gaps with temporary agency nursing staff and “carers”.

This may work in a regular hospital ward, but when you’re mentally unwell, having dedicated, committed staff  is critical.  Seeing regular faces  – rather than a steady stream of agency staff – also helps us as patients to trust our carers. When you’re struggling with psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts or delusions, a kind word or a gentle touch from nursing staff goes a long way.    Patients deserve experienced staff who are committed to their patients and the reputation of the ward they work in.

2.  It’s more than just medical help: the right atmosphere in a ward is integral

Less than two months after I left the ward eight years ago, it was demolished.  To be honest, I’m not surprised.  It was a dark, dingy place – with cramped conditions, unsuitable living areas and a small concrete courtyard where patients could walk in circles for exercise.

Entering the new purpose-built building, I immediately noticed the big picture windows, fresh colorful paint, friendly atmosphere and artwork on the walls.  The head nurse proudly showed me the art-therapy room, family visit room (with direct street entrance so kids didn’t need to walk through the ward to get there) and an outdoor eating and sports area.   There was even a dark room with bean bags, rocking chairs, weighted blankets, soft music, projected light patterns and musical instruments  – a place where people struggling with mania could go to calm or soothe themselves.

I know it’s only superficial stuff.  But sometimes, the way a place looks, smells and even feels can have such an impact on the way patients feel about being there.

3. Our voices have been heard: patients must be kept safe from harm by other patients

I’ve left the best change for last.  The biggest change that I could see was that, while they shared the dining room and common areas, men and women had separate sleeping areas.  Upon admission, female patients receive an electronic bracelet that gives them access to the female-only sleeping quarters and a small lounge room that they can retreat to if they feel unsafe.  The ward was also built with two wing that could be used as required:  one for regular mentally unwell people and the other for those displaying violent or predatory behaviour.

THIS IS INCREDIBLE, AMAZING STUFF!

I guess you’re sensing my excitement.  Well, in my mind this is a game-changer.

In this ward in the past – and most likely in many others around the world –  vulnerable, unwell female patients (and in some cases male)  have been attacked or raped by other patients.  You can’t compare a psych ward to other hospital wards – where patients are there because they are physically unwell.  Genders sharing sleeping quarters in situations where people are psychotic, delusional and not “in their right mind” – and not giving women a safe space – is a recipe for disaster.

I was reassured to see that the safety of women in this psych ward at least, is now top-of-mind for staff.  And in the case that I’m every a patient there again, I’d be very pleased to know that  staff now have the ability to separate out patients known for their violence or predatory behavior.

Have these changes been made in every psychiatric ward?

While I’d love to believe they had, I doubt it.  Less than 50 years ago conditions in psychiatric wards – or mental asylums as they were called – were barbaric.  Change has come, but lack of funds or political will means that it is slower in some places than others.

As people who know what it’s like to be mentally unwell and vulnerable, we need to band together and keep asking for change.   Without our voices, speaking up about the conditions in these wards and insisting that changes are made, others like us will continue to suffer.

Mariska xxx

Have you noticed any changes or improvements in psychiatric wards over the past decade?

 

 

Am I brave enough to face the past?

I’ve never thought of myself as brave person.  I’m the type  who ducks and covers my face when someone throws me a football (or a set of keys).  I’m not fond of putting myself in dangerous situations… you’ll never find me posting a photo on Facebook of myself sky-diving and I shudder at the thought of getting surprise hot-air balloon ride tickets for my birthday.

I’m all for exploring new countries – but my idea of a fun holiday does not include bungee jumping, white-water rafting or eating snails, scorpians or other unidentified objects.

But something’s happened this week that has made me muster up all my bravery.

I’ve spoken before about the most horrific time of my life… being taken from my home in a police divvy-van eight days after the birth of my first baby and being locked up in the high-dependency unit of Maroondah Hospital’s psychiatric ward .

Many of you reading this will have endured similar things: the mistreatment at the hands of “carers”, the scariness of being in a mixed ward with mentally unstable men, the loneliness… desperately trying to get people to understand you, but being met with looks of fear or annoyance.

Which is why when the Head of Nursing at Maroondah’s psychiatric ward invited me this week to meet her in a fortnight for a tour of their new facilities, I found myself feeling the opposite of brave.

When I asked my ever-supportive husband if he’d come with me, he flatly refused.  I can’t say I blame him.  Instead of enjoying the first six weeks of our first baby’s life, we both endured a type of hell-on-earth which we wouldn’t wish on anyone.

While his wife was declared insane and committed to a locked ward, my husband juggled his shock of what had happened with the needs of a tiny newborn.  While most new mums struggle to get out of the house at all, my husband bundled up our baby son and brought him into a psych ward so I could have 30 precious minutes cuddling him.

When I finally came home, we were both so traumatised that we couldn’t stand to hear what the other had been through.  It took six months of counselling to finally accept what had happened and move on.  Still, for the past 8 years, my stomach has still felt sick whenever I’ve driven past the building where the psych ward is located.

So, why would I even consider going back?

Because I’ve now realised that unforgiveness and bitterness was only hurting one person… me.  I’ve made a conscious decision to forgive the staff in that ward for the way they treated me.

And to be honest, I’m also a tad curious.  The head nurse told me that things have improved “out of sight” since I was a patient there.  The ward now has a separate mood-disorders wing for women.  And she gushed in her email about the array of activities that patients can now take part in.

Part of me is skeptical that things have improved.  But I need to know that they have – because I couldn’t live with myself if others are still living in the hell-hole that I escaped.  When I left that ward, I promised to be the voice for those who couldn’t speak up for themselves.

And so, in two weeks, I’ll walk alone into the building that is the place where I lived through the most horrible moments of my life.  I’ll put one foot in front of the other – and I’ll smile and be courteous to the staff.  But I won’t be looking at the fancy new ward or plethora of activities to see if things have improved.  I’ll look into the eyes of the patients.

Mariska xx

Have you ever had to be brave – to face something or someone in your past?  Has the experience made you stronger?  Any tips for how to muster up bravery in situations like this?

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?

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!

 

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!

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.