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!

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Approaching the New Year like a set of monkey bars

I’m one of those people who love to celebrate New Year’s Eve.   This year, house-sitting my parent’s small farm, we decided to invite two other families with young kids around to bring in the New Year with us.

After enjoying a barbeque dinner and games of backyard cricket and footy, we tucked the kids into bed and sat around chatting, enjoying a glass of wine and waiting to see the fireworks when the clock struck midnight.

When one of the other women suggested we take turns to say our highlight for 2013, my husband Nathan and I glanced at each other.  I don’t think either of us would say that 2013 was a great year for our family.  With business troubles and my struggles with anxiety and depression, this year has been a tough one for both of us.

Yet, sitting there, listening to others talk about their highlights (new babies, houses sold and bought etc.) I recalled something C.S Lewis once said:  ‘Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.’

This quote stuck in my mind because it reminded me of our four-year-old daughter, who loves the monkey bars but is too scared to let go with one hand to reach for the next bar.  Instead, she hangs there until, eventually, she drops.

With this in mind, my New Years resolution for 2014 is to let go of the past and start moving forward again.

Having a whole new year ahead of me feels like opening a brand new journal… crisp, new pages ready to be written upon.  And so, instead of dwelling on the past (see my post Unforgiveness: Don’t let it corrode you) I am going to look forward to the many wonderful things awaiting me this year.

Sure, our life is bound to have ups and downs and be far from perfect.  But perfect would be boring right?

Have you made a New Year’s resolution?  I would love to hear it!

Taking anti-psychotics during pregnancy: is it safe?

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

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

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

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

Here’s the lowdown on this great research project:

What does NRAMP aim to achieve?

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

What’s involved in the study?

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

Who can participate in NRAMP?

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

How can I join NRAMP?

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

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

Contact details:

Ms Heather Gilbert, Senior Research Nurse

Phone + 61 3 9076 6591

Sharing the ups and downs of motherhood

In Australia, local governments have come up with a great way to link first-time mums with babies around the same age together in small groups.

For a period of about six weeks, a maternal and child health nurse facilitates group discussions, with topics ranging from birth experiences to concerns with baby’s feeding or sleeping(or not sleeping!) habits.  After bonding during such an intense, emotional period, many of the mums continue to meet weekly – right up until their ‘babies’ start school.

Having heard from friends about these “amazing” mother’s groups, I was keen to get involved.  Yet, it was with immense trepidation that I arrived with my seven week old baby son at the local maternal and child health centre for my first class.

When the maternal health nurse invited each mum to introduce ourselves and talk about our impressions of motherhood so far, I felt a mild sense of panic.

You see, after unexpectedly experiencing an acute manic episode five days after my son’s birth, I had spent the past six weeks in psychiatric hospitals.  My husband and family had been the ones to wean my young son off breastmilk and onto bottles, they had established a 3-hourly feed-play-sleep routine, and they had ‘mothered’ him during my absence.

When it was my turn to talk, my usual confidence deserted me.  I quickly mumbled something about having a “great, natural birth” (the truth) and how much I was loving being a mother (also the truth). Yet, despite the horrific ordeal I had just been through, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth about this.

Almost eight years on, and two more children later, the women in this original mothers group are still my good friends.  Nowadays, we tend to meet up without the kids, enjoying a dinner out or a weekend away together.

I’ve since told this group of friends about my Bipolar Disorder diagnosis, and the true story of what happened after my first son’s birth.  I’ve also listened as many of them have shared stories of illness, betrayal, unemployment and struggles with motherhood.

Through this, I’ve learnt that none of us have perfect lives.

To pretend we do, is to do ourselves – and our friends – a disservice.  It is by being honest with each other about our struggles, that we find a new depth to our friendships.

Have you felt comfortable disclosing your diagnosis with other mums in your mother’s group or children’s kindergarten, school or sporting clubs?  If not, why?