3 small reasons why I stay on my meds

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With charming side-effects like weight gain and hair loss, it’s pretty tempting to stop taking my mood-stabilising medication.  Each night, when I pop my pill out of its pack, something within me wants to rebel and throw it down the sink instead.

But I never do – for three small reasons.  As I write this, they’re sleeping in their beds upstairs.

As a mum with young children, I don’t have the luxury of  letting my Bipolar Disorder Type 1 go unchecked.  While I might quite enjoy the feeling of hypomania – with the surges in creativity and energy and reduced need for sleep – for me this can swiftly lead to an acute manic episode, causing heartache and worry for my family.

After experiencing numerous episodes of acute mania and psychosis in my 20’s, staying on my medication and having a good relationship with my Psychiatrist means that I have avoided having an acute manic episode for almost eight years.

The last time I was severely unwell was after the birth of my firstborn son – with days of insomnia following his birth culminating in me becoming delusional. None of the midwives at my private maternity hospital knew what to do and sent me home.

My son was just six days old and cradled in his Daddy’s arms when l was led out of our house to a Police divvy van waiting outside – the unfortunate mode of transport to psychiatric hospitals for mentally unwell patients in Australia.

I worked hard to become well again after that traumatic episode and never want my now almost eight-year-old son to witness his mum being forcibly taken to hospital again.

Last year, after a period of extreme stress, I experienced acute depression for the first time.  I would find myself crying uncontrollably in the car on the way home from work, only to sit staring at my plate unable to speak during our family dinner.  Afterwards, instead of playing with the kids, I would curl up on my bed – while my husband spent hours patiently trying to talk me out of my anxiety.

Weekend were no longer a time for relaxation and fun.  Instead, I would be lost in my own dark world – dreading the thought of leaving the house to go back to work on Monday. Finally, I realised that what was happening wasn’t normal and went to my Psychiatrist for help.

I share this experience because – for me – modern day medicine has been life changing.

My medication may cause me to raid the pantry at night.  It may have lowered my libido and I may, at times, shed more hair than my pet Golden Retriever.  But finding the right medication for me – and staying on it – has also enabled me to live a full, happy life with my family.

It meant that I could confidently go on to have two more wonderful children, even after the trauma following my eldest son’s birth.

It has given me the confidence to work in my dream job as a Senior Campaign Manager with an international aid organisation.

And – as my husband has just kindly pointed out to me – being stable on my medication has also meant that he and my  family no longer have to tiptoe around my fluctuating moods, living in fear of another acute manic episode.

So when I hold that small yellow pill in the palm of my hand each night, I don’t throw it down the drain and hope for the best.

I take it as prescribed, in order to give my children and my family the best of me.

Mariska xx

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What Lindy Chamberlain taught me about bitterness

Getting out of bed at 5.30am to attend a breakfast one hour’s drive away in the City isn’t my idea of a great morning.  I’m not a morning person at the best of times.  But yesterday I did just that and was rewarded with a morning I’ll never forget.

I’ll be the first to admit that – at times – I have struggled with bitterness.  For a while there, after my diagnosis and again after I spent time in a psychiatric hospital after the birth of my first baby, I felt let down by my own body and angry at my ill-treatment at the hands of medical staff.

Which is why I found the speaker for this year’s Melbourne Prayer Breakfast, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, so gripping.

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If anyone has a reason to be bitter, it’s Lindy Chamberlain (as she’s commonly known).  Accused and convicted of murdering her nine-week-old baby daughter Azaria (pictured above with her) while camping at Uluru – then known as Ayers Rock – in 1980, Lindy maintained that she saw a dingo leave the tent where Azaria was sleeping.

After serving three years in prison with hard labour, Lindy’s conviction was overturned after the discovery of new evidence, and she was acquitted of all charges.

Standing up on the stage, in front of 1000 people, Lindy looked more like someone’s friendly mother-in-law than someone who had been to hell and back.  She started her speech by saying that she wasn’t going to talk about Azaria – or the dingo: “What happened to me is not as important as what I learned from what happened to me,” she explained.

Sitting there, listening to this woman talk about being forced to clean toilet blocks with a toothbrush, and being hated by her fellow prisoners, I couldn’t help but feel anything but deep empathy for her.  Prison didn’t sound to dissimilar from the high-dependency unit of a public psychiatric ward.

And yet, Lindy’s message was one of hope.

She challenged me (and I’m guessing everyone else in the room) to not let tragedy, or illness, or circumstances in life prevent us from living life to our full potential.

“It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s what we choose to do with it that matters,” she said – her voice cracking as she wiped away tears. While she could have become bitter and turned her back on her religion, Lindy said that she has learnt through this all that “God is not the author of hardship and pain but will guide us through it.”

I walked away from that breakfast feeling inspired. If Lindy Chamberlain can go through what she did and not be a bitter woman, then I’m going to try and follow in her footsteps.

Yes, I have bipolar disorder.  Yes, that makes life more difficult than if I didn’t have it.  But what I have learned through this illness is valuable – both to me and to others.  Those of us who have endured hardship and suffering can be “wounded healers” – sharing our own journey with others – to encourage them in their own struggles.

If we allow bitterness consume us, to corrode our self-confidence and steal our joy – then we lose the opportunity to turn a bad situation into something good.

Have you found that your experience of mental illness has enabled you to reach out to others in similar circumstances?  Has helping others helped you?  Would love to hear your comments below.

 

 

Why people with Bipolar ‘Zip It’

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Glancing through Twitter the last couple of weeks, a little icon with ‘Zip It – donate your voice‘ written on it caught my eye.  Spending my days as a fundraiser for World Vision, I’m always keen to check out what others are doing in the ever challenging quest to raise funds for charities.

Given the title, it shouldn’t have surprised me that a campaign challenging Australians to stay silent for 24 hours – was raising money for mental health charities.

So often people with a mental illness feel like we have to stay silent about what we are feeling.  Fearful of the reaction of others, we force ourselves to “zip it”.

When workplace chatter turns to mental illness, we “zip it” – not wanting to open up about our condition lest people start to treat us differently.

When we’re feeling stressed, or anxious or  like depression is starting to close in on us, we “zip it” – preferring to suffer in silence than to admit that we’re not coping as well as we’d like others to think we are.  Sadly, keeping our lips sealed, and not talking about what is going on inside, often makes what we are experiencing ten times worse.

But we’re not the only ones who “zip it” when faced with mental illness.

When we do become unwell, our loved ones around us “zip it” – trying to cope alone rather than risk embarrassing us by letting others know of our condition.  Often, their friends, colleagues or fellow church members have no idea of what they – or their acutely unwell husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother or child – is going through.

Most psychiatric hospitals are daunting places for the mentally unwell – let alone visitors.  Moving from the flower and helium balloon filled maternity ward to the high dependency unit of a nearby psychiatric hospital after becoming acutely unwell following the birth of my first baby, the lack of visitors or even ‘get well’ cards surprised me.

As someone who’s been forced to “Zip It” about my own condition on many occasions, I applaud the mental health charities of Australia for this great new campaign.  Last time I checked, it had raised almost $58,000 for the following charity partners:

You can check out the campaign for yourself at http://www.zipit.org.au

Some of you might ask why are we discussing a fundraising campaign on a blog for mums with Bipolar Disorder?  Well, because while I (and I’m guessing many of you) are still forced to “Zip It” – it doesn’t have to be like this in the future.

With awareness and education comes understanding.  If down the track any of my three children are diagnosed with a mental illness – I’d like to hope that  attitudes will have changed so much by then that they won’t think twice about discussing it with their friends or workmates.  That there will be no need to “Zip It”.

If you’ve heard of any other great fundraising campaigns for mental health charities, leave a comment below – I’m sure we’d all love to hear about them!

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.

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.

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Patients at an insane asylum in the 1950’s.

Unforgiveness: Don’t let it corrode you

Many of us have been through hard times.   And it’s only natural when we’re hurt to want to revisit the source of that hurt, time and time again.

After I was subject to humiliating treatment by carers in a public psychiatric ward, I found it hard to forgive.  I came out of hospital with all sorts of plans for how I would get revenge – wanting to sue the hospital or let the media know what went on inside the walls of the locked ward of that hospital.

My family convinced me this wasn’t appropriate – that that the staff were only doing their (very hard) job.  But I felt let down by the medical profession, and angry that carers and nurses could have treated me so brutally.

Eventually, I stopped ranting and raving about their behaviour toward me and other patients.  But to be honest, it was only years later that I found it within myself to forgive them.

Those carers will never know that I’ve forgiven them.  But I knew that I needed to forgive them anyway.

We all know bitter people.  They’re the ones that no one really enjoys being around because they wallow in self-pity and seem to constantly go on about every little thing that has ever happened to them.

Like a cancerous cell or a dangerous mould spore, bitterness thrives in the dark recesses of our hearts and feeds on every new thought or spite or hatred that comes our way.  And like an ulcer aggravated by worry, or a heart condition made worse by stress, it can be physically and emotionally debilitating.

I admit that I struggled with feelings of bitterness about what had happened to me in the psychiatric ward.  I felt that the horror of my experience somehow ‘exempt’ me from the need to forgive.

But something within me knew that I needed to forgive.  Unforgiveness eats away at us until it spills out and corrodes everything around. And so, I dropped thoughts of revenge and I forgave.

While forgiving didn’t take away my pain entirely, it kept me from being sucked down into the downward spiral of resentment.

Once you are able to let go of wrongs that have been done to you, it changes everything.  It will change your relationships, your attitudes and your whole approach to living.

Forgiving isn’t a sign of weakness.  It’s a sign of strength.

Have you ever struggled with feelings of bitterness?  Have you ever had to forgive people in the medical profession, or friends and family, for the way they have treated you while you were unwell?