World Bipolar Day, Questions and Answers

Today is World Bipolar Day. A day to raise awareness of this illness, and reduce stigma. Well, you know me an my feelings on stigma, so when I saw that the lovely Blahpolar and Raeyn from the Scarlet B both completed this questionnaire in light of World Bipolar Day, I thought I would join in. Check out both of these awesome blogs, and feel free to complete the questionnaire yourself.

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1. What does bipolar disorder mean to you?

I always see bipolar disorder as a lack of balance. I swing one way, then overcompensate and swing the next. Living with bipolar disorder is a quest to maintain that balance.

2. What was your life like before you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

Turbulent. I’m lucky in that I don’t tend to rapid cycle. In fact I can go months or even years without a full-blown serious episode. This may sound positive, but it means that when the shit does hit the fan it is basically a shitplosion that takes months to clean up afterwards. In between major episodes, before diagnosis, was constantly anxious, mild to moderately depressed and sometimes self harmed. Oh and I heard voices. Every day of my damn life.

3. How old were you when you were diagnosed?

I was 26 when I was diagnosed – less than a year after the birth of my first child. I was an involuntary patient at a mother and baby unit and had been for around six weeks. My medical team suspected bipolar disorder because of the extent of my depression and psychosis. They actually thought I was having a mixed state as I was completely wired. But I didn’t talk much and they couldn’t get a full medical history out of me. Also I really didn’t know that the periods of high energy and not sleeping in my past were hypomanic/manic episodes so never thought to mention it.

Then one day in hospital I woke up and wouldn’t shut the hell up. Seriously. Unsuspecting trainee nurses would be lured into listening to me rabbit on about completely random nonsense before they could say “It’s a trap!”. I proclaimed  that I was cured and felt so good. Then things started to get weird… I started going on about how I had superhuman powers because I didn’t need to sleep (oh. if only), and that my dreams could predict conflict in South Korea. Round about the point where I told Hubster I wanted to dance around outside naked my doctors slammed their clipboards shut. “Gotcha! Bipolar Disorder! Kaboom.”

Good job team! It only took 10 years to get a diagnosis 😉

4. How do you manage your symptoms?

Day to day, week to week, sometimes hour to hour. I take medication. I see my doctor regularly. I try to limit stress. I watch my diet. I write. Hands down best treatment I have had was ECT. It may have its controversies, but I now no longer hear voices every day. Which gives me so much more time to ponder world peace and what to watch on Netfix.

5. What is life like for you now?

Interesting. I’m not sure really. I’m recovering from pretty much the worst episode of my life, so I’m a bit anxious about my mood. I analyse every up and down and if I have a bad day it’s all “HOLY CRAP IT’S COMING BACK!”. I’m like a mood meerkat. Since ECT my psychosis has gone which is awesome. But I still have to work really hard to keep my mood stable.

6. Has having bipolar disorder affected your friendships, personal life, or professional life?

Undoubtedly. Friendships – not so much. The people in my life who choose to have a problem with an illness I do not choose to have are no longer in my life.

Personal life – yes. I would agree that being separated from my family for months while being in hospital had a distinct negative effect on my personal life.

Professional life – yes. It took me years longer to finish high school and university due to episodes. I had to suspend my PhD months after starting, and I had to cancel a presentation I was due to present at a conference because I was in hospital.

7. How do you think society treats people with a mental illness, especially bipolar disorder?

Not great to be honest. I think society has more understanding than say, the 1950’s, where we all got locked up in an asylum. But there is a lot to improve on. I would like mental illness to be treated with the same respect as physical illness. It frustrates me that I knew nothing about World Bipolar Day until I came on WordPress. Nothing in the news. Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on the radio. But when it is, say, a day to recognise Diabetes, it is so widely promoted and respected. Mental illness kills too! (Also, I’m not dissing Diabetes. It is a serious illness – and I, myself, have a physical illness too. This is just one example of how mental disorders are looked past within the general community).

8. Have you ever felt discriminated against or looked poorly on because of bipolar disorder?

Yes I have felt discriminated. While I was in hospital I was denied treatment by dieticians because I was in the psychiatric ward. But apparently I could access this treatment if I were on a medical ward. Yeah. Doesn’t make sense to me either.

I was also left for 8 FRIGGING HOURS in severe pain on a psychiatric ward, with the nurses calling every half hour for a doctor to assess me. When he finally came it was evident that I was ACTUALLY really sick (and not just making it up), and suddenly everyone was rushing around and I was having an emergency CT scan. I get that hospitals are busy places. But you don’t leave someone in severe abdominal pain, without assessment, for 8 HOURS, when even the nurses are extremely concerned. I wouldn’t have been left that long if I presented to the ED. And when I have been on medical wards and in severe pain I have been seen to very quickly. Good job I wasn’t having a heart attack, because I would have been dead by the time I got any help.

And yes I have felt that I have been looked poorly on because of bipolar disorder. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding. But it still hurts.

9. Do you have any words of advice for people in the world suffering with bipolar disorder, or other mental illness?

Seek help when you need it. Don’t do what I did and struggle on until you are hiding in bushes and convinced the police are after you. Don’t be the bush girl!

Reach out. To anyone you can – friends, family, doctors, hospitals, help lines, bloggers, anyone. You are important. And you are not alone.

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Hospitals, Procedures, and Coming to Terms with Having a Chronic Disease

It has been twelve months since I first started experiencing symptoms of Oesionphilic Gastroenteritis. Having this illness has taught me a lot, but it has also taken away a lot.
Much of the time like to put a positive spin on things. My blog is called “Finding my Sunshine” after all! But today is a day that I need to talk about the negative impact.

I was initially hospitalised because I was physically unwell, wasn’t absorbing my psychiatric medication so I became mentally unwell. In hospital they wanted to treat both issues.

I didn’t spend a week in hospital. I didn’t even spend a month. I spent FIVE months away from my family. Away from my life. That is a long time for anyone. But especially for a nearly four year old who needs his Mummy.

This is a short list of what I have been through in the last 12 months. There are probably things I have forgotten.

– 13 general anaesthetics
– So many CT scans, x rays and ultrasounds that I can’t even count
– an EEG
– a number of highly unpleasant examinations that I am not even going to go in to
– major abdominal surgery which incurred seven days on a surgical ward
– major complications with said surgery which almost sent me back into theatre
– 17 different medications. At the same time.
– A urinary catheter for around 6 weeks which was not only disgusting and humiliating, but led to me getting very ill from constant infections. It became such a problem that they were close to surgically inserting a catheter into my belly that would stay there for months.
– five months as an inpatient being tossed around between four different hospitals
– 10 rounds of ECT
– profound memory loss (there are still things I can’t remember from before, during and after my hospital stay)
– at least two injections administered against my will. There may have been more that I have forgotten.
– at one point I was basically living off medical formula
– surgeries and procedures that were cancelled on me at the last minute, after I had been prepped to move to the surgical ward. After I had been given enemas, drunk litres of bowl prep and undergone various other unpleasant examinations.
– two endoscopies and one colonoscopy
– months of morphine – both IV and oral. Because that’s not addictive at all.
– These days I can never see a doctor without them taking at least six vials of my blood. Today it was 11. I actually have a scar in the crook of my arm due to the enormous number of blood tests I have had. Which is actually kind of useful because I just direct the pathologist to that spot saving everyone time and hassle (I have “bashful veins”, and getting blood can be pretty difficult).
– appointments with immunologists, gastroenterologists, dieticians, psychiatrists, psychologists, general surgeons and various other professionals. I saw multiple doctors from each category.
– Nearing the end of my stay I was told that the nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety I was experiencing was due to PTSD. Trauma from being in hospital. This is not something I really talk about to people as I feel there are far more traumatic things (war, rape, violence), and I felt a bit of a fool to have been diagnosed with PTSD because of a hospital trip. But looking back it was fairly crap I guess.

I realized today that I used to be quite nervous about medical procedures and would go to great lengths to avoid any kind of treatment – be it medication or hospital visits.

Now I have become hardened to it all. I am so used to hospitals and doctors and having instruments stuck in various parts of my body that the procedures themselves do not bother me. Going to hospital appointments, seeing doctors is a pain. But it doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t make me anxious. It doesn’t really have an impact on me other than I would much rather be doing other things.

And I forget that it shouldn’t be like that. That I should be bothered. That kind of attitude actually isn’t normal.

This week I haven’t been well. I have had an autoimmune flare up.

And it all comes flooding back. I realize that I am stuck with this illness, for better or worse. I have an extremely rare, chronic, incurable disease that I have to try and manage every day of my life.

This illness has a big impact on my life, even on the days where I am feeling good. We live in a world where food is a very social thing. Not being able to eat with others, eat the same thing as others, share food with others can be isolating and frustrating. A simple thing like going to a café for lunch involves a lot of planning and consideration. Usually I can find one item on the menu I can eat. Then I need to worry about cross contamination.

But more than the inconvenience, I am so frightened that I will have a severe relapse. For us with eosinophilic gastrointestinal diseases it is not simply a case of avoiding my known allergens and triggers. My disease breaks and bends and morphs and what used to be tolerated well by the body can, without warning, put me back in hospital.

And if my body goes. My mind is sure to follow. If my body doesn’t absorb the psychiatric medication I take, I am at huge risk of bipolar relapse. The only medication that has been shown to be effective in treating my autoimmune disease causes severe psychosis.

I feel trapped. The enormity of my condition is becoming clear. I have seen firsthand how much there is to lose, and how quickly this can happen. I think I’m just realising that this isn’t going to go away. Why can’t it just go away?!

All I can do is keep my body in the best condition through diet and lifestyle, and take action at any early signs of trouble. This week as soon as I had symptoms I changed my diet to the blandest things possible. I started taking probiotics. I had acupuncture.

Today I feel better. I still can’t tolerate food very well, but I’m not in pain anymore. Maybe I dodged a bullet. Maybe in a few days I will be able to join my family at the dinner table. I just had this idealistic view that with a high maintenance healthy diet my illness was in total remission, and I had complete control. I guess this uncertainty is the nature of the autoimmune beast.

This post is different. No clear point. No photo. No attempt at humour. No time spent proofreading. No steller writing here I’m afraid.

Sorry, guys!

Easter Time Sadness

There’s something about the sudden change in the air. We don’t have seasons here, we are propelled from Summer to Winter within the space of a week, with little time to adjust. But there’s something about that drop in temperature. That earlier sunset. That cloudy sky. The smell of flora finally allowed to flourish now that the heat has subsided. Rain! What is this rain? We celebrate those fat drops of water. Our grass starts to green again after months of dehydration and water restrictions.

It should be blessed relief. The sun doesn’t beat down with such a vengeance, burning the roads, the houses, the children in their 50SPF sun cream. The mercury doesn’t relentlessly soar past forty degrees (104F). We don’t have constantly choose between the extortionate expense of running the air conditioner, or lying in bed covered in wet flannels. I start to venture outside again. Walk again. I savor the air around me. I can breathe. I sit at the beach and laugh at the cool breeze that tickles my face. March and April in Western Australia is the feeling you get when you dive into a pool on a stinking hot day. Relief. I love this time of year. I love it.

But, oh, how I hate it too.

Every single time I have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons it has been during March/April. I have eaten my Easter eggs, alone, in a psychiatric ward multiple times. Nearly all of my severe episodes (depression and manic) have started around this time of year. I don’t know why. I don’t know what I can do to stop it.

So here I am, late March, and I feel that pull of sadness upon me. Smell is so evocative. I smell the changes in the air, and feel the temperature drop and immediately experience flashbacks. Admission to hospital. Pills. Sickness. Doctors. Nurses. IV’s. Catheters. Surgery. Suddenly I’m locked in a bathroom trying to strangle myself. Then I’m being given a bite block for ECT. I’m being held down by staff and injected. I’m crying. I’ve lost it all. I can’t go through this again. Please don’t let me go through it again.

I shy away from the Easter eggs in the shops, as if by merely seeing them I will plunge into darkness once more. Superstitiously, I donate the clothes that I wore around this time last year, and buy new things, as if that is enough to hang on to my mood. I refuse to think about anything upsetting. I throw myself into work, into cooking, into TV shows. Anything to keep the darkness at bay.

But I’m not sleeping.

It’s then I realize that my journey isn’t over. I survived last year. My autoimmune disease is in remission and my bipolar is stable. But it’s never over. There is no cure. I’ve been so confident. So happy. So sure that the hell I have been through is enough. Enough pain. Enough expense. Enough trouble. I never really considered the possibility of it coming back, despite warnings from my medical team.

But here I am. Considering that possibility. I’m so tired of constantly having to fight for what other people seem to achieve quite naturally.

Stability.

But weary though I am, I pick myself up and breathe in the fragrant air. I feel the wind in my hair. I accept the beauty of this season. Then I go home and take my medication. Put on my pyjamas. Cook something I love. I wrap my arms around my knees and look after myself, a little more than I do normally. I tell myself that I’m ok. That the change in season doesn’t necessitate a change in stability.

I tell myself that this Easter is different. Because of course it is the first in over a decade where I haven’t heard voices. Imagine that? I tell myself that I’m ok. Because I am. Truly.

This is a time of reflection and healing. It’s a time of learning and change. And as the anniversary of my hospital admission looms, I realize that it’s a time to recognize just how far I have come.
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PhD Mummy: The Best of Worlds, The Worst of Worlds

There is a lot of stuff on the “inter-webs” about being a working mum, a stay at home mum, or a studying mum. If you take the time to read all the comments on these articles and forums it is clear that we mothers should all be at each others throats. Because, apparently, all three choices ARE DAMAGING OUR KIDS, GUYS. Working mums abandon their children. Stay at home mums are lazy, and aren’t good role models. Studying mums are selfish for taking time away from their kids to better themselves. One, two, three, four. I declare a mum war.

I think its all a bunch of codswallop. Aside from the fact that your family choices are actually none of my freaking business, I think we should be celebrating ALL mothers. The mums who somehow manage to maintain their sanity even after days inside due to the rain, cranky kids, and a husband on a business trip . The mothers who arrive at a 9am meeting unflustered after spending all night up with a colicky baby, and still manage to make after school soccer practice. The studying mums who mange to juggle exam study with school runs. The single mothers who do it alone and don’t have back up. I commend you. I bow down to you. Seriously – you rock! We’ve fought for years for gender equality (and we’re not quite there yet), we should be banding together. Not ripping each other to shreds.

But anyway, while trawling the net trying to find info for women who parent as well as PhD,  in addition to learning that pretty much every parenting choice I have ever made is wrong, I found that there really isn’t a lot of information out there on being a PhD mummy. Apparently we are a rare breed.

This might be because there aren’t many of us. Most people tend to get their qualifications under their belt before having a family. Or perhaps the ones there are are so run ragged that they don’t have the time nor energy to be writing blog posts. (Ooops.) Maybe it’s because you have to be a special kind of crazy to do a PhD, and an even specialer kind to do the doctorate with kids, and we’re dying out due to natural selection. Who is to know.

The truth is, I find being a PhD mummy has a set of its own unique challenges. It is simultaneously the best of worlds and the worst of worlds.

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The best of worlds.

1) I can wear whatever I damn well please. No uncomfortable business attire for me. As long as I’m not on my way to a meeting, conference or presentation I could rock up in tracksuit bottoms with unwashed hair. Or Gucci. Or an ABBA outfit. No one cares. Academics seem to care as much about fashion as Concreters do about Paleo diets.

2) I make my own hours. I do have a contract which specifies how many hours I SHOULD be doing a week, and I tend to keep to it. But I don’t need to clock in and out, and as long as I meet my deadlines – again – no one cares. This means my work is flexible, I can arrange it around childcare, I can catch up on weekends or evenings if needs be, and this flexibility is bloody awesome for parents.

3) People think I am really smart. I’m actually not. I’m just really good at torturing myself with study. But hey, I’ll take your compliment.

4) I get paid to read and write about things I am passionate and excited about. I design my study. I don’t have to research something because that is what my boss is interested in, or that is what the grant is for. It’s all about me. Somedays I walk out of the office and think “I have the best job in the world.”

The worst of words
1) Pay. I mean…what pay? Yeah, we get a stipend which would probably just about cover the monthly Nespresso pod expenditure of the average candidate. But it’s not something you could easily survive on – especially if you have kids and were the single/main breadwinner. Working the equivalent of a full time job, often taking on part time work in addition, and not getting the financial reward – difficult. When you have a family to think of you need that extra slice of commitment and determination to continue.

2) You gotta do it. Or not do it. Quit a job two years in and you have a reference and work experience. Quit a PhD two years in and you have nothing except a bruised ego. It’s big. It’s long term. And you need to commit.

3) Some people don’t really get it.”Still at uni hey…” (Yes. And if all goes to plan, I may NEVER escape. It’s a trap!) “It’s not a real job” (Well no. I just signed a 38 hour week contract with four weeks of annual leave, and a pay that may not rival the average McDonalds employee as a hobby really.) “You must like torturing yourself.” (Ok, I actually agree with that.)

4) 95% of the PhD candidates I have met are not parents. We are at different stages of our lives, and often don’t understand each others needs. Doing a PhD is an isolating experience to begin with, and being unable to find common ground only entrenches this.

5) Missed opportunities. Sometimes I can’t go to courses or classes because I can’t get childcare on that day. Most PhDers teach to supplement their income. I can’t. I don’t have the time, energy or childcare. I can’t justify self funding conference travel when there are nappies to buy and bills to pay.

6) I know I put this as a benefit, but it can also be a negative. Working on weekends. I feel like Hubster and I tag team it and rarely see each other or spend time together as a family.

So here it is – the pro’s and con’s of being a PhD mummy. My advice for Mummy’s – do what is best for you, what is best for your children, and what is best for your family. Haters are always going to hate (hate, hate). Shake it off. Then go do your thing, whatever that may be.

The Right to Fight Stigma

So a few weeks ago I came across an online article that talked about ways to reduce mental illness stigma. Since I’m doing a PhD in the subject I’m fairly interested in what is being suggested and advertised within the community, so I sat down and had a read.

It was a well written and informative article, unfortunately I closed the window and haven’t been able to find it again – or I would have linked it to this post. Anyway, I was pretty pleased that this issue was being publicised. But then, just towards the end it started talking about how the community should be listening to ALL people with a mental illness, not just the “high functioning few” with potentially less severe diagnoses. That although its great that highly successful celebrities and athletes “come out” and talk about their struggles with mental health, there are many people within the community who are unwell and unable to function to this level. That the community should be aware of the severity of mental illness, and that being  diagnosed with a mental illness and able to function at a high level iis not necessarily the norm. They likened it to someone with Stage 1 cancer advocating for awareness instead of those with Stage 4 cancer (which I didn’t quite understand, because whatever the stage, it’s still cancer!). Although it was never specifically vocalised, it kind of felt like the author was saying “if you are high functioning you don’t have a REAL mental illness, and you are stealing all the attention away from people who need it”

I get what was trying to be said. And I do agree that high functioning is not necessarily the norm, and that all facets of mental illness need to be respected and recognised. I also get what the author was trying to say about celebrities and such sharing their personal stories. That there is a risk of people thinking “well, SHE has bipolar disorder and seems to be doing ok. So why can’t YOU? Mind over matter. Get your act together.” I get it.

But it kind of bothered me as well. You see, doctors have told many times that I am high functioning. So I suddenly felt uncertain. Do I have ANY right to be blogging about this? To be researching this? To be fighting for this? Is this what people think of me? Am I  undermining the severity of bipolar disorder? I felt unsure, and this is partly why I haven’t blogged recently. After reading this, everything I wrote felt like it was coming out wrong.

Then I thought; “Rachael, you have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Your experience is just as valid as anyone else’s. You wish to devote your life to reducing mental illness stigma, spend an extra four years in school then enter a poorly paid line of work so you can help other people. What exactly have you done wrong?”

So today, I would like to respectfully disagree with the above argument; for four main reasons.

1) When I have been extremely unwell, when I am “low functioning”, so to speak, fighting to reduce stigma is not my priority. Getting through another day is my priority. Getting myself out of hospital is my priority. I’m not equipped to mobilise, there is no way I could have undertaken a PhD. I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to watch ten minutes of daytime TV. I gave up reading. I could barely follow conversation. Hell, after ECT I practically forgot who I even was. When I am in the midst of an episode I am in pure survival mode and quite frankly I don’t give a shit about stigma reduction.

Now that I am in a better place I feel it is my responsibility to fight for what is needed, and for the people who – like I used to be – are not able to advocate, to raise awareness and to share their stories. The people who are struggling every day. The people whose illness has taken away their voice, whether temporarily or permanently.

When I was heavily pregnant I couldn’t lift heavy objects, so people assisted me. After my son was born I was able to lift once more. This is the same, I want to give a hand to the people who can’t lift for themselves at this point in time, and even those who may never want or be able to. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

2) Isn’t any action to fight this fight good? One of the major problems with stigma reduction is that people are fearful of mental illness. It is misunderstood and there is a strong belief that mental illness leads to violence. People who commit obsence acts of violence are often proclaimed to be mentally ill. The media continually exacerbates this fear with blockbuster films like “Fatal Attraction” and “The Shining”, which , although fantastic films in their own right,  perpetuate this belief that us mentally ill folk are dangerous.

I believe that one of the most helpful things we can do to try and reduce stigma is to talk about it. To share our stories. To make this a less taboo subject. Mental illness is incredibly common, and the more people talk about it, the less of “freakish” it becomes. The more we can show that all sort of people can be diagnosed with mental illness – not just mass murderers and terrorists – the more we can fight stereotype of mental illness and violence. Whether it is the average joe on the street or a Hollywood A lister sharing their experience – isn’t this what is required? And since celebrities generally have a wealth of social power…wouldn’t this be a positive thing?

2) Is the severity of my disorder dependant on my level of functioning? And if so, how do I establish how “severe” my mental illness is? I’m the girl with the proverbial curl in the middle of my forehead. “When I am good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is horrid”.

I’m considerably lucky. And I realise that. I can go for months or years without a sniff of a problem. I can educate myself to a high level. Work. Maintain my marriage and relationships. Parent. Stay out of hospital.

But – when I DO have an episode it is catastrophic. I don’t just go to bed for a few weeks. I end up in hospital for months. I’m psychotic. I’m forcibly injected. Involuntarily detained. I’m not even allowed to wear my own clothes. I’m told I am treatment resistant, a “difficult case”, and one of the worst that the doctors have ever had to treat.

If you met me without knowing my past, and I told you my diagnosis, you would probably assume I had a very mild version of bipolar disorder, or perhaps that I had been misdiagnosed. If you read my medical history you may think otherwise. I’m still not sure of the severity of my illness, and I don’t care to speculate – it is what it is. But, my point is,  unless you know all the facts, how can you judge the extent of someones illness? And really, whatever the supposed “severity”, mental illness is mental illness. Those with Stage 1 cancer also need to endure months of treatment, sickness, fear, and stress. Their experience is still valid, as is the experience of those with so called “less severe” mental illness.

3) Being high functioning isn’t always easy. People don’t always believe us when we say we are unwell. I have been denied treatment many times by numerous doctors, hospitals and nurses because I appeared to be functioning well despite my illness. By the time I was (grudgingly) offered help it was an emergency situation. Think about it; how many so called high functioning celebrities or public figures or people who seemingly “have it all” end up attempting or committing suicide.  This is the kind of mistake that costs lives

At the end of the day, my view is that stigma reduction is a major issue, and that anyone who feels able to fight should fight. I feel like the article, in a sense, was discriminating between experiences of mental illness, which is basically what we are trying to avoid in the first place. Diagnoses, status, functioning aside, we all have been touched by darkness. We all want the same thing; equality. So I will continue to research, to blog, and to share my story.

He Loves Me

He loves me.

He loves me even though I have a diagnosis of Bipolar disorder.

Even though I’m not great with the whole “mushy” thing, and generally show my affection through sarcasm and teasing.

Even when he found me on the bathroom floor covered in blood.

He loves me even though I mock his beard and continually enquire as to when he is going to enter Whisker Wars.

And even though I changed my ringtone for him to “I’m Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO. And when he complained, changed it to the Star Wars “Imperial March”

He loves me when I’m manic. And I call him up at some ungodly hour from the hospital. To inform him that I am going to bake a cake.

Even when I was psychotic and began to believe that he may actually be a criminal mastermind.

He loves me when I have to cancel the “date night” we rarely are able to have because I have had an allergic reaction to something.

He even waits outside the toilet with a glass of water.

He loves me even though I fall asleep during every damn movie we watch. Then he patiently restarts it the next night and asks me “what is the last thing you remember.” To which I reply; “I don’t know. I was asleep!”

He loves me even though I have scars, and stretch marks, and a post childbirth body. He says he loves me even more.

He loved me on the days I couldn’t get out of bed. The days I told him I couldn’t keep on living.

He saved my life. More than once. And he didn’t stop loving me.

He loves me even though I sing “The Thong Song” every time he mentions his Cisco qualifications.

He loves me even when I ask him inane questions. Like “If you had to sleep with either Susan Boyle or The Queen who would be the lucky lady?” And he will be all “neither.” And I will say “You have to choose. Or the world will DIE.” And this happens most days.

And also when I strap a garden gnome in his car, or tuck it into his side of the bed, or sit it on the toilet, and then upon discovery gleefully tell him that “he has been Gnomed!”

Even when I have been frogmarched by security guards.

Even when I forgot pretty much everything after ECT.

He loves me even though I veto his music choices on car journeys.

He lets me put on my playlist.

And doesn’t complain.

Much.

In the ten years we have been together I have spent a total of eight months in hospital, had at least 3 manic episodes, a handful of mixed episodes and countless depressions. He knows Bipolar disorder is episodic. That it may happen again. He still loves me.

He tells me every day he loves me. And every night before we go to sleep.

He loves me.

Me.

And I’m the luckiest girl in the world.

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On Confidence: Wearing a Witch’s Costume and Owning It

When I was about seven, we had our annual school concert coming up. Now, you have to understand, these concerts were HUGE. Our school was big on the performing arts, and had a theatre so large and sophisticated that it was routinely used for community events. Our annual school concert involved performances from every grade, and every parent, grandparent, or associated family figure came to watch.

Anyway, somehow I got it into my head that I needed to dress up as a witch for our performance. To be fair, I think the song was about a witches cauldron, so it is (a vaguely) a plausible conclusion. It may also be that we were told to “dress up”, which presumably meant to look nice, but for me somehow translated to “dress up as a witch”. I was also a bit of a “show off” as my family fondly remind me, who loved to sing, perform and dress up. Once, during a particularly solemn and quiet part of a catholic wedding ceremony, I asked my father whether I should get up and do a dance in the aisle to entertain everyone. So, it is also entirely possible that I just wanted to crack open the costumes.

Luckily for me we lived in a small town in Norway, in a community which, due to the oil industry and resident NATO base, was largely American. In line with American tradition, Halloween was one of the biggest events of the year, and consequently I had every Halloween costume you could imagine. Including (drum roll here) a witch’s costume.

This costume was fairly elaborate. Head to toe in black cloak. A waist length grey streaked black wig. An enormous pointy hat. And the crème de la creme, a prosthetic warty hook nose. As I got dressed on the day of the concert, I looked, if I do say so myself, pretty frigging amazing.

We drove to the school, and to the absolute horror and dismay of my parents every single other child was dressed in their Sunday best. White shirts, black pants, fresh clean faces, polished shoes. And then me. The witch with the prosthetic nose.

My teacher saw me and came over and without batting an eyelid said. “Oh wow! Look at you! You look great!”

Mum, dying inside, hurridly said “I’m so sorry, there must have been a misunderstanding…I’ll take her home get her changed!”

My teacher, being the laid back, chilled American woman she was, waved her hand “Oh no, don’t worry about it. Look at her! She looks awesome!” before breezing off to greet someone else. To be fair. I did look awesome.

So that is how I ended up on stage at the annual concert dressed as a witch.

I sung my little heart out, beaming from ear to ear. I was as happy as a king (or, ya know, a witch) and seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that I was wearing slightly different attire to everyone else. Halfway through the performance, some backstage guy came up to me and told me to take my hat off because they couldn’t see the kids behind me. I was cool with that. I mean, I still had the wig.

For my parents, in the audience, it was slightly different. As my class trooped up on stage there was lots of murmurs and whispers, and then a little girl voiced what everyone else was thinking: “But why is that girl dressed as a witch?” Sadly I don’t have a photo I can show you of my big moment. It is one of the great tragedies of my childhood that my parents didn’t take a photo or video of the event.

On the way home my parents tentatively asked me how I thought it all went. “Oh it went well.” I told them. “But I was the ONLY one who BOTHERED to dress up!”

And that, my friends, is confidence.

A decade later, I lost all confidence completely. An angsty teenager, with a diagnosis of mental illness. I was so concerned with my image, what people thought of me, whether I was “good” enough. I used to call my friends before going out to check what they were wearing. Change my outfit about a million times, and then still feel like crap when I went out. Although I knew the answers, I was afraid to speak in class, purely because I didn’t want to bring attention to myself. I analyzed the behavior of others to a ridiculous degree. Were they talking about me? Do they like me? Have I done something wrong?

This anxiety about life went on for a long time. I strived for perfection, but never seemed to achieve it. Each award I won, opportunity I received, I was sure that it was a mistake and I was some sort of imposter. When I was offered a PhD scholarship, I kept thinking of reasons why the board had made the wrong decision. I got incredibly nervous talking to my academic superiors, and expressing my views and ideas. Because they were talented and had spent decades in the industry doing amazing things. What could I, a lowly research student, possibly add of value? I hated my body. I felt completely inferior to every human being on earth. I was frightened to complain about service, to make phone calls to unknown people. I let others walk over me. It probably didn’t help matters that I was constantly hearing voices that told me I was inadequate and “bad”.

Last year, after being released from hospital, I just kind of gave up on it all. I had been in hospital for five months, I had a serious mental illness, I had had ECT, and EVERYONE AREOUND ME KNEW. I wasn’t perfect. That was well established. One day, like an epiphany, I distinctly remember saying to myself; “Fuck it. I’m ok with who I am. If other people aren’t, that’s their deal. I can’t do this anymore.” And I started to like myself.

Now, I’m completely ok with the fact that I have mental illness. I’m not going to shout it from the rooftops. I don’t let it define me – as I am a bunch of other things aside from “bipolar”. But if someone asks me about it, I will talk to them.

I’m ok with the way I look. Sure we all have off days, but I don’t spend hours scrutinizing myself in the mirror, and I wear what I want to wear.

My relationships have improved. I don’t feel needy or walked over. I am more assertive. I have so much more free time now I am not obsessing over every little detail. I recognize that I will never please some people, and I have made peace with that. That’s their loss.

I’m more assertive when it comes to service. I am not afraid to ask for what I want, and (politely) complain if it is not to standard. I don’t ask Hubster to call people up. I say “excuse me” to people who are standing in my way, instead of awkwardly standing there like some weird stalker, waiting for them to get off the phone and move.

Increased confidence has had an impact on my PhD. I feel comfortable talking to my superiors. I ask lots of questions, because that is what I am supposed to do. I’m not SUPPOSED to know everything yet. It is my JOB to learn. I play like a scientist and look at the evidence; positive feedback, awards, an elite scholarship. I worked hard and have been rewarded. I no longer feel like an imposter.

And I write what I want to in this blog. I tell my story, like it is. I give my opinion, how I see it. I don’t spend hours writing a post, then suddenly feel complete paranoia in posting it in case someone doesn’t like it, or thinks I am stupid. It’s the internet. There’s always going to be strange people. But the way I see it, this is my blog, my story, and I am not forcing anyone to read. The amazing thing is that I have had a huge increase in followers – over 600 on WordPress (you guys are awesome!)!!! What’s more, the wonderful people who read and interact with my blog are so incredibly supportive and kind. Thank you for being you!

I guess what I am trying to say is that I am not perfect – and that’s the whole point. I still have, as I suspect everyone does, days where I lose confidence in myself. And that’s ok. It’s when lack of confidence controls your life that it is an issue. Sometimes when I feel unsure I think about that little girl in the witches costume. After I have finished laughing to the point of weeping, I smile and try and channel her confidence. Because if you can go on stage randomly dressed as a witch in front of 500 or so people and totally own it, you can do pretty much anything.

The “Diet” that Changed My Life

Today I’m going to tell you about the “diet” that changed my life.

Before I started my “diet” I was incredibly ill. I have an autoimmune condition which basically results in my immune system going nuts and having allergic reactions to a number of foods. I also suffered extreme gastrointestinal pain, frequent bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea, constant fevers, bone and joint pain, headaches and excessive fatigue. Even after I was discharged from hospital I felt like crap. It was like having the flu every day of my life. And that was a distinct improvement. I was on SEVENTEEN medications. My white blood count was terrible. My mental health was affected, because feeling like absolute crap every day of your life and being unable to function does that to you.

There was no relief. Nothing I did helped. I was popping pain killers like tic tacs. My immunologist was starting to talk about putting me back on steroids (which, last time made me rampantly psychotic), or – worse – hardcore immunosuppresants that are traditionally used for cancer patients, and would leave me even more vulnerable to illness and infection than I already was. Something had to change.

So I started a diet.

I say “diet” because it isn’t really a “diet”. To me, “dieting” conjures images of cabbage soup, unrelenting hunger, and feeling deeply miserable. I’ve been on diets before. This wasn’t like that.

My aim wasn’t to lose weight. Don’t’ get me wrong – the weight I have lost in the last few months has been a welcome side effect. But I made the change to better my health, and to better my health alone.

I researched a number of different “diets’; Paleo, LCHF, GAPS, Raw, all that kind of stuff. But there were restrictions, and aspects of the diets that I didn’t like. So I made my own rules.

I used my common sense. I figured that if it grows on trees, you can dig it out of the ground, or comes from an animal it’s probably good for you. If it comes in brightly coloured packaging and the second ingredient is “sugar”, probably not so much. So, after many hours of research on nutrition, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the supermarket, no doubt pissing everyone off, while I examined ingredient lists, I completely changed my way of eating.

Here’s what I did.

– Obviously I started by cutting out all foods I knew I had allergic reactions/ intolerances to. I’d have to be pretty stupid not to.

– I decided that consuming excessive refined sugar was not going to help my physical or mental health. There are many links between sugar and physical and mental illness. So I reduced it. I didn’t “quit” sugar – as so many people proclaim, because I eat various forms of unrefined sugar – for example the fructose in fruit (personally I feel that the fibre content and nutritional value of fruit far out weighs the supposed badassness of fructose). But I swapped cane sugar for coconut palm/stevia/honey in cooking. I stopped eating so much crap. I drunk water instead of juice. But on the other hand I didn’t deprive myself either. If I go out for dinner and there is the possibility of ice cream afterwards. You bet, I’m ordering it. And I feel no guilt. This is a long term project, and I don’t believe it is sustainable without the odd treat. To me, the occasional special treat is very different to the mindless eating of junk that I was doing regularly.

– I stopped buying processed food and made it myself. When I began looking closely at supermarket products, I was absolutely horrified at how much sugar/additives/preservatives are added to foods. Most things I make nowadays are from scratch – stocks, dressings, yogurt, muesli bars, sauces etc. But again, if I’m busy and don’t have the time to culture a yogurt I buy some, I just make sure it is good quality. The aim is to improve my health, not make it worse through stress.

– I cut down on some forms of dairy ( I can tolerate cheese and yogurt better than milk). I’ve always been sensitive to dairy, so this was nothing new. I started making my own nut rice milks to cut down on the expense.

– I don’t buy “low fat”, or “diet” anything. Low fat foods are higher in sugar, and diet foods/drinks are high in chemicals. Despite the hype, your body does need (good) fat to survive. I’m full fat all the way

– I very rarely, if ever, eat fast food/convenience food. This is especially easy for me as I am actually allergic/intolerant of most fast foods.

– I eat “real” fresh looking foods. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Grains I can tolerate – such as quinoa. Good quality cuts of meat.

My favourite salad - Broccoli, carrot, red onion, apple, yogurt and lemon juice.

My favourite salad – Broccoli, carrot, red onion, apple, yogurt and lemon juice.

– I use Olive Oil and Coconut Oil for cooking instead of vegetable oil.

Bacon and homemade hash brown cooked in coconut oil.

Bacon and homemade hash brown cooked in coconut oil.

– I give myself treats. But I make them myself, and I try to make them as healthy as possible. For example .. raw desserts. Some may say that they are are calorific, or contain a lot of oils. I say they are made from whole foods, contain no refined sugar or preservatives. They fill you up and satisfy your sweet craving. All in moderation, obviously, but if you are going to have something sweet – it’s probably better than eating your weight in Reeces Pieces.

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Mango coconut “cheesecake”

– I don’t let myself go hungry. Unlike the starvation diets of my former years, if I am hungry I eat. I have three meals and several snacks a day, and I never feel deprived.

– I cut out caffeine, and alcohol (apart from on special occasions).

So I did all this – and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was hoping to improve my fatigue. I certainly didn’t expect the major impact that simply eating good quality food has had on my health.

– I no longer have gut pain. Any. At all. (Well, unless I eat something on my allergy list). This is HUGE for me, as I have lived with chronic pain for a long time.

– I can keep my food down…and up. Hells to the yeah!

– I have come off FIFTEEN of my medications. And I am currently cutting out another.

– I no longer have fevers, joint or bone pain. I don’t catch every cold that goes around.

– My headaches have disappeared.

– A plantar wart I had on my foot completely disappeared. I had had this wart for 10 years and tried every treatment you can imagine. It was like a goddamn miracle.

– My hair is lovely and shiny and I’ve stopped bruising so easily

– I have energy. I wake up early, sleep well, and never feel tired during the day.

– My concentration is now awesome.

– All my food cravings have gone.

-I am no longer having panic attacks. I don’t feel remotely depressed. I have no psychosis. I’m generally cheerful and look forward to the future. I have been able to come off a lot of my psychiatric medication.

– I lost 9kgs (about 20lbs) fairly rapidly. Without restricting. Without really trying.

So, for me, this “diet” was the best thing I have ever done. I’m certainly not cured by any means. But I can manage my conditions, and I now have control over something that controlled me, put me in hospital, and very nearly broke me. This knowledge, in itself, is so important for my mental health. Next week I see my immunologist. At my last appointment, a few months ago, I cried and told him that I couldn’t keep going like this. This time, I can go back and say “no” to the steroids and immunosuppresants.

I got this. 🙂

The Dentist of Doom and the Very Bad Cat

It’s been busy lately. Good busy. I’m feeling good, my physical health is improving. Things are going well.

But that’s not to say there haven’t been a few dramas.

Remember The Tooth That Broke Me? Well, I got that fixed. If by fixing the problem, I mean removing it completely. I finally plucked up the courage to go to the Dentist of Doom. I don’t mean a particular dentist. Pretty much any dentist, in my experience, means doom. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to the dentist. I can say that I’ve had plenty of colonoscopies recently, and at least you are asleep, and they bring you a sandwich afterwards. All you get at the dentist is a lecture on flossing and hefty bill.

Anyway I went along, the dentist took some x-rays then informed me rather sombrely that the tooth was not viable. It was badly cracked at the base, couldn’t be fixed, and needed to come out. She could refer me to  Specialist So and So, but he would probably say the same thing and it would be super expensive.

So, playing it cool and casual, I told her: “Ok. I’m happy for it to be taken out.”
“Yep, I can do that now.” she said, grabbing some of her scary looking tools.
“What? NOW?!” I squeaked, horrified. This was totally not the plan. The plan was to smile, walk out that door, and NEVER EVER RETURN.
“Sure. It should be pretty simple, and will save you coming back.” I caught sight of a gargantuan needle. I wept.
“Ok…but…NOW?!” I started to hyperventilate. Then I started apologising and rabbiting on about how I was nervous and didn’t like dentists. Then I realised that I was saying this to a dentist and apologised some more. I think I basically talked as much as possible so she couldn’t get her hands, or her scary tools, in my mouth. Fortunately she had a good sense of humour.

Peer pressure won, and I did it. I sat back in the chair of doom, squeezed my eyes shut, thought of England, and let her whip that goddamn tooth out. Afterwards I sat up, feeling quite pleased with myself, and slurred a version of “Well, that wasn’t too bad!”

Then I promptly passed out, and they had to call Hubster to pick me up. So much for cool and casual.

And this is why I don’t like the dentist.

We also finished renovations on our old house. Long story short, it was a family effort and took many months. We finally had the new carpet laid. New tenants were due to move in within a few weeks. All was under control.

But of course, this is my family. Where things are never as they seem. And things are rarely under control.

Hubster, Master D and I went for a relaxing stroll one evening, and we passed the old house. We decided to have a peek through the windows at the new carpet. As we were looking through Hubster suddenly exclaims..

“Rachael. There’s a POO in there! On the new carpet!”
“Oh har har har.” I retorted. “Very funny.”
“No, Rachael. I’m serious. There is POO all over it!”

I was about to roll my eyes, when he suddenly jumped over the back fence to let himself in the back door. Like a boss. Then I knew he was serious. I looked in the window again, and to my absolute horror Hubster was right. Crap. Crap everywhere.

At first I was really confused. I mean, the house had been locked up for weeks. The only people who had been in were the agent and the carpet layers. I came to the conclusion  that the carpet layer must have taken a dump on his new flooring. Which wasn’t entirely unreasonable, as we found he had had some sort of colon explosion in the main toilet and neglected to clean it up. And call me sexist; but I figured that most female, twenty something, blonde, highly attractive estate agents don’t shit on carpets.

Then we heard a pitiful meow.

Turned out my sisters cat had somehow, God knows how, gotten locked in the house. Why? We’ll never know. How? We can but imagine. My sister lives next door, but the cat had never been to our house before. Out of all the rooms in the entire house – most of which were tiled – he chose the new carpet as his toilet. How do these things even happen. What the hell man?!

Me being me, I started laughing. Because what else can you do really? Then the agent called and was all “this is going to sound really strange….but the new tenants were having a look in the house, and they said there is a cat in there…” and I laughed even more. I’m still laughing to be honest.

I’m happy to report that all carpets remain unscathed. No animals were harmed (although this was touch and go) and the tenants are still moving in.

He's not sorry.

He’s not sorry.

Seriously. Not sorry at all.

Seriously. Not sorry at all.

And this is why I’m a dog person.

That Awkward Moment When It Was 2014

If I could sum up last year it would be; “That awkward moment when it was 2014”

Because really, the whole year was a series of awkward and unfortunate events. Today I have written about a few of these moments, in no particular order of “What the Dickens?!”

1) I had the strange experience of being a patient at three different hospitals within a 12 hour period. I was resident at one psychiatric facility. Transferred to another psychiatric facility. Then admitted to a surgical ward at a third hospital through the ED. Some people bed hop. I hospital hop. What a tart.

2) When I was transferred to the second facility it was in a van with a CAGE in the back. I went to get in the back then noticed all these bars everywhere, then was all insulted and “Dude. I’m not riding in a cage” to the driver. He laughed and said he could handle me me, so I got to ride shotgun. I didn’t mention the word “shotgun” though.

3) My entire family were stricken with gastro when I was admitted back to the medical ward due to surgical complications. I wasn’t expecting to be admitted so spent four days without so much as a paperback or pyjamas. I did, however, possess a sense of impending doom as I wondered what would happen to my abdominal surgical site once I, too, got an attack of the vomits, seeing as an unexpected sneeze rendered me incapacitated. Unfortunate for me perhaps, but less unfortunate than for Hubster, who spent an evening attempting to clean projectile vomit (Master D’s. Not his. Or so he says) from every square inch of our car.

I can say this because today I had the privilege of performing the exact same task. I spent close to an hour trying to remove Master D’s car seat, with a pair of pliers (don’t ask), I was covered in various bodily fluids that, for once, were not my own. All I will say about the matter is that lying in bed with a morphine drip would have been a blessed relief.

4) I walked into my assigned room only to find a young girl in there. Masturbating. That wasn’t awkward at all.

5) I somehow acquired and wore someone else’s underwear. The horror. I never found out who’s unmentionables I had inadvertently stolen. All I know is that they were six dress sizes larger than me.

6) I kept coming across people I went to school with. Not as fellow patients, but as my treating medical professionals. As a patient with mental illness and an embarrassing gastrointestinal disorder that was just, you know, AWESOME.

7) I was propositioned for sex. I am not even kidding.

8) I had to wear a canvas sack for a few days. That’s right. I literally wear a sack and get propositioned for sex. I am not quite sure what that says about him. Or me.

So there are some of my most treasured moments of 2014. We can all learn a thing or two from this.

1) Always pack a bag if you go the ED.
2) Knock before you enter.
3) Check your laundry…
4) …and forget bars and clubs. Psychiatric hospitals are the place to pick up.

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