Pink & Blue Mummyland

Pink and blue parenting through pink and blue moods….

Scared of the Sun

This post is related to my previous post Fear of the Fog. I realise that the titles may now come across as slightly cheesy, but what can I say – I’m an alliteration junkie (please comment below with other words for ‘junkie’ that start with ‘a’…)

This past weekend I have had the joy of going away on our church’s women’s weekend. We had 70 women all in one place, being challenged by some amazing talks and taking part in some inspiring worship.

I also managed to have some relaxed and elongated time with my best friends, Beauty ICE and Lawyer ICE. Our normal prayer times are odd hours, grabbed from between jobs and school runs, so it was lovely to have some proper conversations, intense sharing, and laid back company with colouring books, knitting, and large bars of Galaxy chocolate.

On the Saturday, Beauty ICE and I went for a walk around the grounds of the conference centre, chatting and reminiscing. During our last women’s weekend away I was in the middle of a full blown nervous breakdown as I swung quickly and wildly from hypomania to depression. Beauty ICE (who from now on I’m just going to refer to as Natalya because it’s easy and there’s now no reason not to) was the person who bore the brunt of supporting me at that point, and I can categorically state that I was not fun to be with. My brain had suddenly swung into a major low before getting over the high – the result was all the negative self talk that comes with depression, but at four times the speed. It was hideous.

So this time, I had huge reason to be thankful for my stable state of mind. We walked, thanked God for the change, and had fun whilst we walked. We laughed and we yelled and we let our hair down with gay abandon, and arrived for dinner rosy cheeked and giggly, ready to eat, drink (juice) and be merry. For the first time in a long time I felt more than ok – I felt good.

But bipolar is never far away. I can never forget that it’s there, and it’s still not been long enough for me to relax and let my guard down. By the time we got to the evening meeting I was in panic mode. What if this was hypomania? Playing on swings, running through puddles and throwing snowballs isn’t exactly normal behaviour for me, and I didn’t even notice. The more I thought about it, the more frightened I became. I was on the verge of phoning every medic I knew just to check whether I should be doubling my medication, getting to A&E, checking myself in somewhere. Somewhere along the line, bipolar stole the fun.

Fortunately, sitting between my ICE ladies is the safest place to be. I can stress, I can cry, I can talk about the same things over and over again, and they never get stressed out about “what it might mean”. By the end of the session I was fine, and headed off to the team quiz in my normal, fiercely competitive way.

But it never goes. I like to think that one day I’ll be able to stop that level of overreaction and get to the stage where I can enjoy the good days and sit through the bad days without panic of relapse. But there is a fine line between self-awareness and paranoia, and whilst the former is sensible and necessary for continued health, the latter steals the joy, reminding me that I will never be normal again.

This post doesn’t have quite the happy ending I’d hoped, but it’s real. I’m coming to terms with the idea that this is what life is like now.

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Identity #2.5 – Benches

Before anyone gets confused by my convoluted numbering system, I should clarify Identity #3 is part written and on its way.

This is guest blog of sorts – except that although I didn’t write it, and the person who did doesn’t have a blog. She has a notebook, and a pencil, and a creative brain, that she sometimes honours me by sharing. Her name is Natalya, although some of you will know her as Beauty ICE (go and read about The Cast if that makes no sense to you!), and this is what she wrote:

The Bench

It’s enough to be what you were created to be.
Whether lovingly hand crafted,
Or one of millions formed by machine.
A bench is a bench.

Whether a meeting place for lovers
Or a place for the elderly to sit and take stock.
A bench is a bench.

Covered in raindrops,
Glistening frost,
In deep snow,
Or searing in a heat wave.
A bench is a bench.

It’s purpose is unchanging,
Not dependent on circumstance around it.
A bench is a bench.

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Identity #2 – Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

happy birthday facebook!

This week sees eleven years since Facebook graced our screens (happy birthday Facebook!). I’ve found myself wondering how we portray ourselves on Facebook, and what it means when we call people our ‘friends’. I have 383 friends on Facebook. I couldn’t tell you much about most of them, and what I can tell you is only the good stuff. Facebook gives us a chance to show the best of ourselves and hide the worst of ourselves, putting out a completely false impression of who we really are.

Now, I don’t mind this. I don’t think it’s healthy to share every little struggle with 383 people. But it begs an answer to the question: Who are we really? And is it ok to edit what we share with people about who we really are? Do the selves we portray on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or whatever the in thing is, actually help us build good relationships?

In our small Bible study group last night we were talking about relationships and struggles. One of the quotes interested me; it encouraged us to “create a safe place where others feel valued enough to remove their own masks …truly seeing each other and loving each other anyway.”

Now I’m not claiming that we should air every private thing we deal with on Facebook, but I’m aware that there are many people who are much younger than me, who don’t remember life without Facebook and online relationships. I worry that if this is the example we are setting, we risk having a whole generation of people who don’t know how to relate on a real level, have no place they feel valued enough to remove their masks, and therefore don’t learn to love and be loved, warts and all.

I am blessed to have people with whom I share my deep struggles, and trusted enough have relationships where others share their struggles with me. Some of these are the same people, some aren’t, but all these relationships are based on honesty and valuing the other. And none of these relationships are Facebook based.

So, through Facebook, are we just creating an atmosphere where people feel the need to be fake? And am I exacerbating that by never sharing any of the things I find hard in life? More importantly, does that online habit seep into my real life, taking from my friendships the authenticity of being who we are?

It worries me that we might be encouraging a cycle of only sharing the good stuff, thus making the other people on our news feeds feel they need to do the same. Our real identity becomes our secret identity as we pretend to be something other than we are.

So my question is, how real am I being in different places and with different people? And to what extent am I claiming that the information I choose to share with others is all there is to me?

Which is my secret identity?

Know any of the answers? Please share below. Click here to read Identity #1.

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Identity #1: No One Like Me

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently. The question ‘who am I?’ has come up repeatedly over the years, and every time it comes round again I find something I’ve not known before. So, in the spirit of honest blogging, I decided to write down the things I’ve been discovering about who I am and what that means. The first leg of the journey looks at opposites: reminding myself who I’m not.

People have always said to me ‘you’re so like your dad’. I’ve been hearing it for years, from the people who know my family well to those who have only seen the outer picture we present. I find this hard because Dad is an alcoholic, and has behaved very badly towards a lot of people, many many times.

I have now learnt to see that when people compared us, they probably meant ‘like’ him in a good way – my gifts have always been similar to his, even when I’ve been really poorly and unable to use them. In other people’s minds they were probably saying I was good at performing like him, or my sense of humour meant I was funny like him. I probably get my ability to speak in public from him, and I certainly can’t deny that I look like him.

But, in my screwed up little brain, I took it to mean that I was like him on a deeper level, in that secret place we all have and never let anyone see. My hidden dread was that there was some flaw in me, just like the one I saw in him, and that some day I’d lose control and all the things I hated would spew out. Somewhere, there’s a crack in my soul, just like my father, and one of these days, no matter how fast I run, it’ll catch up with me.

Listen closely now, because here’s the lesson it’s taken me fifteen odd years to learn: no one is like anyone else. None of us! When the Bible says God knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs, it’s not suggesting he used a pattern. It shows intricacy, care, a pride in His work. I have finally learnt that just because half of my DNA comes from my father, I don’t have to inherit the damage done to him. I don’t have to fear being broken just because that’s what I see in him.

And you know what? Now I’ve given up the fear of what might leak out, it turns out that I am a bit like my dad. I can see in myself some of the positive things I get from him – my passion and drive and creativity come from God, but are passed down through a generation that I’ve tried to ignore.

Here’s the other thing I’ve learnt: as much as there is no one like me, there is also no-one like him. There is no one in the world with his set of gifts and shortcomings, flair and foibles.

So here’s the message. Comparing ourselves to someone – anyone – in our lives, whether it’s someone close by or someone we admire purely by reputation, not only doesn’t get us anywhere, but also stops us becoming who we were designed to be. If God has a plan and a purpose for my life that is different from anyone else’s, it makes sense that I am uniquely the person who can fulfil that plan.

And, as much as I sometimes berate myself for who I am, and nurse disdain for my fallen ways, I can’t escape the fact that I am who I am supposed to be. I am Me.

Who are you?

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Fear of the fog

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It doesn’t take much to worry me when it comes to my mental health.

Today I feel low. I feel unmotivated, unable to concentrate, like I’ll never manage to achieve anything that’s of worth, and altogether too exhausted to go up to bed. Staying awake into the night and writing long diatribes is a key sign that Churchill’s famous black dog might be following close behind me. I find myself too scared to stop writing and go to bed, because then I might think, and that could lead anywhere. Or I might find myself completely unable to think, which is even worse.

The thing is, the fear of it can be just as bad as the actual thing. The memory of having been so ill not all that long ago (eighteen months can feel like forever or yesterday) makes me hyper alert to any possible symptom. The thought of being that unwell again induces a level of anxiety I normally only experience in an episode of depression, so I end up on a roundabout of doubt – am I anxious about becoming depressed, or anxious because I’m depressed?

As is always my key tactic, I try and work my way back to see if there is an actual cause for feeling low. I search the calendar for hormone surges or forgotten traumatic anniversaries. I look back over Facebook and Twitter to see what might have nudged me off kilter – social media can be cruel in its reminders of what I haven’t done or become. If I can find a solid reason why I might feel like mud, then there’s more of a hope that it will pass without effect, that it is just a normal bad day, like normal people have.

There’s nothing like experiencing what normal people experience to remind you that you’re not actually normal. In a bad few days a normal person can curl up, eat chocolate, and watch a movie that provides an excuse for a good cry. For me, any longer than a couple of days and I start getting antsy.

So, I start putting things in place. I stop listening to the news, and exchange sad Joni Mitchell music for something brighter. I make sure I go out, even if it’s just to the supermarket cafe, so that my four walls don’t become overbearing. I get up, I get dressed, I eat – I make myself do all the things that most days I hardly notice myself doing. I talk to friends – if my best friends don’t hear from me for a day, they come knocking.

It’s an effort trying not to get depressed when depression is one of the things you most fear.

But who knows, it might all be better tomorrow.

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Things I’ve learnt from my new friend.

This week, a hello-how are you-goodbye relationship with another school run mum has turned into a proper full blown friendship. And she only lives two doors down, which makes it doubly fab.

We were standing in her front garden a couple of weeks ago, having a conversation about someone, and she made a comment – “depression’s a bitch.” It sounded like something she knew from experience, so I asked her. Then, from almost nothing, I told her I had bipolar. “That must be a bitch too,” she said.

I hadn’t been in the greatest place – I have been fighting depression for the last few weeks, and, despite all my best efforts, it’s been getting worse not better. With depression often comes anxiety, and the school playground is like my kryptonite, which means that twice a day I have to gird my loins and force myself to drop MiniMe off with a kiss and a wave. One day, School Run Mum found me wobbling home, asked how I was, ignored me when I said I was ok, and scooped me up into her house for coffee.

There followed a three hour long talk about depression, bipolar, kids, and life in general, during which I opened up more than I ever had before to someone I didn’t know very well. SRM is a very good listener, and, it seems, completely unshockable. I learnt some very important lessons in that one conversation:

1 – I don’t always have to pretend everything is fine.
There are times when it’s not. There are times when it’s REALLY not. And actually, half the time I’m claiming to be fine, I look so categorically un-fine that there’s no point saying anything at all.
In truth, I don’t entirely understand why we do it – why we feel the need to be so constantly self sufficient. Why is it not ok to share with someone that you’re struggling with life? The number of people being treated for stress in this country is at an all time high. I don’t believe that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I do believe that a problem, when shared, loses some of its power and becomes – at least temporarily – a bit less all consuming.
And it’s only by admitting that I’m not fine that I can get some help. Today, SRM is going to the big playground to pick up our daughters, and it am going to the much quieter entrance to collect our sons. So simple a solution, and yet so helpful. And it would never have happened if I hadn’t stopped pretending I was fine.

2 – It’s not my job to educate people.
Ok, so I understand that mental illnesses can be a hard thing to get your head around if you don’t have one, and that I have first hand knowledge that I can share to make it easier for people to grasp. But actually, my time is pretty much taken up with trying to live with it, and dealing with how I feel is work enough for me. At the end of the day, if people want to understand bipolar, they are quite capable of doing it without me having to be teacher. And if they aren’t that interested, well, what I say isn’t going to make much difference anyway.
The caveat to that is that there are some things that only I can teach. Just as one diabetic will experience life completely differently from another diabetic, no two bipolar sufferers will have the same responses to situations. So, if I want support, I need to be the one to tell people how they can do that. I need to educate the trustworthy people around me as to what they can do to help me – not ‘people with bipolar’, but me. This education is how SRM knows that if I come out of the playground shaking and crying one morning, coffee and talking are good, but hugs are not.
It’s the difference between being proactive in my recovery and being psychiatry professor to the world and his wife.

3 – I don’t have to persuade people to accept me.
“Look! I have bipolar, but I’m normal! I have friends! I have normal relationships! Being bipolar doesn’t change who we are – go, have friendships with mentally ill people!”
This is something I hear in my head with monotonous regularity. I have this crazy idea that any relationships I forge can be used as evidence that relationships with people with mental health problems can be as valuable as ‘normal’ friendships. Getting people to accept ‘bipolar Abbie’ is part of a huge, single handed crusade to break down the stigma of mental illness. My mantra for a long time has been: “see – we’re just like you.’
The truth is, I’m using this as an excuse to hide the fact that, actually, I just want to be accepted for who I am. Me and bipolar – we come as a package. You can’t have one without the other. I feel like having put a name on it and called it an illness has suddenly made me scary and unpredictable and too much of a risk in the friendship stakes. What’s really funny about this is that actually, the symptoms have always been there, I just take drugs to reduce the severity of them. I’m probably saner now than before I was diagnosed.

4 – Fuck ’em.
Apologies – I realise that you probably weren’t expecting that from an overtly Christian blogger, but actually it was the most eye opening thing SRM said that morning. Two words completely altered my outlook.
I was talking to her about how I’d lost friends since I’d been diagnosed. Being seen as different and undervalued by people who never really knew me to start with doesn’t really matter that much. But there are some people with whom I used to be really close, who have somehow managed to completely erase me from their lives. Nothing has ever been said overtly, but there is a definitive before and after picture of their treatment towards me.
Until now, I have been making excuses – mainly from the three points above. And other well meaning Christians in my life have counselled me likewise. “They just don’t understand,” they say. “You need to give them time to get used to it. You need more opportunity to explain what it’s like to have bipolar. I’m sure they’ll accept you in time.”
It’s all very loving and Christian and understanding of other people’s ignorance – which I’m all for, for the most part. But I’m not willing to hang around waiting, hoping, hurting, until they make the effort to understand and deign to be friends with me again. My life is complicated enough without tying myself in knots over when they will accept that a friendship doesn’t have to change with a diagnosis. If they can’t accept me, then they weren’t really my friends to start with, and I don’t need them.
I said ‘fuck ’em’ again at home later (on my own!) and it was an almost physical release; I felt lighter just for saying it.

Drawing together the four little points that came out of a three hour cup (and cup and cup and cup) of coffee has made me realise one thing in particular. If you aren’t happy when I’m not pretending to be fine, if you’re expecting me to educate you all the time without adding in some hours of your own, and if I’m having to constantly persuade you to accept me, you probably aren’t a friend worth keeping. This means my friendship group is much smaller than it once was, which is kind of sad. But it also means that I really do know which of my ‘friends’ are actually my friends. And I’m chuffed that SRM is on that list.

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Roller Coaster

I’ve not been here for a couple of weeks. This is mainly because I have been doing this:

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and this:

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and this:

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and this:

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It has to be said, I’ve never really been a fan of roller coasters. I like keeping my lunch in my stomach too much. But I am married to a thrill seeking husband and we seem to have spawned two children who take after him in that department. And the ‘family holiday where we do things together’ (which I, now to some chagrin, wish I hadn’t constantly insisted upon) apparently extends to fairground rides.

But, to be fair, I spend most of my time on a roller coaster, albeit in a slightly less joint straining, child restraining way.

Lots of people liken having bipolar disorder to being on a constant roller coaster. It’s a very good analogy – getting higher and higher, and more and more excited as you reach the top, only to lose the exhilaration all too quickly as you plummet towards the concrete of a seaside palisade. Fortunately, with a roller coaster, there is at least a little warning of what is to come. My experience of bipolar is that of blind corners, often unrecognised rises, and largely unexpected and unstoppable falls. 

The most analogous thing about this roller coaster for me was that when on on the pleasantly undulating slopes rather than extreme and invigorating climbs and drops, the car spun around. There was never a point at which you could just relax and enjoy the views, because you never knew which way you would be facing when the exaggerated excitement began again.

That’s my life. I have to be constantly aware, never losing concentration, trying to track every little twist and turn for fear of what might come next. I would like to be one of those sufferers who can see what’s going on with my moods, and predict their arrival based on minuscule changes of demeanour or the rolling of seasons of the year. Perhaps that comes with experience, with years of watching and waiting and willingness to record every mood change that comes to call. Perhaps if I was further on with that process they call ‘acceptance’ I would be doing likewise, rather than just being tossed to and fro, riding the tides as they come. That’s what you’re supposed to do, as a sufferer. It’s what all the blog posts and medical journals and self help group aficionados advise – the better you know yourself, the better your health can be.

Is it wrong not to want to have to do this? I feel like a stubborn little girl, stamping my feet at the idea that the rest of my life might have to be consumed by note taking, mood tracking and medication management.

I’m fairly well aware right now that the closer I move towards acceptance, the more I realise I’m not there yet. Each time I deal well with whatever mood change comes to call, I become more aware of coping mechanisms that need instigating and thought processes that need changing. Eighteen months down the road from diagnosis, I’m only just beginning to own the fact that I suffer from an essentially permanent mental illness (which for some sufferers becomes terminal) that will need long term (if not life long) medicating, and constant acknowledgment, awareness and observation. It’s only recently that I’ve actually been able to say with certainly that I have bipolar disorder rather than, “I kind of have bipolar,” or, “I had a sort of breakdown.” Many years of experience have helped me to use terms like, “I suffer from depression,” but I still don’t find myself able to say, “I was hypomanic,” or use the word ‘episode’ with regards to depression or mania – it is just too close to admitting I have this illness that comes in waves, like chapters of a book, with a cliffhanger at the end of each one. It’s hard to know how to end a post like this. Do I try and think of some witty comment, dramatic climax, piece of wisdom for others following the same path? Do I falter, writing on and on with ever more obscure simile? A roller coaster finishes it’s adrenaline fuelled circuit and comes to a stop, and a family stumbles out, all ready for the next party to clamber in.

Stop the ride, I want to get off.

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