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 – 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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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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Hey, old friend…

This weekend I travelled back to my home town with my little family.

We stayed with my friend Michelle and her family, with whom I’d sort of fallen out of touch. When we moved away, her two boys were the age of MiniMe and MicroBob; they are now strapping lads of 16 and 14, with deep voices, square jaws and at least a foot on me. It’s funny to look at them and remember changing their nappies, trying to persuade them to eat vegetables, and building endless brio tracks for them to chuff toy trains around.

I’m not quite sure how losing contact happened – Michelle wasn’t just my maid of honour, she was so much more. For a long while, when things in my life were difficult, her family were my family. After Bible college, when I sunk into yet another deep depression and anorexia reared its ugly head again, they took me in and helped me pull myself back up into the land of the living. I was definitely high maintenance, but Michelle never gave up on me, and always chose to believe that I wold get better.

Losing contact was probably partly caused by the feeling that I have always felt bad about the pressure I put them under. I understood that parenting was a huge pressure all if its own, one that involved exhaustion beyond anything else. I knew that the input was immense, whilst the outcome was often invisible until adulthood. I grasped just through babysitting that parenting was a thankless task and therefore next to impossible to constantly do to the best of one’s ability. So being taken in by them, and often behaving as a belligerent child who refused to eat and needed watching to prevent purging, was the last thing they needed. It was incredibly hard to take them up on their offer, even though I knew that I was on the edge of survival and needed help.

As much as I have dealt with my feelings of guilt regarding how I’ve treated people over my life, I still carry around those feelings about how I behaved when I lived with Michelle and Andy. When I think of some of the things I did when I lived there I’m embarrassed, and I still feel shame at how being so screwed up made me behave. Whenever that time in our lives was part of the conversation, I had to look away in embarrassment.

But it turns out that there was a quid pro quo in the deal that I’d never seen until now. As we spent time with them, they made comments about what it had been like when I had lived there. When Michelle’s husband was ironing shirts: “I never had to iron when you were her, you just did it all.” When sat in the kitchen watching Michelle cook: “it takes longer now you don’t do all the chopping for me.” When the boys were making their packed lunch: “Can’t you do it like you used to?” I learnt for the first time this weekend that I had provided something as well as taking from them.

In the last couple of hours of their company, I sat drinking coffee with my old friend, talking about the effort of raising my children – even with as supportive a husband as Cable Guy. I expressed the frustration that all I wanted was someone to do the odd bit of housework for me, or to make me a sandwich after a stressful morning taking a grouchy MiniBob shopping. I shared the innermost desire for a half hour baby sitter so I could just sit with a cup of tea without someone wanting a drink poured or an argument resolved or a bottom wiped. Michelle’s response? “You need an Abbie.”

What a statement. I had never realised before that I had been as valuable to them as they had been to me.

It seems that my view of that time was impressively skewed. Instead of viewing the past through rose coloured glasses, I had donned grey ones, seeing that season as one where I’d done nothing but take. It had never occurred to me before that, from Michelle’s perspective, I had done some giving too. I had a sudden change of what Glennon Doyle Melton calls ‘perspectacles’.

I left walking taller than I had when I arrived.

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Friends

Sometimes it takes a true friend to know what it needed in a situation. I think I got it right today.

I brought my friend these:

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and these:

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She is one of the most fabulous people I know, and she has given me permission to play a part  in so much of her life. She has helped me get out of my pyjamas on my very worst days and I was there when she gave birth to her daughter, so there isn’t much that’s sacred or too much information.

She is suffering from depression, and every day seems like hard work for her. She needs to talk sometimes, but actually there don’t always need to be words. Sometimes talking is too much, especially when the only thing that’s different is that nothing’s changed. Today didn’t feel like a talking day. Today seemed like a flowers and salty snacks day.

Sometimes all it takes is someone to let you know they’re thinking of you, standing ready to remind you that there is hope.

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The Storm Inside – Disappointment…

“Life can deeply disappoint us. God’s word doesn’t shy away from it, so why should we?” (The Storm Inside, p27)

There are some things in life that severely disappoint us, to the extent that we question God regarding his love and power.

When MiniMe was six months old, I broke my upper arm – seriously, in three places. Recovery took a good eight months, and I still have issues with it now, when the weather is cold and damp, or when a small child swings on it, or when MicroBob goes dead weight on the school run forcing me to lug him home under my arm.

The broken arm was a huge deal for me. I couldn’t care for my baby on my own, and needed help 24 hours a day to look after her on the most basic level. What for some mothers would be a dream, for me, not changing a nappy for four months served as a painful reminder that God wasn’t doing what I thought he’d promised.

I was convinced that God would heal me. I knew he could do it. The God that I knew, from scripture and experience, could fuse the bones, remove the plates, screws and other metal work, and restore the situation in which I found myself. I was determined that it would happen – I knew God was capable, and I knew that the story of a miracle would rock the world of our local hospital, where I had been warned of the months of physio, pain killers and inconvenience.

It never did. God apparently did nothing to make it any easier – the recovery time was as long and painful as I’d been warned, and as time went on I lost hope that God would or could do anything or that he really cared in the first place. I asked over and over again those age old questions: How do we reconcile an all loving God who doesn’t show his power in our greatest disappointment, or an all powerful God who doesn’t love us enough to give us the desires of our heart?

Lots of people reminded me that I could learn things from this, that it would make me stronger, and that God would show himself to the people around me if I could just keep trusting him. But it fell like rocks into water. King Solomon had it right: “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in the cold or pouring vinegar in a wound.” (Proverbs 25:30)

The truth, as Sheila Walsh says, is that “sometimes we act as if God is obligated to make all our dreams come true and give a happy ending to every earthbound tale.” (p39). We forget that we are in a spiritual battle, and that battles have casualties. This is why Jesus says “Take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:34b) – to remind us that even when we are the casualty of war, we know who the winner will be, and that every knee, whether it wants to or not, will bow before the King of Kings.

There is a happy end to the story. I have my arm back, and am able to look after both my children in the way I want to. In some ways I have been able to see more clearly how I want to raise them because I was forced to have a time where I couldn’t do my job. I got to know people I’d hardly spoken to before – people who had seen the problem and stepped up to help make it better because that’s all they could do. I found out that sometimes I have to rely on other people to help me, and that I can’t do it all alone. And it’s not lost on me that this was probably the practise run for being diagnosed with bipolar, where I often have to completely rely on others to know when I’m unwell, because I literally can’t see it for myself.

I still don’t know the answers. It’s still not clear to me why God didn’t do this one little thing for me when he is so powerful. And I’m still disappointed at times. I still don’t think the good outweighed the bad. And no-one was ever really able to answer my question ‘why’.

I’m also not going to claim that Sheila Walsh can answer my questions. She’s good, but not that good! She acknowledges: “We rarely teach disappointment 101 in church…” (p30) and never claims to have all the answers – a breath of fresh air in the church, where we think having the answers is the only way we will persuade people that God is worth their time. Sheila’s gift is that she doesn’t pretend, but she acknowledges deep pain and goes on to give us a crash course in moving towards a place of hope.

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Just another manic monday

The second Monday evening of every month sees me schlepping 15 miles over to my nearest bipolar support group meeting. I’ve been going for about six months now, and the relief every time I step foot through the door is something I would pay significant amounts of money for. Actually, scrap that – I would pay significant amounts of chocolate for it.

It’s not that it’s necessarily a fun place to be. Sometimes the pain in that room is palpable. Everybody there has had their world thrown into chaos by the evilness of bipolar, whether it’s their own diagnosis or that of someone they love. No, fun is not a word I would use.

It’s real. Everybody comes in exactly as they are, no superhero capes required. We sit in a circle, drink decaf coffee (caffeine is not good for mania), and just be. No secret identity, no hiding our actual selves. One of my favourite writers, Glennon Melton of Momastery fame, once said “It’s far braver to be Clarke Kent than it is to be Superman.” Our little room is full of Clarke Kents. Clarke Kents with a sense of humour – nowhere can you be quite as sarcastic and cynical and downright irreverent of mental illness than in a room full of psych patients.

A couple of months ago, my ‘real’ was hardly there. I was so low that I could hardly move, and every sentence took an age to formulate and full minutes to get out. My fellow groupers just waited, bless them. They looked at my greasy hair and the rings under my eyes, and knew it had taken a week’s worth of energy just to get to the meeting. They fed me chocolate chip cookies, and gathered around with their love and acceptance. No pretending, no making it better, just letting me be.

This month was different. I was doing well. My meds had been tweaked, the mood stabiliser was kicking in, and I had not only washed my hair for the occasion, but could be a part of the conversation with whole sentences. Somehow, no one was depressed, which is a rarity in a group of bipolarites – normally we illustrate the whole swing of emotion. It was actually turning into a pleasant evening.

Then Jen arrived. Jen for whom Jenny or Jennifer is just too long to say because there are too many more words that need saying right now. Jen is always balancing on the edge of fully fledged mania, but tonight it was like she’d thrown herself off the tightrope and somehow managed to fly. She turned up as if coming to a meeting was the most amazing way to spend her evening, telling us all about how much better she felt than last time and what colour the sky was, and how it was far too long since she’d seen her relatives in Iceland.

But she wasn’t talking sense. Her brain was moving too fast for her speech to keep up with, so each thing she said was completely unrelated to the last. Letting slip that she hadn’t slept in over a hundred hours was the last nail in the dazzling multi-coloured mania coffin.

There’s only so much you can do when you’re in a support group where by definition you’re all as messed up as each other. We managed to phone the crisis team and get someone out to see her, and got her home in one piece. By the end of the week she’d been sectioned.

The bugger with bipolar – and so many other mental illnesses – is that you can be ill without really knowing how ill you are. Especially on the manic end. So every time I see someone who is manic and low on self-awareness, the fear kicks in. I am made aware all over again that I could become that ill, and the only solution would be for all my super support people to take control away from me. And it suddenly hit me that this thing is forever. Jen is in her late fifties, and still doesn’t completely have a hold on what’s going on in her head. I’m 34, and could have another forty odd years of this, never knowing when I might become ill again, or how bad it could get. Or whether I will have friends around to bail me out. Jen seems to be all alone at the moment. Her son is the one having to deal with her. I don’t want my kids to have to deal with me.

And the other thing that has really hit me is that she’s a Christian, and yet still has bipolar. She has bipolar, and she’s a Christian. The more I say it, the less I understand how those two things can go hand in hand. It’s not that I think we should be immune because we love Jesus, but I do think that there are some issues where we should be provided a get out of jail free card. If we are running the race set before us, it stands to reason, in my mind, that there are some obstacles we’d be better off without. Bipolar makes it so much harder to persevere. My path is blocked my my brain. Do not pass go, do not collect $200….

The verse that I quote to myself every day is 2 Timothy 1:7 – that God gives us a spirit of power and love and a sound mind. And yet, looking at Jen tonight, I’ve realised that I can’t rely on it. There might be times when my mind is not sound, and that scares the crap out of me. Back in January, when hypomania came a-knocking, I would have said I was making perfect sense, but then, that’s what Jen would have said about herself this evening, and it’s scary that I could get like that again without seeing the signs or doing something to stop it. I know in theory that I have to accept that this is an illness, and that I have to figure out a way to live with it and treat it and not let it overtake me, but in practise I’m just not sure how I do that. It’s so easy to say of Jen tonight that she’s ill, and needs treatment, but for some reason I think I’m making a big fuss about nothing, or that I just have a personality flaw that I can talk myself out of.

If only there were a neat, tidy, straight-edged answer to all of this. I really wanted to have a final, witty paragraph that put the proverbial cherry on the sweet and sour sundae of bipolar. I guess part of growing up is finding that life isn’t simple. When MicroBob does a puzzle, he always looks for the straight edges first, then follows them until he has the entire picture in front of him. It seems that as we grow up we need to get used to the funny shaped puzzles that don’t fit together the way we expect, and just hope that the picture is just as beautiful when we get to the end of it.

And hope that no pieces are lost under the sofa – that’s a whole other blog post!

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