Pink & Blue Mummyland

Pink and blue parenting through pink and blue moods….

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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Stigma on my doorstep

This week I have experienced some of the worst stigma and misunderstanding I have come across so far in my life with regards to mental illness.

Fortunately I wasn’t there to witness it. In the heat of anger, a family member said (or shouted) of me: “she doesn’t actually have bipolar – it’s just another excuse to be lazy.”

There are so many issues within this one comment that I hardly even know where to begin. The hurt and pain that it’s caused has been huge, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Cable Guy so angry. But the personal fury aside, the whole situation has made me think about how we tackle stigma in general, and specifically within those closest to us. I don’t get to stop being a part of my family just because they have some ignorant and arrogant views of mental illness. It’s not like Facebook friends who I can just block – I need to figure out how to be related to them whilst essentially unable to change them.

I’ve decided that changing people’s minds about mental illness is broadly a two stage process. First, we have to stop people saying what’s on their mind; secondly, we have to stop them thinking about it. My relative’s comment is a problem in two ways – firstly that they could say it at all (which has left me, and many people around me, incredulous), but also that the thought was there in the first place. As far as I understand it, when most people are angry, they don’t just make stuff up to say. In the heat of the moment, something they think deep in their consciousness, which they usually keep hidden, bursts out, with its barbs and sharp edges set on a trajectory to hurt whoever they are angry with.

The question I’ve been asking myself is, what is the point of changing what people do or say, if we can’t change the way they think? What point is there in my relative apologising if she still thinks that when I say I’m depressed it’s really just that I can’t be bothered to do anything?

Here’s what I’ve come up with. And I must say, I think its ingenious. It turns the current treatment of mental illness entirely on its head.

You know how the NHS is determined that the cure for all things mental health related is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)? In this case I think it is the answer – but not for the patient. It’s all the people around us that need it! People who don’t have understanding of mental illness need to be taught the practise of what therapists call ‘thought stopping’. This is quite an old idea, but essentially claims that you can change the way you think, and therefore how you feel and behave. The basis of the technique is that you consciously issue the command, “Stop!” when you experience repeated negative, unnecessary or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic (read more here). Of course, to start off with, you might need someone else to issue the short, sharp ‘stop’ – but I can think of plenty of volunteers who will be glad to shout loudly in the face of someone who has just said something incredibly stupid about mental illness.

So, the we are. The newest way to deal with stigma regarding mental illness. Treat the non-patient, not the patient. It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard recently……

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Let’s talk about health, baby…

I have something to say, and it isn’t easy. It’s about my health, and although I know that being unwell just happens sometimes, I feel so guilty and self-conscious about it. It’s hard for me to say, but I trust you, and I think it would be better for our friendship if you know. But please, keep it to yourself if you can. I’m not sure I’m ready for everyone to know yet.

The thing is, I have high cholesterol. Don’t overreact – I know it’s a bit of a shock, but I’ll explain it all…

My hyperlipidaemia (high blood fats) is a hereditary condition, and requires me to take two different medications to keep it under control: statins to reduce the bad fats, and high dose fish oils to increase the good fats. I will probably have to be on meds for life.

It was discovered quite by accident in a routine set of blood tests. I don’t tell many people about it because I’m worried about being judged. I don’t want people to look at me and only see the high cholesterol and forget about the person I am despite that. I’ve had people telling me that everyone has cholesterol issues sometimes, and I should just think more positively or pull myself together. People have also told me I need to think about what effect my cholesterol is having on my children – won’t they end up damaged?

Funnily enough, it can be especially hard with church friends, because some of them think I should be able to manage my cholesterol without medication, that I should just have more faith and more prayer support – maybe even exorcise my cholesterol. My doctor says that’s not the case, but I still worry about sharing my cholesterol levels and treatment with people I don’t know well. Although I’ve got used to the idea that this is an illness I will probably suffer from for the rest of my life, I worry a lot that other people won’t see it the same way, so I keep it to myself most of the time.

Sounds bonkers, doesn’t it?

Take out the ‘high cholesterol’ and place it with ‘bipolar’.

I wonder how ridiculous it sounds now…..

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