Friday, December 30, 2011

Finding confidence

While this blog is aimed at assisting people to live confidently with a mental condition I have not as yet spent much time speaking directly about this topic. It is about time that I did.

It was the film The Beaver (2011) I watched recently that got me thinking about it. The lead character Walter Black (played by Mel Gibson) is plagued by depression to such a degree that his life is crumbling around him. To cut a long story short, Walter decides to create an alter-ego in the form of a hand puppet (called Mr Beaver) through whom he communicates to everyone around him.

After initial puzzlement from his family, friends and work colleagues, Walter's life in many ways begins to turn around. Gone it seems is the depressed Walter, replaced by a feisty, confident and friendly Mr Beaver who is able to resuscitate the things Walter holds dearest to him.

For those who have not seen the film I won't spoil it by giving away how things turn out. The point I wish to make is how Mr Beaver demonstrates that the confident and loving father, work colleague and friend that Walter had been still lives inside the broken shell of a man we meet at the beginning of the film.

The good news is we do not need to (and probably shouldn't) create a charming hand-puppet alter-ego to regain our sense of confidence in ourselves. As I mention in my forthcoming article for Bupa's Shine magazine, regaining my own confidence in my competence as a family member and friend was not a case of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but rather a process of finding inspiration and persisting with those things I knew would help rebuild my life which like Walter Black's had been devastated by mental illness.

One thing movies (or any form of art or expression) can do is provide fresh perspective on something that is within one's own experience and even help to crystallise insights not yet realised. The Beaver offered me a helpful third-party perspective on depression - perhaps it can do the same for some who are reading this blog.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coping with anxiety

Coping with anxiety problems can be a significant challenge for a great many people at different stages of life. In days gone by plenty were belittled as "having bad nerves", and even today despite the recognition by clinicians of the many anxiety disorders and their debilitating effects, I think a lot of people still suffer from an under-appreciation from those around them.

I raise this as a starting point because anxiety as much as any other mental condition rarely makes itself clearly identifiable the way a broken limb does. This is all the more reason for generating a greater awareness because the sooner anxiety trouble is properly identified, the better.

As I have previously written, anxiety first affected my life when I was in my late teens via panic attacks which I have described previously as a mental earthquake. It was at the same time as I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that my doctor also identified me as having the anxiety condition Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

On reflection it is clear to me now that my episodes of depression were intensified by my anxiety problems, and it was during my stay in hospital in 2004 coming to grips with having bipolar disorder that I began to win the battle with anxiety.

One of the most powerful memories I have of my budding recovery was a very simple exercise I learned and practiced during in those early days of recovery. I would sit in a quiet space and focus my attention on my senses. I would bring to my attention five objects in my field of vision, then five sounds to my ears, then be five parts of my body. I would do this until all I could think of was these simple sensory impulses. It was actually through doing this that I began to regain my sanity, because I was training my mind to be fully in the present - something that I had not done for months upon months.

It is probably fair to say that no one with a history of anxiety can say they are 100 per cent cured. The principles I learned in hospital remain highly relevant to my ongoing health and wellbeing management.

One of the underlying thoughts that can cause me to be anxious is a sense of needing to hurry up lest I miss out on proper fulfillment of some aspect of my life. Since this sensation is as much a feeling as it is a cognitive process, it often slips below my radar of self-awareness.

A key belief underlying this anxiety about fear of "missing out" is that life's blessings are scarce and related to time constraints. The best way I know how to counteract this anxiety is to turn the idea of missing out on its head by asking myself "what will I miss out on if I rush". This is because so much of what life has to offer requires me to slow down rather than to speed up in order to benefit.

One of Australia's best known poets, A.B. "Banjo" Paterson had this in mind when he penned one of his best known works, Clancy of the Overflow. He describes the terribly fast-paced nature of city living in the 1880s (I wonder what he would say about life today). He says that people "have no time to grow" because "they have no time to waste".

Paterson was on to something. My own experience of recovering from serious anxiety problems bears this out. I am at my healthiest (and incidentally my most productive) when I am not in a hurry.

Here is a clip from one of my favourite shows about a lovable detective with OCD.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Speaking out about mental health

This week I had the privilege of speaking to a group of year eleven boys at a secondary school in Sydney about my mental health story and to help raise awareness about common conditions such as depression. Here is a condensed version of the presentation I gave in slide format. By clicking on the link below (directly above the slideshow) it is viewable with the accompanying notes which outline what I was talking about during each slide.

These were my concluding remarks: "What my story does show is that no matter how bad things get, you can overcome the obstacles that come with mental illness. The good news is that how you feel when times are hard is not how you will always feel. Sometimes the darkest hour of the night is the one just before the dawn."

Will turner mental_health_speech
View more presentations from willturner1982.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This too shall pass

One of the most powerful insights I can share about handling depression and/or anxiety is that how you feel at a certain point in time is not a permanent state. This is a point worth labouring over - or at least a paragraph or two. This is because the above-mentioned conditions have encoded in their DNA a deceptive quality that tells the sufferer: "How you are feeling now is inescapably permanent, and nothing you can do is going to change that".

The good news is that nothing could be further from the truth. Yet even from the vantage point of robust good health, I find my senses will still try and tell me the blues are here to stay. If even today this sentiment holds sway for me (albeit momentarily), how much more for the person in the middle of their own life's storm.

This is where the people around the sufferer can be a great help even if they feel inadequate for the task of relating to the depressed/anxious person in a positive and life-affirming way. They can affirm what the sick person cannot. Here is how Abraham Lincoln put it in 1859 when consoling an American crowd in the middle of great turbulence:

"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! "And this, too, shall pass away." And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away."

Apparently as a child, Lincoln had very few books available to read. His stepmother said that Lincoln sought to learn and understand every detail of the texts. She said when something was "fixed in his mind to suit him he never lost that fact or the understanding of it". It may require some repeating to get through to the sufferer that "this, too, shall pass". It certainly took a while with me. It remains one of the most valuable truths I have ever learned.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reaching for the stars

Anybody struggling with disorders like depression and anxiety will from time-to-time be aware of the lack of control he or she has over how they feel (after all they are called disorders for a reason). The sensations grip not only the person’s mind but her or his body and spirit as well.

While there is much to say about the power within a person as a vehicle to overcoming adversity, today I want to talk about how to harness the power of people and things outside of ourselves to help in the process of finding wellness. This is not because I lack confidence in my own or any other person’s inner strength as a means of overcoming mental troubles, but rather because the person suffering mentally can sometimes lack confidence in their inner strength and therefore will at times need to draw it from elsewhere.

An illustration is helpful here. In the late 1970s, NASA launched the space probe Voyager into the solar system to take pictures of outer lying planets. To get where it was going it had a certain amount of power it could direct into changing course, but a key factor in its journey was the way it harnessed the gravity of the planets it visited along the way that worked as a slingshot to propel it from planet to planet and then into outer space where it continues its amazing interstellar mission to this day.

We humans are not so different. We all require power external to ourselves to get where we are going in life’s journey.

These power sources will differ according to each person’s personality and needs, but here are some practical everyday examples.
  • Relationships: be they family, friends, a special someone, God
  • Regular means of enjoyment: this can be from entertainment (such as music, TV shows), creative self expression, exercise, personal reflection etc
  • Periodic things to look forward to: such as holidays, parties and catch ups over coffee
  • Spontaneous things: like running into an old friend, finding a funny clip on youtube, going on a picnic

Of course these examples are far from mind blowing, but it is often simple nuts-and-bolts aspects of life like these that can help slingshot us out of the blues and reach for the stars. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Guy falls into a hole

Thought it was time I made a short video myself seeing as I embed so many made by other people on my site. Speaking to camera ain't as easy as it looks!

Friday, October 28, 2011

What's your war story?

Everyone battling depression or anxiety has a war story, and I don't use the word "war" lightly. I want to discuss today the value of esteeming one's own story as a way of empowering the person struggling with mental issues.

One of the most powerful ways I have learnt to attach the significance my own story deserves is through discovering other people's stories in movies, art works, TV shows (and the like) that resonate with my own.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of travelling to London where I saw the West End theatre production War Horse. Later that same week I was in Madrid, Spain, where I viewed with my own eyes Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Guernica. I found the stories these two creative works depicted spoke intimately with my own life experience.

This is great news for the mental sufferer because if creative works have a power to heal and inspire, then this is a force that can be harnessed to your benefit. Let me demonstrate this by explaining how War Horse and Guernica helped to inspire me.

Against the backdrop of World War One, War Horse tells the story of the relationship between a boy and his horse who each wind up serving on the front line amid the terrible reality of war. Amazingly, the theatre production uses puppetry to animate the character of the horses in the play. The expertise of the puppeteers in making the horses lifelike is remarkable. Picasso's Guernica is a gigantic mural depicting the infamous bombing of a rural Spanish township in the lead up to the Second World War. Among the features of the painting are humans and animals - including a horse - being attacked. The piece is one of the most acclaimed works of its time (if not of the entire 20th century).

For those who are familiar with my story (for a brief overview click here), you will know my mental troubles sprang in part from a bombing (the 9/11 terrorist attacks) and living with animals through extreme drought. Something about the love between the boy and his horse in War Horse reminded me of the hardship I experienced alongside the animals on our farm. It told me that I was not alone in my suffering because other people had been through times where the world seemed upside down. To see this truth communicated on stage was breathtaking.

Similarly breathtaking was seeing Picasso's masterpiece in the flesh. It was my first ever visit to an art gallery as an adult (which reveals something of my lack of prior appreciation for fine art - Aussie males take note) and I was literally transfixed. I even came back the next day just to drink in the painting again. It spoke so much to me about the resilience of human beings (and animals too) and that stories that were once hidden can be revealed for all to see and understand.

I also share about War Horse and Guernica because a prized collection of Picasso's works is on its way to Sydney to be displayed at the Art Gallery of NSW over the Australian summer, and additionally Steven Spielberg has made a film version of War Horse which is also being released this summer. Maybe they can offer some therapeutic inspiration to others like they have done to me.

I come back to my point about esteeming your own story. Never discount its significance. Within it is the essence of what makes things such as feature films and great art so captivating: one person telling another that they matter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cause for optimism

The inspiration for today's title lies in one of the best insights I can give into managing depression and/or anxiety. The insight is that there are many facets to successfully managing either of these conditions, and that only one facet needs to be going wrong for life to get difficult.

Why on earth is this fact cause for optimism, I hear you ask? The answer is that a person experiencing mental trouble can take comfort in the knowledge that while times may be tough and all sorts of things seem to be going wrong, it is more than likely that he or she is in a position to attend to one of these aspects in a small way (in keeping with the reality of what might well be miniscule energy levels and motivation). And the extra good news is that sometimes the tiniest positive actions can make a world of difference.

I can't tell you how many times the seemingly small and insignificant things have actually been positive turning points for me. This is because in long-term mental health management all the pieces matter. This is a critically important point to be aware of because it empowers the person who feels that they have no power to deal with the "big" problems in his or her life.

Start small. It may just be the start of something big.

On a related note, the video I have embedded below is a scene from one of my favourite episodes of The West Wing. It is a conversation between two leading characters of the show: Leo and Josh. Josh has just been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and Leo - who has himself had mental issues in his past - has something to share.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exercise and other things I should do regularly

So far on this website I have been sharing my insights into the various aspects of overcoming and managing a mental illness. My aim is to write a few hundred words on a more or less weekly basis, though this is my first post in a couple of weeks. 

The main reason for my recent interlude is that I have been writing a short feature article on managing depression for a health and lifestyle publication (which shall remain secret until it is published sometime in the coming weeks). Additionally, I am mindful not to provide half-baked words considering how serious the subject matter can be. For instance my most recent post before this one looked at suicide and how we can each play a part in helping to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Having noted the above I am pleased to today (in the spirit of rugby world cup enthusiasm) share some thoughts about an aspect of my long-term health management I have not as yet discussed: exercise. The first thing I would say is that the body and the mind are heavily reliant on each other, and what happens from the neck down has a big impact on what goes on "upstairs". Looking after the body is therefore an essential aspect of managing a mental illness.

The good news about exercise is that you do not need to be good at or enjoy watching sport in order to exercise regularly and effectively. I had the good fortune of enjoying ball sports during my primary and high school years as well as for most of my university life. In a sense my exercise was automatically programmed during this time.

I highly recommend team sports as an enjoyable and healthy way to increase your fitness while at the same time meeting others and getting to know people. However if getting to team practice/training sessions and competition games are not feasible for you due to job or other time constraints, I highly recommend finding other ways to exercise so that you maximise your health.

For me this involves being the member of a gym where I attend "group fitness" classes. Most gyms out there offer two basic components to individual exercise: 
  • a cardio and weights room where people exercise on an individual basis (which can involve the supervision/instruction of a personal trainer)
  • a large room or hall where a qualified trainer instructs groups of people usually in 30/45/60 minute blocks (this is what I do). There are a wide variety of classes usually offered that cater to different personal tastes. 
Of course there are plenty of options if neither team sports or gyms appeal to you. The main point I would like to make is that any person experiencing a mental illness such as depression or anxiety will definitely benefit from being regularly physically active. Getting going with this may require a bit of trial-and-error to find what works for you, but I can say from personal experience that the time you devote to finding ways to exercise in safe, reliable and frequent ways is invaluable to your mental health.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Some positive words about suicide prevention

Over 2,000 Australian lives are lost each year to suicide according to official records, though this number is probably in reality much higher. It is now the biggest killer of people aged 15-24, accounting for one in four of all deaths in this age group. According to the stats, men are up to four times as likely to die this way than women. These numbers provide more than an ample reason for me – a twenty-something male with some insight into this terrible problem – to speak constructively about it.

I admit expressing thoughts about this topic is difficult because suicide is so rarely discussed that I – like everyone else – have not been in the habit of articulating my thoughts about it. Such is the culture of silence around the topic of suicide that even on a blog like mine which is focused on mental health, it was only this week that I decided I should raise the topic in my writing. What prompted me were two national awareness days both taking place this month: R U OK? day and To Write Love On Her Arms day.

A major aim of both events is to raise awareness in our society about the need for more openness in friendships, families, schools and workplaces about the reality of suicide in order to see people receive the help they need.

2010 Australian of the Year, Pat McGorry, has been a leading voice in Australia on the issue of suicide prevention among youth. He said the following in an article he wrote in April this year: "Our lack of conversation around the topic has only endorsed the silence that surrounds our young people who often feel too ashamed, too guilty and too stigmatised to put up their hand and ask for help. They are trapped in a bubble: a cone of silence which neither they nor those around them can easily penetrate."

For those who know something of my story, it is probably not a great surprise to tell you that my life was in danger in the period immediately prior to my admission to hospital in 2004. Like so many young (or for that matter any age) males I was tight lipped about what was going on inside me and I was able to mask things pretty well. Yet the reality was that I, like most people experiencing suicidal thoughts, was dying to tell someone how I felt.

McGorry says "By asking a young person about these feelings we will give them permission to talk, and in most cases they will feel relieved and better able to overcome periods of suicidality. If effective help is provided suicidal urges almost always subside."

This was certainly true in my case. If you'll permit me to use this description, my mind was like a giant infected wound full of toxic thoughts that simply needed to be burst and exposed to the air around it so that the black thoughts could run out of me and into a drain, never to be seen again.

It is worth keeping this image in mind when thinking about this topic. It fits with the "bubble" image that McGorry talks about. And the amazing thing is that you – the friend, the family member, the acquaintance, or even someone you've just met – could be just the person to prick the bubble and let the puss run out. It is as simple as being aware of those around you, and not being afraid to ask if someone is feeling OK.

Here is a relevant song I like by Third Eye Blind

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The non-linear world of managing body and mind

I recently had the privilege of interviewing American political journalist James Fallows about his thoughts on Barack Obama. Since Fallows was a speech writer for President Jimmy Carter I was aware his opinion would probably be quite insightful. The first thing he said was that being a president involved having to monitor and respond to a thousand variables all at once. It struck me that this observation also applies to many of us who are less prominent, not least those who struggle with mental illness.

So far on my blog I have written about my own story of mental crisis, breakdown, recovery and ongoing life-management. While the overarching narrative has resembled this positive arc I want to today discuss how living with a mental condition is seldom a simple linear story. I think the picture of a president running a country is helpful in explaining what I mean by this. This is because despite the best thought out plans and strategies, I with my bipolar disorder and Obama with his presidency have to deal with things that are sometimes (or indeed often) out of our control.

Obama thinking
Crises have no respect for one's present circumstances. I remember in the early days of coming to terms with my diagnosis I wished I could press a pause button on the world around me while I got better (I think many can relate to this sentiment regardless of their mental circumstances). I imagine Obama has had this thought more than once as he has gone through having to deal with a series of troubles both natural and man-made.

I have learnt to deal with the "pause button" wish by picturing another helpful image - that of a school or dwelling place undergoing major reconstruction whilst having to continue operating at the same time. Most of us can relate to the challenges such a situation brings. We know what life was like before the interruptions began and want things to be comfortable and predictable again. Where are the students to have assembly while the main hall is out of action? What will become of my job as I struggle with this bout of depression?

Part of the answer to such questions is to square up with the reality of one's situation and then resolve to limit the amount of time you spend thinking "if only" this and "if only" that. The image of reconstruction is most helpful here: I may be inconvenienced now, but just wait until I reclaim that building. How much better will life be when I have dealt with that troubling memory that has tripped me up for so long, even if dealing with it hurt a little? 

I think many of us experiencing mental trouble could use a self-esteem boost. Going through mental trials can be every bit as difficult as managing an economy and a nation, so coming back to the president metaphor for a moment, why not consider oneself with the esteem we so readily give to heads of state? 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Panic attacks - the mental earthquake

I recently watched a documentary about the earthquake that earlier this year devastated northern Japan. It included footage taken by someone in Tokyo who happened to have their camera out when it happened. The footage showed the ground around the person's feet cracking open.

I was surprised to find myself a little disturbed by seeing the footage even though there was no sign of harm to the person doing the recording or anyone in the vicinity. It made me think about a time earlier in my life where watching TV footage caused one of the most frightening experiences in my life. 

Early in the morning of September 12, 2001 (Sydney time) I awoke to my normal routine of getting up, making breakfast and preparing for work. As usual I switched on Andrew Denton's breakfast show on Triple M and instantly noticed a very different demeanour from the usually chirpy radio host. Something was wrong. I quickly went to the living room and turned on the television. There was an American news anchor fronting the camera with what looked to be the late afternoon skyline of New York City in the background. Again there was something wrong with what I was seeing.

The next image confirmed the rising dread I felt: a black plane (I would later that day learn it was a passenger jet in shadow) was shown flying low over Manhattan and crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I instantly recognised the buildings not only because they were world famous but three years earlier I had stood atop the viewing deck of one of them as an excited teenager.

What followed was a recap of what had happened some six or seven hours earlier but was fresh to my eyes because I had been sound asleep when the attacks took place. Before my eyes the World Trade Center crumbled. It may as well have been live.

What happened next was I had a panic attack (also known as an anxiety attack). How to describe this? Picture the world ending combined with your own life flashing before your eyes and you get a sense of where my mind was at that moment. Physically I was shaking, desperately wishing I could undo whatever it was I had done wrong to cause my life to be ending. Next I imagined myself in a jungle somewhere with an automatic rifle - a conscript in the armed forces fighting whichever country or countries it was who had sent the black (and presumably military) planes I had watched fly into the World Trade Center. Thoughts and images came quickly, unregulated by reason and totally horrifying. I was alone and beyond help, or so it seemed. 

I looked out the window from my apartment and saw a woman in the neighbouring high rise block shaking a rug out of her window. It was probably the jolt of reality that returned me to earth. The next thought I had was who could be doing something so mundane when the world seemed to be collapsing? It was an image that has stayed with me ever since.

But back to the panic attack for a moment. In a lot of ways a panic attack is an internal earthquake. After experiencing it the mind becomes cracked and traumatized. And much like seismic activity it leaves a person's mental terrain fractured and fragile. On top of all this there are aftershocks - fresh panic attacks to return and terrify the person affected, complete with their sensations of Armaggedon/holocaust. 

The person suffering from panic attacks is in many ways like a city attempting to recover from a massive quake but knowing another one could come at any moment and devastate everything again.

The application point of me sharing this is that a significant proportion of people experience panic attacks, and many people go a long time not realising them for what they are - a mental issue that can be explained and treated and recovered from. Many people are afraid of getting the help they need because they don't know what is happening to them, or think that they are going crazy or are beyond help.

The good news is that panic attacks begin to lose their power once the person affected comprehends that what they are going through is explainable, containable and are common to many people. This is not to say that panic attacks are trivial or a minor ailment. Even after identifying them a person can go for a long time still experiencing them in all of their horrible power. But knowing there were others out there experiencing what I was going through helped me a great deal. Knowing I was not alone made a huge difference to me.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mental illness and faith

If talking about mental illness is to some degree a taboo topic in our culture, I think matters of faith are even moreso. Combine the two and you have one very uncomfortable cocktail.

It is precisely this intersection of mental illness and faith where I feel I can talk with some authority. At the same time I have not until recently turned my thoughts into words on this topic but realise that there is a lot there to be tapped into if I apply myself to the task.

Of course as with any weighty and complex matter the first issue is where to begin the discussion. Perhaps a good place to start is for me to be clear about the role that faith played in both the negative and positive aspects of my own life story (you can read a condensed account of my story by clicking here).

Firstly, my beliefs were a key aspect of my mental breakdown. My conceptions - and indeed misconceptions - about the Christian God were central to why I got sick with depression (I should add at this point that I am still a Christian today). I mention in my story that the bookends of my mental breakdown were the September 11 attacks and living on a farm in extreme drought conditions.

Essentially on each occassion the world appeared to me to be upside down and I could not handle what was happening before my eyes either in New York City in September 2001 or on the moonscape that was our family farm in 2004.

Prior to these events I had (like many others in their late teens) begun to struggle with my understanding of who God was and big questions about eternity and the meaning of life. This struggle was a very powerful one given I professed belief in a God who according to the bible has plenty to say about these matters. To cut a long story short, I struggled greatly with the idea of hell and so my fragile state was completely vulnerable to distressing events like 9/11 and drought which I could not help but interpret through the lens of eternity and hell. You might say no wonder I got so sick as to become psychotic and require a few months in a psychiatric hospital.

I want to continue this discussion with a more upbeat note because that is where my own story has led on matters of faith and life experience.

It is nearly seven years since my stay in hospital and I am happy to report that the process of recovery and ongoing management of my condition (bipolar disorder) has had at its core a belief in Jesus Christ. This may seem counter-intuitive given how unwell I became due in part to religious beliefs, so I want to talk through my journey a little bit.

Essentially the problem was not the faith/beliefs I held but rather the way that my undetected mental illness caused me to interpret things. The weeks leading up to my admission to hospital involved me experiencing psychosis (also referred to as a psychotic episode). Psychosis is essentially a mental state where the person affected loses touch with reality which can involve either sensory hallucinations (e.g. seeing or hearing things that aren't really there) or delusions (e.g. believing oneself to be subhuman or an extra terrestrial creature). As I have previously explained using the analogy of A Beautiful Mind (the film), I experienced powerful delusions where the real and the imagined were indistinguishable.

The day I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder happened about a week into my stay in hospital. I still think of it as one of the best days of my life. This is because for the first time since I had become unwell I was able to begin identifying delusions I had assumed were simply reality (when those delusions told me I was heading for a fate worse than death you can understand my relief). I was able to begin to recover my senses and my health.

The concepts that had caused me so much trouble basically melted away once I understood my health situation. I was filled in those weeks in hospital (post-diagnosis) with an overwhelmingly calm and assured sense of the goodness of God.

I hope some who have gone or are going through similar experiences can take heart from my account.

Here is a song by John Mayer called "3 by 5" which in many ways encapsulates my experience of becoming well and seeing things in new ways.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On being a student

Anyone going through mental strife has it tough, but perhaps none more so than a student. As if getting good grades aren't enough pressure, a lot of high school and tertiary students can find themselves with stresses coming at them from all sides. Some examples I found from my own experience as a student included:
  • a desire to be a high achiever
  • wanting to be liked by those around me
  • processing big questions about God, the meaning of life
  • dealing with unexpected changes in life circumstances
  • deciding what my next steps are once I complete high school or university

    The list of pressures can be long and perplexing. Add to it mental troubles and life can be seriously difficult.

    For those who have been diagnosed with a condition such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety, one fear can be what others will think. While it is up to the individual as to who they want knowing about it, my experience has been overwhelmingly that other students respected me when I did happen to share with them something about my condition. The stigma surrounding mental illness is steadily being eroded and this erosion in my view is assisted by sufferers (for want of a better word) being open about their difficulties.

    Of course it helps to be wise about how much information I share and with whom. For example until I recently decided to be completely public about having bipolar disorder, I would tell people I didn't know well that I had (or was going through) "a rough patch with depression", and kept the identifying of my condition of bipolar to more trusted friends and family.

    It is important for any student to know they are not alone with their mental trouble. Most students have people in their life who are trustworthy and would love to listen and help. Of course getting professional help in the form of a counsellor or a doctor may well be necessary to address the presenting problem/s, but like I have said previously, talking things through with someone you trust is a positive way of thinking through the best course of action.

    Here is a trailer to "The Hurricane", a movie that inspires me greatly starring Denzel Washington

  • Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Spotlight on depression

    Today I want to provide a bite-sized description of what depression looks like in the hope that it fills in some gaps for people. While there is no replacement for expert medical advice on this subject, my aim here is to assist those who would like to have a firmer grasp of how depression looks and feels.

    The first thing to say is that depression is a mood disorder. In other words, it is a condition that messes with how one feels: it puts one's feelings into disorder.

    We all feel sad and down from time to time. For most people these feelings resolve naturally in the space of a few hours or days following a setback. For the depressed person, feelings of sadness negatively affect his or her ability to cope with setbacks, maintain a healthy level of self-esteem, and/or handle the relationships in his or her life.

    When I was unwell with depression my ability to concentrate diminished and I could not study or work to the level I had become used to. I became withdrawn from friends that I was usually in touch with. My sense of self-worth also suffered. Some common elements of my experience included:
    • a lack of "colour" in life
    • no energy
    • no laughter, no sensations of excitement
    • an absence of feelings of hope about the future
    • strong feelings of isolation even (or indeed especially when) in a crowded room
    When I trained to teach high school students about mental health through a program run by the Black Dog Institute, our recommendation to students was that if they noticed some of the signs like the ones I mentioned above over a stretch of two weeks or longer, it is important they raise this with someone they trust.

    I have no doubt the same two week rule is a good one for adults too. Being in this situation does not necessarily mean you are experiencing depression, but there is no downside to having an honest conversation with someone who cares about you. As the saying goes, "two heads are better than one". It has been my experience that this is especially true when it comes to mental health issues.

    Continuing with my theme of having a video accompaniment, here is one for anyone who likes acoustic guitar music

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    Filling the mental health knowledge gap

    Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our society when it comes to mental health matters is a lack of knowledge (also referred to as "awareness"). In Australia we have come a long way in recent years thanks to campaigns being run by governments and not-for-profit organizations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute to raise mental health awareness. But we still have a long way to go.

    The stigma associated with mental illness remains a major barrier to people getting the help they need. It is very understandable why someone experiencing trouble doesn't want to seek help. He or she might feel embarrassed or fear being judged by others, or not feel comfortable sharing with healthcare professionals they don't know well, or simply not know where to begin and conclude that it is just too difficult.

    A major reason I am motivated to write about this stuff is that I want to help fill people's knowledge/awareness gap. One barrier this blog can overcome is privacy. A person might want to learn more about mental health matters (be it for themself, someone they know or for general knowledge) without having the world know they are doing so. You can read this blog without anyone else having to know, which might be important for at least some who are reading this.

    At school I was one of the pesky students who asked a lot of questions. They were usually of the fairly basic "let me get this straight" type. More often than not I sensed others in the class were happy that I had spoken up as it cleared up things for them as well. Accordingly, I will try to speak as simply as I can about mental health matters on this blog because I have found that covering the basics on any important topic is seldom (if ever) a waste of time.

    In coming posts I will begin covering some important definitions that I think are good to have clear in one's mind.

    Here is one of my all-time favourite music videos. Enjoy!

    Saturday, July 23, 2011

    My story - in brief

    I want to introduce my story by referring to the Academy Award winning film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly which is based on the true story of mathematician John Nash. Without prior knowledge the viewer thinks that they are watching the dramatic story of a man working in top secret intelligence who becomes entangled in the attempt to prevent Soviet forces waging nuclear war on America.

    Mid-way through the film the viewer discovers that what they had been watching was the world through the eyes of someone with psychosis that had not yet been detected. The real and the imagined had up to that point in the film been indistinguishable. It was apparent neither to Russell Crowe’s character nor the audience that there was any distinction to be made.

    The turning point of the film happens in a psychiatric hospital where Nash is told he has schizophrenia. In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Alicia Nash (played by Jennifer Connelly) tells her husband that far from the world facing nuclear Armageddon, it is all in Nash’s head.

    It was the same for me, only in my case the diagnosis was bipolar disorder. Like Nash, I took a lot of convincing that I was sick. I had come to believe over a series of weeks before the hospital admission that I was a sub-human creature. So unthinkable was the idea to those around me that like Nash I kept from sharing it with anyone because of course they would not believe me.

    I had come to this frightening place as a result of a mental breakdown that had gone undetected for three years. That time period was bookended by two events that for me changed the world as I knew it. The first was one that hit a lot of people hard: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The other event took place while I was living and working on my family’s sheep property in 2004. After two mentally rocky years living in Sydney studying at university I had had to pull out due to an eventual inability to attend class and complete assignments.

    As we struggled to determine what exactly was wrong, working on the farm made sense as an alternative to sitting around the house. Unfortunately, that year it involved handling sheep suffering the effects of extreme drought. In an important sense the world around me was mimicking what it had done on 9/11: it had turned itself upside down. My mind responded in kind.

    During that stay in hospital I came to grips with having a mental condition. It took me two months until I was ready to return home, and a further two years of rehabilitation before I could return to Sydney to resume my studies in 2006. In my first semester back I took one unit of study instead of the normal load of four. I eventually completed my degree in 2009 and last year found employment, successfully operating at full-time capacity.

    As I mentioned in my first post, I consider myself to be a bit of a field study in matters of mental illness and recovery and I hope that this space can be one that offers others useful insights on the reality of living with a mental condition.

    Here is the trailer for A Beautiful Mind

    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    Inaugural post

    This blog seeks to provide positive insights into the reality of living with a mental condition. As someone with both bipolar disorder and a love of writing, it seems only natural that I create this blog.

    I intend to use my own life experience as a bit of a field study for anyone following this blog. I do hope it can be a useful resource for anyone whose life has been touched in some way by mental illness. I also hope that in time it can become a forum for people to share their ideas and insights as well.

    The title of this blog is a slight play on words of a book called Meditations in an Emergency by the post-second world war New York poet, Frank O'Hara. The photo below is of me as a sixteen year-old mugging for the camera from the top of the World Trade Center in 1998. I look forward to explaining its significance in coming posts.