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.