First dates: The one with the bipolar girl and the shrink

Ah, dating. Does anyone remember dating? The kind of fun pre-marriage/being over the age of 25 dating. The sort with good food, good booze and late nights. Rigorously planning what to wear/how to do my make-up and yet 9 times out of 10 having a strop when I couldn’t get my eyeliner right or the weather fucked up my choice of footwear.

 

Of course back when I dated (8 years- wow!) I didn’t have a bipolar diagnosis. I did have a depression diagnosis which I could generally keep well hidden with selective participation and the odd gin and tonic. Dating is tough. Dating with anything that makes you less than textbook “normal” is tougher. You can probably imagine my anxiety today at having a second date. It was an afternoon appointment and the weather was rainy making outfit choices hard. Also I need to wear my glasses at the moment as my eye is playing up again. The odds of making a good impression based on looks weren’t in my favour.

 

Still, better show up and make conversation. I tried to run through some subjects I could talk about other than my mental health and my job. Learning Spanish, yoga, books and Mo Salahs’ shoulder all seemed like safe options. True to form, I was too nervous to eat beforehand so by the time I had to leave home I was getting a little hangry.

 

I was early (as always) so I had to hang around looking anxious whilst occasionally squinting at whoever was coming through the doors to see if it was him. The squinting probably made me look demented instead of the thoughtful/intellectual look I hoped for. Then again, I was reading a 2016 copy of What Car magazine that was lying on the table infront of me so really there was only so much I could do to help myself. And why was it so warm? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one sweating while they were waiting.

 

He was slightly late and I was even hangrier by now but managed a good 5 minute chat about the Liverpool/Real Madrid match and then tried to move on to books or yoga. Unfortunately he had other ideas and steered the conversation to asking how I was really feeling at which point I burst into tears (note to future self- always carry a snack in your handbag). Thankfully he had a box of tissues and I settled myself. At the end of the hour, he said he’d write and see me in around 4 weeks which I thought was delightfully quaint and old-fashioned.

 

I really like this guy, he seems like a decent psychiatrist and I think we’ll work well together. But it’s tough. Discussing thoughts and feelings is incredibly difficult when you’re dealing with someone you have only met once before. You try to go in ready to make a decent first impression, a bit more polished than usual and like you are bringing your A-game. Even if really you’ve spent the first part of the day staring into space whilst lying on your bed. You have to be ready to admit how things are really and even to hear advice you don’t really want to hear. A random stranger is shining an incredibly bright torch into the recesses of your mind and what you really want to do is look away. Like any bad date, I left feeling like it was me and not him. Perhaps I’ll never feel normal and maybe I’ll end up alone in a house full of cats whilst I knit and prance about in nice shoes like a modern day Miss Havisham. I comforted myself with a large bar of chocolate, a cup of tea and some online shopping when I got home. It’s at times like this I realise how grateful I am for my husband.

The chicken and the egg: Fatigue and mental ill health

I’m full of the cold (again!), hubby has a chest infection and the little person isn’t well either. I’m so, so tired. Yesterday I had a nap and guess what- I’m still tired. I’m taking some pretty sedating medication but come on, I feel like I’m 62 not 32. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve put my kid to bed and woken up beside her several hours later still fully dressed, make-up smeared on my face and contact lenses still in. I’ve had enough.

 

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, at any given time, 20% (1 in 5) of us feel unusually tired. Think of how many people you know, that’s a LOT of tiredness.

 

Tiredness (or fatigue) is a common symptom of depression however there are multiple other causes of tiredness including physical problems such as anaemia, coeliac disease and thyroid disorders. You can find more information about physical causes of tiredness here. Around two-thirds of people who see a GP for tiredness have an underlying physical or mental health disorder which may be contributing to their symptoms.

 

It’s impossible to break the cycle of constant tiredness without reflecting about how and when the tiredness started. When I try to pinpoint what came first, the depression or the tiredness it seems like a chicken and egg situation: my depression makes me tired and being constantly tired makes me feel depressed.  My tiredness (and that of many others) is likely due to several factors: work, stress, sedating medication, looking after small children and underlying depression.

 

Something that resonated with me was the concept of an activity roller-coaster. Going from intense, full on activity during the week to low activity at the weekend causes increased fatigue because you’ve put all your eggs in one basket then have nothing left at the end of the week leading to burnout. Whilst it’s only natural to want to push yourself and do more, trying to self-insure against the bad day that might come tomorrow by cramming in as much activity today creates unhealthy patterns. When the bad day inevitably comes, we blame our illness and start a cycle of negativity by thinking of all the things we aren’t doing today but should be (see, there’s that should word again).

 

So what is the answer? Are we doomed to live in a cycle of energy abundance followed by crashing lows of energy depletion? I sure hope not.  Careful planning of what activities to do on what day (seeing free time as time to be free, not time to do more housework), tweaking my medication regime (I’m slowly weaning off the sedating drugs**) and appreciating the need for rest even if I feel fine are my strategies to tackle the tiredness. That and the occasional bar of chocolate!

 

Got any tips for fighting tiredness? Please feel free to comment below.

 

** remember, adjusting your meds should only be done as part of an agreement between  you and the clinicians treating you.

The Unwanted Christmas Gift

No, it’s not socks, you’re going to have to read on.

Here I was, sitting in a small consultation room whilst the psych took notes. It had taken 4 months just to get this “emergency” appointment and like many much-anticipated events there was relief that finally it was happening.

The psych eyed me from her chair, a petite woman who spoke calmly and quietly. She seemed nice. Still, I was terrified of her. I hadn’t actually met her before today’s appointment which added to my awkwardness. Thankfully, she “had already read all the notes” sparing me some of the gory details.

I only had two questions: what is wrong with me? how are we going to fix it?

“You have bipolar disorder.” It wasn’t unexpected but I still burst into tears. It had taken a year to get this diagnosis, lots of watching and waiting for me to become ill again so the psych team could see my symptoms first hand and decide what the hell was wrong with me.

It was a chain of out of character behaviours and events that led to bipolar first being mentioned. I’d felt like I was “flying”, over my depression and making up for lost time. Yeah I got over excited at times but thought of it as a good spell away from the crushing lows of a major depressive episode.

My husband would say I was “on one” when the early exercise sessions, overcommitting myself at work, not eating and sleeping for only a couple of hours at night happened. I’d spend more than usual (including buying a box of Emma Bridgewater mugs in what may be the most middle-class hypo manic episode ever), be louder, drink more and flirt more than usual (my normal social anxiety would be replaced with a ride or die party girl). Hypomanic me was fun. More confident, more creative, more productive than ordinary me.

Of course, there was a flip side. I’d burn myself out to the point of exhaustion then end up in bed for a week after pushing myself to the limit mentally and physically. The first hypomanic week felt great but as it rolled on I’d get anxious, paranoid and demanding, afraid of my excess energy and that I would end up doing something stupid like buying the Mercedes I’d been eyeing up for ages. For the most part, I was able to curb my behaviour at times, surrendering my credit cards to my long-suffering hubby and taking the pills the GP prescribed to make sure I got a few hours of rest at night. During the times I couldn’t curb my behaviour, the feelings of shame and guilt about my actions and behaviours added to the inevitable low after the fall, fuelling a negative cycle of hate and depression.

What a shitty Christmas gift I thought. Although we knew what it was, it wasn’t so easy to decide what we were going to do about it. The goal (apparently), is to avoid hypomania for as long as possible. The more episodes of hypomania, the worse the prognosis that things could progress to a full blown manic episode. Right now, I think bipolar could be the gift that keeps on giving and not necessarily in a good way.

Sunday Funday?

It’s Sunday! Instagram says it’s #sundayfunday, facebook shows all of your friends out with their kids, doing Parkrun** or watching sport. What if Sunday isn’t such a Funday after all?  Sunday can mean a sleepless night worrying about work, thinking about all the stuff you didn’t do this weekend.  The ironing isn’t done, we can’t eat at the dining table because it’s buried under paper and my kid hasn’t brushed her hair since Friday. I’m a failure at life- waaaaah!

 

This cycle of negative thinking is easy to fall into but much harder to climb out of. When the negative self talk starts, it’s tempting to plan how you’re going to get out of that cycle and achieve all those things you didn’t get done. This is not the time to start a project. No planning how you’re going to lose the extra stone in weight, land a job you love and get rich all whilst looking gorgeous and being hilariously funny.  I’ve spent so many hours scheming how I’m going to get there. How I can improve myself so that when I reach all of these (frankly unachievable) goals, my mental health issues will magically disappear and I can sail off somewhere hot on a super-yacht whilst sipping a large cocktail. If I could just push myself a bit harder, work a little harder, stay up a bit later then surely I could achieve everything I want and more?! What really happens is that I set a series of unachievable goals, fall at the first hurdle and the negative talk becomes a shout.

 

Somewhere down the line, you have to hit the stop button. The quest to “have it all” or “reach perfection” is damaging and unsustainable. I’ve identified that (for me) perfection is the enemy but how can we stop it? Ironically I sometimes feel completely paralysed because I know if I *start* something, I’ll have to do it perfectly. Sometimes it’s easier just not to start. Procrastination means I don’t have to face imperfection. I’m going to write more about this in the coming weeks as I attempt to find a way to let go of my deeply ingrained perfectionist tendencies and embrace the middle ground.

 

So instead of worrying about what you haven’t done and planning how you’re going to take over the world, take your finger off the button and have a Sunday Funday.  Do something small to care for yourself and start your week the right way.  My ideal Sunday Funday involves fun with my family then sitting down on the sofa (probably in PJs), with a blanket covering me and reading a really good book. Tell me a little about yours?

 

**I’m sure other runs are available, I wouldn’t know as I never run anywhere.

 

 

Happy World Mental Health Day (and a rant about mental health in the workplace)

Happy World Mental Health Day 2017. I’m slightly grumpy as I wrote a nice long post then my internet broke, also I’m still receiving random parcels following a hypomanic episode last week which almost certainly means a very large credit card bill! Seriously, WTF did I even order?!

 

Anyway, moving swiftly on, the theme for World Mental Health Day 2017 is mental health in the workplace. A sensible choice given that $1 trillion is lost every year from the economy due to mental illness. I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty poor treatment at work due to my mental health (ex-manager who told me I just “needed to pull myself out of it”, I’m looking at you).  I’ve also had some wonderful employers and colleagues who’ve done kind things like invite me in for coffee (just so I don’t feel excluded from the team, no work related chat allowed), sent me cards and helped me with a gradual return to work rather than going all in and risking relapse.

 

Working full time in a demanding job isn’t always great for my mental health and there’s certainly frustration on my part that I can’t put in as many hours as my colleagues (I try to take a lunch break each day- even just 10 minutes and try and leave work within 20 minutes of my official finish time). Yes there are times when I go home and straight to bed, or avoid opening my emails because anxiety girl decides there is bound to be a message from my boss telling me I messed something up/forgot to attend a meeting/am fired, despite no evidence of any of these things!

 

Like physical illness, mental illness reduces my resilience so I have to take it easy to avoid the merry go round of getting better vs. burning out again. For me, work by far outweighs staying at home, I need the human interaction, I need to challenge my brain, I need the structure of being somewhere for 9 hours a day otherwise I’d get lost in a sea of spending my days in pyjamas and probably drinking endless cups of tea (who am I kidding, I DO drink endless cups of tea).

 

One thing is for sure, opening up to my colleagues about my mental health problems has largely been a positive experience. Sometimes people will tell me their own experiences, or offer me words of support. What helps most for me is when people ask me how they should respond to my mental health issues rather than avoiding the subject during conversation. It lets me joke about it (not always politically correct but I don’t mind calling myself crazy, the problem is when words are used with a negative implication), or when someone asks if I’m tired, allowing me to own up and say “Yeah, shit nights sleep as my anxiety is bad” makes a huge different because putting up a front is tough work.

 

So here’s to happy, fulfilled, healthy work! Keep talking and take care of each other.