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Archive for the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ Category

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental illness and creativity. Specifically, my own. I have been uncommonly balanced for four years now – those who know me as friends and intimates now would perhaps not recognise who I was before. Though I’ve had periods of reactive depression, I’ve never reached the terrible depths of despair that used to be my default.

I also, during those times, was at my most creatively prolific.

I wrote during the periods when I was despairing, when I felt trapped and hopeless. I wrote because I hurt, and if I could just get it out of me, like bleeding a bad humour, then perhaps I would feel better. Perhaps the world would not seem so bleak. I wrote when I was suicidal, when I was suffocating with anxiety, I wrote when I felt helpless and hopeless and when I was having existential crisises about god and identity and the self. I wrote because I wanted other people to feel what I felt, to feel that sharp turn of emotional agony, like a knife in the belly, twisted hard.

If I examine my work from that period, it’s no surprise that I wrote almost exclusively about women whose power was taken from them, and their subsequent deaths.

Writing as creative catharsis became my norm, so when I balanced out after finally finding the right medication combination, I struggled, for years, to write again. I mean, if you’re not borderline suicidal and obsessed with the concept that your work will only gain value posthumously, what’s to write about?

The last major play I wrote before the depression lifted is about loss of hope. About fractured minds, delusions, the shifting nature of memory, but really, about the loss of hope. Because that’s where I was when I wrote it. After ten years of seeing doctors and other medical practitioners, after ten years of therapy and bouncing from drug to drug, I was losing hope. Had lost hope. It had been slowly torn from me, like stitches that rip thread by thread. All the drugs, while making minor improvements, still failed to stabilise me and often came with intolerable side effects.

There were times I hallucinated, or spiraled into mania, or felt cripplingly exhausted and unable to move, as a direct result of the drugs that were supposed to improve my mood. And every time I changed drugs, I faced the prospect that washing out from one drug before starting another would leave a small window when I was at my most vulnerable, when I would try to kill myself.

Did. Did try to kill myself.

I wrote all that out, let it fall onto the page in an attempt to be done with it.

Part of maintaining my mental health now is recognising who I was then, both as a writer and as a person with a debilitating mental illness. Though I’ve been well for several years, I will never really consider myself cured. I still take the drugs, after all. I call it a remission. I am a recovering depressive. Mental illness controlled and shaped me as an adolescent and young adult, moulded me and guided my steps in life. I am who I am because I grew up trying to manage an illness that refuses to be neatly boxed and put to one side. It hurt me. It hurts me to remember it, to know that without the right medication and strength of several years of mental wellbeing, I could be that person again.

That person who wrote all her pain on a page and sent it out into the world, away.

Now I think I write from a place of strength, not illness. It’s taken me a long time to start writing again, as though recovering from mental illness also meant putting away its crutches. And I missed writing, but I missed it like cigarettes. Because it came from an unhealthy place for the longest time.

A few days ago I put my fingers to the keys and wrote a piece of flash fiction for a competition. I don’t care if it’s never seen again – the important part was I wrote something, and it didn’t feel like bleeding. It didn’t feel like an uncontrolled gush of emotion, it felt like a regulated, modulated trickle. It felt like letting out a memory rather than drawing on something entirely present.

Afterwards I did not feel stunned and empty, like I used to. I felt calm. In control. Balanced.

I learned to be a creative person as a way of coping with mental illness. Now I find I can still be a creative person, and I don’t have to be sick or sad or suicidal to do it.

Good.

forevermore

 

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Balancing act

Family


Of course, because I blogged last week about getting the hang of things, life had to tear me down. Last Wednesday I got very, very ill, and by Thursday I felt incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed and yearning for death. Conveniently it was a public holiday, so Alex was home and able to look after me/the kids. On Friday I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with tonsillitis and laryngitis and given some rather impressive antibiotics.

I was feeling better over the weekend when Morgan came down with a head cold. Sick newborn babies are the worst – you can’t explain anything, or give them pain relief, or tell them they’ll feel better soon if only they can deal with you spraying saline solution up their nose at uncomfortably regular intervals.

Sebastian went with his dad to see family on Sunday and got worn out, probably quite over-tired, and so for the last few days has been very cranky – not sick, although his nose has been runny, but just run-down and irritable, as though he was fighting off the sickness that Morgan and I had come down with. And today, while I am mostly better, Morgan remains sniffly and Alex came down with a head cold. Sebastian was cheerful all day, thankfully. 

I had energy for once, and so I cleaned – tidying away toys, doing mountains of laundry and putting even more away, vacuuming, doing dishes, cooking a casserole for dinner, sweeping the kitchen and doing groceries. I so rarely feel rested and energised to really get to much housework, so it was wonderful to get a lot done one hit. Of course, it was followed by the guilt for all the other things I wasn’t doing – not blogging, not crafting, not writing or researching. Not doing a hundred things in the limited timeframe on one day where I happen to have some energy.

I keep thinking about motherhood as a balancing act, but really it’s not me that’s balancing – it’s all the things in my life that I need to do or achieve to keep me, my little family and my aspirations running. It’s spinning plates – frantically running from one to another to give it another whirl, to keep it spinning in the air; all the while conscious that while I spin one, another is slowing down and starting to wobble. At any moment it feels like all my plates could crash to the ground.

Today I kept a few plates going a little longer by doing enough chores to keep me sane and to keep the house running smoothly. Right now I’m spinning another plate by writing this blog entry. But while I do this, I’m aware of others starting to slow down – plates about craft projects and gardening, researching and writing articles, photography or writing fiction. They’re starting to wobble because I only have so much time, energy and opportunity and I have to choose where I invest it.

The trick is not to let those plates fall completely. Keep spinning. Keep running from one to the other and hope for the best.

 

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This week David Koch, who is a co-host of Channel 7’s Sunrise, made some horrible, horrible remarks about breastfeeding. His remarks might seem somewhat innocuous, but when you take them in the context that any discrimination against breastfeeding is illegal in Australia, and that women deal constantly with body and motherhood policing, they’re pretty offensive.

I wrote a reply over at The Peach:

Can you not see how ridiculous your comments are, how they attempt to police women, motherhood and women’s bodies? Because nothing will ever quite be ‘discreet’ enough, or ‘classy’ enough. I mean, all breastfeeding women everywhere could sit in out-of-the-way armchairs with blankets draped over their shoulder and child, and someone, somewhere, would walk past and know what was happening under that blanket.

The whole story: My body is not shameful and I will not be shamed.

My article is personal to me, for many reasons – I breastfed my first child for 12 months, and hopefully will do the same with the imminent arrival, if not longer. But more importantly, I am SO TIRED of privileged white men thinking their opinion counts when it comes to women’s bodies. Like they get a say, even if the law is already clear on the subject.

If you haven’t been following this issue, my article at The Peach handily comes with links to relevant news and blog posts so you can catch up.

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I have never met a bad Centrelink employee. I think it is just bad policy that exists. I have met tired, impatient, bored Centrelink employees, but ultimately they are just doing their jobs. I have also met incredibly kind, helpful and concerned Centrelink employees, either over the phone or in person.

Because I earned enough money at age 18, I was declared financially emancipated from my parents – this allowed me to receive benefits when studying and living in shared housing or by myself. It also assured my benefits at times when I was sick or injured. But having a legal right to benefits doesn’t make them easy to get.

For years, I had to justify my illness to a governmental body that does not particularly like it when you present a medical certificate for a problem that isn’t visible, like a broken leg. At least when I broke my spine and was unable to work, I could show up wearing my back brace and walking with a cane. My injury was pretty obvious, even if the crushed vertebrae in my spine was not.

Explaining why your invisible illness, mental or physical, cripples you to the point of being unable to study or work to a stranger at Centrelink is uniquely humiliating. Only the kindness of those employees makes it bearable. I once had a meeting with a social worker to explain that, while my back was relatively healed, the inactivity of my recuperation had caused a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome relapse, and I’d had to leave my job as a roulette dealer with the casino. I could not work, I could not study – I lived in a share house with a lovely friend who didn’t mind that I mostly sat around all day. The point of this meeting was to decide if I was eligible for temporary disability benefits for another 12 months while I tried to get my life back together.

The man was very nice. We sat in a tiny office at Centrelink in Preston. I had to explain my life to him – the physical pain that was at times unbearable, the numbing exhaustion, the relentless insomnia and the depression that resulted of all of this. I had to go into great detail about the medical treatment I was seeking – both what I tried before, and found did not work so would not pursue again, and the new theories on treatment I had heard about but could not afford. I explained that I needed to be classed as disabled (temporarily), because the only thing that could heal me was time. Time to eat well and try to sleep and gradually increase my strength, time to try new medications for depression and pain, time to organise my life and try to feel useful again. I confessed to him that I often felt despair, and although the medication I took for depression and illness didn’t work particularly well, I was scared of changing the drugs because the period of wash out between an old drug and a new one had, in the past, led to suicide attempts.

The drugs do not work, I told him, but I do not work right without the drugs. There is something wrong with me. Without medication I try to hurt myself. I don’t want to die. I don’t know what to do.

I think I cried, in that room, with that strange man who told me I was brave when I felt weak. He signed off on a certificate of temporary disability. This meant that I did not have to keep presenting medical certificates to Centrelink; they would just pay me each fortnight without me needing to contact them. That certificate was for twelve months. It was supposed to provide security of some kind.

In that time, Centrelink cut off my payments around three times, for what essentially came down to computer error. Getting those payments reinstated was exhausting.

I don’t know how Centrelink works internally – I have an idea of the processes, but I’ve never worked there myself. But the impression I get is that the computers run on a set of rules and regulations, and anything even slightly outside the norm can create a tumble of paperwork and error that, in immediate response, cuts off your payment until the problem is resolved. This has been my experience, anyway. The Centrelink employees I speak to regarding these problems are almost universally bewildered by how such errors occur in the first place, and frustrated that it is so difficult to fix. They do not run the system with computers. The computers run the system using humans as conduits.

Now I receive fortnightly payments as part of the Family Assistance program. This is because we have a small child and the government likes to help. They say. However, I’ve had a lot of problems with these payments – when I was pregnant I was receiving Newstart (the job hunting payment), with a medical certificate to say I did not have to look for work because my problematic pregnancy crippled me. However, I somehow incurred a $500 debt for being paid money in July of 2010 without reporting what activity I had done to find work. It took almost a year to retrieve that money (which Centrelink automatically garnished from my parenting payments).

The reason I didn’t hunt for a job that week, or report my lack of activity, was because I was in hospital giving birth.

Some glitch had happened, and the computer had decided they shouldn’t have paid me as though I were medically unfit (when I was in the damned hospital bleeding on the operating table and full of drugs and stitches), and the computer took that money back. The Centrelink employees I spoke to about this were damn near helpless to reverse that situation. Eventually, I found out I could reverse the debt by handing in some obscure paperwork that outlined my activity and lack of job hunting for that period. I think I wrote ‘GIVING BIRTH TO MY CHILD, COULDN’T ACCESS JOB SEEKING WEBSITES’ angrily. But finally, I got the money back.

Recently I’ve been furious all over again because a minor mistake was made with Sebastian’s immunisation records, and our child care benefit was cut off, and it looked like I might have to pay his daycare $850 for the care already given (almost all of that should have been covered by Centrelink). If the problem wasn’t fixed that sum wouldn’t go down. If the sum didn’t go down then I could no longer put Sebastian in daycare, which would mean I couldn’t work, which would mean I wouldn’t have the money to pay the daycare. A horrible cycle of crap. It took three weeks just to find out what the problem was and get it fixed, including phone call after phone call to Centrelink and Medicare.

I get angry at Centrelink because I try so hard to do the right thing so these payments will run smoothly, and in return some computer blinks a few times and I’m told I owe them money, or they will not pay me, or pay daycare. I am angry that I have to talk endlessly to strangers about the minute details of my daily life. I am angry that this is a system designed to catch fraud, not help people. I am angry that I cried in front of that strange man in that tiny room because I had an illness that was invisible. I am angry that my financial stability depends on a system that fails at every turn.

I wish I could blame Centrelink employees. But they’re just people. It’s the machines that make the mistakes. I like to imagine their central database is called Skynet.

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