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Posts Tagged ‘struggling to cope’

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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I’ve learned, after 10+ years of dealing with depression, that preventative measures can make a huge difference when it comes to mental health. This is generally called self-care, and I have certain self-care measures I start pulling out whenever I feel my mood is fragile, like now. Self-care can sometimes mean maintaining rather than declining, I’ve found. I want to go into detail on more of these in future posts, but here’s just one or two to start with.

Maintaining a routine. This one is so important for me, or I drift. I am more than capable of doing nothing for days on end while the chores pile up around me and I get nothing done. My mood can spiral because of the sheer nothingness of my days. With kids, maintaining a routine happens without a lot of effort from me – my days are defined by meals and naps anyway, so I put the effort in to keeping up regular activities like play dates, grocery shopping and outings. I try to keep active when the kids are sleeping and I’m not having a sleep myself.

Keep order in my environment. For me, this involves running the dishwasher once a day, trying to vacuum at least once a week, staying on top of the laundry. A cluttered environment clouds my mind, and it’s hard to stay positive and active when I’m feeling overwhelmed by mess. I’ve taken this a step further, and recently cleared the clutter out of our bedroom and set up a little dressing area for myself, with my jewellery and hair stuff organised next to the mirror. It’s a small space of calm that I focus on keeping tidy, so my bedroom feels like a positive space rather than just one more room that’s stressful for me to be in. No kids’ stuff allowed. 

My little corner of neatness.


Create small goals. Making small, attainable goals can be incredibly helpful for me. Rather than a big, looming five-year-plan type deal that seems both far away and unreachable, I like to create small tasks for myself, or break bigger projects down into smaller tasks. For example, I’ve been sewing a lined swaddling pouch for the baby – this is a project that doesn’t take forever, I enjoy and can work on in small bursts. Tidying all the clutter out of the bedroom was a goal I banged out in an evening, and part of our larger project of getting the house organised. I century organised all my sewing and craft gear, which I’ve been meaning to do forever. Small goals don’t overwhelm, and yet give a sense of pride and satisfaction when they’re completed, which is helpful to my mental health.

 

This isn’t prescriptive by any means, just some things I’ve found have worked to keep my mental health on an even keel. Sometimes depression happens no matter what, but sometimes I can hold it off by being careful, sticking to habits that I know keep me focused and calm. It’s when I start to drift into overwhelming stress and anxiety that my mood spirals very fast. Right now, because I’m aware that I’ve been feeling down and that can easily lead to depression, I’m pulling out all the self-care stops. 

What are your techniques for self-care?

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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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Stay at home parents like me spend a lot of time doing things that are observed and judged by other people. I take my toddler and baby with me when I go shopping, the groceries I choose are visible in the basket or cart; the way I speak to my children and react and interact with them can be viewed and listened to when I’m out in public. Who they are, how they act and what they wear can be taken as a direct reflection of me – I’m the one they will spend the most time with at least until they start attending school. I choose their clothes, organise their haircuts, feed them and wipe their faces after. It’s with me that they will do a lot of their learning – my voice and words and behaviour they emulate. 

Being their mother is my job right now. Someone has to do it, and I want to, don’t get me wrong, but its a job. Unlike every other job, however, there’s no clear reimbursement for services rendered, no start and finish time, no set goals and achievable outcomes. But everybody, and I do mean everybody, thinks they get input into how I do my job. Everybody is my boss.

I found I got really defensive a few days ago when my partner innocently requested that I do something (to do with our grocery shopping) differently than I’ve been doing it. I got angry, because this is a task that I do 90% of the time and it makes sense for me to do. I have the time, the inclination, I know what needs to be bought and what foods the toddler is happy with fit now. Generally I have a fairly accurate idea of the contents of our fridge and pantry as I do a lot of the cooking too. 

A perceived criticism in the way I did this really got to me because its part of my job. I already feel ongoing Mama Guilt over the toddler not eating enough vegetables, or too much sugar, and that I don’t cook enough, or cook enough variety, and we don’t eat organically, and I buy snacks often without paying too much attention to the sodium or sugar levels, and none of this would be so bad if only we all watched a lot less telly which is probably evil.

I see articles online, and tweets and Facebook posts, that judge mothers, that make commentary on how they parent and how their children behave. Because society thinks it is my boss, that it gets to decide if I’m doing a good or bad job parenting, and those parameters change with who you’re speaking to. 

its hard because this is my job but my partner is parent too, he lives in this house too, and the things I do every day affect him. Where is the line for what is entirely my say and what we have equal input into? If I make most of the decisions because I’m the one that’s home, can he question them? How do you balance that, being fair to his personal investment and my need for autonomy? And sometimes I make so many of the decisions that I don’t want to make all of them, but they’re like cascading dominoes – I know what is in the pantry/fridge because I’m the one that did the shopping so I should decide what we eat for dinner even when it’s not my turn to cook. 

I think we don’t talk about this enough – that when one half of a couple stays at home, they become entirely responsible for the home, even when the other partner spends all their off time there. It’s then easy to become resentful over household and parenting responsibilities, because of lack of autonomy in some areas and far too much autonomy in others. This then affects the relationship, because that relationship exists within the context of the household and parenting, and its sometimes easy for us all to forget: this might be my home, but it’s also my job. One of us Goes out for work and comes home to relax, but I must somehow do both in the same space, when there is no 9-5 definition of start and finish for each.

A balancing act, and one I don’t know I’m particularly good at. 

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This week has been hard for me. I’m having horrible stabby back pain that kicks in every time I try to move/walk/everything. I saw my chiropractor yesterday and while it does seem to have eased a little, it hasn’t been a huge change. And because I’m tired and in pain I’m more likely to snap at Sebastian for little things, which oh god makes me feel horrible and guilty – along with not being able to get down and play with him properly. But my mobility is pretty constrained right now too. This makes everything so much more frustrating because there’s so much stuff I have to do and yet I’m feeling very limited.

It’s now less than six weeks until the baby is due. That really, truly and properly occurred to me for the first time a few days and I’m feeling a bit panicky. The nursery isn’t done! I have no idea what baby clothes we have! There’s so many dirty dishes in my sink! I haven’t sorted my clothes to figure out what I can wear post-baby but can breastfeed in!

The last few weeks of pregnancy are always super hard because the end is in sight, and it is both too close and not close enough. I have moments of truly profound anxiety where I wonder if I can cope with a toddler and a baby. Alex has four weeks parental leave arranged, but I’ll be recovering from a c-section, so it probably won’t be all special fun super family time. More like me with a giant hole in my abdomen trying to shield it from a toddler who likes climbing me like I’m a tree AND nursing a tiny human who is bound to be big. I console myself with the fact that standard recovery time for a c-section is six weeks, whereas I remained in pain and not completely healed after a natural birth for three damn months.

I am huge, too. Look at this picture from just after Christmas:

30 weeks pregnant

30 weeks pregnant

Now imagine me even bigger. And waddling. With my hand in the middle of my back like some sort of archetype for pregnancy. And making that noise when I get out of chairs, IF I can get out without help.

I worry that after I have this baby I will get consumed by the sleep-deprived brain-blankness of new motherhood again. I want to keep writing – I’m writing for The Peach now and finding that incredibly satisfying, and writing this blog has done a lot for making me feel like I have a voice again and my skills haven’t disappeared in the last few years. There’s a lot I want to do with this blog, and none of it will happen if I’m not writing and posting regularly. But then I remember the lack of sleep, the night nursing, the nappies, the overwhelming feelings that come with giving birth and part of me thinks, how will I manage anything else?

It’s supposed to be easier, isn’t it? Transitioning from one child to two? I mean, at least this time I have a fairly solid idea of what to expect. Having baby number one is like getting a reality bomb dropped on you – you think you’re prepared but there’s just no way you can be. At least with baby number two I’ve already lived through it once and confirmed I will actually survive.

The next few weeks will be busy, if this horrid back pain ever gets better – sorting through our baby things to figure out what we need and don’t need; preparing the nursery for bringing the bubba home; arranging our lives a little better in preparation for the big life change that’s about to happen.

Meanwhile I’ll just be the one in the corner armchair, making that noise when I try to get up.

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I haven’t written here because I needed a break; the last few months have taken a lot out of me. We moved house, with all those various stresses, I was working and studying during the same period, and fitting in endless medical appointments for this pregnancy. More recently, Alex has spent the last two months working insane graveyard hours that, while providing a bit more income, has generally just been bad for us.

Because he was sleeping all day and away all night, we were only just snatching conversations about household issues and holiday plans. He and Sebastian got to spend almost no time together, unless it was dealing with a tantrum or putting Sebastian down for a nap. I was trying to get Sebastian out of the house in the mornings so Alex could sleep, and organise Christmas plans and presents, and we were having no quality time together as a family. And that’s important.

We all suffered. Alex was constantly tired when he was awake and home, and I was handling all of the shopping, housework and parenting and reaching my last nerve. Sebastian became clingy and frantic and the tantrums were constant. And we just kind of plodded along like that for two months. Just surviving, not really living.

Christmas was another stress – we had some fantastic family time, but preparing for that and making sure everything was perfect took the last of my energy. The presents were beautifully wrapped and the tree trimmed and I made lovely food, but having a wonderful holiday season takes work.

I made sure I did something I’d like to make a tradition – on Christmas eve, Sebastian, Mum and I made gingerbread for Santa. It was an incredibly special thing, in its own way, just to stir and knead and roll the dough together, to cut the shapes and watch them bake in the oven. Sebastian was delighted because he adores gingerbread. And sure enough, Santa only left a few crumbs.

There is nothing in the world as wonderful as freshly baked gingerbread.

There is nothing in the world as wonderful as freshly baked gingerbread.

Christmas day for us was lovely – probably far too many presents for Sebastian, but he was delighted and watching him with family was a real pleasure. We ate far too much, I made Christmas pudding from scratch and made everybody admire it at length, and we had a peaceful evening, just the way I like it.

But what I really, really needed was the trip we took down to the Mornington Peninsula between Christmas and New Year’s. A gorgeous beach house to stay in, pleasantly warm and sunny days and nothing to do but rest.

I had gotten to the point where I desperately needed to recharge my batteries, and I got that chance. Alex, who’d missed Sebastian terribly while he’d been working crazy hours, spent lots of time with him and wow, I just slept so much. I had long, long naps and rests and afternoons in bed. I occasionally went to the beach or the park and did something fun, but mostly I just got rest. This pregnancy has been draining me so much.

The holiday period is special to me – a time to see family, to put effort into lovely food that everyone enjoys, finding perfect gifts for the people you care about and taking the time to unwind. Christmas has never had religious significance for me, but that doesn’t equate to a lack of meaning. Being a parent only intensifies that – being surrounded by family and spending quality, relaxed time together, Sebastian is the happiest I’ve seen him in months.

Life gets so busy, it’s easy to let priorities slide. For me, that’s time to relax and recharge with my family, so I feel grounded and close.

Sebastian with his train set on Christmas morning. He didn't move for two hours.

Sebastian with his train set on Christmas morning. He didn’t move for two hours.

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I am now in my 28th week of pregnancy, which puts me in the third trimester. I am in pain, and uncomfortable, and feeling stressed and depressed. These are familiar feelings from my last pregnancy.

I have pelvic instability, which is very painful and makes walking difficult. I’m having horrible acid reflux and the kind of intense Braxton-Hicks contractions that leave me stupefied and breathless for minutes at a time. I feel like I’m constantly overheating, and every little task feels hard, and I feel helpless, which I loathe.

I grew up with chronic illness, with the ongoing and constant sense that my body was betraying me and I had lost control. Pregnancy reawakens all of these feelings in me. That I am powerless and helpless and have no say in what is happening to me. I love my baby, but I hate pregnancy.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

I try to stay focused on accomplishing small tasks, like cooking something yummy or completing one small aspect of a project at a time, like getting the curtains finished for one room. It helps to break things down like this – I am just doing this one small thing, not getting overwhelmed by Giant Energy Sucking Thing. But even this is hard because Sebastian is at a fidgeting, attention-intensive age so I have to wait for his naps or bedtime, but because I’m in pain I’m not sleeping well and often exhausted.

I remind myself that this is temporary, that there is not long to go, that even this is better than last time. But a lot of the time I feel depressed, and quite sad that I don’t enjoy pregnancy the way some women do.

This is my last baby, because I don’t want to go through this again.

Early next year I will have this baby, and I will have joy that he has arrived, but relief that it is over too.

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