Exams

I don’t know how many times I’ve had this dream, or something like it. It’s 5.30pm on Saturday afternoon. My final Year 12 exam starts in 3 hours and I’m absolutely not ready. Why an exam is scheduled for 8.30pm on a Saturday is never made very clear to me! I don’t have a cheat sheet ready, I haven’t studied all semester, I know nothing and I’m in a despairing panic. Or I’m in the last class of the term doing trial exams and unable to answer a single question. Or I’m studying at home and don’t even know where to start. Or I’m in a group study session and the others know everything and I’m absolutely lost, up the creek without a paddle! The subject of the exam is never one that you can cram overnight like biology or history; it’s always physics, maths, or chemistry where you have to understand the equations and be able to manipulate them in the exam to show your understanding. Or lack thereof in this case. There is no way that I can shove enough knowledge into my brain in time to pull it back out again in time for the exam. In other words, I’m doomed! Can you imagine the panic, stress, anxiety, despair, terror, the feeling of utter failure and of the future being bleak? In the middle of the night in my sleep it’s very real and very upsetting! Wishing I’d done better, afraid of the moment my teachers find out I’ve failed them, fearing my peers finding out I’m dumb and incompetent. Cheery stuff!

The thing is, I passed my Year 12 exams. I received my Victorian Certificate of Education in 2005. I did well in fact. I was in the top 10 of my year level, number 6 I think. I achieved 94.55 out of 99.99. This isn’t a brag. It’s an attempt to make my brain remember that actually I have finished this part of my life, and finished it well. I no longer need to fret, stress, despair, panic, etc about facing exams. I mean for goodness sake, it’s 11 years since Year 12! It’s 7 years since I finished my Bachelor of Pharmacy, a lot less academically brilliantly but still. Those years are done, finished; there’s nothing that can be done to change any of it. I can’t go back and do it again. And after all I did those exams and passed them. But these dreams, largely about Year 12 exams, persist! And it’s tiring to spend so much emotion in my sleep during the night on a situation that would never occur to me to think about during the day. But during the night, my brain can’t rationalise. It’s susceptible to the strangest things. And never more so than since I’ve been on antidepressants. Prior to starting antidepressants in mid 2013 I may have had this dream, but I can’t remember. I never dreamed that much and I remembered even less of what I did dream. I’d wake up and any dream would rapidly fade and become a vague thought, or just drift away. But then.

SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the first class of antidepressant that you get to know if you experience your own battle with anxiety, or depression. They are the first line of treatment. Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft are some brand names you may have heard of. I prefer the generic names because they never change: escitalopram, fluoxetine, sertraline plus paroxetine, citalopram and fluvoxamine. These medications can have a side effect of strange, or even frightening dreams or nightmares (NPS), otherwise described in some places as vivid dreams. Can, being the operative word. They don’t occur in all people, or all the time. I seem to go through phases then have a break for a while, then another series. I was amused at the beginning. I had these super realistic dreams of utter nonsense that were really quite entertaining. I just wished I could have hit the video button and recorded them; I’m sure my name would have gone down in history along with the famous movie directors. I could never write them down quick enough and in enough detail to really proper capture them; quite a shame. But then I started getting variations on this exam panic and it’s not anywhere near amusing; it’s very stressful and I wake up next morning entirely exhausted, as if I’ve hardly slept! It’s draining. And to what end? My psychiatrist doesn’t believe in finding the meaning in dreams, neither did my psychologist, nor does my GP. Rationally I know that dreams are just my subconscious processing data. But sometimes I’d just like a reason why I’m fighting with these emotions during the night. I mean I know why, in that it’s because of the medication. But why this kind of dream, why this stress about failing?

So. What to do about it? In my case, not a lot right now. I’m on an SSRI plus 3 mood stabilisers. Theoretically for bipolar patients, the antidepressant is no longer necessary once the mood stabilisers are in place. Theoretically. So in order to get rid of the dreams, and the sweating, my psychiatrist started slowly weaning my high dose of antidepressant. We got down to 375mg from 525mg, but when we went to 300mg, things started falling apart. It wasn’t worth it so we went back to the last dose that worked. We might try it again later, especially now that one of my mood stabilisers has been bumped up. But it’s a balancing act. Sometimes you have to accept some side effects for an otherwise good healthy life. That’s just reality.

In the meantime, my energy is going to trying to wake myself up out of these dreams and remind myself that although I did have some close calls with studying at the last minute during my university years, that’s long gone! It’s in the past and it needn’t bother me anymore. What’s weird is that it was my years at uni when I was less studious, but the dreams are always about high school. I guess that’s just proof that this is an irrational thing, and to just let it go as much as possible, let it pass, let it slide. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4. Ahhh.

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Upbeat

Well let’s try something a little more upbeat, shall we?

– Amy Adams, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

Time for some good news, don’t you think? The last 2 week’s blogs have been a tad depressing. But then again, that’s what we’re dealing with; depression. And it is depressing!

But, time for some good news. Just as long as you don’t think that’s how it actually works in real life. Good news following bad in a nice little ratio. It doesn’t happen neatly like that. The depressing topics can go on for quite a while without relief!

Thanks to my amazing psychiatrist I actually am feeling quite a bit better this week. My meds have been upped again and within 3 days of increasing the dose I was coming up from the depths and feeling better, and my energy and mood have kept on coming up. Thank goodness!

My belief has been renewed that it is possible to get properly medicated and live a reasonably normal life. I stopped believing over the last little while, thinking I was living a doomed life. I have been reminded how closely the analogy of diabetes fits my disease. When a diabetic’s sugar levels go off, they feel awful but they go to the doctor and the doctor changes the level of medication. I just forgot that I need to go to the doctor and ask for more meds when I start sinking; I tend to think it’s on me to fix myself, as if I could! I’ve been reminded very clearly this time that when I’m struggling, it’s not just that I’m struggling, but that there’s something chemical going on in my brain that needs a doctor to sort out. I need to recognize it, and ask for help. That sounds obvious, but it’s not obvious to me, not when I’m sick. I just blame myself, feel like I’m not doing enough to be better, and I hibernate.  So I’m reminded it’s the level of chemicals in my brain that are dictating how I’m going, and when I need more, I need more and I need to ask for it. I’ll try to remember for next time…

I have faith again now, faith that things can be better, and will get better, and will be better. Something I lost lately.

But if I wasn’t feeling better, I was planning to write something “positive” anyway.

You know, so you wouldn’t worry. So you wouldn’t think it was all bleak and dark. To balance out the last two posts. To alleviate your concerns and to reassure you that everything is okay. Because that’s what we do, or at least that’s what I do. People who are emotionally and mentally unwell.

I want you to know when things aren’t going well because I believe in my friends and family knowing the truth. I want you to know, I really do. I think it’s good for a lot of people to know how these things work; so you understand, and maybe so it’ll help you help someone else.

Until all the condolences roll in and everyone is so worried. Until dear friends get scared, and fret about how I am going. Then I think about you, and how it’s affecting you and it makes me anxious, thinking of more questions and concerns, and I back peddle. So sometimes I tell you its all good so you can relax. And so I can relax, and I’m no longer fielding afraid questions from loved ones. My husband says this is insulting to people. To coddle them, and not let them in on the whole truth. To decide what they can handle and what they can’t. To give them the amount of truth that I believe won’t overload them, and by extension, me.

I’m sorry to do this! I don’t mean to take control of the information stream, or insult you, or lie. But it quickly becomes too much for me. Despite this, I don’t want you to change a thing. Please don’t stop feeling concern, or asking me about what’s going on. I’m just letting you in on my crazy brain!

But I think this is a very common thing in people with mental illness. I read a piece recently about “smiling depression” and so many times it IS easier to smile. I try not to be fake, but it’s still my fall back, the easier option.

It’s not about restricting your access to information about my illness and how I’m going. Like I said, I want you to know; at least theoretically. I have a limited capacity for emotion, including other people’s, when I’m not well. This is why sometimes I still say “fine”, “okay”, “not bad”, “good thanks” to skirt the question of how I’m going. Because when I’m really not well, just a simple “how are you?” is enough to bring me to tears, and have I mentioned how much I hate crying? Especially in front of anyone else! But I’m trying to be honest and open, so bear with me.

Sometimes I want you to think I’m okay, or not so bad so I can slink back to bed without attention.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate your concern.

I want to promote understanding of mental illness, but sometimes the kind concern and loving questions, while so touching, are a lot to deal with when I’m operating at low emotional capacity! When I’m better it’s a lot easier to process and when I’m well it’s easy, just the same as you or anyone, but of course the same thoughts and  questions don’t apply then.

But I am well this week. I’ve got energy, motivation, stamina. I feel good! Everything is easier. I’m doing more, and it’s draining me less, and not exhausting me just to move. My husband is happy, the house is in a little bit shape, things are just good. So none of this is fake. These are the real positives that I can see clearly with my eyes right now. Yay!

  • I’ve gotten out of bed every day this week, and sometimes before noon! Really!
  • I’ve talked to a potential employer via email and on the phone, and done an in-person job interview
  • I’ve done groceries, dropped off some clothes to be mended, washed and dried sheets, posted some clothes for refund, tidied up my side of the bedroom, even cooked dinner one night! Don’t get your hopes too high though, that’s about all I’ve done!
  • I’ve been to my GP for an appointment, to a doctor for an ultrasound, to a careers counsellor for help getting a job, and to KFC when I couldn’t figure out what to eat for lunch! That’s a lot of outings and socialising for me! On the days I went out, I went to bed when I got home, usually for an hour and a half…but I didn’t nap on the days that I didn’t go out, so that’s something
  • All this out and about meant I got some sunshine on 2 separate days. Actually on the skin sunshine!

So that’s me for this week. It’s not a lot from the viewpoint of my old life, but these days I take whatever I can take, and this is relatively awesome!

How about you? How are you? I’d love to hear from you.

 

Karkarook

2nd December, 2015

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On this day I drove over to Heatherton in some pretty solid morning traffic and joined a group of lovely people from BirdLife Melbourne​ at Karkarook Park at 10am. Birdlife Melbourne are an amazing group based in Carlton that run monthly birding activities at various sites across Melbourne and sometimes further afield, as well as being heavily involved in conservation work and public education. I’m a member, one of the many hobbies I signed up to in my long convalescence, and one of the few that have stuck.

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I’d never been over that side of town to go birding, and I’m happy to say the day was a huge success for me!! We had a decent turnout with nearly 30 people. As with any event run at 10am on a Wednesday, the large part of the group were older, maybe retired, and quite a number of them were experienced birders able to guide newbies like me. One or two are known among the group for their dogged opinions on identification questions, even though their vision and hearing are failing them! But we smile and let them go.

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I love birding! It’s so convenient, you can do it from your window, front door step or verandah, or it can take you just about anywhere! We inadvertently got into birding on our South America trip. What with the multitude of unique birds of the Galapagos, the Amazon rainforest filled with macaws, toucans and so many others, and generally nice areas of forest/bush with brightly coloured birds it was an eye opener to the birds of the world. We were very lucky with enthusiastic guides, and Naun in particular in the Amazon jungle who provided, at his own cost, a spotting scope on a tripod and binoculars plus an amazing trick of taking phone photos down the scope for amazing close ups!! We spent hours more than any other group with hubby, myself and Naun with him pointing out birds up the 46 metre tower (!!) above the canopy. Amazing and terrifying views, and excellent shots of all manner of birds that you wouldn’t see from the ground.

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Everywhere we go on holidays now I look up potential bird spots. I’m a bit of a Nervous Nelly about going on my own, so I do appreciate going with the group. But as I’m getting more well, I’m getting less frightened about going by myself. Most of what I’m afraid of is probably only realistic in scary movies, which I cannot watch, so I try to be brave and go.

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We didn’t get a huge number of species on the day. There’s are a couple of  lakes, one which is a filled in quarry and a couple of others in a natural wetland, but all the grass areas have died off to brown, and the bush areas are fairly dry as well. Nothing to see from the bird hide, birds buzzing around the eucalypts at a rate of knots, and no new species.

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But in one of the fenced off areas, I got some amazing shots! These are the best ever shots that I’ve ever gotten of a male Superb Fairy Wren!! And I have done a lot of trying up to now! So it’s saying something that they are the best. The fact that they are so far the best as to make the rest seem pointless, is thrilling! They came close, out in front of the bushes, and sat still, and didn’t move far when they took off, and the sun came out at just the right moments, and everything came together to mean some fabulous shots that I’m very proud to show you!

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