R U OK?

Today is R U OK? day. It’s an annual day nominated by the R U OK? suicide prevention charity to think about the people in our lives and consider if they are okay. More than that, it’s a day to take ourselves in hand, try to be brave and open a conversation if we think someone we know is struggling. Of course this is something that should happen every day. But today is a day to revive our intentions to be a good mate to our family, friends, colleagues, anyone we bump up against in our daily lives. It’s a day to understand a bit more about what drives people to consider suicide, and to learn ways that we can safely help them.

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I’d love each one of you my readers to check out the R U OK? website. Just pick one topic and give 5 minutes of your time to taking on some new knowledge, or understanding, or strategy. It really can change and even save a life. It’s that important.

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Some of the topics I think are great are Mates, resources for every day, news stories and information, but I’m sure you’ll find the topic that makes most sense, or means the most to you.

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I’ve been a mental health advocate (at least I think I have been) for a lot longer than I’ve been ill with mental illness. By that I mean that I’ve considered mentally ill people the same as myself just with a condition requiring treatment, and tried to show to others that they don’t need to be feared. As a child I was used to being around mentally unwell patients. One family friend had schizophrenia and another had bipolar disorder. We saw them regularly, saw them better and worse, visited them in hospital and knew they were just people like the rest of us. And they were just the people who had known, obvious, must-be-treated illnesses. Who knows how many people in my acquaintance had depression or anxiety that was more or less invisible. I wouldn’t know. It was never talked about. If they were there, I never knew. Which is a terrible shame.

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So today is about conversations. I want people to have conversations. But first of all I want to tell you why R U OK? as a charity and a question is so important to me.

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When I was depressed or anxious, I felt awful. I was barely dragging myself around, limping from bed to work and from work to bed. My brain was either whizzing or sluggish; it wasn’t very useful. I felt like all of this must be pasted across my face, and that surely someone would notice today that I was struggling and ask me about it. It had to be written on my forehead, I thought, why can no one see it, why is no one wondering what’s wrong with me? I was just dying for someone to see it and come to my aid.

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But nothing happened. I didn’t want to be attention seeking and bring it up myself, I wasn’t one of those people who was always making a fuss. But I was in pain here, it must be obvious. I thought of a hundred ways to bring it up, but I just couldn’t. It was too obvious a way to start a conversation, there was no easy lead in.

“So you’re having tuna for lunch, that’s interesting, did you know that I’m depressed?”

So I dragged myself around, wondering and waiting and hoping that someone would do the hard part for me and bring up so I could let it all pour out. And do you know the funny thing? Having felt so isolated, like no one could see the real me inside, like I was alone in this experience and so on, once I was officially sick and had told people about it, I had several comments along the lines “oh I thought so” and “I figured something was wrong” and “I knew something wasn’t right” and “you didn’t seem like your usual self”. If just one, only one person had actually said that out loud, it would have been such a relief, a balm, a comfort! It probably would have meant that I got help sooner. It could’ve shorten the process, and I would have been so thankful. It would’ve meant such a lot.

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Speak up. If you can see a change, say something. If things seem different, say so. The worst that can happen is that you’re wrong, and they are just having a bad day or week, or are preoccupied. But how can it hurt? At the least, I’m sure they’ll appreciate your concern, the effort that you’ve gone to, your care. It would be a rare person who would take exception to your kind heart.

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The second part is knowing what to say. The reason for this charity’s name is that R U OK? is a powerful question. It might not seem like it, or seem much different to our usual greetings, but it works. We say hello, hi, howdy, how are you going? what’s up? how’s it going? how’s things? alright? and a hundred similar things so many times a day. And we’re programmed to response almost rote: good thanks, hey there, great, how about you? not much, well, yep and so on. So much so that if someone says something different to these, we can accidentally get caught saying good thanks before we’ve even registered that they’ve asked us what’s up?!

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But R U OK? hits a different nerve. It makes us really think about how we are, and it elicits an honest answer.

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So here’s what I want to do. I want you, one day over the next day or two, to count how many greeting encounters you have in one day. I consider one encounter to be one person say hello and/or how are you and the other person responding. Now I know for myself, home most days, there aren’t very many encounters. But for people working in retail there might be many, maybe more than what I’ve allowed for. I really want to know what your number is! Please get involved and let’s see how many times we bump up against each other each day.

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I’ll post the results as early as possible once you’ve had a chance to respond with data from your working life today and tomorrow. If you don’t read this until the weekend, give me your weekend numbers too.

My aim for this poll is to think about how many times we have a typical hi/how are you conversation. The next step after this is to consider what might happen if we changed ONE of these rote conventional habits into an R U OK? conversation. What could U achieve, how could U have an impact on someone else’s life? You already read my tales of mental illness, so you already have a kind heart and I daresay you want to help others too. This is the perfect chance, and I hope to take the baton and run with it.

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Mental as

This week is Mental Health Week from 5th to 12th of October and today, Friday 10th October, is World Mental Health Day.

You know me; that’s just way too much of an opportunity for me to let it pass!

There have been some amazing efforts put forward this week by various agencies to improve our understanding of mental health conditions, treatments and the help available to every single one of us. In particular today’s theme is Schizophrenia so there will be a lot of information available about this condition specifically.

If you haven’t already seen some of these efforts come up on Facebook/Twitter/MySpace/ Instagram/email/TV/the streets, you may want to check out the Black Dog Institute, the South African Depression and Anxiety group, Beyond Blue, ABC TV, Headspace, lifeline or one of the many other groups, associations and publishers that have websites, social media presence and who are doing remarkable work to help us all.

Mental Health Week allows mental health issues to be brought to the foreground as a topic for discussion in workplaces, at home, in schools, TAFEs and universities, among certain ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural groups and generally everywhere.

I think the very much most important-ist place to talk about mental health is with yourself. What do YOU think about mental health? What are your fears, concerns, issues, problems with mental health? What do you know, and what don’t you know? Is it a personal issue for you; is it a family, personal, friend, colleague, acquaintance issue? What do you want, need, hope for, wish for about mental health? Etc…you can think up the questions.

The second most important place at discuss mental health is at home. Around the dinner table, in front of the TV, in the car on the way to school etc. If we are all too afraid to talk about it when it isn’t an issue for anyone important to us, how on earth are we going to be able to bring the topic into the house if and when it does become something that we need to talk about?! So start a conversation today. Do it. Just do it. For your future self, or family member, just in case.

Mental health week is a chance for the concerns, the issues, the requests for resources, the commendations of individuals and organisations to be heard. It’s also a time when each party puts forward their specific focus and area of interest.

So what’s mine? And what’s yours? I’d love to hear them, and I’m sure any of the organisations and even government bodies putting in a presence this week would appreciate knowing your opinion too. In fact you can pledge your promise to improve mental health and share it via the awesome R U OK? website or social media.

My dream is that every single solitary person in this lucky country would understand mental illness.

Or if they don’t understand it, that at least they would know what mental illness is, how it can treated, where help can be found and when to intervene to help somebody. That would make me so happy!

‘Mental illness’ is a vast and changing term but my dream is that at a minimum depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia would be understood or known by everyone. I know there are a whole lot of other disorders and illnesses that are equally important and need to be educated around, but this is my dream.

I want mental health education to start in the first year of high school as part of health, or English, or science, or SOSE, or PE, or languages or ANYTHING! I don’t care what bracket it’s taught under; I just want every child to know what can be out there for a friend, family members or themselves.

Since I have been talking about my mental health, a friend has contacted me to say her mother was undiagnosed with bipolar for her whole childhood and teen years and treated unsuccessfully for depression, which can be a common course. She wrote to say how glad she was that I got the right diagnosis so quickly (18 months didn’t feel quick, but it’s relative), and to say how much she wished it had been found out earlier in her mother, because it would have changed everything!

So consider this: some education to family members earlier in life may, just may, have changed lives!

I don’t want mental health to scare people. On my return to work, a health professional colleague responded to my statement that how I’d been off work with a nervous breakdown by saying: “Depression scares me! Sometimes I find my mood getting low and it freaks me out so I make myself be happy again. I don’t want anything messing with my brain”!!! This is a health professional! With clearly no more understanding of mental illness than a goose, which is very unfortunate!

We need everyone, and especially health professionals, educators and anyone dealing with the public, but we might as well go for ALL people while we are at it, to UNDERSTAND mental illness!

Not just read about it, swot it for exams, know the diagnostic criteria! We need people to know that depression doesn’t change your brain, yes it’s not nice but no reason to be terrified of it!

It’s not any more scary than diabetes which can kill or damage nerves causing severe pain, blind you, deafen you, make you prone to infections, put you at risk of stroke and heart attack!! That’s a LOT more scary to me than a serotonin imbalance that can be corrected with medication, counselling, time and support.

So here’s to dreams! And the tiny steps we can take to today, to start to get there!

*I’d like to acknowledge the slogan of the ABC’s fabulous efforts in broadcasting mental health education and issues for Mental Health Week as the inspiration for my title*

Voices

 

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed

Get along with the voices inside of my head

You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath

And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy

Well, that’s nothing

-Monsters by Eminem feat. Rihanna

 

I love this song called Monsters by Eminem with Rihanna and always sing along when it comes on the radio while I’m driving. The chorus mainly, I’m not skilled enough to rap along with Eminem! “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed”. To be friends with whatever our own particular monster is; what a great goal to have!

To accept that I have a monster in my life, to accept that it isn’t going away and can’t be gotten rid of, to accept that it will always be right there lurking under the bed is one of the biggest parts of reaching remission with mental health disorders. Acceptance is key.

That’s what I’ve been told by my therapists and I really do think that this is true. I’ve seen enough patients with mental illness, mostly schizophrenia and sometimes bipolar disorder, and every now and then depression, anxiety or panic disorders who do not believe that they are unwell to know that believing the diagnosis and accepting the need for treatment is the biggest advantage you can have on your side. From then on out, having a good relationship with your doctor, having faith in the treatments given and doing what you can for yourself are added bonuses towards successfully managing your condition.

Fighting against the diagnosis, disbelieving the doctors, resisting the label, not wanting to accept the idea of illness takes so much emotional energy, so much mental energy and makes you prey to so much more time exposed to the condition that is ravaging you. It can also make your condition harder to treat once you finally succumb to the idea of needing help as it has had so much more time to get a strong grasp in your mind and the symptoms may be a lot more advanced. You wouldn’t do this to your body if you had diabetes, leave your body exposed to high levels of blood sugar damaging your blood vessels and nerve endings while your organs starve for sugar. So why do it do your mind?

Because at the end of the day, mental illnesses like diabetes or thyroid disorders or heart disease are conditions that are not curable, in the sense that they never go away but can be well managed. Bipolar disorder doesn’t just pop up then vanish away again. But it can be managed away to the extent that it no longer controls your life and so that people around you have no idea about your condition, and maybe you even forget that you have this monster.

Here’s to becoming friends with whatever it is that scares the pants off us! To becoming friends with our monsters.

 

[ I ] Get along with the voices inside of my head”

 

I don’t have voices inside of my head.

That sounds like a statement of denial, but it isn’t. I’m just telling you a fact about me. Trust me; I’ve been thoroughly checked for voices! By my GP, my psychologist, two psychiatrists and a number of nurses. And myself, just to quintuple-check.

I mean that I don’t have voices in the sense that most people expect voices. I don’t have auditory hallucinations such as people can have if they suffer from schizophrenia, psychosis, some forms of bipolar or delirium. I don’t hear people who aren’t physically present telling me things, commanding me to perform certain actions or speaking to me through objects like the radio or TV.

But I’ve come to learn about other types of voices that can be just as damaging. The inner voice. Everyone has one, to whatever extent they allow it to be heard in their own mind. The little voice that chats away in the background carrying along beliefs, ideas, thoughts, judgements, criticism and hopes and dreams. And sometimes not only one voice. There’s my inner voice that carries the weight of history, experience, self esteem and knows me well. There’s the inner voice which is other people’s beliefs projecting as their voice and most importantly, my new inner voice!

One of the things I’ve been trying hard to work on during my recovery is to change my inner voice, or develop a new inner voice. Depression and anxiety can both have a large self critical and other people critical component. When my current voice criticises or judges or makes snide remarks, I try to correct it. Not with judgement, or criticism, or rudeness. If I took that approach, my new voice would be as difficult as my current voice!

So when my old inner voice sparks up a thought train that I don’t want to follow, my attempt is to gently override it with a better thought, or kindly redirect it. When a critical thought comes to mind, I try to tell it, no that’s not how I want to think about people anymore, and then I try to impose a better thought onto that thought to overcome it.

Maybe the idea pops into my head that that girl over there is fat. But that’s not how I want to think about other people, and I have to bear in mind that I myself can be classed as fat, so instead of thinking those thoughts about her and me, I’ll think about her beautiful hair and her lovely smile. Which will make me smile, and enjoy these nicer thoughts 🙂

It is not easy! It takes a lot of hard work to get along with the voices inside of my head! Being friends with the monsters is much easier for me! I don’t know if everyone has the same difficulty, but it’s taken me a lot of work to get to where I am and there’s still a way to go. I know consciously exactly how I want my mind to be, but it doesn’t change just for me wanting it to! It takes practice and repetition and solid thinking!

But at least I’m on the way to getting along with my voices, a little progress is better than no progress!