RUOK? Mental health in the year of COVID-19

RUOK? Day is a cause close to my heart (this post I wrote a few years ago is still one of the most viewed on my blog), and this year it’s going to be more important than ever. I never struggle to ask if people are doing ok, but I still struggle to answer honestly when I’m asked. If I knew my friends were struggling with mental illness, having thoughts about ending their own lives, having a hard time coping day to day with even the most mundane tasks like doing their grocery shopping or hanging up the laundry, I’d do whatever I could to help. But for some reason, I don’t feel deserving of the same help and support in return. That’s how depression and anxiety get you; they make you feel you are not worthy.

Compounding my silence even more now is the fact that I now have a son; if I spoke out about just how badly I’m struggling, people might think I’m a bad mother. Then I catastrophise: what if people don’t trust me with him? What if they think I don’t love him? What if someone tries to take him away from me? I should just keep quiet, because no good can come from me being honest about the deep dark hole I find myself in from time to time. Postnatal depression and anxiety is horrific. So is regular depression and anxiety. And eating disorders. And personality and mood disorders. All mental illness is a terrible thing. It robs you of your sense of self, your passions and hobbies, your relationships, your will to get up and make the most of the day; sometimes it even robs you of your life.

So today, let’s not just do the token RUOK? sms to everyone, and let’s not send the token “yeah, doing great!” in response. If you are having a hard time, that’s ok. Let’s normalise the fact that mental illness is a real and dangerous thing. Let’s not sweep it under the rug. Let’s stop telling people to just try and stay positive, or that we’re all in the same COVID-19 boat, just because these dark feelings are uncomfortable and difficult to talk about. Imagine if that was the last thing you said to someone you loved before they took their own life. Let’s try to just be empathetic and kind today. If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m really sorry you’re going through this, I love you and I’m here for you” can go a very long way. And if you’re having a hard time right now and struggling with the isolation and loneliness inherent in both mental illness and COVID-19, here are some things that might help both you and the people around you…

 

Send some love out into the world to the ones you know who maybe aren’t doing OK:

1. Send postcards to your friends.
Postcards aren’t just for when you’re on holidays, and think about how awesome it feels to check the mail and find something other than bills in there! This isn’t a sponsored post, but I really love Red Bubble for fun postcards – there is literally something for everyone on there, and writing a postcard is a lot more manageable that writing a full letter when you’re struggling to know what to say.

2. Write a letter to a stranger.
If you find yourself with a bit more time and mental energy, think about joining in on the Connected AU Letterbox Project. It’s easy for most of us to just send a text or have a family Zoom session, but there are a lot of Australians who either don’t have the access or ability to use technology to keep connected. This project is a way for those of us with an extra 10 minutes to remind those Aussies that they’re not alone. Writing a letter too hard? Maybe send a copy of your favourite recipe, a drawing, or some photos you’ve taken.

3. Send a regular weekly or fortnightly or even monthly “check in” text to friends you know might be having a hard time.
You know the friends I’m talking about. The one with kids at home who’s struggling to keep them entertained. The one working in a higher risk environment. The one who owns a small business and doesn’t know if it will survive this. The one with family overseas or with elderly parents they can’t see. And it doesn’t need to be an essay. You can literally just sent a text that says “hey, just checking in to see how you’re doing :)” Sometimes all we need is to know someone is thinking of us.

4. Cook up a bit of extra food when you make dinner, or an extra big batch of cookies…
… and drop it off to a neighbour. If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll have noticed that I love exploring the ways that food connects us, and right now, that connection might save someone. Even a little plate of choc chip cookies and a kind note on your neighbour’s front doopstep might make the world of difference.

5. If you have loved ones further away, send food anyway!
We live in the time of UberEats and MenuLog – there are also a HEAP of amazing small hospitality businesses who are cooking up delicious meals and delivering them. If you suspect a friend is really struggling to keep up, having one less meal to cook can be a huge help, so if you’re in the financial position to help by sending them dinner one night, that can be something quick and easy you can do for them!

Do something for yourself when you’re the one feeling not so OK:

1. Turn off the news and turn on some mindless TV for a mental break.
First up, take a breather. I know how tempting it is to stay tuned for every update. I also know how bad it is to read nothing but pandemic updates all day, every day. Sometimes even reading a good book can be too mentally taxing right now, sometimes you just need to watch something on TV that requires no thinking – now’s the time to get addicted to Top Chef, Making It, The Amazing Race and Bluey. And that’s ok – you don’t have to be productive all the time!

2. Use technology work for you instead of against you.
If you’re going to have a mindless scroll, mindlessly scroll through stuff that isn’t going to make you feel worse! Here are a few Instagram favourites to make you smile and support your mental wellbeing:
@selfcareisforeveryone
@charliemackesy
@wawawiwacomics
@theblurtfoundation
@thehappynewspaper

3. Create something.
There’s a good reason art therapy is used in the treatment of many mental illnesses. You don’t need to be good at creative pursuits to benefit from them – write a few lines a day in a journal. Draw your breakfast every morning. Listen to your favourite music while you’re doing the laundry. If you’re a bit more ambitious, try a new creative hobby – lino printing, water colour painting, hand sewing, knitting, learning a language or a musical instrument… it can be a very cathartic experience, not to mention a really nice distraction from the sadness to create something beautiful.

4. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling.
A friend posted something on Instagram the other day that got me really good – it was along the lines of comparison being not only the thief of joy, but the thief of grief, too. If you’re having a hard time, that’s ok. You don’t have to buck up and get over it; you’re allowed to feel sad and hurt. You also don’t have to buy into all of your painful thoughts and feelings – this is where mindfulness comes in. There is obviously a LOT of information out there on mindfulness which I’m sure you can easily Google, but one of the easiest ways you can start is to just notice your thoughts and feelings, and to let them pass without judging them.

For example, if you’re feeling anxious, instead of getting really worked up about it and catastrophising, you might just say to yourself “hmm.. I’m noticing that I’m feeling a bit anxious right now. That’s making my stomach feel really tight and uncomfortable. I’m going to take a few slow breaths and count to 5 on each inhale and 5 on each exhale, and focus just on that counting instead of the anxiety, just for 30 seconds.” After you’re done with that breathing and counting, you might decide you don’t want to go back to the anxious feeling, or you might decide you want to poke around and work out why you’re feeling that way. Either way, it’s good to take a quick step back before these feelings get really overwhelming.

5. Reach out for help.
You don’t have to seek out help in person. It doesn’t need to be with family or friends if you’re not comfortable confiding in them yet. It doesn’t need to be a super formal thing. We live in the technology age, and that makes help more accessible than ever, so use that to your advantage.

Beyond Blue
Phone support service: 1800 512 348
Web chat support service: https://cmwssonline.beyondblue.org.au/#/chat/start
Online community forum: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/online-forums/staying-well/coping-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak

Lifeline 
Phone support service: 13 11 14
Web chat support service from 7pm – midnight: https://www.lifeline.org.au/crisis-chat/
SMS support service from 6pm – midnight: 0477 13 11 14

SANE
Phone support service: 1800 18 7263
Web chat support service from Monday to Friday 10am – 10pm: https://www.sane.org/services/help-centre#
Online community forum: https://saneforums.org/?_ga=2.9719285.116053902.1597979668-381352914.1597979668

More options for support can be found at https://mhaustralia.org/need-help

Messing up in Ketchikan

This life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess us sometimes, it’s a universal truth. But the good part is you get to decide how you’re going to mess it up.
– Marilyn Monroe

It’s an odd place, Ketchikan. At least it is in early October, when the cruise ships have ended their season and the town returns to the residents.

The skies were grey for the entire duration of our visit, as if to warn us away. We were met with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion by the locals, who couldn’t understand what two young people could possibly be doing in their little town as independent travellers – we were asked more than once if we’d missed our cruise ship home. Saying no and that we were Australians seemed to be a valid enough explanation for at least half of them.

We stayed in a guest house on Creek Street, because everything else was closed for the season. It was a creaky, old weatherboard building that served as a dance hall and Alaska’s first registered brothel before it was closed in the 1950s. Creek Street is full of these aging wooden tributes to the past, sitting in a wonky line along a rickety boardwalk, held up on criss-crossed wooden stilts.

They stand like aging movie stars past their prime but too proud to step aside. Tarnished metal plaques on their outer walls bear their names – Star House, Preacher’s House, June’s Place – and their bright colours stand out against the grey sky – mint green, sky blue, salmon pink.

Salmon. The perfect Alaskan stereotype. The creek is full of them. Walking the boardwalk at dusk, when the sky is turning pink and the air is still, there’s an acrid smell of gutted sea creatures that reminds you of the end of the day at a fish market. The water in the creek rises and falls fast, faster than many of the salmon can keep up with.

When the creek water falls at the end of the day, you can finally see what lies beneath. Below the wooden stilts of the boardwalk, a vicious valley of jagged rocks appears, and caught up them are the salmon. Dozens, maybe hundreds of them.

Things started moving too fast for them, and they’ve gotten themselves stuck just as the tide falls back out. And just as you’re processing the savage fate of the fish, the seagulls sweep in like vultures, picking at them as they lay helpless in their death throes.

That’s life. Sometimes things change too fast for us to keep up, and we stumble. Occasionally, there will be those who come along when we’re most vulnerable to pick at our wounds. Shit happens; we mess up and we get stuck. But we’re not victims of the tide. If we’re paying attention, we know when we’ve messed up, and if we can mess up right, we get the chance to learn something from it, save ourselves, and keep on going.

KEEP YOUR CHIN UP: The book about Pierre-Robin Sequence

It’s certainly not the book I ever thought if write, but I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to write it and maybe help some other families out along the way.

And I know it’s not the food and travel adventures I usually write about, but I wanted to give it a tiny space on the blog here, because

a) I wanted the families who need this book to have every chance to find it, and

b) I’m really proud of it 🙂

How it came about is that my son was born with a rare medical condition, Pierre-Robin Sequence, in January 2019. There’s very, very little information available about this condition, and after briefly falling down the Google rabbit-hole trying to find answers, I got frustrated and decided to take matters into my own hands. I spent 14 months researching medical websites and journals, contacting and interviewing other PRS families, and typing up my own journal entries chronicling our time in NICU and beyond. The result is this book…

About the Book

So you’ve been told that your new baby has a medical condition called Pierre-Robin Sequence. OK. I know you’re scared right now, because I’ve been there. Finding helpful information online was almost impossible, which only made it scarier. That’s I why I wrote this book.

Within, you’ll find many of the questions we searched for answers to when our son was first diagnosed – how will this affect his development? What difficulties will we have with feeding? What treatment options are there? How will his time in NICU affect him long term? With research drawn from more than 160 medical sources, over 120 full color photos, experiences contributed by more than 25 PRS families, and my own personal journal entries from birth to NICU and beyond, this is a guide to PRS written for parents, by a parent. 

FEEDBACK FROM PRS FAMILIES
If you just found out your newborn has PRS, read this book! It provides an extensive and thorough understanding of PRS without being overwhelming, while also providing relatable insight into the experiences you may have as a parent of a newborn with PRS while the NICU. This helpful guide is written by a mother who has lived it herself, and wants to help others by providing an easy to read educational tool. I absolutely wish I had something like this book for support and guidance when I was in the NICU with my PRS newborn!
– Shannon, PRS mom, USA

This book is what every parent with Pierre Robin Sequence should be presented with upon diagnosis. The book gives the options parents may be presented with surgeries to help their child, with ideas for families to mention to their providers, with real life results. It is so helpful to see other families’ progress and healing.
– Kelly, PRS mom, USA

This book is exactly what new PRS parents and families need to read. If only this was out when we first found out about PRS! Showing your own journey and providing all details, even the frustrating ones is exactly what is needed.
– Kiera, PRS mom, Canada

Available online at Blurb now!

Signing off, for now…

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while. I figured now is as good a time as any, seeing as I’m really early for a doctors appointment and have nothing else to do while I wait! This week, there’s also an incredibly important mental health awareness campaign running, that I’ll come back to in a moment…

When I posted this last image to Instagram back in June, there was a lot happening – mostly, I’d found out a few weeks previously that I was pregnant, and that husband and I would be joined by a little apprentice traveller in January 🙂

It was great news and we’re super excited, but unfortunately, even in that early stage, I was already having a pretty rotten pregnancy. I was struck down with hyperemesis gravidarum – for those of you  (read: me) who laughed when it was revealed Kate Middleton was suffering from this illness and made comments like “ohh poor princess can’t handle a bit of morning sickness, whatever,” let me tell you, it’s no joke. 

Imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had, one of the ones where the idea of even a cheeseburger turns your stomach and a sip of water makes you throw up, when you don’t even have the energy to walk from your bed to the bathroom, when you can’t envision ever brushing your hair again, much less showering and changing your clothes. Picture those few hours of hangover hell; I felt like that almost 24/7 for about 14 weeks.

Turns out it’s not just “a bit of morning sickness.” It’s a completely debilitating illness that leaves you utterly depleted, very isolated and pretty much confined to bed. And in my case, also unable to work. 

The illness, the loss of control over my body and physical health, and the fear of the unknown (I’ve never had a baby before, after all!), combined with the stress of selling our home and buying a new one at the same time, having to move house, and also being bullied relentlessly by the senior management team in my workplace after I announced my “happy” news (if you think Australia is a civilized county where workplace bullying of pregnant women doesn’t happen, you’d be wrong) before finally taking my job away in the first few months of my pregnancy was never going to end well. And it hasn’t.

In the early stages, I had hoped that taking a bit of time away from my writing would give me a chance to get my mental and physical health back on track – it was also really hard to focus on writing anything when I was running back and forth between the couch and the bathroom! I can see now that was wishful thinking. The combination of all those factors breathed new life into my depression and anxiety, and, at least for now, they’ve taken my voice, my strength and my health away. 

I voluntarily took a break from writing because I was so sick; I’ve stopped writing completely for now because I have no voice left with which to write. I guess I’m one of the 1 in 5 women who experience perinatal depression. This week is also PANDA Week – a week to raise awareness about perinatal anxiety & depression, which is why I took it as a sign from the universe that I should finally get around the writing this post, as difficult and uncomfortable as it is.

I’m lucky to have a strong man by my side who hasn’t for a second balked at the difficulty of this situation. I have a sister to confide in who is pregnant for the second time around, and understands much of what I’m going through. I have a wonderful OBGYN who is prioritising my mental health and ensuring I have access to all the help I need. And I have the advantage of having come through the darkness of mental illness before, so I know I’ll get through it again.

And when I do, I hope my voice comes back, too, and I can get back to doing all the things I love – including writing here. In the meantime, the biggest thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who’s read along and encouraged me to write here over the last few years – I’ve made some truly wonderful friends and have really enjoyed having a space for me to share what I love – hopefully I’ve been able to encourage a few other people to get out and explore, as well! xoxo

On turning a dream into reality

“People dream. They talk about escaping from it all. Their friends and family diligently listen and politely ignore it when the ruminations fade into oblivion. So quite a few eyebrows went up when I made this trip a reality.”
– Kristine K. Stevens

The objections people will come up with when you tell them you’re following your dream to escape it all are always the same. “What about your job?” “Who’ll pay your mortgage while you’re gone?” “Aren’t you a bit old? Isn’t it time you settled down?” All valid, responsible, grown up points that, ordinarily  I would take pause to consider. But, whether it was divine intervention, a quarter-life crisis, or the warning light of an imminent nervous breakdown, I finally hit my responsible adult threshold a few years ago and started taking my dreams a bit more seriously.

I think it was the sheer number of miserable ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ people I saw around me that set it off. It is so easy to talk, so simple to say “if only,” “one day.” And its polite to smile and nod along when people talk about the fantasies you both know they’ll nevet fulfill. It’s the gracious thing to do, to raise a toast over the dinner table as your dear friend, fueled by a little liquid courage, announces their desire to quit their office job, escape the rat race, and finally pursue a career as a musician. We lift our wine glasses with a pitying smile for the poor fool.

But once in a while, a flight of fancy sprouts wings. Someone quietly works away on a dream when no one is paying attention. They’re planning out logistics, squirreling away money, formulating plans and contingency plans, all in the name of escaping it all. Maybe its a temporary escape, maybe its forever. Regardless, it does happen. It happens behind closed doors  with quiet confidence, while others go on belly-aching and complaining that it simply can’t be done.

For months I took great offense to everyone who doubted me when I said we were taking four months off life to travel the world. I got angry when they questioned the state of my career, finances and maturity. What I didn’t understand until we got on the road was that they weren’t actually questioning me at all.

They weren’t really losing sleep at the thought  that my husband and I might struggle to meet our mortgage repayments. They weren’t actually concerned that our jobs wouldn’t still be there for us when we got home. They in fact did not worry that we were being immature and irresponsible by up and leaving. They were suddenly very aware of the fact that they weren’t willing to do what it takes to turn their own dreams into reality. Their raises eyebrows weren’t about me at all.