Thursday, July 30, 2015

Healthy Life, Healthy Mind

Those who know me, know that mental illness and I are intertwined. I've lived with bipolar disorder and general anxiety disorder for a long time. The mental illness is not who I am, but it does influence my personality and history. I would simply not be the person I am today if I had never experienced mental illness. Some influences have been sad and hard to bear, while others have given me wisdom and self knowledge.

Most people who know me would also know that I would love a family. And that mental illness, or, more specifically, the medications used to treat my mental illness, have affected my ability to have children thus far. I have had to realise that some medications use hormones to affect mood changes and stability, and those hormones interfere with fertility.

So, over the last half year I have, with the constant supervision of my mental health professionals, weaned myself off these medications in a bid to prepare myself for motherhood.

Don't get too excited; this is not a post about being pregnant! That joy hasn't happened yet. But, as I realised as I caught up with a friend, I have made enormous strides in being able to control both my mental and physical health recently. 

As I spoke to my friend, she asked me how my health was. I was able to reply confidently (and a little proudly!) that I now take only a minimal dose of a sedative every evening. My anti-psychotic, anti-depressants and mood stabilisers have all gone. And, not only that, but I have been stable and coping well on this minimal dose of medication for over two months. I am actually doing better than when I was fully medicated! 

This has spilt over into my physical health, too. I have more energy, I am sleeping less, but feeling more rested. I have even lost some weight! I am definitely feeling the benefits of living without my medication and their many side-effects. Of course, this makes me feel more confident and happy, and that has a great mental effect. So I feel good, which makes me better physically, which makes me better mentally... and the cycle is reinforced positively. It's great to see.

I'm not going to say things have been easy. I realised a few months into weaning myself off medication, that I was going to have to work really hard at being able to control my mood, now that I was abandoning my crutch of medication. No longer was I going to be able to pop a pill upon feeling down or anxious. And I had a realisation, one that might seem incredibly obvious, but that changed my attitude towards life a lot.

That realisation was that mental health did not just affect physical health, but that a physically healthy life and routine, would affect my mental health. In short, if I lead a physically healthy, balanced lifestyle, I would feel better mentally.

So, I took a long, hard look at my lifestyle, and started making changes. No more sleep-ins! I might want them because I was tired, but I needed a balanced routine, and I wanted to be able to sleep at a decent time in the evening. So, gradually, I started making myself wake up earlier. 

No more quick meals! I needed the best possible nutrition, so Graham and I budgeted more for food shopping so we could get quality food. And I made myself cook a proper meal each night. Even when I didn't want to make the effort, there was the option of quick, healthy food to make at home. So no more excuses, and no more fast food.

No more hanging around every day without doing anything! I realised I needed to schedule things to do every day. I began with one goal per day - even if it was just to do washing. I also gave myself the goal of leaving the house twice during the week to make sure I got my tasks done, and get me active.

No more sitting all day! Now I try to walk every day. The dogs are loving it. I am going to try to up my physical activity slowly. Now I might be walking, but who knows - maybe soon will be swimming, or the gym. In any case, the goal is to keep moving. 

And finally, no more isolation! I needed to get out, contact people, maintain friendships. So I made a goal of seeing friends twice a week. It's working pretty well, and I feel more connected. I am definitely having more fun spending time with friends, rather than staring at a computer screen all day. 

In with all of these physical changes, I have also been working on my mental health by learning strategies and coping mechanisms. I have been seeing my psychologist regularly, I have a psychiatrist and a case worker. I'm signing up for group therapy, and I'm practicing my techniques to combat and control wayward emotions. I have strategies in place for bad situations, and I have plans for all moods. I'm training mentally, like an athlete might train physically.

It's definitely working. I have these goals written down, and I periodically reread them to make sure I'm not falling back into old habits. This stuff might seem absolutely obvious, but to a person who has had trouble motivating herself to even have a shower in the past, much less get dressed and leave the house, these goals are huge. I am trying to let my positive experiences motivate me to maintain momentum, to build on each success by reaching for another goal.

I guess what feels best to me is that I now feel like I have more control over my life and my mental health than ever before. I used to think that giving up medication would leave me at the mercy of my treacherous emotions. But, because I have done the hard work, because I've learnt and pushed and experimented, I actually feel more empowered. This is a great feeling, and I'm going to ride it while it lasts.

This is not an anti medication post. I'm still taking some meds, for a start, and I'm fully prepared for the fact that one day I may need more medication again. And I certainly am not proposing that people should just quit their medication. Please don't do that! What I am saying is that the prospect of being unmedicated has prompted me to find other coping methods. I have had to learn how to live without the pills, and I am happy to find that there are ways you can affect your mood other than chemically. 

In the future, I may well go back to medications. New life experiences, new stresses and the reality of my bipolar cycle may all require more help than I can get through a healthy life and an informed mind. However, I will be better off for knowing more about how to deal with things without medication. I will be able to get better results out of that medication because I will be living well. And, in the meantime, I'm going to proudly say that I am stable because I am working hard at it. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Live Music, Theatre and Concerts

The theatre almost shook. Several hundred people were clapping, screaming, and chanting: "Lindsey! Lindsey!" And I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere, almost involuntarily smiling, unable to draw my eyes away from the stage.

Yes, on Monday 23rd February, Lindsey Stirling the violinist came to Perth to perform for the first time, and I was one of the lucky people able to get a ticket. It was a hot summer's night. The theatre was packed to capacity. It smelt of body odour, and the noise was deafening. And I loved every minute of it.

It's actually only within the last few years that I've been able to cope with such a stressful environment. Before, I'd have had a panic attack from the sensory overload. But I'm a lucky person now. I can deal with things much better than I used to. And I've made a discovery about myself: I love live performances.

It's hard to describe something so... intangible. How do you explain how a crowd of roaring people and a cramped seat (or shoulder to shoulder standing) make anything better? Especially music? Surely it would be better to hear it recorded in a studio, crystal clear, unsullied by any extraneous noise or discomfort?

But there is an excitement I find from watching live shows. The crowds lend a buzz, a wave of positive emotion, while the music is... somehow more alive. And there is the enjoyment of watching the stage, the dances, the interaction between performer and audience that you cannot replicate with a studio.

It's possibly something else, too, something that cannot be described. It's a sort of magic, fun and positive and borderline addictive. There is just a joy I get from a good concert. And it was there in abundance for Lindsey Stirling.

So, I will continue to go to good concerts, few as they can be in Perth, Australia! (Such a little city gets far fewer performers than a big place like Sydney). Next stop, Futuremusic festival on Sunday with my husband. And I've already planned to go see Lindsey Stirling when she returns to Australia on her next tour - this time, with all of my sisters! Five sisters, all enjoying the same performance...

Now THAT will be magical!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Clucky Like a Hen

I'm turning 28 this year. No big deal. But Graham and I have been married for well over three years now, and we're still childless. And this doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. 

Am I too old for children now? Are we just being selfish, living without children? How come I haven't followed in my mum's footsteps yet, and had a big family? The answer is this: it is not by our choice, but by circumstance that we have no little McInnes'. And I would give up so much to be able to have just one baby soon.

You see, I have been clucky for years. My sister-in-laws would bring their beautiful babies around to visit, and I'd coo and play with them. Friends would show off their baby pictures on Facebook, and I'd marvel over every one. It seemed so easy to have children! Friends years younger than me were getting married and immediately having babies, sometimes two or three within several years. And they sounded so happy and content (albeit chronically sleep deprived!) that I wanted to emulate them. Oh yes, I'd love a baby.

But, try as we might, I never seemed to fall pregnant. One year went by, then another. Months of waiting, hoping and praying seemed to do no good. So I went off to the doctor.

It seems I have a few things working against me. My weight (which I've discussed in an earlier post; Big Girl... Are You Beautiful?) is working against me. That hurts; to think that a lifetime of eating struggles might rob me of something I deeply desire. Plus, some of my bipolar medications were messing with my hormones. Apparently this is a side effect that my doctors had conveniently forgotten to tell me about!

So I have a plan. Graham and I are eating far more healthily now. I've been seeing a nutritionist, and I'm now far more knowledgeable about what I eat. Add to that a daily swim in the pool, and I'm trying to control my weight. 

Plus, I'm having all my medications changed. We're trying to stop me taking most of them, as many medications are not particularly good for an unborn child. It scared me a bit at first - I've been dependent on these meds to stay sane for years. And while I'm reducing my dosages gradually, it's true that I am wobbling a bit, mood-wise. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what I can do without, and what is absolutely essential for my sanity.

So, you see, while there's obstacles in the way of my dreams, hopefully they're not insurmountable. And I hope that I can use this time to prepare better for an eventual child. One thing is certain though:

If Graham and I have a baby, that baby will be very, very loved.

This is me as a baby! Doesn't my mum look beautiful?!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Secret Confessions of a Former Nun

I have a confession to make: I am terrified of nuns. How strange! I don't like seeing them, I avoid meeting them, and I am terrified of speaking to them. It's not because I am unfamiliar with them; rather the opposite is true. I am very familiar with nuns. How could I not be? I spent two years in a contemplative convent. I became a novice. I wore a habit. I joined in with every aspect of convent life.

All this should make me comfortable with nuns, right? They are holy people, women set apart by God for a special calling. But my dreams are filled with women, who although wearing habits, act any way but holy. I have nightmares of critical sisters, watching me, demanding things of me, punishing me. And I wake in terror, roll over to see my husband peacefully asleep. And I realise I am free of the nuns, and have been for nine years. I am not a nun. And I never have to go back. No longer am I under the rules of a convent; I am free.

I have escaped in every way. Except in my head.

How awful to describe my exit from a convent as an escape! Surely I am being hyperbolic? To answer that, I must take you back with me to when I was 18, a confused but idealistic teenager ready to give her life for God.

I remember being 18. I was, to put it kindly, a bit of a mess. I was aimless, not sure of my path in life. I guess, really, I wasn't that different to hundreds of other teenagers. But I felt unique among my peers. They all seemed happy, busy studying hard, learning to drive, doing all those things that normal teenagers do. I never seemed able to concentrate on any one thing for long. I was also stressed at home, as I felt I was falling short of my mum's expectations (something I discussed in my last post).

But I was also a very religious teen. And it entered my head that maybe I felt so out of place because I wasn't truly in my right place. Maybe I wasn't meant to be at home in the world at all? I knew religious life was a huge sacrifice, but the more I thought about it, the more I was comfortable with the idea. Surely such a sacrifice was more than compensated for if I felt I belonged?

So I started searching. I won't tell you where I went, but eventually I found a convent of contemplative nuns. They were, to put it mildly, very traditional. And I went to stay there for a week. They seemed like lovely people, from what I could gather from observing a set of silent people. The beautiful habits, the wonderful singing of the Psalms, the grace of the nuns' demeanors and the silent worship of the Eucharist captured my imagination. I wanted to be a part of it.

I left home and went there, fully expecting to stay forever. I gave away all my belongings, said my goodbyes, and was installed into a little brick cell that was to be my home for the next two years. It had bars on the window. But I wasn't put off. I was ready to give my life for God, and nothing was going to stop me! But before too long, although my stubborn nature never gave up the idea of living as a nun, I began to make some awful discoveries, both about myself, and about the culture of the people I was living with. 

Firstly, myself. I was a difficult teen when I was at home, and I was not a magically new person in the convent. I struggled with myself constantly. I was homesick, then crazily manic, then suicidally depressed. I was, as I have said in other posts, grappling with the realities of an emerging mental illness. Not that i realised it. It seemed to me that I was just a bad person. And as I constantly found myself in a position of having having to apologise for myself, of having to push myself to do things that my nature seemed to be rebelling against, I began to hate the person I was.

Maybe it was because I was so difficult to be around, but I never felt well-liked among the other nuns. Every time I failed to obey the rules, every time I had to apologise for my failings, I saw them looking at me in disappointment, and, in some cases, irritation. It hurt. I had to realise that they were people too. The "holy nuns" were just people, trying to do their best, but not always able to cope with the moody, impulsive, tearful teen in their midst.

The rules didn't help either. The incredibly strict rule of life had me up from 5 in the morning to late at night. I was constantly exhausted. So were the other nuns. The rule of silence meant I could never talk through what was going on in my head, but was instead left to stew in my own emotions. And we had to work so hard! In the last part of my time at the convent, I was made cook. Imagine a 19 year old trying to sort out meals for 12 people everyday! I saw other sisters get far lighter duties. Maybe it was a mark of faith in me that they thought I was capable of such a huge task, but to me, it felt like a punishment.

And punishments came to me thick and fast. The nuns had a custom called the Chapter of Faults. Once a week, you were meant to kneel in front of all the other sisters and confess all the times you had broken the rules. Then you were given a penance to do. I always had a grocery list of faults. Running, talking, leaving prayer early... I was always confessing something. And it felt like a humiliation every time as I brought everyone's attention again to my faults as a nun.

I was so lonely there. The only contact I had with people was through letters ad the brief visits of my family. None of my friends ever came to visit. And even with those moments of contact, I felt isolated. I felt I had to present an image to everyone of someone who was well-adjusted, happy, content. When I wanted to reach out, I didn't know how to. 

Of course, there were good times. I learnt a lot. I enjoyed studying, singing and garden work (although I was awful at it!). I gained the reputation of being a bit of a prankster. But over it all was the growing realisation that I wasn't developing into the person the convent wanted, but rather I was collapsing into an emotional wreck.

It wasn't my choice to leave the convent. In my stubborness, it took the Mother General of the convent to make me leave. I felt I had failed. And I felt rejected personally by the convent. They never contacted me again after I left. They never wanted to see if I was alright, if I survived as a person. Of course, they had no obligation to, but after directing my life for two years, it would have been nice had they shown some interest in how I was doing.

After I left, I agonised for a long time over whether I should go back. Was it something I needed to do, or was I forcing myself into a hole that didn't fit? When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I got my answer. They didn't accept mentally ill sisters. So I was able to get on with my life, facing the challenges of a new life sentence. I didn't need to bear it alone for long, as well. I met my husband, and a new range of opportunities and experiences opened up for me.

But I still dream of the nuns. They are in my head. I have flashbacks, too, sudden memories that drag me right back to my time in the convent. And in those memories, in those dreams, I am 18 again. Frightened, confused and alone, while struggling to cope with a new and unforgiving environment. And when I do that, I cry.

Maybe I will be able to lessen the impact of those memories. Time hasn't seemed to dull them. I am going to go to counselling, to try to do what I was never able to do in the convent - talk freely and honestly about my experiences and feelings. In the meantime, I am afraid of nuns. Not of them personally, but of what they bring up for me. 

I hope for a day when I can see nuns and not feel this way. I long for a time when I will finally be free.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Like Mother, Like Daughter

This is my lovely mum!

If you had met me when I was 6 or 7 years old, and asked me what type of hair was the best in the world, I would have answered: "Red hair. Red hair is the best and most beautiful hair ever. I wish my hair looked just like Mum's."

My mum had then, and has always had, the most gorgeous natural red hair, cut into a flattering chin length bob. It frames her heart shaped face and makes her look elegant. Even at that young age, I loved it, and I wanted to imitate it.

But it wasn't just my mother's hair I wanted to imitate. I have always loved my mum. More than that, I have always wanted to be like her, to share those qualities that I admired in her.

As I grew up, I tried to imitate my mum. I was the eldest child, and I tried to have the same good influence on my siblings as my mum did. I wanted to be a good housekeeper, just like her, so I became a good cook (even though, despite all efforts, I never had a tidy room!). I saw how much she was interested in learning, and also gained interest and respect for learning. 

By the age of twelve, I was doing my best to be just like mum. I even had my hair cut in a similar bob to hers and wore long skirts and shirts just as she did. I thought it was a compliment when someone said they couldn't tell the difference between my mum and I from behind.

After the age of twelve, I had some very difficult years. It was also then that I found my mum imitation failing. I began to think that I was never going to be like my gorgeous mum, and, worse, that I was never going to make an acceptable woman at all. 

If I had described myself, I would have said I was lazy, undisciplined, messy, fat and sulky. I constantly compared myself to my mum. How come she could get up at 6 am and keep house, care for the baby, teach everyone, pray, make sure the house was clean for dad coming home, and stay cheerful, when I seemingly couldn't even wake up at 7.30 and complete my relatively few tasks?

Maybe it wasn't fair of me to compare myself so closely to my mum. Maybe it was a symptom of mental illness that kept me from seeing things clearly and realising that it was ok to be different. Maybe I was just a confused teenager who took criticism way too seriously and used it to beat herself up instead of motivating her to do better.

But whatever the reasons, when I found myself starting to want to break away, to dress differently, listen to different music, do different things, to, in short, form my own identity, I thought that was terrible. I felt guilty about it, and I was sure my mum wouldn't approve. Maybe, for all I idolised her, I had put her in a box.

When I was 18, I left home. I left my mum's care and went to a convent. I went from seeing her all day, everyday, to writing her a weekly letter, and seeing her once a month for a few hours. I missed my family. I missed my mum. But I didn't think I was allowed to talk to her about anything really important anymore, so I didn't. I was to become a nun, and nuns didn't talk to their mums about their lives and problems.

But I was always reminded of my mum at the convent, mainly because their lifestyle, while different to home, had some similar values. I was at home with a large group of nuns only because of my family, and I excelled at my studies because of my mum's influence. I never forgot her, and at night, when I was at my lowest, and I cried into my pillow, I would tell myself how much I wanted my mum. Not Mother Prioress, not anyone else, just my mummy.

I eventually left the convent. It wasn't the place for me. I felt like a failure, a loser so terrible that even God didn't want me. Anxious, depressed and guilt-ridden, I felt I couldn't stay at home. I felt I had no place anymore. I ended up going to Perth, on the other side of the country. I think I was hiding away.

I ended up renting a little room, alone, while working full-time at a cafe to support myself. I was lonely. But I didn't forget to call home every couple of weeks, and I didn't stop visiting when I could. For all my shame, I couldn't cut myself off from my mum and family totally. And I lived by the standards I had been taught.

It was only until after I met my now husband that I was able to really start talking again to my mum again. So much had happened since we had last really spoken, that we had to rediscover each other. I had to tell my mum about my new diagnosis of mental illness, about Graham, my husband, about the things I had learnt and the struggles I had had. And I found I had been right to admire my mum so much. She really was intelligent and thoughtful, feminine and wise.

The time I spent away from my family, while being the hardest times of my life, did shape me into an individual. I learnt about myself, and I became my own person. By going away from my mum, I found out good things about myself, that maybe I wouldn't have at home. I found I was strong-willed and resourceful, that I had strong principles and a big heart. I found it was ok to be myself.

But its also been amazing to come closer to my mum again. We are both adults now, and I can admire her without needing to try to be her. We still share many, many things in common. Now I am more stable, and have a better idea of who I am, I can talk to her without feeling guilty that I need to be something or someone else.

I love you, Mum. Thank you for always loving me!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Peace Be To You

As far as I can tell, all people strive for something. At its most basic level, that drive seems to be a desire for internal peace. Of course, that desire is pursued through whatever means each individual thinks will achieve it:

"When I have the respect of my peers, I will be truly at peace."

"When God and I are at peace fully, then I will be at true peace with myself."

"When I am financially independent, then I will be at peace..."

...and so on and so forth, with each aim having a lesser or greater effect on how the person feels about themselves. Some are very helpful, while others are detrimental in the long run.

This drive never seems to go away. People can resign themselves to failure, or attempt to forget, or mask their need with self-medication, but I honestly don't think there is a person in the world who would refuse to be at peace should they find the way to achieve it. Our hearts may be restless until they rest in God, as St Augustine says, but I think our hearts cannot rest in God until we have learnt to love His creation which is ourselves. And each person has a deep need to accept and better themselves.

I know I am not at peace. I want to be a better person, more generous, loving and intelligent. I want to look at myself and think: that is Felicity. She's a good person, who has made peace with her past, has a purpose in her present and has a plan for her future. She's good and funny and does all the right stuff. I like her.

I don't look at myself like that, however, and maybe I never have. I strive, and have always striven, through many misguided attempts, to be a better person, or at least to forget I cared, but I can't. As I began my teens, I wanted to be perfect. Throughout my teen years, I think I would have settled for normality or stability. As I ended my teens, I thought I would achieve peace through sacrificing my life in the convent. But I failed at any of those things.

At all times, no matter what I thought I was striving for, I vacillated between two behaviours. One was this intense effort - a huge determination to do whatever it took to be successful. I would do whatever it took to do the right thing. If that meant leaving home to go to the convent, then so be it. Whatever it took, I would be ready. I was a superhero, an over-achiever, a perfectionist and a martyr.

And then there was the other behaviour, the one that emerged when these superhuman efforts failed. I would cry, and wallow in self-pity. I would mourn my failure and then try to numb the sting with escapism and self-medication. I would read obsessively and cram sugary foods into my mouth. And at my darkest hours, I would dream of ending it all, of finally turning my back on my life's struggles and going where there would be no more decisions and all successes and failures are finally weighed.

In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with mental illness, and the roots of these behaviours became more clear. But understanding my failures didn't make them sting less. I became angry that a mental illness seemed to be destroying my efforts to do anything. By the time I started reaching an understanding of myself, I was housebound, so anxious I couldn't even go to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich if someone else was in the house to see me.

It's hard being a driven person without the tools to succeed. To have a massive desire to be good, loved and successful, and then to find that my ability to achieve seems to be far smaller than my desire or efforts! It seemed that no matter how loudly I proclaimed my desire to do well, I would always end up being betrayed by emotions that were too strong, and behaviours that were too far-ingrained. 

But I began to wonder how important these things had wanted to achieve even were. So I was never going to be perfect, or normal, or emotionally stable. Were they going to make me happy? What was? And I realised I wanted to be at peace, just as I was.

I still strive. These days, however, my plans involve a series of very mundane and often seemingly simple tasks. I realise I'm not going to become happy in one enormous effort, and that those efforts set me up to be catapulted into a terrible emotional state. Today, I strive to build myself up in little steps. These little steps include making dinner, doing washing or making sure I take my medication - they are that small.

These little steps are important. I try to do things well, so I can be proud of them. I try to build on skills. I dream of being a regular person, with normal emotions, and a job, and stability and responsibility. But in the meantime, I want to be happy with how I am right now too. I want to be happy that I am trying, maybe not always succeeding, but always trying to hold onto the knowledge that I am going forwards in tiny little steps.

Mental illness has stopped me from doing many things in life. I don't have a degree, or a driver's license or a house or a job. In fact, I look like a failure from an outside perspective. But it also made me re-examine what I truly wanted out of life. It made me focus on what is most important to me. I want to be at peace. I want to have good relationships, to live a life without guilt and be working towards a better future.

I might have a lot of obstacles in my way, but I am going to overcome them, one teeny-tiny step at a time. And even if I can't, I'm a good person for wanting to try. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mentally Ill Teen, and Other Memories


Recently my mum and I were talking on the phone. Our conversation turned to our relationship during my childhood and teen years. While there were good times, we both remembered many difficult moments, when a first-time mum had to try to care for a particularly volatile teen.

I told my mum that I was sure these difficult times had something to do with my emerging bipolar disorder. Though I wasn't diagnosed with mental illness until I was 22, I was sure I had been displaying symptoms of mental ill-health for far longer than that. Mum agreed with me. Without trying to be mean, she said that none of my siblings had been quite the same as me. They just didn't seem to struggle quite as hard through life, or have quite the same difficulties.

It was an interesting thought, one that I wanted to think about more deeply. I told my mum that I wanted to write about growing up as a child with undiagnosed mental illness, and suggested that maybe she could write something on the same subject, but from a mother's perspective. Mum agreed, and in fact, she wrote something almost immediately, which I think she intends to continue. It can be found here at:

In the meantime, this is my effort to remember what life was like. Here is my childhood as it was affected by bipolar disorder, from my perspective.

As far back as I can remember, I was a headstrong child. I was the toddler who insisted on sitting on her younger brother, and who also had no qualms in sending him flying into a bookshelf as a child in an after-bath tussle gone wrong. I was stubborn, and tended to take threats seriously. I remember throwing a tremendous tantrum when my parents tried to throw away my beloved but draggled first doll, and insisting they retrieve it and wash it. I also remember an incident when I, furious at my mum, declared I was running away. With honest tears in my eyes, I stomped off and even packed my bags!

I was taught to read at an early age, and soon began to enjoy both reading and writing. I would escape into Roald Dahl and Margaret Mahy books, and proudly announced I would become a writer who also illustrated her own stories. Growing older, I also became a keen cook, singer and musician. I was good at the schoolwork Mum set me, and seemed pretty at ease in our ever-expanding family. By the age of 12, I seemed to be growing up as well as any adolescent could be expected to.

I've written before that at age 12 my brother Thomas was, while still-unborn, diagnosed with a birth defect. Despite everyone's best efforts, he died one day after his birth, which had a huge impact on my whole family. I didn't escape being affected by it, and though it seems that I didn't show much outwardly, I definitely felt the loss and grief very deeply.

I think it was at 12 that I first felt true depression. I felt lonely, parted from my friends by an experience they couldn't share. Rather than seeking help from my family, I felt responsible for them, so I tried to hide my own grief in an attempt be a stabilising influence. I became very hard on myself, trying to to do well at everything, trying to be a good, no, a perfect daughter. Inside I felt hopeless, scared and alone.

I wanted to be a good person, I really really did. It became a shame then, that as my teenage years began, I didn't seem to be able to do anything right. I would go through periods of being impulsive, energetic and stubborn. I'd do whatever seemed most appealing at the time, and then lapse back into self-loathing depression when the energy ran out and any bad consequences appeared.

I remember bein
g always on the look out for an escape from a life that seemed too much to handle. I'd try to read fiction books while simultaneously practising my clarinet, or try to smuggle a torch or a radio into bed with me so I could distract myself from my thoughts as I went to sleep. Why life was so difficult, I don't know. I was still doing well with schoolwork, I had a strong network of friends and a loving family. But I felt out-of-control emotionally, one week sad and unmotivated, and the next bubbly and impulsive.

I had heard that teenagers had mood swings, so I always assumed that that was what I was having. I felt bad a lot of the time and paranoid that I would get into trouble if I was honest with what I was feeling, so I didn't share a lot of what I was going through with my mum. I thought I felt bad because I was bad, that I was guilty of something, so I hid everything away. I also took my rising desire to prove myself as individual, to have different looks and hobbies and interests to my mum's, as a very bad thing. I felt guilty about wanting to be different, so I would take any criticism of my appearance or interests very badly.

I began really putting on weight through my later teenage years. I got a job and worked long hours. The extra money meant a source of sugar - my biggest weakness. I didn't realise it, but I began to comfort eat. I'd eat far too much chocolate, feel terrible about it, and then eat more because I felt so guilty. My parents found some of the wrappers and had a serious talk about the health implications of eating so much junk food. I understood what they were saying, but I felt powerless to stop. Eating chocolate made me feel good, even if only for a few minutes.

I remember a particularly bad time of depression when I was 17. I was very focused on music at the time, and I pushed myself extremely hard to do an advanced and difficult clarinet exam. The plan was for me to continue with my clarinet studies after that and gain entrance into a conservatorium of music. I wanted to be in an orchestra. But after completing (and doing very well in) my exam, I lost all motivation. I couldn't settle down to practice. I couldn't seem to do anything. I gave up on music. I tried to decide on another course of action - horticulture, part-time work, anything, but nothing seemed to stick.

Well, at the age of 18 I ran away to a convent. I've written about this before, so I won't go into too much detail here. The short truth is that I began my time there in a definitely manic state, joining in everything with gusto and creating chaos with my impulsive actions. It didn't take long for that to give way to depression, and the sisters' decision to eject me from the convent. Then came a trip to Perth, a struggle with mental illness whilst living alone, and finally the freeing diagnosis of bipolar disorder to make my whole life make sense.

I was initially diagnosed with depression, as you may remember from my earlier posts. I was sent to a psychologist, and we ended up spending quite some time exploring my past to see where this crippling sense of depression had begun. I remembered a lot of times when I felt depressed and hopeless, but I also could track many times of euphoria, times when I was impulsive, over energetic and headstrong. Maybe it was strange, but it was only through examining my past that professionals were able to diagnose my current state.

I have spent a lot of time examining how I felt during my past now. In future posts I hope to think a bit more about how mental illness affected my relationship with my mum, especially as a teen and young adult, and how a once fragile relationship has grown much stronger over the past few years. Hopefully my mum and I will continue to explore this together and come to a deeper understand of our past, so we can have an even stronger love in the future.

This is me as a teenager, with my youngest sister!