Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just Dance

I'll be the first to admit this: I am not built for dancing. I am built like a refrigerator, strong and solid. I am big and cuddly, not graceful and lithe. Therefore it makes sense that I don't dance very well. Oh, I can jiggle my blubber and wiggle my hips with the best of them, but, really, most of the science of dancing escapes me.

I guess I just don't know how to move. Sure, I can follow a beat, but apart from the aforementioned jiggling and wiggling, I don't know what to do. My feet stay firmly planted on the floor, as I can never find a way to move them without looking like a tap-dancing hippo. So while everyone else is shuffling, I'm bouncing along like an Irish-dancing planet. Arms? How do I move them without knocking someone out with my arm chub? And some people can do awesome cool movements with their head and upper body. I can't.

So, for a very long time, I refused to dance at all. Why betray my lack of grace with my obese chimpanzee style of dance? But I love music, and I love a good beat, and so, in the privacy of my study, I've developed my own way of moving to the music. And I took another step in confidence when I found myself comfortable jiggling and wiggling in front of my husband.

I don't think I'll be making YouTube videos of my unique style of dance however. I know very well it must look spastic. And it is a bit odd that I refuse to stand up to dance anymore, I suppose. You see, I dance in my office chair now. It cuts out half the movement and coordination needed. The most I'll do with my feet now is tap along with the beat.

The rest of my dancing relies on me flailing my arms around. I can only imagine that it looks like an attempt to take off, helicopter style. I bob up and down in my chair, shake my shoulders, roll my head and use the most incredible jazz hands ever. It must look retarded (and Graham certainly laughs hard whenever he catches me doing it), but it feels fun.

So, the next time you visit, if you decide to game with me, be prepared! I now celebrate victories in dance! I'll turn on the Prodigy's "Voodoo People", start waving my arms around, and bounce up and down, to the accompaniment of squeaks from my long-suffering chair.

It's not graceful, it's not even viable anywhere outside my study, but it's nice to allow myself to dance, even in the strangest ways... Now I feel like dancing! I'll leave you to imagine me, bouncing and wobbling in front of my keyboard...

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Today I am feeling manic, and that means I am finding it hard to sleep. Yesterday, I was awake all day, and when Graham went to bed, I just didn't feel like sleeping too. Of course, I did try, but after a couple of hours, I realised my body just wasn't going to cooperate. At other points in my life this has been really frustrating, as I used to worry about being alert for work, but at the moment, as I'm unemployed (or funemployed, as I've heard it termed), I am really not bothered. In fact, I've found some real benefits to being awake when others are asleep. Benefits I want to share with you for the next time you also may be experiencing insomnia.

I'm not talking about the tired insomnia brought on by worry and stress. No, when I'm happy manic, I am awake through an overabundance of energy. My body insists I stay awake, as if there was something really really exciting about to happen at 2 AM. I never know what that thing may be, but it is definitely exciting, as if Christmas, my birthday and my best friends' visit were all the next day, and I am waiting for them whilst hopped up on caffeine and sugar. I feel that much anticipation, and I need to do something, anything, to pass the time. Here's some of the things I have found that are better when done in the middle of the night:

I can listen to any music I like, without worrying about boring anyone else. Graham is very tolerant of my listening habits, but it's nice to know after he's asleep that no-one is going to be worried if I obsess about a particular song. I can play Owl City's "Saltwater Room" 10 times in a row if I want, and no-one can stop me!

I can go outside in the dark. It's summer here in Perth, and the nights rarely fall below 25 degrees Celsius. Perfect for sitting outside looking at the stars. I love the stars, even though I can only identify one constellation, and I don't even know what that's called. I can't even find the Southern Cross - and, seriously, when one looks for that, EVERYTHING seems to form the cross shape. How am I meant to find it then?

I can also go in the pool if I want. I mean, I never put my swimming costume on and get in properly (what if there's monsters in the pool filter?!), but I am perfectly fine with dipping my feet in while I drink a cold drink. No sunburn, no unbearable heat, just a comforting warm and the cool of the water. And that cold drink? Well, that leads me to my next point.

I can raid the fridge, and no-one will bother me. Seeing as I get my sleep during the daylight hours while Graham is at work, dinner becomes my breakfast, and my other two meals consist of whatever I can find in the pantry or fridge. Am I really hungry? I can make custard with bananas from scratch if I want, or soup, or leftovers. I do have to be careful about the microwave noise, but I've become an expert at stopping it before it makes that loud "ding!" noise at the end. Am I just hot and bothered? I can raid the freezer for icypoles, or drink that last soft drink in the fridge without feeling guilty that I'm depriving someone else. 

I can watch all the YouTube videos I want after midnight. Free internet is awesome! And I can watch all the episodes of Life In Cold Blood back to back if I want, or get creeped out by the parasites in Monsters Inside Me, or catch up on episodes of My Little Pony. Anything too big for me to download during the day, every show Graham's not interested in watching, it goes on my insomnia list.

I find it easier to think at night. Somehow, I get the best blog posts after midnight. And I have lots of quiet time in which to type. And when I find I need a break, I just surf the net, or open Photoshop for some art time, or watch the PowerPuff Girls. All those things I find I feel slightly guilty about doing during the day, when washing and cleaning and other jobs await me.

I have heaps of time in which to have a loooong shower. No one else needs the hot water, and I have the bathroom all to myself. I can spend an hour plucking my eyebrows if I want, or just enjoy sitting in the shower. (I do know the shower makes noise, but it is at the opposite end of the house to all the occupied bedrooms, so I feel ok about doing this.)

And of course, there are all the usual benefits of being up late at night. No telemarketers call, the dogs are sleepy, and the house is quiet. It's peaceful, and I enjoy it. Really, the only downside is that when I want to talk with people, I have to wait for them to be awake. I don't think people appreciate it if I call them in the very early morning.

In this way, I spend my sleepless nights. I keep myself busy until 5 AM, when Graham's alarm goes off, and I jump back into bed for a quick cuddle. He then goes for his shower, while I, all clean and cool and finally tired, stretch out in the middle of the queen bed... and finally go to sleep. I sleep for 8 to 10 hours, and then wake up, refreshed and alert, as Graham arrives home from work.

Insomnia is not ideal. I would live my life without it if I could. But it's nice at this time that I am able to enjoy some aspects of being awake when the rest of the world is sleeping. Next time you are unable to sleep, try some of things I mentioned - somehow these experiences are different at night! Or simply see if I am awake to commiserate with you. Because if I miss anything during my manic vigils, it is friends to share them with.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Am I, And To What End Do I Live?

I think I became a stoic by accident at the age of twelve. I had heard of the philosophical views of the Stoics (I was quite a reader), yet I didn't decide to live like that. It just happened. My brother died one day after birth, and I needed to survive somehow. While most of my family went through the natural process of grieving and healing, with the exception of my siblings who were too young to understand, I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be dependable, in order to help my family. So I denied my grief, squashed my emotions down as best a 12 year old can, and plodded on, determined to be a good, helpful child.

My family are devoted Catholics, and I know that their faith was, if shaken at first, only deepened by the experience, as they worked through their shock and grief to find healing in prayer. Grief tends to do that to people; either they find greater meaning in their faith through it, or they abandon faith altogether. As for me, I began thinking about God differently. I didn't ever doubt He was there, nor did I feel tempted to turn my back on Him. Instead, I told myself God did everything for the best. I didn't feel loved by Him, so much as I felt I needed to be strong to endure whatever else He had to throw at me. I gave up on trying to make sense of the whole situation, and just concentrated on enduring.

As I grew older, I ceased to feel as if I was loved by God and others just for who I was. Instead, my belief that God was distant led me to believe that if I could just become virtuous enough, maybe He would come to love me. I guess I thought I could achieve peace through practising religion. So I would pray and try to conform my life exactly to the rules of the Catholic Church. I became set on obedience, and I was ready to sacrifice whatever it took. I think I began to consider myself as more of a thing than a person, something that could achieve recognition through successes, but that had no intrinsic value of its own. 

I've mentioned often before that I found my emotions a hindrance and an obstacle as I grew out of being a teenager into young adulthood. I found negative emotions driving me to do things I logically didn't want to do. I perceived my emotions as being unwanted, a barrier between me and my ideal identity, that of an in-control, virtuous, rational woman. So I crushed them down. If I could have had them surgically removed, I think I would have. I prided myself on being unattached to physical things, and on having a clear and logical mind, and emotions just seemed like unnecessary baggage to carry around.

While I was in the convent, this desire to be emotionless, a person driven by logic and obedience, only seemed to be reinforced. I did my best to ignore the needs of my body and emotions, driving myself to the point of physical collapse in order to do everything prescribed by the convent Rule. I never considered that God might not want me to hurt myself in order to obey, but simply accepted the rigorous life as another God-given suffering to endure.

My body didn't really cope with the physical demands of religious life, but I took that as a necessary suffering. I used to look at one sister who had very plain signs of a mental illness, and I would think that I could accept any physical suffering, so long as my mind never went. I was absolutely fine with the idea of physical disability or death, but to lose my mind? I would think of my deceased grandmother, who eventually lost the ability to remember certain words, and who would forget to check the use-by dates on packets of food, and I was terrified I would one day lose control of my own mind.

It was ironic, therefore, that my desire to be a stoical, intellect-driven, successful person was shattered when my wayward emotions asserted themselves, pushing me into full-fledged mental illness. All my self-worth, based on my mastery of myself and on the achievement of religious life, was destroyed. I was asked to leave the convent, and worse, I found myself at home with no identity, no path in life, and a mind that was fractured with violent emotions I had seemingly no control over.

I think I spent some time just trying to endure this new pain. I felt broken, a shell of a person whose main purpose in life was simply to survive each coming day. Instead of being proud of my achievements, I slipped into self-hatred. I suppose I still thought of myself as a thing, and a thing that had out-lived its usefulness at that. I felt I had used up all of my energy and resources, only to be cast away because I couldn't live up to this perceived ideal. I was mentally sick, and I couldn't think clearly like I used to. I was battered by emotions I couldn't control, and therefore I found my physical self also out of control, one day full of boundless nervous energy, and the next day lethargic in the midst of deep depression. I had nothing left to take pride in, and I wanted to die.

There were two things that helped restore my self-worth. One was medical help, where through a combination of counselling and medication, I was shown how to gently control my emotions and to listen to what they were telling me. As I began to heal mentally, I found my mind growing clearer, and my health improving. On top of that, I found myself enjoying so many things I had simply ignored before; the sun as it dipped below the horizon of the ocean, the enjoyment of waking on a weekend to find that you can sleep in as long as you want, the fun of playing with a dog. Life was fuller, and I appreciated it so much more than I used to.

The second thing was the entry of love into my life. A nice young man got to know me, began to love me for who I was, not for what I could do, and decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. I could hardly believe at first that he truly meant it. But he did, and the feeling of being wanted, just for who I was, was incredible.

I said before that I used to have an ideal identity. I wanted to be calm, rational and unaffected by emotions or physical needs. That identity was crushed when I became mentally sick. So who am I now? I'm still not sure, but I think if I want to be anything, I want to be a whole person. I want to be at peace within myself emotionally, physically and intellectually, able to reconcile those different facets of myself into one whole. I want to be someone who is able to enjoy both the emotional and physical enjoyment of eating cake, and the enjoyment of expanding my mind. I want to be happy with who I am, just as I am. I'd like to know that I am a worthwhile human being, not for anything I can do, but just for being me.

I doubt I can ever achieve all of this fully, but it is an ideal. In the meantime, I am quietly trying to start over a new life as a wife, and one day, maybe a mother. I bet there will be times when I love sight of who I want to be in the pressures of what I feel I should be doing, but hopefully I never forget for long.

Finally - God. I think it took the love of my husband to really drive home to me that God loves me. If Graham can care for me just as I am, broken and sick, then God must also do so. So I am much happier when I pray now. He is not just "up there", sending trials on us randomly. In fact, I can see that without trials such as my mental illness, I would never have grown past some very harmful attitudes and beliefs. So I guess I finally learnt the lesson my family learnt back when I was twelve - that God only gives us suffering we can bear in order to help us grow. It only took me around 10 years to learn it, but at least I got there in the end.

Monday, February 20, 2012


The jokes about Catholics often revolve around their sense of guilt - that, of all religions, Catholics are the ones wallowing in a sense of failure and guilt. I don't know if that's true - as far as I can see, Catholics are exactly the same as everyone else when it comes to guilt. But today I am feeling down, and with that comes my guilt.

I have a crushing sense of guilt, one that seizes on any occasion to make me feel sad, worthless and powerless. I don't quite know how this all started. Maybe it began when my brother Thomas died? He was one day old when he died of a birth defect. I remember how we found out he had a birth defect before he was born. I remember how upset my mum was. I even remember lying in bed, unable to sleep, trying to bargain with God. If He took me, maybe he could heal Thomas? I wanted more than anything else to have my family happy and whole again, and if that meant me dying so that my brother lived, I was ok with that.

Of course, God notoriously doesn't do bargains, and I found myself stubbornly alive while my brother died one day after birth. In the time that followed, I tried my hardest to hold the family together, to be a good big sister and daughter. I remember trying to take over as much cooking as possible, trying to keep my siblings happy and trying not to bother my heart-broken mother. I resolutely crushed down my own feelings of grief out of a sense of responsibility towards my family.

All my efforts seemed to be in vain however. I couldn't mend broken hearts, no matter how much cooking I did. I felt guilty that I couldn't do more. And, as I grew up, this sense of guilt grew and expanded. Looking back, I realise I was developing bipolar disorder, which was causing havoc with my emotions. But at the time, all I could see was me betraying my stoic, responsible ideal with these stupid emotions. I wanted so much to be good, to be the perfect daughter, but I felt so bad.

Eventually I started using this sense of guilt as a motivator. Any time I found myself oppressed by sadness, or tired, or sick, I would beat myself up mentally. I would remind myself of every failure, mocking myself until I would go and achieve things out of a sick sense of guilt. It worked, to a degree... until I found myself just too overwhelmed by these feelings to do anything but cry. And when the tears subsided, I would begin the cycle all over again.

I can't remember exactly when I realised this, but eventually I internalised this feeling of guilt to a point where I was no longer consciously mocking myself. It came naturally, a little voice that nagged and nitpicked every action, every thought. I thought, however, that it was just how I was, that this was what adults lived with. 

When I was 21, I began going to a counsellor. She helped me realise just how hard I had been on myself, and explained that it was much healthier to be gentle when it came to my emotions. She encouraged me to acknowledge emotions such as sadness without repressing them, and tried to make me understand that it was normal and healthy to feel them. I was told to treat myself like I was a hurt little child - with gentleness and patience.

Sick and tired, I agreed and tried my best to change my patterns of thought. It was difficult. I would find myself subconsciously acting in ways I was used to, and I would have to try to change my thoughts. But it felt good to allow myself to cry, to feel sad, and even to feel good on occasion.

But I found something happening that scared me. That little voice of guilt never left. No matter how much I tried to be positive, that voice was at the back of my mind, mocking and hurting me. And as I tried to ignore it, the voice got louder. I had thought this voice was part of me, under my control. But it wasn't. And as I tried to let myself heal, I found my mind was constantly under attack. 

At one point I went on a weekend retreat. I thought the peace and quiet of some time out would help me. But what I had intended to be a weekend of prayer turned into a hell. That little voice of guilt started shouting at me. I would be trying to speak to people, only to have a voice in my mind telling me: "I hate you! You are worthless! They hate you too! Go and die!"

I knew I shouldn't listen to it, but it was so loud and frightening. I didn't know what to do about it and I was ashamed to let anyone else know, so I retreated to my room. I needed something to block it out, so I got my iPod out and listened to music, turning the volume up to ear-splitting levels. I listened to one song over and over.

I woke up in a dream today
To the cold of the static, and put my cold feet on the floor
Forgot all about yesterday
Remembering I’m pretending to be where I’m not anymore
A little taste of hypocrisy
And I’m left in the wake of the mistake, slow to react
So even though you’re so close to me
You’re still so distant
And I can’t bring you back

It’s true the way I feel
Was promised by your face
The sound of your voice
Painted on my memories
Even if you’re not with me

I’m with you
Now I see keeping everything inside
Now I see
Even when I close my eyes

(Linkin Park, With You)

Anyone looking in on me would have seen me, crouched on the bed, muttering to myself: "I'm not bad... I'm ok... No! Be quiet! I'm not listening to you!"

By the time I got home, I was ready to kill myself, to do anything to shut that voice up. Eventually I rang my psychologist and poured out my heart to her. She listened, and she said she could help me. I needed medication. Relieved that she believed me, I filled in the prescription and took the tablets exactly as directed.

Gradually the voice subsided, and the weight of guilt it had put upon me started to lift. I was able to admit I had some good in me, and that I wasn't a complete failure. I was able to see that the voice was probably psychotic. It wasn't me, it wasn't normal, it was a symptom of sickness. With an anti-psychotic medication, I was able to to start healing. 

Today, that little voice of guilt hasn't quite gone away. It's always there, ready to mock and guilt me if I fail at something. But it is much quieter now, and I don't listen anymore. I know how to distract myself from it, and there are even periods of time when it goes away altogether. 

I have failed at a lot of stuff in life. But while I can feel remorse for what I have done badly, I don't think I am meant to live my life crushed by my guilt. So much of my guilt was for things I had no control over, or for things I couldn't change. So today I live my life without guilt. What has happened is in the past, and I can't change that with all the guilt in the world. I do take things I do wrong seriously, and I will ask forgiveness from any person I think I may have hurt, but afterwards I try not to dwell on it. My voice of guilt has taught me just how dangerous it can be to hold onto these feelings, and I am determined not to listen to it again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Human Contact

All humans need physical contact. Physical touch has been linked to all kinds of health benefits, from relieving depression, stress, anxiety and pain, to actually healing a person physically. Premature babies grow and thrive better when regularly touched, while it has been found that a baby left untouched will become very sick, or even die.

Growing up, I never had any problems absorbing the love of my family through physical contact. There were always siblings to be hugged and babies to be held. We would cuddle, wrestle and kiss.

This all changed when I left home for the convent. This very strict convent had all kinds of rules limiting communication, from a rule of silence, to separate rooms (or "cells") for the sisters to sleep in, to barriers between sisters in their pews, to a huge gate barring the sisters from the public. There were rules for everything, and most of them seem to have been designed to make each sister as invisible as possible.

I actually didn't mind being silent. I understood that to foster a prayerful environment, there had to be rules (even though I broke them often). I saw the individual cells as a privilege (I couldn't remember the last time I had a room just for me!). I didn't even mind the huge bars between me and the public, making me look like an animal on display.

What I found myself missing was human touch. Whether it was by accident or design, the sisters did not touch each other. No hugs, no touching hands or shoulders, nothing. I would go to bed at night and yearn even for the brief hug and kiss I used to get from my parents before bed. I didn't want much. Just a hug. And I never got one.

Eventually I realised the only time that the sisters ever touched was during Mass. The priest would invite us to exchange the Sign of Peace. Where most people would shake hands or kiss, we had a ritual. The junior nun would put her hands together in the gesture of prayer, and the senior nun would put her hands over them. Then both nuns would bow their heads as they exchanged the words: 

"Peace be with you." 

"And also with you."

It was all rather stylised. And it certainly didn't make me feel very loved. I felt lonely.

I left the convent, and in time, travelled across the country to Perth, Western Australia. Again, I found myself very lonely. This time, however, I was lucky enough to be part of a church community where physical touch was welcome. I remember going to prayer gatherings, where I had made friends with a little girl named Bridget. She used to ask permission from her mum, and run over to me to sit in my lap, hugging me while everyone sang.

This little girl made me feel so loved. I don't think she ever realised that often when I held her, I had tears in my eyes. The unconditional love, expressed through a hug, made me feel better when everything else in my life seemed to be going wrong.

Today, I have an inexhaustible source of comfort from my husband, who never seems fazed when I demand a hug. Sometimes I wonder if he knows why I prize our hugs so much, that because I had been deprived of human contact, I now crave touch. It probably doesn't matter. Graham gives amazing hugs, and I am able to just relax and enjoy the moments I spend in his arms.

My littlest sister Gemma-Rose is known in our family as the best kisser and hugger. I remember reading a story of my mother's where Gemma-Rose protested that she was dissatisfied with this role. She wanted to be bigger and have more responsibilities. I only wish I could let her know just how important her role really is, that everyone would find themselves sad and lonely without her enthusiastic hugs and smacking kisses.

Yes, Gemma-Rose has the most important role in the family. Because cuddles are all about sharing love, and that is the most important job of all.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Be My Valentine

So, yesterday. There I was, planning another blog post in which I could express my tortured soul, (ha!), when Graham arrives home from work. I get up from the computer so I could cuddle and catch up with my husband, when he reminds me that the next day is Valentine's Day. 

"What would you like to do tomorrow for Valentine's Day?" he asks. I look at him in confusion.

"Weren't you going to organise something and surprise me?" I say. "I thought we'd agreed you would plan Valentine's Day this year."

"Well, yes," Graham says sheepishly. "I was going to take you to that expensive restaurant you like at Hillarys Boat Harbour, but... I sort of can't afford it. Payday isn't until Wednesday, you know. Is there somewhere cheaper you would like to go instead?"

I start laughing. Now Graham looks confused. "What's so funny?" he asks.

"You do know Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year for restaurants?" I giggled. "There's no way we could get a reservation anywhere the day before Valentine's Day."

Graham looks deflated, and still a bit confused as to why I am so amused. I couldn't find a way to express the reason to him. The reason was that it was just so typical of Graham. As I've written before, both of us have rudimentary organisational skills. Graham just doesn't grasp how to organise a romantic date. When said date involves choosing and reserving a table at a restaurant, it was almost certain he would forget to do so.

I could have gotten upset at my forgetful and scattered husband, but I simply found it funny. I can't blame him; I have frequently done just as badly in organising stuff. And, where once I would have been a little disappointed, taking this display as a sign that I wasn't special, I know by now that this is simply not the case.

Graham is a very loving husband. He constantly spoils me, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. But his method of showing his love doesn't revolve around remembering special occasions, but rather by making the ordinary days special. He might forget our anniversary, or when my birthday is, but he constantly thinks up special little gifts. I have to be careful what I admire at the shops, lest he go back later and buy it for me!

Graham has lavished all kinds of gifts on me. Whether its the latest book by my favourite author, a mouse for my computer, a tiny ladybug ornament, or a expansion to a favourite game, Graham has found unique gifts for me. He can never wait to give me them either. While I am still accustomed to buying a gift, hiding it, wrapping it, and waiting until a special day to give them, Graham is so eager to give them that you would think they were red hot! For Valentine's Day this year, Graham got me a chain with a single pearl suspended from it, to match a set of pearl earrings I wear often. But he couldn't keep it a secret once he had bought it, and insisted I unwrap it as soon as he saw me. So I got it four days early.

Graham has also got a gift for making ordinary days and activities special. Whether its a sing-along session on the freeway, a tv show marathon on the weekend, or shooting baddies from the back of a speeding dune buggy in a game, some of my favourite memories are of very ordinary days.

So, tonight will most probably end up with us ordering pizza, pouring ourselves glasses of bourbon and coke and co-operating together to destroy the evil aliens of the Ascendency as we protect a base with lasers and flamethrowers. And I am perfectly happy with that. Another day we can be romantic and go out for dinner. But there is no reason to be upset that instead of sitting in a crowded restaurant, we are relaxing in our home doing some of the hobbies we like best.

I truly appreciate Graham's way of showing love. Why would I be disappointed for not getting a wilting bunch of roses and a generic box of chocolates on one designated day, when I am spoilt so completely on every other day? Everyone else can keep their mass-produced expressions of love; I am happy with our quirky relationship.

Happy Valentine's Day Graham. I didn't get anything for you either - but I will gladly watch your back as we shoot our way through crazed mercenaries tonight. I'll use my trusty revolver if you bring the rocket launcher, and between headshots, I will let you know: I love you.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


I have spent the last two months housebound. My doctor told me to take time off work, and, seeing as I was struggling to cope, I readily agreed. She probably didn't mean for me to isolate myself from the world. Neither did I, but somehow it happened. My reluctance to impose myself and my troubles on others, combined with my lack of a drivers' license, meant I have spent a long time at home.

Just me and my computer. 

That's not to say I never went out. I saw a couple of friends at their homes, and I made it to the shops every so often, always accompanied. I even made it to church. But gatherings of people, or parties? No way. I got halfway through a family birthday dinner at a local pizza place, and had to walk away before I broke down.

I blame my anxiety disorder for most of this. Apparently, I am so easily stressed, that when surrounded by people, I can easily descend into a panic attack. I shake, while my heart races, my head gets dizzy and I begin to hyperventilate. While I am not ashamed of my bipolar disorder, it is much harder for me to admit to my anxiety. I know it is triggered by irrational fears, and that bothers me. If only I had valid reasons for this panic! But as it is, I find myself sweating and shaking when confronted by such small things as groups of people and telephone calls.

Because I am bothered by my anxiety, I usually work hard to conceal it. The amount of panic attacks I've weathered in a bathroom stall, all the while trying to pretend to everyone else that I'm fine, is staggering. I'm also pretty good at working out where and when one might occur, so I avoid those occasions. No big parties where I don't know most of the people. No phone calls without a pad of paper where I can organise my thoughts. I know I will never be able to see my favourite bands in concert, as I would never be able to face the crowds and noise.

Sometimes I feel like I've become far too old for my age. I feel like an old woman, struggling to function in a world that is too fast and too noisy for her to take in without pain. I hate that feeling. Therefore, for the last two months, I have simply avoided every uncertain situation.

So when the idea of going to the local DoJ gathering popped into my head, I didn't initially think it a good idea at all. An hour of singing in a room packed full of large families, followed by an afternoon tea in a crowded tearoom? I knew what it was like, as years ago I used to attend regularly. And what about the people? Would they welcome me back? I stopped going abruptly, two and a half years ago. Would they remember me? Would they care? I didn't know.

For some reason though, I found myself wanting to go. I talked it over with Graham. Though he was worried about how it would play out, he willingly agreed to accompany me. I was still in contact with one family who attended regularly, so I rang them and checked to see if they would be there.

And, somehow, I found myself walking into the venue yesterday afternoon. Uncertainty started to well up inside me, and I slowly realised I was shaking. I walked past people, and recognised who they were. Two and a half years, and I still remembered all their names. Awkwardly, I tried to smile and wave, while uncertainty distilled into panic. I shouldn't have come. What had I been thinking?

Heads turned to see who had arrived, focusing on me... and smiles appeared. I found myself surrounded by people, all smiling, all asking how I was, and all seemingly pleased I was there. Eventually, we made our way into the auditorium, where I could take a much-needed seat. For all  that I'd just had the best possible welcome, I found myself trembling, I think partly from relief.

I'd only planned to stay for part of the afternoon, and strategically exit before everyone began afternoon tea... but I found I was enjoying myself. It was nice to hear everyone singing praise songs, even nicer that I was surrounded by my friend's family. I even began to relax a little. And I was able to introduce, with great pride, my husband to all these people who had never met him. I felt as if, while I had left the gatherings two years ago broken and mentally sick, I was able to return stronger and far happier.

The last thing we did that afternoon before leaving was to speak to an old friend who we hadn't seen for a long time. As we said goodbye, he said he would be looking forward to seeing us next week. And you know what? Though I might not always be able to make it, I think I will go back. I felt so good, reconnecting with old friends, knowing that to do so I had beaten down my anxiety and won - that is awesome.

I am housebound today. But maybe I can begin to work towards controlling my anxiety. And then there will be no more need to hide at home in fear.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Big Girl... Are You Beautiful?

I've always been a bit self-concious about my weight. From being a fat baby, to a chubby toddler with pronounced jowls, to a solid teenager, I was never slim. I would have given so much to have taken after my beautiful mother, who was as slim and graceful as a small bird. My sisters all got her genetics, and I ended up being the chunky older sister of the family.

If you have read my older posts, you will probably be able to guess how I dealt with the issue. That's right, I stuck my head firmly in the sand, and refused to address it in any way. My mother tried to help, suggesting exercise and healthy diet, but I angrily refused her help. I felt ugly and I took my mum's offers of help as a sign that I wasn't loveable as I was.

I grew up envying my friends. They were slim, active, beautiful people who wore clothes well, while I felt frumpy. Every time I put on an outfit, the thought running through my mind was not: "Do I enjoy wearing this outfit?", but rather: "Do I look too fat in this?" 

When I was 18, I went to a convent, and ended up wearing the habit for two years. All issues with the convent aside, the habit was awesome. It was loose and flowing, and the only thing that changed with weight gain was one's belt hole placement. It felt like wearing a ballgown all the time, and while it could be hot and awkward, it was definitely the ultimate cover-up!

Time passed, and eventually I left the convent. I was left with an ultra-short haircut (due to the nun's policy of shaving their heads), moon-white skin, and as big an issue with my weight as ever. I had few clothes left from before I entered the convent and what I had was old and ill-fitting. I had little money to spend on clothes as well, as I quickly began volunteer work in Perth, and was trying to subsist on an allowance of $25 a week.

I ended up wearing cast-off clothing for the most part. Again, I felt chubby, as the two girls I shared a house with were both slim and gorgeous. I walked everywhere, and got really fit, but I never morphed into the petite shape I longed for. Instead, I was known as the strong one, and any heavy lifting that needed doing became my responsibility. 

For all that I was strong and fit, I hated my shape still. So it was a surprise when Graham first asked me out. I thought of all the other attractive girls he had met at the same time as me and wondered why he hadn't chosen any of them. I remember spending hours before a date, trying on as many different combinations of clothing as possible, looking for the "thinnest" outfit.

It took a long time dating Graham for me to relax about my looks. Eventually, I realised Graham didn't care about my weight, and thought me beautiful just as I was. I started to relax, and I even became ok with wearing comfy clothes around the house - something I'd not allowed myself to do for years, as I thought they made me look ugly.

But an even bigger step was taken when I learnt, not just not to worry about my shape, but to enjoy wearing clothes. I remember finding a clothing shop that specialised in plus-sized clothes. But these weren't the ugly drapes most plus-sized clothes looked like; no, these were fitted for curves, and cut from bright and fashionable fabrics. The only problem? They were expensive.

I remember describing this shop of wonders to Graham, who then decided to spoil me. He drove us to that shop, stood in the shop while I gathered a bunch of clothes to try on, and then paid for a new wardrobe for me. I went home, changed clothes, and looked at myself in the mirror.

I was beautiful.

Of course, it wasn't all the clothes. I'd always had pretty blue eyes and nice skin and curves. But I'd never seen them from the depths of my insecurity. The self-esteem I gained from those clothes was incredible. I shone - and everyone could tell I was finally happy with how I looked. Graham remarked how my posture changed and my attitude improved once I had put on those clothes and decided I could look good, no matter what size I was.

This is not an apology for an inactive and unhealthy life. I know I need to exercise more. I need to eat and live healthily. Excess weight is a health issue which shouldn't be ignored. But a health issue doesn't need to be a self-esteem issue, and while I try to attain a healthy weight, it's good to have a positive attitude. I can happily admit now that I am strong and curvy. I know I will never look like my beautiful mother, but I can show my own unique happiness and beauty.

I may be a big girl, but I am finally comfortable in my body. It might be chubby, but it is mine. It is strong and cuddly, and I am happy with it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Couple That Game Together...

When Graham and I met, it didn't look as if we had much in common. I was a chubby ex-nun with a social life consisting of church events, while Graham was a programming student at TAFE with a gaming obsession. I remember most of our first dates revolving around various movies, followed by dinner.

This was nice and safe, but eventually, we ran out of movies we wanted to watch in the cinema. Plus, it was really expensive. We tried various activities - swimming, picnics, going to the beach, but soon realised that we were both homebodies. If given the choice between going out and staying at home, we found ourselves preferring to relax at home. But what should we do there?

For all that he enjoyed spending time with me, Graham started to miss his gaming hobby. He talked about it a bit with me, but I had little understanding, having spent two years in a convent where all electronics were shunned. I realised that computer games meant a lot to him, and I was happy to listen to him talk about them, and watch him play them, but I didn't show any inclination to join in.

Eventually, I think Graham realised I was unwilling to join him in his hobby, not because I thought it silly, but because I felt I would be bad at them. He asked me if I had ever played any computer games. I thought about it, and then remembered an old game from years ago. It involved building a civilisation up, from having just one or two little peasants to a thriving city with farms, castles, monasteries, soldiers and cavalry. The aim of the game was either to destroy all one's opponents, or completely advance through all historical ages and build a world Wonder before anyone else.

I couldn't remember the game's name, but I told Graham about it anyway. Surprisingly, he recognised it from my description, and had a copy of it at home. He installed it on my laptop. 

As I played it, all these memories came flooding back. The game was called Age of Empires, and I had played it with my brothers. Unfortunately, limited playing time, and several siblings clamoring for a turn had made completing a game very difficult. I remembered how much I had enjoyed playing. Then Graham asked if I wanted to play with him. I agreed, and we sat down and built civilisations together all day.

I think it was then I became a gamer.

It didn't take long for me to feel comfortable learning new games, and Graham and I became gaming enthusiasts. We spent hours together enjoying games - much to the chagrin of Graham's parents, who had hoped a girlfriend would get him out of the house! But we were happy. We had found something we truly enjoyed doing together.

I am glad we found gaming good as a shared hobby. We initially had little in common, and it would have been easy for us to have drifted away from each other over time. But now, Graham and I are best friends, able both to work and play together. And, to be honest, I get a kick out of beating him at his own games now!

Now, I'm sorry, but I have to go. I think I need to play a round of Age of Empires...

Friendship After Mental Illness

I am bipolar. For the most part, I am ok with it. I mean, I don't like having out of control moods, or a crippling anxiety disorder that stops me from going anywhere I might encounter close-packed crowds. Nor do I enjoy having to take medication everyday for the rest of my life, medication that causes me to put on weight and makes my hands tremor. Nor do I like the fact it severely impacts my ability to work or study. However, I've known about my condition for over 2 years now, and mostly I have come to accept these things as a normal part of life.

No, the worst part of being bipolar is what it did to me socially.

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was already fairly isolated. I hated who I was, and my fear of breaking down in front of others led me to avoid too much time with other people. But I still considered myself normal, and people would treat me as such. I was a regular girl, albeit one who felt blue a lot. I did a lot of volunteering for my local church group, and I tried hard to be, if not happy, at least useful.

When I was diagnosed, however, a lot changed. I was sick, very sick. I was hearing voices and spending my nights crying while I desperately tried to seem normal during the day. The doctors gave me some medication to help me control my moods, and recommended I take time off. I stopped working, and spent a lot of time at home. That time helped me get my head in order, and I began to piece together how my undiagnosed condition had affected my life up until that point.

I began to forgive myself a little for all the mistakes and failures I had made. It felt like a relief to know that I wasn't the stupid misfit I'd always told myself I was. I was sick. And it could be controlled. I wanted to let my friends and acquaintances know, partly so I could apologise for any way my condition could have affected them, but also so I could make a fresh start.

But the reaction to my news was not what I had expected. The initial response was usually encouraging, with people showing sympathy. But then I noticed something strange. Over time, people lost touch with me. Fewer and fewer people checked up on me, let alone treated me like a wanted friend. It was like a diagnosis of mental illness was so scary people couldn't be associated with anyone who was touched by it. I would contact old friends, only to find they had little to talk about with me. Older people who had acted as mentors stopped talking to me, as if it was too difficult to deal with. I felt like I had been judged on the basis of a diagnosis, and found lacking.

I became very lonely.

For a long time, I was angry at these people. I felt abandoned, right when I needed support. For all the talk about love and acceptance, my Christian friends were the first to drop me! What was the point of preaching love if people couldn't even find it in themselves to talk to one lonely and sick young woman? 

Thankfully, not all people were like this. My boyfriend stood by me the whole time, driving me to doctors, making sure I took my medication, and most importantly, treating me like I was loveable and normal. His parents took me in when I could no longer live in a single room on my own. One family I knew supported me through everything, even inviting me over to stay for the weekends when they had so little room I had to sleep on cushions on the floor. I even made some new friends - ones who cared enough to accommodate my needs and treat me like I was normal anyway.

In the end, I realised that though I had fewer friends, I was left with the best of them - the ones that  loved me for who I was. So many times, friendship is based on something other than love - whether it is convenience or usefulness or superficial similarities. My diagnosis of mental illness stripped away all the weakest friendships I had. 

After a while, I began to forgive those who had abandoned me. I began to realise just how scary mental illness can be, especially to those who know little about it. It's hard to tell if someone with a mental illness needs help, as so much happens in their minds, let alone to do something. I am sure if some of the people had known what to say or do, they would have done it in a heartbeat. But, when they realised they didn't know what to do, they reacted with silence. 

These days, I am pretty open about my mental illness. I have thought a lot about how I should approach it, and it seems to me that the more silence is kept around the topic of mental illness, the more shameful it will seem to others. Even though others may not know how to react, it is not something that should be ashamed of. Instead, I try to be honest about what mental illness is, and how I deal with it. I hope if I can deal with my sickness in an honest and open fashion, others will feel comfortable talking about it.

For every friend who stood by me, I can only express how grateful I am to you. You made me feel like a human being worth caring about. Your friendship made my life happy and my struggles worthwhile. I can truly tell you care about me for who I am, not for what you can get out of me. Thank you.

For everyone who stopped speaking to me, I am sorry. We lost an opportunity to grow together. I know it's hard and scary to deal with mental illness, but you missed an opportunity to really get to know me, and I lost out on knowing you. While I am sad, I am not angry any more. 

am bipolar, and for the most part, I am ok with it. There's some things I find hard about it, such as the moods, the anxiety, the medication, and its assorted side-effects. But there's also good things that have arisen from it.

The best part of being bipolar is what it did to me socially.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

All Grown Up?

Sometimes I wonder why the world allowed Graham and I to get married. It's a good thing there isn't a test beforehand - we would have failed several sections abysmally. I can imagine the test, complete with terse notes on our performance.

Section 1: Organisation.

Couple has little-to-no discernible organisational skills. Papers are filed according to piles on various desks and tables. These are labelled: Yesterday, Last Week, and Really Old. Couple periodically attempts to sort papers, and invariably end up throwing away essential documents by accident.

Section 2: Cleanliness.

Couple tries hard to maintain cleanliness, but are hampered by poor organisation. Their method of inviting guests over to prompt them to clean up is fundamentally flawed.

Section 3: Food Preparation and Diet.

Couple enjoys good food, but display laziness in selecting and preparing food. Male considers Coke to be a valid substitute for water and a meat pie to be a routine lunch choice. Female becomes visibly agitated when she cannot locate ice cream. 

Section 4: Presentation.

Couple has little to no idea of how to present their home. Where others might have portraits or  paintings, they have TMNT and Mortal Kombat posters, and their living area consists of as many computers as they can cram into one concrete-floored room. 

...and so forth. It's not that we are dirty, or deliberately messy, but has more to do with the fact that we were both last in line for organisation skills when they were being handed out. Both Graham and I want to be successful, we truly do. Every so often we make a huge effort to organise our lives. We decide this is the week we are going have a clean toilet, and filed papers, and ironed shirts, just like real people!

Somehow, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves swamped in duties. I think of my mum, and I long for her abilities. How is it that my mum can run a household of eight plus cats, with seemingly no effort? She can keep a clean house, make sure healthy foods are on the table, teach my siblings, exercise, and still find time to write books. I don't know whether it's just my mind overstating how awesome my mum is, but it sometimes seems like she got it all - perfect housewife, mother, spouse, teacher...

Invariably, I think of my mother right at the moment I fall most short of her ideal. I'll find myself eating ice-cream for breakfast while lounging on the couch in my pyjamas whilst watching the Muppet Show, and I'll decide that I need to do better. Graham and I discuss a plan of action before we launch into work. 

But my enthusiasm is usually short-lived, as we burn ourselves out far too quickly. I rather like doing washing, but it starts to lose its charm after the third load, while Graham tires of sorting rubbish from essentials after the bin is filled and the garage cluttered with stuff to be donated or recycled. I catch both of us wandering over to the study and eyeing our computers. It only takes the slightest suggestion that we take a rest for both of us to drop what we were doing... and spend the rest of the day destroying robot armies together on the computer.

I am sure one day we will magically morph into responsible adults, capable of regarding diaries and filing cabinets with emotions other than fear and confusion. Until that day, however, I fear we are stuck in our habits of clean-and-collapse. And if it never happens, I can only assume we will either become homeless or become the subjects of a reality show as examples of what not to do.

I've expressed these fears to Graham, but he seems remarkably unworried. "As long as I still have a computer and an internet connection, I'm ok", he said. Which leads me to imagine Graham in rags, crouched in a cardboard box, gaming by the light from his monitor... and suddenly I'm not so worried. Life could be so much worse.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Our Babies

Graham and I own two purebred Belgian Shepherd dogs. They look like this:

I say Graham and I, but I really only came into the picture 3 years ago. Graham's dogs have been around much longer. He adopted both of them from the local pound while he was still in highschool. We think Bungo must be around 11 years old, while Samurai (or Sam, as we normally call him) is a year or two younger. While it is the pound policy to never give out information on the dog's previous history, Graham's sister, who works for the council, had given us some idea of their background. Bungo, our girl, was given up for adoption by a breeder as a puppy, while Sam was abandoned by his owners and spent several months wandering the streets of Perth before he ended up at the pound.

They are magnificent dogs - pure black, with deep brown eyes and white patches on their chests. It is hard to believe they could have been in the pound, they look so good. We often get stopped while walking them, with people curious to know what breed they are. Even the vet admires them!

Of course, every dog owner knows that a dog's behaviour can completely contradict their outward appearance. And while Bungo and Sam look majestic and poised, their behaviour is anything but that. They can be noisy, affectionate, playful and frustrating - but never calm and relaxing!

People often can't tell the difference between our two dogs, but it is obvious to us. Both their appearance and behaviour is so markedly different, we have never had trouble identifying them - except perhaps at night, if one of us happens to stumble on a dog in the dark. Bungo is slim to the point of emaciated. She is like this, no matter how much we feed her, and it has led to some awkward conversations with the vet and dog groomer where we try to explain that, yes she eats often and well, but never seems to put weight on. She is going grey around the muzzle and has marked white eyebrows from age. And, even if we can't see that from a distance, we can always tell Bungo from her gait. At the ripe old age of 11, she is developing arthritis in her hips, which leads her to trot stiff-legged. We feed her fish-oil to help combat the condition, and she is as active as ever, but the stiffness remains.

Bungo's personality is also unique. She was probably the runt of her litter, being small and slim, and also markedly nervous. She hates loud noises, particularly the sound of metal on metal. It took Bungo over a year of me living in the same house as her for her to fully accept me. She is also a bit of a princess, and has been known to turn up her nose at food she doesn't like. Bungo is especially picky when it comes to dry dog food. She tends to hide it in places where she can eat it later, before sorting it by order of colour, and finally eating it in order of most tasty first. 

This became a problem, as Sam has no such compulsions, and follows her in order to steal her food. We eventually gave up on feeding them dry food altogether, and Graham teases me when I put together meals for the dogs consisting of selected left-overs, specially bought kangaroo mince and other oddments to make sure they get a balanced diet!

Sam is in some ways the polar opposite to Bungo. Noisy, brash and greedy, he is still very affectionate and will do anything for a treat and praise. He is bigger than Bungo, with a thicker coat and less grey hairs. He is very territorial, and a real headache when he tries to outbark the neighbours' dogs. For all his noise, he is a sook, and terrified of other dogs.

Sam is insatiable, and has been known to chew on anything, from DVDs, to dishcloths, to my father-in-law's work ID. We haven't been able to break him from stealing food, something we think he started while lost on the streets. As soon as everyone's backs are turned, he will audaciously jump up and take whatever food is sitting out. In this way he's gotten steak, whole loaves of bread, and even a full kilo block of cheese!

I write all this, and I realise it may sound like we have two monsters to care for. I can't emphasis enough how much I love the dogs, bad behaviour and all. When I am feeling terrible, their unconditional love comforts me, and it is good to feel like one never needs to be alone in the house.

Graham, I know, cares for the dogs even more than I do. He has so much patience with them, and is willing to do or pay whatever it takes to make sure they are healthy and happy. Are the dogs too hot in the summer? Graham will gladly take time off in order to get them clipped, and will also sacrifice a chunk of his pay on getting the best groomer. Do the dogs need exercise? Then he will put aside his computer games and walk them, swim with them, or take them to the local dog beach. Do they need arthritis treatment or a biopsy or have they torn their pads? Graham notices immediately and will drop everything to get them to a vet.

It is for these reasons I have titled this post "Our Babies". For, even though we have no children yet, caring for two needy dogs has shown me the fatherly side of Graham. I know when we have children, Graham will be a wonderful father. In the meantime, we look after our affectionate furry babies, dealing with all frustrations for the joy of their love and loyalty.

And, if you are ever looking for a dog, get a Belgian Shepherd - they are beautiful. The Complete Dog Book For Kids © 1996, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. praises their intelligence, saying:

Belgian Sheepdogs have proved their smarts many times over. They perform well in sports like obedience, herding, and tracking. They work as search and rescue dogs, guide dogs, and therapy dogs. Most heroically, they performed valuable services during World Wars I and II. They carried messages, pulled ambulance wagons and machine guns, and guarded military sites.

While ours aren't quite that heroic, it's nice to know they could be trained to do such wonderful things!

The Perils of Blind Perseverance

You may not believe it, but I was a horrible teenager - moody, surly and uncommunicative. Thinking back on my teenage years, I feel sorry for my family, and especially my mother. She was trying to bring up seven children, the youngest of which was 17 years younger than me, and rather than being helpful and supportive, I was self-absorbed and quick-tempered.

Even a few years ago, I would have dismissed my behaviour as the result of teenage hormones and struggles. I thought all teenagers had exactly the same issues as I did, and I tried to persevere through all my emotional ups and down by simply ignoring them. I never discussed them in much detail with anyone. The important thing was acting mature, right? I wanted to be grown-up, an adult, and I was frustrated at my uncooperative emotions.

When I was 18, I decided to take big step. I moved out of my home and joined a contemplative order of nuns. I liked their calm, stable approach to life, and I thought I was being called to this strict and prayerful life. I looked up to the older nuns and imagined growing to be as assured and    calm as them.

It became apparent after a while that my turbulent emotions weren't going to just go away, and it also became apparent that I was the black sheep among the nuns. When I wasn't sliding down the polished floorboards and waking the slumbering sisters by running down the corridor in an excess of energy, I was dragging myself around the convent grounds and crying myself to sleep in fits of despair. Time and again I was rebuked, and I tearfully promised to change my behaviour. But no matter how hard I tried, I found my moods betraying me. I became terrified of my own emotions, and I tried hard to bury them. But they won through so often and so violently, I found myself acting out without even wanting or meaning to.

The nuns, having no real idea of what was going on, decided after two years that they had given me enough chances to change. I was sent home. I protested, but the sisters had seen enough bad behaviour. So at age 20, I found myself at home again. Though I loved seeing my family, I couldn't quite shake off the feeling that I didn't belong any more. All my friends had moved on with their lives, all my siblings had adjusted to life without me, and I felt useless.

I knew people often found direction in life through volunteering. So when a friend suggested I join a youth team dedicated to mentoring teenagers, I thought I might fit in there. I was accepted, although instead of being stationed in Sydney as I'd requested in order to be close to my family, I was sent all the way to Perth.

In Perth, I lived with two other young women on the same team as me. We had a demanding schedule of school visits, church gatherings and events and part time work. While I tried to make the most of this new start, I found my old enemies, my emotions, welling up again. I had frequent nightmares that I being chased until I was caught and murdered. It didn't take long for these negative emotions to rise up in my waking life, too, and I found myself repeating behaviours I'd used at home and in the convent.

The team had their own set of problems that year, and I can only imagine how my extremes of mood affected my team mates. I tried to show a happy face, but I was scared. I had already lost one path of life I really desired; I had also lost so many friends. This fear made my sad times even worse, and I sometimes wished I could just die so I wouldn't need to struggle on any more.

Things came to a head mid-year, when the director of the youth team visited me. Over a coffee he gently informed me that the two girls I had been living with had asked for me to be moved or terminated. He said he didn't think the youth team was the right place for me.

For the second time, I found myself excluded. I was devastated. Was I ever going to fit in with anyone? I continued to live in Perth, for no other reason than that I had a full-time job there and I wanted, if not to be accepted by society, then at least be independent. I eventually found a room to rent near my workplace, and I settled in a routine. I worked long shifts in a cafe everyday, and filled my spare time with participating in a local church group. 

More and more over time, I found myself withdrawing from people. Living on my own hadn't done much to make me feel better, and I often found myself standing in the kitchen of my workplace, choking back tears, and setting my face into one of happiness as soon as someone entered. Again, I tried to suppress any emotions I had, and present a happy front to the world, but inside, I felt terrible.

One night I was talking to a lady from my church group. I didn't actually get along with her very well, but she must have sensed some of what was going on, because she told me to seek professional help. 

That shook me. I had always assumed I was normal, if particularly difficult and hard to get along with. Even though I had written in my diary that I felt like I was going mad trying to master my moods, I had never considered that I might actually need professional help. As far as I knew, this was how adult people felt all the time, and I was just particularly bad at controlling it.

I wasn't great at going out and talking to people by this stage, but I gathered up all my courage one afternoon and walked down to the local doctor. I had never seen this doctor before, and I felt so stupid sitting in front of her and describing how I felt, and how that had affected my life. She listened, expressionless. I felt sure she was going to dismiss me and tell me to toughen up. Instead, she started printing off some papers.

"You probably have depression," she said. "It's quite normal, one in five Australians go through depression at some point in their life. I'm printing out a Mental Health Plan; with this you can go see a counsellor twelve times at no cost. I'm also referring you to a counsellor."

I was shocked. I could hardly believe that there could be an answer to my problems, one that could be managed, and that others could help with. I took the doctor's advice and saw the psychologist she had referred me to. The counsellor turned out to be lovely, and for the first time in a long time I found myself talking to someone about my out of control moods, and (oh joy!) about how to live with them and accept who I was, emotions and all.

My life over that time blossomed incredibly. Not only did my counselling help, I found myself able to socialise again, and eventually I met a lovely man named Graham who thought I was wonderful. I learned to relax a bit, to guide my emotions, instead of suppressing them with sheer force, and to accept the heartbreak of my past, instead of blaming myself.

Not everything went smoothly, of course. Eventually I found that, even though I had far more control over my life than I had previously, I needed medication to keep me truly stable. This was further underlined when I was diagnosed as having Bipolar 2 Disorder. Though it hurt to know I had a chronic condition that I would always have to work on controlling, it also felt good to have a diagnosis. 

I had been so hard on myself, telling myself over and over again how all the bad things in my life were all my fault. I had convinced myself that I was a horrible person, and it felt good to know that, in fact, I had been struggling against huge odds to function at all. For the first time on years, I felt strong and proud of myself. Most people with undiagnosed bipolar disorder end up doing really harmful things, hurting themselves and those around them with their self-destructive behaviour. Though I had also hurt myself and others, I felt proud that I had never given in to a belief that my behaviour was "good enough", and that "I couldn't help it".

Today, I have been on medication for bipolar disorder for over two years. I am stable, with some good friends, a loving family, and a wonderful husband. I know I have been guided through some very dark times, and I am so grateful that, for the first time in a very long time, I am truly happy. 

I am going to post a few photos. The first is of me as a teenager. I am third from the left, with the straight fringe and round glasses.

The second is of me in the convent. I am posing with my sisters.

Finally, a photo of me on my wedding day.