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.