A year can bring nothing and everything, and all that is in between.
It’s bizarre, our understanding of time is a human construct, it isn’t real. If you think about a year, to us it marks an ending and a beginning, but in reality everything keeps going as before. Even so, I think it is really beautiful the way humans have decided that it is important to reflect on a year gone by, and set intentions for the year to come, although I’m not going to lie, if I hear one more stock standard “2019 was so shit, bring on 2020, can’t be worse!” posts on social media I think I will vomit (jks, I don’t vomit). Because the idea of having a “bad” year and a “good” year is so strange if you really think about it. A year is a number, it isn’t a numbers fault if bad things have happened to us recently, and yet we take such solice in washing our hands of the “bad” number and deciding the next number will be better. It’s such a lovely concept to me, but I can’t quite get on board.
2019 started for me with the hospitalization of someone extremely important to me. My New Years Eve last year was spent sitting in my backyard, cuddling my dog in shock, making tearful phone calls and trying not to wake my husband up. It seemed like a bad omen for the year ahead. The first couple of weeks of 2019 felt like I was walking through fog. My mental health had already taken a massive nosedive toward the end of 2018 and this shock seemed to have given my brain the permission it was waiting on to completely stop functioning. On reflection, it probably wouldnt have taken much really for this breakdown to happen in the state I was in, but boy howdy this event did the trick. Panic attacks, self hatred, and suicidal ideation was all my brain could handle, however since I am pretty fucking terrible at asking for help I don’t think many people realised how bad things were for me. I went into 2019 thinking the world was ending, and many aspects of my world did in fact end, but it really was for the better.
As I continued to struggle my way out of bed and to work every day, inching further away from being half an hour early, to being 5 minutes late, most days having to stop my car on the side of the road for deep breaths to fend off impending panic attacks, I finally decided to ask for help. Asking for help is not something that comes naturally to me, in fact accepting help in any way shape or form is not something I do. Ask my Dad, he will tell you; “Never give Emilie real advice, she won’t take it, best tell her what NOT to do if you want any hope of steering her in the right direction.”
But I did it.
I asked for help. It was hard and it felt gross and it felt like a failure and it felt weak. I would love to tell you how every single person in my life rallied around me and proved it is easy to get help with your mental health, but this was not the case. The majority of the people around me, my friends and family, they were amazing, and they listened as I tried to blurt out what was going on for me and try to open about my mental health for the first time in my life, to confront things I could never admit out loud. I worked through things with my amazing psychologist and for the most part it was a real turning point for me. But unfortunately there were a couple of people who really proved that the stigma around mental health, anti-depressants/anti-anxiety meds are still alive and well.
People “noticed” I had become spaced out since going on my meds, when in actual fact it was the first time I could think clearly in months. They “noticed” I wasn’t working as hard, when I felt I was finally getting back to my heyday of multitasking and remembering what I was doing. They “noticed” I was lazy. They “noticed” I was trying to get out of things, “using” my psychologist appointments (1 hour every 6 weeks mind you, that averages to 10 minutes per week) and the fact my Sister was unwell.
I cannot stress this enough: This is stigma in action.
These same people hadn’t noticed how numb I had been for months. They hadn’t noticed that I looked like crap from lack of sleep. That I couldnt carry a conversation or remember what I was saying half way through my sentence. They hadn’t noticed the “toilet breaks” I had been taking to try to fight the panic attacks, or the fact that the tiniest confrontation had me shaking and barely able to speak. They hadn’t noticed how this fog started to lift around 3 weeks after I went on meds and 1 week after I had my first psychologist appointment in 3 years.
Stigma against mental health is a funny thing, especially in the workplace. I really didn’t need anything from these particular people, apart from patience while I dealt with my health. I was getting better, trying to find my way back to myself, including the fact that it is in my very DNA to be a complete workaholic (something I will be working on my whole life). Improving my mental health stood to benefit those feeling as though I was taking advantage.
And yet, some months later after becoming the focal point of the gossip mill, and after a series of ridiculous miscommunications and misunderstandings, I found myself unemployed without notice after 7 years in the same job. It was only after this I found out about most of what was going on unbenknownst to me; discussions about my performance with junior staff whom I was supposed to be in charge of, checking security footage for proof of my work output, and most hurtful (at the time) of all, one or two people I considered my friends outside of work had added to this drum-up of drama, which was, at the end of the day, about the chemistry of my brain.
The words I had used to ask for help and understanding 6 months earlier (“I feel I am not working at my best, but I am putting steps in place to improve and I would really appreciate your understanding.”) had been completely twisted and used against me. After all the hard work I had put in I felt so confused, hurt, and completely misunderstood. This is one of the best things that has ever happened to me (I’ll explain that later, sit tight).
The truth is, these people most likely had no idea why they had formed their opinions about me, or what effect their words and actions were having on my already pretty shithouse mental health. They probably still haven’t given it a second thought, and they probably never will. We have been force-fed these assumptions for so long now; mental illness is weakness that can’t be overcome, it makes people ill-equipped and useless to society, and, in more recent history, medication turns you into a zombie. And it is far easier to fall into these assumptions than to question, or try to understand things like mental illness, which you can’t see with your own eyes.
To use the age old comparison of the broken leg; If I had broken my leg, and come to work with a cast, and ask for understanding and patience while I heal, it would be a given. No one would think to say to someone else that I was being lazy or taking advantage, because it is way too easy for the other person to say “Hold on, can’t you see her cast? She is trying her best!”.
Thanks to my yummy brain pills and regular cognitive behavioural therapy, I managed to muddle my way through the 2 weeks of unemployment (luckily, because of all the yucky stuff going on I had already applied for this other job) and found myself stepping into my dream job. I immediately felt understood, welcomed, and encouraged. Some of the first things we were told in training were about work life balance and that asking for help would be an important part of enjoying and surviving the job. We were told to reach out to our EAP (Employee Assistance Program, if you don’t know what this is or if you are entitled to one, please check!) if we need it at any point.
It felt so right, and restored my faith that some workplaces are working on breaking down these stigmas, and understanding how to get the best out of their employees by supporting their wellbeing. I was now in a place where I could start to really heal.
Meanwhile, circling back. You may wonder about the hospitalization I mentioned at the beginning of this ridiculously long story. My amazing, intelligent, strong, beautiful, spirited little sister has been battling her own demons from a young age, and following a suicide attempt and her first full blown manic episode, she was finally given a correct dignosis. Speaking to stigma, the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder carries some hefty presumptions. A life sentence, a sign that youre an amazing yet troubled artist, something that any woman who is happy and also sad in less than 24 hours has, these are Bipolar, according to stigma.
To me, none of this fits my Sissy bliss. The truth about Bipolar, and many other mental illnesses are that it is completely different for everyone. These illnesses, they are simply labels for a cluster of symptoms which point us in the right direction toward effective treatment. Bipolar is not what my sister IS, it is what she has. It is a part of her, and part of her life, but it is not HER.
My sister is highly intelligent, she is thoughtful, kind, and caring. She has an energetic and curious nature, and thrives on new learning. She has a wicked sense of humour and is ridiculously good at games, like, seriously, I have never EVER ever beat her in a game of monopoly. So which of these things mean she is Bipolar? None of them.
So what good are those words then? Bipolar Disorder… these two words have meant that this year, my little Blister has finally been taken seriously by the mental health care team/s she has encountered. It has meant she could be prescribed medication that would help her, not throw her brain chemistry further out of whack. It has meant that there is hope. Not that she is “fixed” or “better now”, because what ridiculous things to think will happen over the space of some months, but there is hope.
I don’t know if she sees it this way. I’m not very good at asking her these questions. New Years Resolution #1, ask her about this.
For a long time, I grieved for her. I thought it inevitable that she would die at the hands of an undiagnosed mental illness. I felt myself scream out in my head, willing someone to realise she needed more than what myself or anyone in my family could possibly give her, on the outside probably seeming uncaring and immobilised. Battling the idea that we could (in the early days when we were teenagers and still under the same roof together) take her for a walk in the sunshine, play games with her, and walk on eggshells around her and she will be better. These things won’t change the chemicals and the hormone levels in her brain.
If I had a penny for every time I heard “Well have you tried taking her to a funny movie or something?” I might actually be able to afford to go see a movie (seriously, have you seen the prices they charge for a movie ticket these days… now THAT’S mental). All of this was unsolicited too, just by the way, from people who did not know me or my family well enought to be using their assumptions and stigmatised knowledge of mental illness to be dishing out well-meaning but absolutely terrible and useless advice. Then again how could I expect anyone else to understand when I don’t really understand it all myself?
This year has been an ungrieving, learning that she is here. I haven’t lost her, and I’m no longer sitting around waiting for that phone call (although I do still have my warpy anxiety brain moments of course). And it has been confusing as hell. My gorgeous sister, in so much pain and going through so much. Completely up against it and basically told by society that this is it for her now, she doesnt HAVE bipolar, she IS Bipolar. Watching my amazing parents come to terms with this diagnosis, not knowing what to say or do but just wishing with every ounce of my existence for them to be happy and not worried (whether they should be worried or not).
My Sister has come so far but can’t see it, she can’t see the quiet determination and strength that has brought her here. I know that to her it must feel like trying to get out of quicksand. But to me she is a freaking superstar. I can see this strength, and that is why I have hope. I know the strength and intelligence she has that will get her through the coming year, and I am so excited to see what she does with these things that make her who she is.
So how do I explain my relief because of something that has brought her, and my family pain and worry? Especially when I know the extra challenges Sis will face with this particular mental illness. And I can’t possibly begin to understand what it has felt like for her, what her experience has been, I have no idea… New Years Resolution #2: figure all that shit out.
Getting closer toward the end of 2019 I got tired. Really tired. So tired I went to the doctor and said “Um, I’m… really tired.” She adjusted my meds and we made another appointment for my psychologist. But I was still really bloody tired. Different tired, couldn’t lift my arms tired. I went back to the doctor, “Um, I’m… still really tired, and also kinda, confused” I was told I needed to wait to adjust to my new dosage. OK. Yup cool great fantastic amazing, I’m having trouble getting out of bed (for new reasons this time; my body seems to be made of lead and everything is aching, unlike the depressive reasons of the past), but yeah sure, I’ll wait. 2 months is heaps yeah? Yeah well “Doc, I’m STILL really tired. I can’t feed myself, I can’t go to the gym, I’m struggling to get through the day at work…” Have a guess what I got told by the doctor who until this debacle had actually been quite helpful, “Yes well look, you have depression. I just really don’t understand why. I think you should try to make it back to the gym at least once a week.”
I promptly made an appointment with a different doctor.
The first thing my new doctor did? Test my iron levels… Yup, I had dangerously low iron levels (I still do, but they are A LOT better after 3 months on heavy-weight iron tablets). I had spent months desperately trying to work on my mental health, while not once being tested for my physical health.
We talk about stigma a lot, but I don’t think I ever really understood its long reaching and unpredictable effects until this year.
If I had to sum up 2019, I would say it was the year I truly learned about stigma, froma number of perspectives. I learnt to let go of my anger towards people who are victims to our societal ideas on mental illness, I hope they never have to look stigma in the face. I learnt that I was right all along; my sister is one of the strongest and most amazing young women in the world. I learnt that sometimes if you have a mental illness, physical symptoms don’t get taken seriously.
In between these things I am telling you that were… not fun, there were fun things, excitement, delight. An Iggy pop concert, and overseas trip, my first cruise, a girls weekend to Uluru with my Mum and sister, spending weekends having deep conversations with my dad while he toiled away ona house he was renovating.
There was also a huge amount of growth. Massive. Impossible to begin to describe.
Not to throw shade at my old job, but I could no longer grow there. I was like a flower (a really pretty one, obvs) that needed repotting. I had been there 7 years! But I was stuck, not wanting to let go of my loyalty, of my friendships, of the lessons I had already learnt. But this is where some advice I got from some random lady I will probably never see again at a Womens Circle in Ubud, Bali kind of rings true for me on reflection; sometimes, you have to channel your inner dog, and drop a ball so you can catch a frisbee. I wasn’t capable of this at the start of the year, but now that I have had the ball wrenched out of my hand, I think I have what it takes to drop the ball if I need to, as much as it is fucking terrifying at the time and it feels like your whole life is going to end and the sky will fall in and the world will crumble (Jesus… drama queen!), you will catch a frisbee and be ok… or not, but dogs seem to do ok without either anyway…
But like I started to explain earlier, time is a construct. None of the things that happened this year would have happened without everything that happened the years before that. These things didn’t just “happen” this year, and things won’t just “happen” next year either. Everything is a collection and culmination of time past. It’s nice to draw these lines in the sand, to say “Ok, that’s the end of that shit, what’s next?”, but it isn’t accurate.
In 2020 I want to continue to work hard on the things I now know truly matter, my own kindness and compassion, the way I treat others, the way I view the world, and the way I deal with setbacks. These are the things I can control. There will be negative, there will be positive, and there will be “not worth mentioning”. All I hope for 2020 is that I learn as much about myself and those around me as I did this year. My goodness I hope I have this much to say on this day in 1 years time!
I want to continue to use my voice to break down the stigma anyone with mental problems, bad mental health, and mental illness. I want to get better at communicating to my loved ones these things I seem to be able to type so easily but can’t make come out of my mouth. I want to be a better sister, daughter, friend, partner, earthling, dog and cat parent, and employee. I want to have positive impacts on people and on this planet. New Years resolution #3 be the most perfect person ever! I want to trust myself that if I think there is something mentally OR physically wrong with me I can (and should) seek help.
I don’t know what I hoped to acheive with my ramblings, but it has felt good to get it out onto a page. If you have read to the bottom: amazing work, good on you, you got guts kid.
Here’s to 2020: I hope you can cash in on your good deeds from years gone by, and that any horrible crappiness is a lesson in disguise, and more karma cash for the future.