My Parenting Post went Viral

On Christmas Eve, I wrote an answer on Quora about puberty. More specifically, I wrote about a conversation I had with my son about the way his brain is changing as he inches his way through puberty. I didn’t think much about it, other than to hope that my answer was helpful to the parent who had initially asked the question.

A week later, I got a message from a friend of mine who lives in the USA.

“Did you know you’re going viral?” she wrote. “Your post about puberty has just been shared in a parenting group here that has 13,000 members.”

Over the next few days, I was messaged again and again, both through Messenger and on Quora itself. I started seeing friends of friends sharing my post. The views on my answer exploded.

1 million views

1.3 million views

1.5 million views

And then, on the 5th of January, a friend sent me a link. My post was picked up by Upworthy.

I’m overwhelmed and excited and completely stunned. I’m amazingly grateful to everyone who has read, shared, commented, and messaged me about my post. As of current writing, my Quora answer has over 2 million views, and has been shared thousands of time.

I’ll include links to my Quora page and the Upworthy article below, but here is the original article:

Ah, puberty. It changes our sweet, wonderful little boys into sweet, eye-rolling, angsty, accidentally disrespectful, but still wonderful young proto-men.

My first son is eleven and a half right now. (I’ve been informed that the half is important.) I don’t claim to know the best way to talk to your son about this — I’m only an expert on my own children — but I can tell you what I said to my son, and you can take from it anything that you feel is helpful.

The conversation went something like this:

“We need to have a chat,” I said. I’d specifically waited until we were in the car, driving somewhere. That meant that we had half an hour that we’d be in a confined space together with no interruptions and — most importantly — due to the constraints of driving, we wouldn’t be able to look directly at each other, making it easier to avoid accidental confrontation and to encourage vulnerability.

“Okay,” my son said. He sounded dubious, like he was expecting to get into trouble for something.

“We’ve talked a lot about puberty over the last couple of years, haven’t we? I just wanted to check in and find out if you’ve got any new questions.”

“No,” he said. But not in as surly a tone as I’d grown used to hearing.

“Okay. Well, let me know if you do. But I was thinking about things over the last few days, and I know I’ve been pulling you up a lot more on your tone of voice and the way you’ve been speaking to people. Yeah?”

“Yeah…” He was confused now. He didn’t know where this was going.

“Well, it occurred to me that I really messed up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said with a deep breath. “I’ve spent all this time talking to you about the way puberty changes your body, and what to expect as you go through the changes, but I completely forgot to talk to you about what’s going on in your brain right now. Puberty is the time when your brain grows and changes more than at any other time in your life — well, except for when you’re a baby, perhaps. So I really let you down by not preparing you for that. I’m so sorry.”

My son reached out a hand and gently touched my arm. “I accept your apology, but it’s okay. We can just talk about it now.”

“Is that okay?” I asked.

He nodded, and then asked, “Why is my brain changing?”

“Ah,” I said. “That’s the amazing thing. Did you know that your brain grew and developed so quickly when you were little that by the time you were about five or six, your brain was almost as big and powerful as an adult’s brain?”

“No,” he said in wonder.

“Well, it’s true. But here’s the thing. Even though your brain was super powerful, the instructions were for a child’s brain. And all the information about building an adult’s brain was a bit… let’s say fuzzy. So your brain did the best it could, but it didn’t really know what kind of person you were going to be back then, or what shape brain you were going to need.”

I paused to give him a minute to ask questions, but he waited for me to continue. “Now we come to puberty. See, puberty is amazing. Not only is your body being transformed from a child’s body to an adult’s body, your brain has to be completely rewritten from a child’s brain to an adult’s brain.”

“That sounds hard.”

“Yeah, it is,” I said. “That’s why I wish I’d warned you first. See, it takes a lot of energy to completely rewrite a brain. That’s one of the reasons you get tired quicker at the moment — and that, of course, manifests in you being crankier and less patient than normal.”

I paused again, but he didn’t say anything, so I added, “That must be really frustrating for you.”

He looked over at me, and wiped his hands over his eyes. “It is. Sometimes I just feel really angry and I don’t know why.”

I nodded. “The other thing is that one of the first part of your brain that gets super-sized to be like an adult is the amygdala. That’s the part that controls your emotions and your survival instincts. You know how we’ve talked about fight/flight/freeze before, and how sometimes our brains think that being asked to speak in public is the same level of threat as being attacked by a sabre tooth tiger?”

He laughed. “Yes. So you have to tell your brain that there’s no sabre tooth tiger to help you calm down.”

“That’s right. Well, that’s what the amygdala looks after: sabre tooth tiger warnings and big emotions. So, the thing with puberty is that all of a sudden you’ve got an adult-sized amygdala hitting all your emotion buttons and your sabre-tooth tiger buttons. That must be really hard for you to manage.”

He nodded, serious again. “Sometimes I don’t know why I say the things I do. They just come out, and then I feel bad.”

“I know, Sweetheart. Well, do you want to know one of the reasons why that might be?”

He nodded.

“See, the last part of your brain that gets rewritten is right at the front of your head. It’s called the frontal cortex. And that’s the part of your brain that’s good at decision making and understanding consequences. So you’ve got this powerful adult amygdala hitting you with massive emotions, but you’ve still got a fuzzy child frontal cortex that can’t make decisions or understand consequences as quickly as the amygdala wants you to. It pretty much sucks.”

“So it’s not my fault?”

“No, it’s puberty’s fault your brain works the way it does. But that doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility to recognise what’s going on and change your actions. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. Your feelings are your feelings, and they’re always okay. But you get to choose your actions. You get to choose what you do with your feelings. And, when you make a mistake, you get to choose to apologise for that mistake and make amends.”

I paused for dramatic effect. “That’s how you prove that you’re becoming an adult.”

“Puberty sucks,” my son said.

“Puberty absolutely sucks,” I returned. “I’m not in your head, but I can only imagine that it’s a mess of confusion and chaos, and you don’t know from one minute to the next how you feel about things.”

He looked at me in surprise. “Yes! Exactly!”

I nodded. “If it’s confusing for you living inside there, imagine how confusing it is for me, when I only see your actions.”

“That must be really confusing.”

I nodded. “Do you know what that means?”

“What?”

“It means sometimes I’m going to make mistakes. Sometimes I’m going to get upset at things you do because I don’t understand what’s going on in your head. Sometimes I’m going to forget that you’re halfway to being a man, and accidentally treat you like a child. Sometimes I’m going to expect more from you than you’re able to give. This is my first time parenting someone through puberty, and I’m going to make mistakes. So can I ask you a favour?”

“What is it?”

“Can you just keep telling me what’s going on in your head? The more we talk, the easier it will be for both of us to get through this puberty thing unscathed. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said.

We arrived at our destination about then, and had a cuddle before we got out of the car.

It didn’t completely stop him speaking disrespectfully to me. It didn’t completely stop me forgetting that he’s not my little boy anymore. But it opened the lines of communication.

It gave us a language to use.

He knows what I mean when I say, “Sweetheart, I’m not a sabre tooth tiger.”

And, together, we’re muddling through this crazy puberty thing, and I’m completely confident that he’ll come out the other end a sweet, wonderful young man.

You can read the Upworthy article here: Upworthy

You can follow me on Quora here: Jo Eberhardt

 

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Parenting, Helplessness, and a Brand New Adventure

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Master Nine came home from school one day in February and burst into tears. “No one likes me,” he said. “Everyone’s mean to me.”

My heart froze. I would do anything to have my children avoid the type of bullying I went through as a child. And yet here he was, saying the exact words that I remember saying at his age. I wanted to scream and shout and wrap my arms around him and never let him go. But before I did anything, I took a deep breath. It was possible — only possible, mind you — that I was overreacting.

After all, he was eight. And it’s developmentally normal for children his age to go through a period where they feel like no one likes them; where they feel like they have no friends as they take place in normal social push-and-pull power plays.

So I listened to him, and I gave him a hug, and l I told him it would be all right.

I was wrong.

By the end of March, Master Nine no longer wanted to go to school.  He no longer wanted to go anywhere. He was scared. All the time. Of school, yes, but also of everything else. He was terrified of familiar stories; of movies he’d seen a hundred times; of the thoughts in his head; of new people and old friends and leaving the house. He couldn’t get to sleep. And when he finally did, collapsing from exhaustion, he’d be woken by nightmares once, twice, three times a night.

Every night.

By April, he was suffering panic attacks every night. He’d lie in bed thinking about having to go to school the next day, and then stagger out, hours later, whimpering and struggling to breathe. I’d put a hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat, like fluttering hummingbird wings inside his chest, then hold his ice-cold hands while I helped him calm down; breathing with him, in and out, and gently reassuring him that he was okay. Eventually, he’d collapse against me and sob himself into a restless sleep, and I’d carry him back to bed.

One day in mid-April, when I was encouraging Master Nine (yet again) to tell the teacher if someone made him feel upset or uncomfortable, he looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to stop them. Not even the teachers can stop them. There’s no point trying.”

I cried.

I cried for his pain. I cried for my own. I cried for eight-year-old me who felt exactly like the same way, and desperately wanted an adult to step in and make everything better. I cried for current-day me, because now I was that adult. And I still didn’t know what to do.

I thought I’d felt helpless as a child. But being a parent, watching you child feeling helpless, and still being helpless yourself? Helplnessness to the power of infinity.

We need help, like quick, on the double

One morning in late April, Master Nine snuck into my bedroom and said, “Mummy, I think I need to go to the doctor.”

“Okay, Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. But everybody hates me, so something must be wrong with me. If we go to the doctor, she can give me some medicine to make me normal.”

Once upon a time, about six months ago, Master Nine was a confident young man who didn’t hesitate to talk to people — whether adults or children — and wouldn’t let me go with him into doctor’s offices. So on the day that we went to the doctor — after many hugs and reassurances from me that he is not only normal but perfect just the way he is — I realised just how much he’d changed.

He flat-out refused to talk tot he doctor without me, clinging to my arm like a tired two-year-old and not making eye contact with anyone else in the waiting room. When we went into the doctor’s office, he hunched his shoulders over and hid behind my back, then collapsed into a chair, pulled his knees up to his chest, and pulled the hood of his hoodie up over his head so he could hide in its shadows. Over the next ten minutes, Master Nine answered the doctor’s questions in whispered monosyllables . He said only one full sentence during that visit; one full sentence in response to a question about what makes him feel happy: “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.”

We didn’t get magic medicine. But we did get a referral to a child psychologist.

At his first appointment, I took Master Nine into the psychologist’s office and waited for him to be engrossed in an activity before quietly making my way back out to the waiting room. The psychologist talked to Master Nine for almost an hour, and then called me in. “He’s highly intelligent, isn’t he?” was the first thing she said to me. “Such a conceptual thinker.”

In the psychologist’s opinion, Master Nine had a healthy attachment to me and the rest of the family, felt completely secure and at ease at home, but was struggling to deal with the trauma of the bullying he’d endured. Her biggest concern was that he’d lost confidence in his own ability to tell friend from foe — he’d developed trust issues. She suggested he start a new social activity — one completely unrelated to his school or anyone he already knew — to get some social “wins” on the board, and taught me some relaxation exercises to use to help him with his sleeping.

Things started to improve a little. But only a little. The relaxation exercises helped him sleep, and nightmares became less frequent. But he still hated school. His reading ability was getting worse and worse, and he was too scared he’d get a question wrong to practice any maths. I started to get concerned not only about his emotional wellbeing, but also about how his emotional wellbeing was affecting his learning. And then, towards the end of May, he started telling me that he couldn’t remember whole chunks of time. A particular example that stayed with me was the time he remembered going into class, then the teacher raising her voice. The next thing he remembered, the teacher was crouched in front of him, gently suggesting he go out to lunch. That’s when he realised the class was over, and all the other kids had already gone outside.

Decision-making is hard

I started thinking about pulling Master Nine out of school back in March — back when his anxiety symptoms were starting to worry me. But I persevered, trying to make things work out. I probably did so for far too long, in retrospect; not trusting myself to make the right decision. I second, third, and fourth-guessed myself.

  • Was I projecting? Did I think things were worse than they really were because of what I’d been through as a child?
  • Was I being over-protective? Was this something he needed to experience to help him grow? Would removing him from the situation stunt his emotional growth?
  • Was this experience something that would pass? Was it a storm in a teacup?
  • Was this experience teaching him resilience and courage? If I removed him from the situation, would that just teach him to run away when things got hard?

I didn’t trust myself to make the decision. And so no decision was made. Right up until a day came when I tried to drop Master Nine off at school and he literally couldn’t get out of the car. Every time he put his feet on the ground, he started shaking and retching convulsively. His skin had turned a distressing shade of grey, and his hands were freezing cold. I closed the car door, got back in, and drove away.

We saw his psychologist later that day. She listened to me describe what had happened, talked to him for an hour, then told me exactly what I didn’t want (but needed) to hear: “He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. You need to get him out of that environment. Now.”

I withdraw him that afternoon.

Playing the blame game…

The first instinct of people on hearing about something like this is to cast about for who to blame. Well, here’s what I think: Playing the blame game is counter-productive, unhelpful, and irrelevant. And I have no interest in doing it.

I don’t blame the children who bullied him. Firstly, because they’re good kids — I’ve known most of them since they were five years old. And while their behaviour led Master Nine to a place of trauma, it hasn’t (to my knowledge) had the same effect on the other children. Besides, children will inevitably push boundaries and see what happens. It’s how they learn about the world.  They need guidance to help them develop empathy and socially acceptable behaviour. If they don’t get that guidance… well, we’ve all read Lord of the Flies, haven’t we?

But I certainly don’t blame the parents. Again, I’ve known most of them for years. They’re all wonderful, loving, generous, kind people, doing everything they can to raise their children to be just as wonderful, loving, generous, and kind.

It would be easy to blame the school, but easy isn’t the same as right. I do believe there were some systemic issues that contributed to the situation, however as soon as I spoke to the staff about them, changes were made. The teachers and admin staff were responsive and open and caring. They did everything they could to change and manage and improve things for Master Nine. And I thank them for that.

If I was forced to lay the blame somewhere, however, I would lay it at the feet of our society as a whole, which simultaneously condemns and endorses bullying. But that’s a discussion for another day.

New Adventures, Dead Ahead!

Since the day I told Master Nine that he didn’t have to go back to that school, he’s been getting better. It’s a slow process, and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, seventeen steps back, but we’re getting there. We celebrate the little milestones along the way: A week without nightmares. Two weeks without a panic attack. Talking to a shopkeeper. Attending social activities by himself.

Our Homeschool Emblem

Our Homeschool Emblem

And on Monday we start our next grand adventure.

For the next six months (at least) I will be homeschooling him. It’s not something I expected to be doing, and I am heartbroken about the events that brought us to this point, but I’m excited for the future. And that, my friends, is the lesson I hope Master Nine takes away from this. Not that bullies can’t be beaten, or that running away is the solution, but that all hard times come to an end, and the future shines bright.

 

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Yeah, But When I Do It…

 

Photo by Flickr user Nicola Preti

Photo by Flickr user Nicola Preti

It’s been a difficult weekend in Australian politics, so please excuse the short post. I’m just dropping in to let you know that I’m over at Writer Unboxed today talking about breaking the rules to explore your creativity.

But When I Do It, It’s Really Stylish

I grew up on 80s British comedy. (Which possibly explains everything you ever need to know about my writing style.) Yes, Minister taught me about politics. Blackadder taught me about history. Are You Being Served? taught me about… well, lots of things. And Red Dwarf taught me about science fiction.

In fact, Red Dwarf taught me a lot of lessons, and one of the ones I come back to time and time again is from the most feminist episode I’ve ever seen in any TV show ever: ‘Parallel Universe’.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching Red Dwarf, the two main characters are Arnold Rimmer, a socially awkward, sexually repressed hologram, and Dave Lister, a slobbish, easygoing lad’s lad whose skills include drinking lager and eating vindaloo spicy enough to melt through plastic. In ‘Parallel Universe’, they’re accidentally transported to a parallel dimension where everything is the same… except that women are the dominant gender. There, they meet their female equivalents who, obviously, try to get them into bed.  <read more>

Head on over and have a read — and don’t miss the comments. Unlike pretty much everywhere else on the internet, the comments on Writer Unboxed just enhance the reading process.

 

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Every (Modern) Political Campaign Ever

Photo by Flickr user Derek Tam

Photo by Flickr user Derek Tam

“My friends, if we do This One Thing, it will lead us all to a better future.! Vote for our party and we’ll make sure This One Thing gets done. This One Thing is more important than the relative morality of any individual in our party, so don’t be distracted by anything the other party may tell you. Simply vote for This One Thing!”

“The other party is morally bankrupt! Even they know it!  This one time, one of them lied, and I’m going to remind you of it every time I speak to you! If we let them do This One Thing, our way of life will be destroyed! Every time the other party gets elected, they change our great nation, and everyone knows that change is bad. In fact, change is so bad that we should immediately go back to the way things were fifty years ago! NATIONALISM!” 

“Things were much worse for over half our people fifty years ago; everyone knows that. But we can make the future even brighter than the present if we do This One Thing. Everyone will benefit. Fairness! Equality! Hope! Trade! Globalisation! Diversity!”

“FEAR! Fear the unknown! Fear the outsider! This One Thing will destroy our economy and make you poor and miserable! Foreigners will take your jobs and change the law so YOU are the persecuted outsiders! If you vote for This One Thing, our great nation will be destroyed! DESTROYED!”

“Uh… Actually, twenty-seven economists have said that This One Thing will improve the nation’s economy and create jobs. And 95% of health professionals say that This One Thing will increase the health, happiness and wellbeing of our most underprivileged citizens. Also, here’s several dozen research papers proving that diversity strengthens a nation.”

“This One Thing will destroy our national identity! You won’t be allowed to do the thing you’ve always done! FEAR! HATRED! FLAGS! LOOK AT MY FLAGS! SO MANY FLAGS! The great people of this nation are sick of ‘experts’ telling them what to think. They’re sick of ‘facts’ being paraded in front of them, making them feel stupid. The people of this great nation know that This One Thing will destroy their way of life, and they don’t need your educated puppet-masters pulling their strings. TERRORISM! TERRORISM! TERRORISM!”

“Hang on, This One Thing has nothing to do with terrorism. But, if we must talk about it, I suppose This One Thing will probably help prevent terrorism. Remember: The only positive way forward for our nation is to vote for This One Thing. Even my cute puppy agrees!”

“The other party doesn’t even know what This One Thing will do to our great nation! First they say This One Thing has nothing to do with terrorism., then they say This One Thing will stop terrorism. Well, which is it? That’s proof that  you can’t believe anything they say. Also…. THAT’S NOT EVEN REALLY THEIR PUPPY! SHOCK! HORROR! SCANDAL!”

“Look, forget about the puppy. It belongs to a friend of ours, and we thought it would be cute. It’s really not important. The important thing is This One Thing. We trust that people will understand that This One Thing will have vast economic, social justice, health, education, fairy, and unicorn benefits for all of us. Vote for This One Thing!”

“This One Thing will destroy us all! FEAR! HATRED! TERRORISM! NATIONALISM! PUPPIES! FREEEEEDOOOOOOM!”

“Well, I know who I’m voting for. That first party made some good points, but you can’t trust somebody involved in a puppy scandal. Also, they lied that one other time. If it’s a close election it will send a clear message to both parties.Besides, everyone knows that one vote doesn’t make a difference.”


I didn’t originally plan to write this post today. Nor did I plan to publish a day earlier than usual. But the #brexit result has left me shaken, anxious and bewildered. I’d never even entertained the notion that the ‘Leave’ campaign may be successful. And yet, here we are, global markets in freefall as the UKIP celebrates their groundless, fear-based campaign triumphing over logic, facts, and common sense. All of a sudden, I feel a deep unease about both the upcoming Australian election and the prospect of Trumpageddon. Perhaps fear will triumph over facts after all. The thought is terrifying.


#allvotesmatter

 

 

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A Few of my Favourite Things

Picture by Flickr user Osman Sozer

Picture by Flickr user Osman Sozer

First of all, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who reached out or left comments on my last post. I really appreciate you taking the time you comment here or on Facebook — and thank you in particular to those people who sent me emails or PMs letting me know how my post had helped them, or reminded them of their own struggles. I write articles like that one to help people understand what it’s like living with mental illness, in the hopes that it will help sufferers feel less alone, and bring understanding to the friends and family of sufferers. It makes me happy to know that, in some small way, my words have made a difference.

Despite the emotional turmoil and difficulties of the last six months, however, there are a number of things I achieved or attempted that I’m very proud of. And, today, I’d like tos hare them with you.

Writer Unboxed

Being a contributor for Writer Unboxed, the best darn writing site on the web — and the best writing community anywhere — is a huge thrill, and I’m always deathly nervous and proud to be able to write an article for them. This year so far I’ve written six posts. I’d love for you to go check them out.

Overcoming Fear: On how to overcome fear when facing writing goals and resolutions — or, in fact, when facing anything.

Writing Supporting Characters the Matter: What can the movie Cast Away teach us about writing powerful supporting characters?

The Writer’s Mind: An Insatiable Appetite for Understanding: On asking questions, and how they help the writing process.

Writer vs. Storyteller: Are you a writer or a storyteller? And what’s the difference, anyway?

Writing When it’s not like a Movie: On writing when you have aphantasia, and some tips on writing descriptions that everyone can use.

In Defence of clichés: clichés get a bad rap, but are they all bad?

Study: The Final Frontier

After a twenty year break in formal study, I also decided to return to University this year. (Thank goodness I live in a country where I don’t have to pay for Uni up front!) So in February I started a degree in Sociology, with a minor in English Literature.

I completely underestimated the time it would take to study — because underestimating time is kinda my thing — but it was an absolutely amazing experience to test my mind in new and exciting directions. I loved, loved, loved studying Sociology, and can’t wait to get back into it next semester. In the future, my plan is to take my knowledge of sociology and apply it to things like pop culure and the publishing industry.

My results have been way better than I anticipated, too. I was kinda expecting that I’d struggle a bit with formal study, if only because I’d been out of it for so very long. But I averaged 88% in all my assessment, which is a wonderful feeling.

Teaching is the New Black

Last year I started teaching novel-writing to a small group of local writers. It went incredibly well, and so this year I started running my course again with three beginning writers. The program is one I developed based on what I wish I’d learned in the first six months of my writing apprenticeship — but that actually took me close to ten years to get my head around. It runs over six months, with weekly meetings to discuss progress and learn a new element of novel-writing.

Unlike most writing courses, it’s not really focused on improving your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. Instead, the aim of the course is to (a) create a regular, life-long writing routine, and (b) teach new writers to finish what they start. The classes are focused largely on support, accountability, and community, and teach narrative structure, story vs plot, strong characterisation, and the craft of writing.

I’m currently in the process of working out how to take te program and convert it into an online writing course — something I can offer to people all over the world, rather than just the beginning writers in my local community. Watch this space!

Author in Progress

Author in ProgressOn November 1st this year, the first Writer Unboxed book is due to be released. Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published is a book of over 50 essays by Writer Unboxed contributors, guiding writers through the process of creating a novel, from pre-writing, through the writing process, and beyond to publication.

I am very excited to be the author of one of the essays in this book. I’m in the most amazing company, amongst best-selling novelists, editors, agents and lots, lots more. You can pre-order the book here, and read more about how it came to be here.

The Future’s So Bright…

Even at times of incredible darkness, there is still plenty of light — we just have to open our eyes and see it. Or, as my nine-year-old says: “The sky is always blue, sometimes we just can’t see it because there are clouds in the way.”

I’ve been through hell and back over the last six months, but I’ve also had some of the most amazing opportunities and experiences.

What have you achieved this year so far that you’re proud of? Let me know what you’ve been doing, and what your future holds. Let’s blow those clouds away!

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With a Whimper, Not with a Bang

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n

Last November, my world fell apart.

I didn’t get sick. Nobody died. I didn’t have an accident. There was no big, explosive event that shattered the world as I knew it. No, my world fell apart with a whimper, not with a bang.

One morning, on a day just like any other, I woke up to find that the black tendrils of depression had snaked their way into the edges of my brain and made themselves at home.

Depression is nothing new to me. I have Bi-Polar Disorder II, and depression is a “normal” part of my life. The first time I had a serious bout of depression, I was eight years old. Since my diagnosis with BPD II, I’ve been aware that it’s not a matter of if I’ll ever be depressed again, but when and to what to degree. So those black tendrils didn’t scare me.

Not at first, anyway.

BPD II? Is that first-person shooter?

The world’s response to mental illness has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There’s generally a lot more understanding of depression and anxiety disorders (which I also have — gotta catch ’em all!) and a lot more acceptance of people with mental health issues. But Bi-Polar Disorder still gets a seriously bad rap.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has described how such-and-such is a bitch, and then finished with, “But she has bi-polar.” As though that explains it. As though rattling off a medical diagnosis at the end of a litany of complaints should make the truth of those complaints self-evident. As though BPD is scapegoat and divine judgement all rolled into one.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Bi-Polar Disorder I  is a mental illness characterised by ongoing, often alternating, bouts of depression and mania. Depression is something we all understand these days (at least, to a degree), but ‘mania’ is a little less widely understood. Basically, it’s a state wherein the person has excessive energy, needs very little sleep, talks much quicker than usual, is intensely creative, and feels euphoric and bullet-proof. It’s these latter things that can be dangerous. Euphoria and fearlessness can lead to poor decision-making, especially in regards to risk-management. Coupled with sleeplessness, they can also lead to delusions and, in some cases, hallucinations.

Bi-Polar Disorder II is very similar mental illness, however depressive episodes can actually be much worse — sufferers of BPD II are at a much higher risk of things like self-harm and suicide — and the contrasting “pole” is hypomania, rather than full-blown mania. Hypomania has many of the same symptoms as mania, however they manifest to a lesser degree. It’s unusual for someone suffering hypomania to suffer delusions or hallucinations, for example, and while they still have impaired judgement when it comes to risk-assessment, it’s more likely to manifest as lowered inhibitions than straight out dangerous behaviour.

It’s almost impossible to manage BPD I without medication. Manic episodes may require hospitalisation. BPD II, on the other hand, while often treated with medication — and I strongly encourage trying medication if BPD II is affecting your quality of life — can sometimes be managed with sleep, food, and exercise coupled with self-awareness.

Your Mileage May Vary

Personally, I’ve come to love my bouts of hypomania. That’s probably not a very politic thing to say, but nevertheless. Spending 4-6 weeks (or, occasionally, longer) filled with an unending feeling of joy and optimism while creativity oozes from my pores is wonderful. I’ve learned how to mitigate my risk-taking behaviour–I call a friend or family member before making any decisions that seem different to ones I’d usually make–and I’m energetic and enthusiastic about life.

Depression, on the other hand, is freaking debilitating.

I can usually count on two or three episodes of depression per year, each one generally lasting for 3-4 weeks. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fast-track my recovery by making sure to get enough sleep, eating healthy, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. I try not to make too many decisions while depressed, because, if I do, I come out of my depression and discover that I’ve opted out of everything and am suddenly committed to being a life-long hermit. Instead, I plod along, doing my best to act the way I remember acting when I wasn’t depressed.

But, here’s the thing: It is an act.

When I smile, I’m not feeling happy. I just remember that I would usually smile at that point.

When I laugh, I’m not amused. I just remember that I would usually laugh at that point.

When I suggest that we get together for a coffee, I don’t really want to spend time socialising. I just remember that socialising is something I usually enjoy.

Now, this normally passes without anyone being any the wiser. I mean, anyone can pretend to be themselves for a few weeks, right? Going through the motions of life is easy enough when I can still remember what that life is usually like. And while I get a few twinges of guilt over my act, a lifetime’s worth of experience has taught me that faking it is easier on everyone.  No one except the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Woods or Fraggle Rock willingly chooses to hang out with someone suffering depression. So even when I bravely tell people that I’m “a bit depressed right now”, I laugh at their jokes, and tell some of my own, and agree to social encounters that equally terrify and exhaust me.

Last November, my world fell apart

So, what was different last November?

At the same time that the black tendrils of depression invaded my brain, I suffered a foot injury. I developed plantar fasciitis, which is a relatively common soft-tissue and tendon issue that makes walking — or putting any weight on your foot — intensely painful.

So, as the black tendrils invaded my mind, I became physically unable to use my go-to depression-minimising activity of walking. I found myself locked inside a depressed mind, trapped inside a wounded body. I was doubly confined. My anxiety disorder reared its ugly head, and I found myself tag-teamed by Depression and Anxiety until I could barely breathe.

“It’s only for a few weeks,” I told myself. “Just fake it for a while, and the depression will go away. Just like it always does.”

So I smiled and laughed and went out for coffee with friends. I had a girl’s weekend away. I went home for Christmas. I enroled in a University course. I did all the things I new Normal Jo would want me to do, and I waited for the depression to pass.

But it didn’t.

It only got worse.

January

I was in my room one night, staring at my computer screen, trying desperately to figure out whether the FB message I’d just got from a friend meant what I thought it meant. Did they really hate me? Or was I projecting? Was it real, or was it the tendrils talking? An itch spread across my body, and centred itself on my foot. I scratched at the itch, still staring at the screen. Tears started to roll down my face. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to respond. Suddenly, I felt a weird, sticky sensation on my fingers.

I looked down to find the whole top of my feet was bleeding. My fingernails were coated in blood. A wave of relief hit me, and tension drained out of my body in time with the blood flowing freely from my wound.

A second after the relief came the terror. I’ve been down the self-harming path before. I cleaned and dressed the wound, cut my fingernails, and removed all potentially sharp objects from my room.

February

School started for the year, and I was forced into the social nightmare of school drop-offs and pick-ups. Twice a day, I sat in my car and forced myself to breathe deeply and find the strength to enter the throng of parents surrounding the classrooms. People I know and like were transformed into terrifying caricatures of themselves by my tendril-filled mind.

When they looked at me, their eyes were full of judgement. Their smiles hid barely-contained hatred. I tried to fake it, but it had been so long since I felt like myself, I couldn’t remember how people behave in social situations. It took all my mental energy not to turn and literally run screaming. I was a pinch away from pure panic at every moment.

March

I stopped trying to fake it. I felt like a monster trapped in an alien world. Nothing around me made sense. I had no peripheral vision, and was seeing the world in chromatic tones of misery, through a tunnel of pain. I didn’t know how to smile. People spoke to me, and I’d forget how to make words, my mouth opening and closing like that of a drowning fish.

I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake in bed at night, my mind forcing me to relive the most traumatic times of my life. Around and around and around. I’d fall asleep somewhere between four and five in the morning, exhausted, and drop into anxious and confusing dreams, only to be woken from them at 6:30 when my alarm sounded.

I couldn’t eat. The sight or smell of food made me retch. I made dinner for my children, and pretended to pick at my food until they’d finished and gone away and I could dump mine in the dog’s bowl. I drank coffee and forced myself to nibble on dry crackers — the only thing I could eat without immediately throwing up.

I was in agony. The pain in my foot from the plantar fasciitis wasn’t getting better. If anything, it was getting worse. I was in constant, chronic pain. I couldn’t walk through the house without crying. I thought about stabbing myself in the foot just to release some of the pressure — to feel something different to the constant aching pain — and I removed myself from sharp implements.

April

After months of averaging less than four hours sleep a night and not being able to eat, I was exhausted. I’d developed the shakes, and couldn’t apply eye makeup without getting it all over my face. Not that I wanted to apply eye make-up anyway. I was barely even aware of the meat-suit wrapped around me as anything other than a conduit for the pain in my foot.

I didn’t feel anything. Physically, I felt the pain radiating from my foot. Mentally and emotionally, I was numb. I was separated from existence by the smoky glass wall of extreme depression. Nothing felt real. I wasn’t even sure if I was real. Maybe I was a figment of my own imagination, trapped in a dream of a world that had never existed….

Help! I Need Somebody.

Eventually, I hit rock bottom. I needed help. If I didn’t do something, I was going to drown in the darkness. I called my doctor and made an appointment to go see her. I got a referral to a podiatrist to help me with alternate care options for my foot. I got sleeping pills so I could get some rest. And I started to see a psychologist to help me through my depression. And I started to get better.

During those months, I struggled with some big stuff on top of my depression. I lost friendships that I thought would last forever. I watched my son go through trauma associated with bullying, and was unable to help him. I suffered financial setbacks and lost faith in my writing ability. Would those things have happened if I hadn’t been depressed? Would I have recovered more quickly if those things hadn’t happened? Chicken and egg. Impossible to know.

58 Days Later…

I’m doing better now. I’m still healing — some of the emotional injuries are still raw — but the black tendrils of doom have withdrawn from my brain, and I’m no longer feeling disconnected from the world. I’m back. The depression has receded. And it feels good.

I imagine there are people who will read this and say: “I had no idea you were depressed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because, yes, life kept going. I kept loving and caring for my children. I kept posting status updates on Facebook. I kept writing articles for Writer Unboxed every month. I kept entering writing contests (although I didn’t do well). I kept teaching my novel-writing course and participating in my monthly writing group. I kept studying, and did well at Uni. I did my absolute best to maintain the appearance of being me. And it largely worked.

So, why didn’t I tell anyone? Because, for all the general awareness of depression, people are still uncomfortable with it. They don’t know what to say to someone who is depressed. They don’t know how to react. And I feel guilty and pathetic enough when I’m depressed without having to watch the discomfort on someone’s face when I explain that everything is grey.

Telling someone you’re depressed doesn’t feel like telling someone you’ve injured yourself. It feels like unwinding the bandages covering your injury and forcing them to stare into the wound, in all its horrific grossness, while simultaneously telling them that you did it to yourself on purpose.

What if someone I know is depressed? What should I do?

Look, I can only give you my perspective on this; I can tell you what I need. If you know someone with BPD or someone who suffers from chronic depression, try asking them this very question while they’re not being eaten alive by the darkness. But if that’s not possible, here’s some general guidelines.

  • Acknowledge that they feel depressed, and accept it at face value. Don’t question whether it’s real or serious. It doesn’t help to have someone ask if you’re really depressed, or whether this is serious depression or if they’re just tired. The fact that they’ve even told you means they trust you implicitly. That’s a big deal.
  • Accept that there is no easy fix to depression. You can’t say the right thing and magically cure your friend. What you can do is be there for them, as much as they want you to be. But (and this is important) their depression is not about you.
  • Please don’t ask what you can do to help. If they knew what would make them feel better, they’d do it. As soon as you ask what you can do to help, you put the weight of your assistance on their shoulders. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how it feels. Instead, tell them what you can do to help, and then ask if that’s okay. “I’m making a casserole for dinner tonight, is it okay if I drop some off at your place for you?”
  • If you offer them help and they say no, accept it. Just let it go. There are a whole range of reasons they may have said no, and none of them are about you. Just make a different offer next time.
  • Accept that social interaction is hard for someone who’s depressed. They are rarely, if ever, going to initiate conversations — whether in person or via text/online — and will opt out of as many social situations as possible. This doesn’t mean they don’t like you. In fact, it’s still not about you at all. It’s about them protecting their fragile sense of self and hording their limited energy for more important things like breathing and not self-harming. Don’t make them feel bad if they can’t participate the way they normally do, but keep letting them know that they’re welcome to join in when/if they’re able.
  • Let them know that you’re happy to listen, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. And then actually listen. Don’t try to cure them, don’t tell them that it’s not as bad as they think it is, just listen.
  • Encourage them to seek help, but don’t push them into it. No one wants to be depressed. Everyone wants to feel better. But getting help is scary, and they may need your non-judgemental support to be able to do it.

The main message here is that your friend’s depression is not about you. About fifteen years ago, someone said to me: “So, does that means you’re allowed to treat me badly when you’re depressed and I’m not even allowed to be upset by it?” No. No, it doesn’t. If your loved one is depressed and treating you badly, then you should absolutely call them on it. (Although be prepared for them not to know with how to deal with that.) But, first, ask yourself if they’re actually treating you badly.

If your friend developed a physical illness or disease, their behaviour would change — and you’d accept it without question. You wouldn’t expect them to keep partying with you on Saturday nights, or calling you every day to talk about your latest date. You’d undertand that they needed time to heal, you’d worry about them and offer them help, and you’d be there for them when they recovered. If your friend is suffering from depression, the same things apply. Depression is not a state of mind or an inconvenience, it’s a real, debilitating sickness.

That’s why they call it a mental illness.

To everyone who stuck around for this whole, insanely long post, I thank you. I’m doing much better than I was, and continuing to heal from what was the worst depression I’ve suffered in at least ten years. I know my blog has been abandoned during that time, but I’m hoping to post once a week from now on. There’s been a lot happening in my life — beyond my mental health — and I’d love to share it with you.

Happy travel, my friends.

 

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Cottage Living

It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago, I was happily living in a caravan & tent set-up in the middle of a paddock. Or that a couple of weeks ago, I was homeless, and struggling to remember who I really was. Time flies past, and a new normal asserts itself, and the past is suddenly a distant memory.

Okay, not that distant.

Have you ever stopped to consider what a miracle of modern life plumbing is? I mean, really, it’s freaking amazing. Water comes into your home, and just sits there, quietly, waiting for you to turn on the tap. And then? BAM! Water! And turn on the other tap, and BAM! Hot water.

Hot. Freaking. Water. At the turn of a tap. How amazing is that?

And, showers? Showers are like heaven. Seriously, when was the last time you stood in the shower and truly appreciated the range of human accomplishments that have taken place to make that experience a reality?

And let’s not even get into the wonderousness of having an indoor toilet. And electric lights. And, oh my goodness, MY OWN BEDROOM.

Seriously, I haven’t felt this way about having my own room since I was 15, and I finally stopped sharing a room with my little sister. I feel an overwhelming urge to make a “Keep Out” sign for my door. Possibly with a skull and crossbones.  But I refrain, because, as it turns out, a Mum Look is equally effective.

More effective, actually. I don’t remember my little sister being at all cowed by signs.

But, moving on. Since my last post, a lot of people have asked me to share some pictures of my little cottage. And so, without further ado, I give you…

Jo’s Amazingly Awesome New House
Now in Pictures!

That's my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

That’s my little cottage, looking all farmy and flat.

There's nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

There’s nothing quite like having cows a few steps outside your door.

"Good morning."

“Good morning.”

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The kitchen (Ignore the dishes stacked on the sink!)

The dining area

The dining area

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The lounge room (or living room, for those with an American bent)

The library  Okay, fine, it's just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The library
Okay, fine, it’s just the other side of the lounge room. Whatever.

The boys' bedroom

The boys’ bedroom

The playroom (I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

The playroom
(I cleaned all the Lego off the floor for this shot)

My bedroom (It's MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

My bedroom (It’s MINE, see, ALL MINE!)

I also have a desk. Trust me, it's exciting.

I also have a desk. Trust me, it’s exciting.

So, that’s the house. What do you think?

Oh, wait. I forgot one thing.

How about that view?

How about that view?

 

 

 

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