Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Taking My Mental Illnesses to Italy for a Holiday, by Peter McDonnell

Last week I returned from a three week holiday in Italy. Because of my mental illness (grandiosely delusional psychosis and anxiety, more easily described as being ‘Crazy’—a phrase I am comfortable with) I haven’t been away from my hometown much since about 2004. These days I am so much better though, hence the bold move to leave my hometown for three weeks. I have put in a lot of work towards getting better, especially in my anxiety, and with some good luck as well, I have considered myself to be pretty much recovered since about 2016. In 2016 I flew to Ireland for my niece’s christening and in 2017 I flew to Holland for my cousin’s wedding, despite being afraid of flying, an endeavour that has the power to shake me to the core. These two trips were successful and enjoyable though, the flying was bearable, and they made me confident that I could safely enjoy three weeks in Italy, without my fading mental health issues getting in the way.

I had a good time in Italy, we stayed at a large villa next to San Gimignano, Tuscany, for two weeks, with family, including my nieces, three and one years old. My mum and I have gotten good at babysitting them, we see them quite a bit. I have found looking after them therapeutic and it has made me a wiser, more confident and happier person, even though two of them at once is challenging. For our third week, my mum, auntie and uncle and I went to Lake Como for four days, then Lake Maggiore for three days, then home to Hampshire.

I am so glad I went, that I was able to go without the holiday being ruined by mental health problems. Five years ago if someone suggested a holiday, which people did a few times, the answer was a confident ‘No’. There was no way I could leave my home overnight, what if I had a panic attack?

Italy was beautiful though. I was apprehensive about the flying, but that was all. We flew to Milan and stayed at the Airport hotel the first night. The flying went really well. It was only for one hour and a half, and it was smooth, in a jet powered Airbus. The next day, travelling with my mum, auntie and uncle, we got in the hired nine seater van, with manual transmission, and drove the five hour journey south to San Gimignano, about 30 miles from Florence. My uncle did a great job driving it, he usually drives an automatic car in the US and it was not a familiar experience to him. It was a bit funny when we scraped against other cars on the way out of the airport car park. To begin with there were some difficult gear changes, some close calls, and lots of ‘shit’s and ‘sorry guys’ before the driving became second nature to my uncle. Oh and the parking brake, or hand brake as we call it in England was a constant unremembered nuisance for the first hour or so. They don’t really use hand brakes in America as most of the cars there are automatic.

We stopped off in Parma for lunch and it was very hot and sunny, even for Italy in August. I felt comfortable in the van, amusing myself with my phone watching the GPS working on Google Maps helping to direct us southward. The roads were traffic jam free, and they sometimes wound around mountains with some spectacular scenery. We got to the villa at about six, and it was nice. A big pool, four double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, and it had makeshift foldaway beds, and had plenty of space for us all, twelve of us.

There were wineries and vineyards dotted around the landscape, this being Chianti country, which we went to for tours and tastings, and with the villa on top of a big hill, we could see them from the pool and villa grounds. The grounds were shared with lots of nine inch (nose to tail) lizards which liked to hang around basking. On the second day I saw a snake chasing one, and asked the villa owner, Vittorio, if they were dangerous. ‘Oh no,’ he said.

It was quite spectacular on the villa grounds, a lovely sunny place, with many olive trees, grapevines hanging over the two outside eating areas, a big pomegranate tree, two barbecues, and half decent Wifi, depending on how wisely we chose our bedrooms.

We took a train into Florence, where I saw the Ponte Vecchio and Michelangelo’s David, two things I’d wanted to see for years. There was good shopping in Florence too, especially if you like leather. Two thirds of the shops are leather shops.

After two weeks, eight of the party went back to our homes in Denver, Colorado; Bristol, England; and San Anselmo, California; leaving the rest of us to spend a week at the Italian lakes. I had had two amazing weeks at the villa, my mental health was never an issue and I felt completely happy and comfortable there, and I had no reason to think that another week in Italy would be difficult in any way. So we got in the nine seater van and headed for Lake Como, with a stop off at Milan Airport to change from a van to a regular car.

It was at this point where I noticed my psychosis and anxieties trying to upset my happy brain. I don’t really know why, I think it had something to do with the negative emotion of having to say goodbye to some of my family, knowing it might be a while before I saw them again. My nieces and their parents lived close to my mum and I for their whole lives, but two months ago they moved to America, so the reality that I couldn’t see them for a while and have them in my life a lot began to dawn. There was nothing else I can think of that was making me anxious, although I am over sensitive to cloudy weather especially when I was used to the blazing sun. On our last day at the villa the weather turned and the next three days were cloudy with rain.

The way I was feeling was like I’d forgotten to take my medication. But I wasn’t that bad really. I was feeling like I had defeated my mental health problems at least 95% recently, but it was becoming more like 80%, so like I say it wasn’t particularly bad, I was able to keep it at bay, but for the four days staying at Bellagio on Lake Como I couldn’t relax properly. I found myself taking quite a few smoke breaks at the apartment we were staying in, twenty metres away from the lake shore.

It’s very steeply hilled at the shore of some of Lake Como, with lots of dwellings all situated very compactly, narrow roads, and not much space to just lie there and relax. Because of my mental health problems I was oversensitive to being all crammed in to the towns and felt a bit claustrophobic. To someone without mental health problems it wasn’t an issue at all. But Lake Como was strikingly attractive, from my bedroom window at the apartment I could see the Alps in the distance.

My first view of Lake Como was of clouds hanging over the hills, and rain, and wasn’t the piercing blue water and sunshine like I’d seen on the TV. But we took some boat trips anyway, and I enjoyed them, 80% of the time. We had some nice food at local restaurants but by this time we were getting a bit bored of pasta and pizza. We went on a hydrofoil one day which was fun.

I did start to relax more when we had packed our things and got into the car to drive to Lake Maggiore. The sunny weather had returned, and the first view of Lake Maggiore was like a postcard picture. We stayed at a hotel on the lakeshore at Stresa, and I was happy to be almost completely relaxed again. Lake Maggiore was not so densely populated, the hills weren’t so close to the water’s edge, and there was lots of space. We had lunch on a boat trip northwards on the lake, and crossed into Switzerland, where we took a scenic train through the mountains (which may or may not have been the Alps) back down to Stresa. We had two hours in the lake town of Lacarno in Switzerland where we saw chocolate shops and that a Big Mac in McDonalds costs about ten pounds.

Our flight home from Milan was scheduled for midday, with British Airways. We arrived at the baggage check in at 9.30, at the back of a queue of 100 people. After fifteen minutes we hadn’t moved so I started to worry about missing our flight. There were four desks for British Airways passengers. One of them was closed, and two of them were for business and first class passengers. I wasn’t very happy about that. As we neared the front of the queue, after an hour and a half, it became clear that we had enough time, but I was still annoyed at all the chancers trying to skip the line and use the business and first class check in.

I began questioning any passengers who went to the first class check in. ‘Excuse me, are you business or first class passengers?’ I would say. ‘Yes, yes we are’ ‘Okay no problem, carry on.’ Twice though I asked and two separate couples were just trying their luck. ‘Excuse me, are you business or first class passengers?’ ‘No, but we have already checked in online and are just dropping off our bags’. I said ‘Yeah us too, but we have been queuing for an hour and a half now, and you need to go to the back of the line. ‘ There was no way I was letting anyone take advantage like that, and I was a bit stressed. I also told someone off for trying to push into the queue at one of the shops in the airport.

I don’t like flying. The journey outward was smooth, but I was angry at the turbulence on the way home. I wanted to be like normal people who are mostly unfazed by flying. I said to myself ‘never again’ in the middle of some panicky moments as we flew over Paris. I was pissed off because I wanted to enjoy it, but every time I glanced out of the window my body and soul felt more unsettled than I had ever felt in my whole life. I think I can do a short flight, but there is no way I can fly to America for example. But I got home in one piece, and it was amazing to have done it and now these happy memories and the success of meeting the challenge to leave home for three weeks will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A quick word about challenges and progression.

A few years ago I was so stricken with mental health problems that I could hardly leave the house. In 2011 I thought I’d try going back to college to learn something, as I was not doing much with my life. There is a college one minute’s walk away from where I live, so I was happy to try, knowing that I could come home quickly if the anxiety came. I stayed at college for three years, nearly full time, taking a carpentry and joinery class, and I didn’t miss a single lesson. It taught me so much and now I can fix things around the house and I like DIY. I have three paid part time jobs now (in 2010 I was unable to work) and two of them are as a carpenter and joiner. Since 2011 I have also passed my driving test and I now drive a lot.

In 2010 I had no hope of ever being able to spend time with another person in such close proximity like being in a car with them, but I can do it now and I have driven to London lots of times. Traffic jams were a real stumbling block, but I can do them now too. Leaving town doesn’t scare me anymore either. I was afraid of train journeys, but I like them now. I can socialise however I want and am not anxious about social situations. I have taken six plane journeys in the last year, I didn’t fly for 15 years because I was afraid of flying. I have joined a gym and I work out and eat healthy. I have written a book about my experiences with mental illness, and I am currently looking for a literary agent.

I was an unfunctioning mess not so long ago, but I have met challenge after challenge and put in the work to get better, and I am the happiest I have ever been, living life to the full and usually loving it. I’ve come so far and I hope that this might encourage people to keep going in their own battles. The only thing I have difficulties with these days is turbulence on aeroplanes, and sometimes even that doesn’t bother me.

About the Author

If you would like to read more, Peter has written a book about his experiences with mental illness and recovery, called Viva Mental Health, and has a website to support it with book extracts and more. Please visit www.petermcdonnellwriter.com.

 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

With Thanks: Our Book’s Acknowledgement Page

There are far more people than we can ever list by name, but those we are able to include represent a wide spectrum of experience, knowledge and expertise—and they have all believed in us. That is awesome—and humbling.

As any author will tell you, compiling the acknowledgements is not the least part of writing a book! Whether you choose to recognise one person or one hundred (or none at all) it is a decision not to be taken lightly.

We learned so much that we wrote a blog about it, in the hope authors might benefit from our experience and our friends and readers might understand how we went about it (and, perhaps, why they were—or were not—included).

It is one year since our book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder was published. It seems an appropriate time to share our acknowledgements here on our blog.


Acknowledgements

We are grateful to writer, journalist, and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly for her encouragement and support, and for contributing the foreword to our book. We thank those who permitted us to quote from personal messages and correspondence: Anne Pringle, Ansi James, Bernadette Barnes, Bridget Woodhead, Bob Keyes, Charlotte Walker, Dara Hurt, Franni C. Vitolo, Howard Baldwin, Lin Downing, Lisa Overall, and Maya Hayward. Likewise, those who offered advance endorsements, including Cheryl Ramsay, Megan Cyrulewski, and Stefanie Cary. Your belief that we had something valuable to share kept us going through the periods of self-doubt, setbacks, and uncertainty that will be familiar to any writer.

Special thanks are due to those who gave their time to read or edit our manuscript, including Creighton Taylor, Donna Betts, Donna Murphy, Jackie Charley, Julie A. Fast, Rachel Thompson, and Wendy K. Williamson. Your honesty, suggestions, and advice helped us refine our ideas and approach throughout the creative process. This book is the richer for your contributions.

We are eternally grateful to Michael Kobernus, Markus Furchner, and the team at Nordland Publishing, for taking a chance on us and welcoming us into the Nordland family.

We acknowledge and thank Fran’s professional care team, including Aaron Cloutier, Avner Eisenberg, Dr. Christina Holt, Cicely Matz, Dr. George McNeil, Heather Small, John Turrell, Julie Goell, Michael Gelsanliter, and Dr. William Jeanblanc.

We thank our families for putting up with us over the four years it has taken to bring this project to fruition, especially Martin’s wife Pam for her unwavering love and support, and their children Emma and Mike. It is to Mike we owe our introduction to Nordland Publishing. Fran thanks her mother Christa and sister Veronica for being there always. Words are inadequate to express our gratitude and love for our friends, so we simply say thank you to you all, especially Abby, Andrea, Barry, BB, Bob, Chris, Howard, Jim, James, Jeanne, Jomo, Lara, Laurel, Lin, Maya, and Peg.

We are grateful for those who inspire us and enrich our lives simply by being who they are, including Andy Behrman, Angela Slater, Brené Brown, Carrie Fisher, Claire Stewart, Darren Hodge, Deepak Chopra, Diane Atwood, Eckhart Tolle, Gabe Howard, Gayathri Ramprasad, Geneen Roth, Jessie Close, John Cariani, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Kay Redfield Jamison, Kristy Schell, Laura Hillenbrand, Oprah Winfrey, Patty Duke, Sarah Fader, Sherry Joiner, Snatam Kaur, and Steven Heslewood.

We acknowledge the many groups and organisations we have encountered, all dedicated to countering stigma and supporting those affected by mental and invisible illness, including Bring Change 2 Mind, Bipolar UK, Family Hope, Men Tell Health, MIND, NAMI Maine, The NoStigmas Network, Rethink Mental Illness, SANE, Stigma Fighters, and Time to Change.

Finally, we would like to thank the thousands of you who follow us on our blog, website, and social media platforms. Whether you are moved to comment and share our content, or quietly accompany us on our journey, you have meant—and mean—the world to us. This book is for you.

From: High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder


Reading this over, one year on, is a powerful and in many ways a sobering experience. We are humbled all over again by the encouragement, advice, help, and support we received from so many people. We are also reminded of some who are no longer present in our lives.

The journey goes on, of course. Or rather, the journeys: our book’s journey, and our journeys as individuals and as friends. We are very aware that if we were compiling our page now, there would be new names to include.

Whether your name is listed here or not, we are grateful to have you in our world!

Marty and Fran

 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Flight of the Bumblebee, by Catherine Neish

If you were going to write a book about your life, what would be the title? Who would you want to read it? Would you cover anything up? Would you expose an area of your life into the light?

I want to lend you a story. It’s a story about life with mental illness but with none of the vocabulary you’d expect. You’ll read about depression, psychosis, mania, paranoia, anxiety and you will also read about recovery, finding being, mindfulness, healing, recovery.

My favourite stories are those that you can relay to a child and the adult reader also finds depth of understanding beyond the literal narrative. Are yours? Well, I hope that The Flight of the Bumblebee does just that.

In the last few weeks, I’ve added questions for individuals and book groups at the end of each chapter. I want to make it easier for you to have those ‘mental health conversations’. I find that when I have a metaphor to talk about, those chats are much easier to begin. “Have you read The Flight of the Bumblebee? Well, you know when Lil gets stuck behind a window but can’t understand why she can’t fly – that’s exactly how I feel. I can’t grasp what I’m dealing with.”

The Flight of the Bumblebee was written over a 25 year period prior to and post my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. It charts my personal experience using the power of narrative. I wrote sections at different periods of illness and recovery, not realising until the final year that each section could work together.

I was brought up in the UK and after I left school at 18 years old, I chose a gap-year abroad so that I could learn French before I began university. I began experiencing awful, awful persecuting thoughts. I remember being very harsh on myself: I should ‘get a grip’, ‘stop making mountains out of molehills’. I felt imprisoned inside myself. It felt like a bumblebee trapped behind a window, not understanding or knowing what my problem was all about.

I truly believed that ‘whatever it was’ was a huge flaw in my personality. I was acutely aware of the stigma that can be associated with mental illness. I refused, therefore, to go to my GP. Why was I so frightened? First of all, I thought that if the words ‘mental health’ were written in my medical notes, the words would be used against me at any medical I would need for my career. Secondly, I believed that medication would make me unnecessarily addicted. Thirdly, I didn’t want formal counselling because I thought it would open a ‘can of worms’ that I couldn’t deal with between appointments.

I opted for the most unsafe option: I simply deeply, deeply wished to believe that the emotional torture would stop! Family and friends who knew I was struggling did too. To be honest, none of us really knew what was going on and that is also highlighted in this story.

I began Durham University and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I experienced an emotional ‘bungee-jump’ at the end of my final year. It was like riding an emotional roller coaster. My moods swung very quickly from deep depressions to manic highs and then one day, very suddenly, my usual perception broke and my mind was flooded with thoughts, pictures and ideas of a symbolic nature. I lost my sense of social cues and even believed I could fly. My psychotic manic experiences were very difficult to talk about and that in itself caused a social nightmare. I felt embarrassed and confused. My college, St. John’s College, bent over backwards to help me. Nevertheless, I had to be hospitalised for my own safety. I resumed life without wanting any follow-up treatment, and I was sure it would never happen again. However, the emotional pendulum kept swinging.

When the bumblebee finds it hard to remain aware of the garden and the colony, it reminds me of hard times where I become pretty self-absorbed. Hard times make me question myself, and it becomes difficult to distinguish what is ‘me’ from what is ‘illness’. It becomes impossible to hear my own voice affirming what I choose to value in life. It’s harder to perceive other people positively, harder to let go of day-to-day tensions, and harder to sleep. I become acutely aware of complexities within myself.

I had a further breakdown with psychotic depression when I was a third of the way through my Post-Graduate Teacher Training. My thoughts were terrifying and so were the hallucinations. Apparently I looked white with fear. This was the very point in my life when ‘I wasn’t able to take in the extent of the horror or let out any expression of repulsion’. I needed to be hospitalised, given medication and I also agreed to electro-convulsive treatment (ECT). I was given a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder and some people even thought I would never work again.

I couldn’t ignore that I had serious illness anymore! My family and supportive friends helped me enormously. I accepted that I needed medication and I willingly took Lithium Carbonate, as prescribed, with other drugs to make a personalised pharmaceutical cocktail. The combination therapy, arranged by my psychiatrist, was working well. By this stage, I was happier to take medication as I could certainly feel its benefits but it took me years and years to come to terms with the horror of the illness and especially audio, visual and somatic hallucinations.

When we hear people talk about mental illness, we don’t often hear about the effects of stress on the body, tense muscles, headaches, digestion or other physical pains. Yet, mental illness can bring physical signs of stress as well as emotional stress. In the story, I have tried to include physical signs of stress for the bumblebee.

I think we all can make choices about our mental health. Sometimes it is easier to make skilful choices than at others, but choosing to work with a therapy can mark a turning point. Consciously working with the therapies, whether they’re talking therapies, physiotherapy, occupational therapy or art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy and so on, is beneficial. I am sure that choosing to recover makes a difference to the speed of recovery.

I was able to return to teacher training due to the enormous support from my tutor at Homerton College, Cambridge University. I also visited the local bipolar group, which was helpful as it gave me a chance to learn from my own and other people’s experiences. Some members there were working and a few were teachers, which inspired me to pursue my own teaching career.

I began my first teaching post in a rural secondary school. I started on a 45% contract, and I still teach part-time for health reasons. In that particular rural area there were no opportunities to meet other people with bipolar. However, a very competent Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) supported me on a continuous basis. I was helped by mental health services in pastoral and in practical ways. I have felt that all the mental health professionals with whom I have worked (Occupational Therapists, Social Workers and Psychologists) have become ‘professional friends’. They are there to join hands with and face, with me, a shared reality. I think that is why I find them so valuable. They provide a guide for me to measure my moods and perspectives.

I wrote about ‘bee-ing’ or wellbeing nearly ten years after I had written about the bumblebee crashing against the window. Bee-ing reflects the calmer and settled moods I felt. Life was kind. I found it easier to cope with day-to-day activities when my life ran at a gentler pace.

I know that, for me, symptoms of bipolar can be natural responses to life’s major ups and downs. Sometimes, it can be difficult to experience normal reactions without wondering whether I’ll become ill with a bipolar episode. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that everyone’s feelings need to be validated, whether they have bipolar or not! Good friends and family members gently let me know if my feelings are not quite in proportion to my life’s events. Therefore, my life can be managed more assertively, and it is ultimately healthier for everyone. The message of the ‘air’ is the wisdom I have gathered over the years as I have listened and learnt from some of the largest world faiths, others and grown through my own experiences.

What about suicide? I admit that sometimes I am my own worst ‘thought-enemy’. I have experienced suicidal thoughts and have wanted to be granted blessed relief from my mind. I have heard many people say that suicide is selfish. I don’t think it’s about being selfish because at those times I have felt I have totally lost my ‘self’. I do get through though, somehow. Thankfully, most of the time, I have a healthier perspective and find life meaningful, life-affirming and fun!

How do I feel about having a ‘mental health disability’? When I meet other people with any long-term illness or disability, I feel a great sense of alliance with them. Nevertheless, the labels I’ve been given have, at times, created problems for me. The 3 D’s, coined by society, to describe bipolar: ‘disabled’, ‘disorder’, ‘disease’, are themselves disabling and can worsen existing symptoms. The price of being pigeon-holed as ‘abnormal’ includes stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Mental health comes with a vocabulary of its own, and all the words seem to carry negative connotations that can be stumbling blocks. In my experience, other people’s irrational preconceived ideas about ‘madness’ are often amplified when the illness raises its head – presenting me with a double whammy! At these times, it is good to be viewed simply as an ordinary person with bipolar.

In my view, the diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder’ should simply be seen as a heading for a range of psychiatric therapies, psychological therapies and additional therapies which can help control symptoms. It is a ticket to care, which includes protection by disability legislation. With a diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Disorder’, people can legitimately say that they need time to eat healthy food, exercise, relax and go for a good work-life balance because they deserve the best foundation for good health. Helpful friends and relations find out about bipolar and also realise that no two people diagnosed with bipolar are alike because no two people are alike in the first place!

If someone with Bipolar Disorder can work, then it is crucial that the workplace is supportive. I do not find it easy living with bipolar secretly simply to protect myself from stigma. Nor is it easy to disclose that I have Bipolar Disorder!

I think there is less stigma than there was ten years ago, but there is still a way to go before employers find helpful ways to support employees with mental health problems. Currently, I teach at a special needs school, and in past years my colleagues and senior staff have been supportive. I know, however, that it is rare to find such support in the workplace!

In my early 30s, I was more open to other therapies, especially counselling. Psychotherapy has helped me realise how important it is to deal with emotional issues at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way. Storing emotions from childhood has been counterproductive for me and my lack of assertiveness has been self-detrimental in the past. At that time, writing became a major part of the way I processed my thoughts and opened my eyes to the choices I could make which would help me manage my mental health more skilfully. It was the counselling process that led me to reflect on the air we breathe to keep us alive.

Why do I love the concept of the air? It is an unseen worker. Spirituality describes aspects of life that we can’t touch, taste or see. Many guides to well-being recommend exploring spirituality. In my view, prayer, meditation and thinking about what transcends beyond the here and now, such as beauty, laughter, love, understanding, peace, a sense of interconnectedness are part of well-being. They are challenging and helpfully so. Acknowledging spirituality provides a deep-seated sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. It is also very good to feel part of a community either through work, faith or secular groups.

Relaxation is an art and a science. By doing the things I love and that make me feel very safe and secure, I can learn more about the art of relaxation. I’m part of a drama therapy group, which I go to one evening a week and have done so for the last 6 years. It is a very positive and supportive group which often uses the ‘here and now’ for material. I’ve learnt that combining sound with movement is a really good way to get a break from constant unskilful ways of thinking. I enjoy a variety of relaxing activities between drama therapy evenings, walking, gym, drama, swimming, yoga, gardening, art and writing. There is a huge variety of relaxation, meditation and hypnosis CDs; the secret lies in regular practise. When I consciously give myself time to relax each day, I can almost memorise how it feels to be deeply relaxed and save it for a rainy day.

Currently, I teach and I’m training to become a counsellor. I also have a magazine style blog. I’m not ‘sorted’ but, at the moment, I’m managing my bipolar better than I have been able to in the past.

I hope you enjoy The Flight of the Bumblebee.

Catherine x

About the Author

Catherine Neish was born and brought up in Yorkshire. After a year working in France, she began a Theology degree at Durham University and subsequently studied at Homerton College, Cambridge, to train as Secondary School teacher. During her time at Cambridge, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder but completed teacher training at the end of December 2000 and since then she has taught both primary and secondary school pupils.

The Flight of the Bumblebee: An inspirational tale of hope and repair is available on Amazon for Kindle.

Catherine blogs at teacherwithbipolar.blogspot.co.uk and can be found on Siren Radio Wishful Thinking.

 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

I Once Knew a Genius Who Ended up a Simpleton: My Brother Gabriel Had Epilepsy and Bipolar Disorder, by Marie Abanga

My name is Marie Abanga and I am from Cameroon in Africa. Before my brother Gabriel was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of eleven, all I knew about the condition was the appellation “fainting fits”. In my country and probably in a large chunk of Africa, such fits are still attributed either to evil attacks or ill luck. There is so much taboo and stigma surrounding such cases, to the extent that some families would rather hide their children suffering from seizures than risk public shame. They simply are never sent to school, or withdrawn once seizures set in.

As if the epilepsy was not enough, I learned barely two months before my brother’s death that he had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This made sense to me because I had witnessed firsthand several highs and lows of his behaviour, but I was left speechless. I remember a blog post I did on my blog in June 2014 on the occasion of his 33rd birthday, crying out loud: “Somebody tell me what is wrong with my brother”.

Shortly after that post, I gathered enough courage to ask my kid sister with whom he recently lived in the US, and like it was super top secret “of course”, she told me of his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Sadly, before I could start understanding anything about bipolar disorder or how to help him, he died on the 2nd of August 2014.

We probably know about all the stigma, taboo and abuse cum outright rejection of persons living with a mental illness and I won’t go there anymore. I will just say that I nearly went down the drain mentally too, both before and after my brother died. Indeed, it was my quest to learn what was wrong with my brother which helped me realize something was wrong with me. A psychotherapist I saw in Brussels mentioned PTSD. I didn’t want to dwell on the diagnosis so much, but on what I could do to take better care of myself.

For pretty much all of my life, others’ wellbeing has been my priority, and my brother’s especially. I now know I tried my best to love him even when he was at his worst. I just think if I had known what he had been diagnosed with and reached out earlier to the big online community, I would have done much better.

When my brother died I froze: I needed to write his story and immortalize it before he too became a statistic. I needed to let my family and the world know I had had enough with all the taboo and stigma, and that I was putting myself all out without fear or favour. The fierce mental health advocate was born and you wouldn’t find even a handful of those in my country–that is not bragging.

The memoir (the third of four I have so far self-published) is my tribute to my brother and all those with mental challenges and illnesses. It is titled My Brother’s Journey from Genius to Simpleton: Battling with His Mental Illness and Coping with His Loss.

I am still coping to be candid, and only recently have dealt with the last guilt I still harboured for my brother’s Waterloo. This is a big credit to the book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. In this book, whose emotional journey reading I blogged about almost religiously, I felt it all, learned so much, braved it all, and healed so much. I am implementing a lot of lessons learned and have discovered several other resources from the website of the co-authors. It is really true that if you seek you will find.

I am the Country Director for the Foundation created in my brother’s honour. The Gbm Centre for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing in Cameroon is a project of the Gbm Foundation for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing established in the state of Massachusetts where he died. A Centre for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing in Cameroon will definitely be one of its kind. Yet, mental illness is one of those taboos “society” still balks at. Not because most are spared from its ravages and deliriums, but because of the stigma associated with any such illness. It is no more than a decade or so ago that the country saw its first Center for Autism. Before then, and even now, illnesses and disorders such as these are simply attributed to witchcraft, ill luck, bad parenting, and even demonic attacks.

About the Author

Marie Abanga is a lawyer, coach, consultant, author and mental health advocate, also Country Director for the Gbm Foundation for Epilepsy and Mental Wellbeing. She blogs passionately about her thrilling life and mental health advocacy at marieabanga.wordpress.com.

Her books are available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.

 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Our Top 10 Blog Posts of All Time

In honour of our readers and all the fabulous writers who have guested for us, we felt it would be great to showcase the ten most viewed posts of all time here at GumOnMyShoe.com.

Interestingly, there is a 50:50 mix of our posts and guest contributions.

Whether you are discovering them for the first time or revisiting a favourite, our top ten offers some brilliant and challenging reading. Which is your favourite?

Fancy writing for us yourself? Check our Guest Post Guidelines and get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!


Our Top 10 Blog Posts of All Time

1. Get It Right When Asking for Help with Bipolar Disorder, by Julie A. Fast

In our most popular post ever Julie A. Fast, author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder and Get it Done When You’re Depressed, discusses how to ask for help, a topic close to our hearts. (More)

2. michigan, by Mickey Solis

Actor and screenwriter Mickey Solis discusses the personal journey which led to him working on the film michigan, concerning such topics as suicide, depression and addiction. Note: several of the links in this article are no longer valid. Mickey's story most certainly is. (More)

3. Time to Talk, Time to Listen, Time to Care

Marty discusses awareness campaigns such as #TimeToTalk Day, asks what having a conversation about mental health looks like, and concludes that all of us—you, me, everyone—can make a difference. (More)

4. An Open Letter to My Bipolar Best Friend

“I am proud of us, Fran. Proud of what we do and are. Most of all, I am proud to stand at your side. I am proud to be your friend.”. (More)

5. How to Write the Best Acknowledgement Page for Your Book

Whether you have recently started writing your book or are close to publishing it, there is no wrong time to start thinking about your acknowledgement page. (More)

6. Mental Health in Social Media, by Rebecca Lombardo

Author of It’s Not Your Journey, mental health advocate, podcaster and blogger Rebecca Lombardo discusses how social media can be both a “blessing and a curse.” (More)

7. Your Thoughts Create Your Future, by Soph Hopkins

“They say ‘Your thoughts create your future’ and only you as a person can change that. I did and so can you.” Originally from Gateshead, Soph Hopkins now lives in Wales. Her first (and hopefully not last) guest post for us went straight into the top 10 within its first week of publication. If you haven’t read it yet, why not? (More)

8. It's Not Just for Kids: Reading Together for Fun and Friendship

“The most important sounds we can ever share with another person are our own voices.” Fran and I love reading together and think it would be great if more people did too! (More)

9. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)

Marty shares what it’s like to go on a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course. (More)

10. Forever at the Heart, by Rachel Kelly

We are proud and delighted to host this great piece by mental health writer, speaker and campaigner Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me, My Journey Through Depression and Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness. (More)

 

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Talking Freely in Ely: An Invitation to Cake

I am delighted to announce I will be a guest speaker at the Talking FreELY Pop Up Cafe event, to be held at Ely Cathedral Conference Centre, Ely, Cambridgeshire, on Saturday November 4, 2017.

Talking FreELY is a community in Ely which promotes mental wellness, and empowers those suffering the effects of mental illness to seek the help they need. For full details of the event check the Talking FreELY website or Facebook event page.

Although it’s still almost two months away, I’m already excited! I’ve spent much of the past week planning my trip, including booking a room at the four star Nyton Guesthouse which is only a short walk from the Cathedral.

My invitation came through one of those delicious social media happenstances that keep me coming back for more! The first connection came earlier this year on Twitter when I saw something retweeted by a friend of ours, mental health author and speaker Rachel Kelly, about the Happy Café Ely. I’m a fairly happy chap myself (I have been called “pathologically positive” on occasion!) and love a good café. I was intrigued!

When I saw they planned a library of relevant books for customers to read, I contacted Carly at the Happy Café to offer a copy of High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Carly was happy to accept and our book can be found there alongside other great titles.

I look forward to visiting the café (at Julia’s Tea Rooms) when I am in Ely in November. You can read more about the Happy Café Network on the Action for Happiness website.

Carly told me about Talking FreELY and invited me to their launch event in July. That was a bit short notice for me, but she extended an invitation to attend their November event as a guest speaker. I was more than happy to accept! In addition to the guest speakers, the free event will feature an Information Zone, hot drinks and cake. Volunteers with lived experience of mental health will be on hand to talk informally.

I will be reading from our book and talking about the challenges and rewards of long-distance care-giving. If you are in the Cambridgeshire area on November 4, do come along. It would be great to meet you! Did I mention there will be cake?

Marty