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When people raise imaginary children

If you have no children, you are free to judge parents, but your opinion means nothing.

When I was completing my education degree, I was given an online login to raise a virtual child. I named her Lucy and responded to various parenting scenarios to produce an end result.

Virtual child

I did a good job. Lucy was well-adjusted, secure, and intelligent.

But I remember thinking – this is not real life. The various pathways to raising secure children are much more fraught with difficulty. They are many and varied, uncertain at times. They are far less linear in real life.

I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of judging parents. I am not innocent by any stretch. I even judged certain parenting styles before having children. Now, I look at certain things other parents do, and think, I would not do that myself. But now I have one of my own, I have a lot more empathy for the daily battles of other parents.

Since having a child of my own, the majority of parental judgment has come from people WITHOUT children.

People who are raising good little virtual children in their mind’s eye.  

People who are not living in the real world. You know the kind – they think that anyone less than perfect shouldn’t have children.

Overweight, mentally ill, career-driven, single, young, or less financially secure individuals. Parents who enjoy a drink. They all fall below the imaginary gold standard of parenthood.

Before I had a child myself, I thought I would do everything that is best for my child, no questions asked, and I did judge those I perceived as doing less than the best. I thought I would sooner live off baked beans than see my child go without something.

After all, we had longed for this child for so long.

I planned to stay home for three years. I hoped to breastfeed until toddlerhood. I didn’t want to smack my child. I thought I would be able to live without medications, lest it come through the breastmilk. My child would not have too much TV or too much sugar, or too many clothes.

But that, my friends, is raising a virtual child. That is not real life.

The first to fall off were the breastfeeding wheels. We had a rough start to building up my milk supply because of the severe blood loss I had at birth. We had to set timers and breastfeed him every two hours, then pump, formula feed, put him to sleep, then do it all again two hours later.

It was BLOODY HARD! I didn’t give up, but he did have some formula in those early days. He grew so well and was in the top percentile for height and weight.

At five months, though, I was losing my mind in other ways. I had few Mum friends, was hating playgroup, and I was lonely. When the day care centre opened up next door, we put him in one day a week while I did some paid work.

Far from being detrimental, it has helped his development immensely. I can’t thank his teachers enough. I didn’t last the three years, but he is securely attached and resilient.

At six months, I had a crisis and commenced anti-psychotic medication which I believe saved my life. My milk supply dried up, until I saw a private psychiatrist, who got us started again with an appropriate breastfeeding anti-psychotic.

I felt the sting of judgment from people who had never suffered mental disorders, who all thought I should not be breastfeeding while on medications.

Yet, he coped just fine with no withdrawal – and a medical doctor had approved it.

At nine months, he started biting. No more breastfeeding. I couldn’t deal with the pain, even though I knew breastfeeding was a good thing. During one of his bites, I instinctively gave him a smack on the arm. He bawled his eyes out. Oops. I felt terrible but it was an involuntary reaction.

I had other moments of poor judgment which left me questioning myself as a parent.

As for the TV, sugar, and too many clothes? Let’s just say he lives a charmed life… but he is no worse off for any of these things. He is clever, secure, and thriving.

And he loves The Wiggles.

Unless you’re in the trenches with us, it’s best to reserve judgment. Until you’re raising real life humans, you don’t know how you’ll respond to the challenges. Parenting humbles you in ways that no other life experience really can.

And sometimes?

It is actually best to put yourself first, lest you end up a burnt out, bitter, resentful parent – which is way worse for a child than being a little selfish on occasion.

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Bipolar One Cheat Sheet

Bipolar is one of those mental illnesses that gets thrown around into discussions about people we don’t like.

You know, the colleague who is in a bad mood, or the ex who snapped in anger a couple of times. However, Bipolar One is much more complex and discrete than just being a bit moody.

man in gray long sleeve shirt holding brown wooden stick

So what is it?

In order to be diagnosed Bipolar One, a person needs to have a manic episode.

What’s a manic episode?

Far from being just a bit strung out, a manic episode is a period of a week or longer of unusually elevated or irritable mood.

During a manic episode, a person may be very talkative, have inflated self esteem, decreased need for sleep, and flight of ideas. Risk taking behaviour may also be present, including risky investments, impulsive purchases, sexual misadventure, gambling, or otherwise risky behaviour with high consequences.

So imagine your bubbly type-A individual, going from here to there and kicking goals with little need for sleep – until the manic episode progresses to a more disorganised state…

Or – in some cases – the destructive type who is cash-happy and speeds along the highway with no thought for consequences.

A manic episode may also have psychotic features – which may include seeing and hearing things, delusions (false beliefs – for example, the belief they are being watched), paranoia, and anxiety.

Some of these psychotic features may go so far as to have an affected individual believe that there is a conspiracy with the federal police watching the house, ready to destroy them with evidence of a crime they aren’t actually sure they committed.

red blue and yellow abstract painting

Many people suffering their first manic episode will be hospitalised – a person with Bipolar is around 15 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population and this risk is heightened in manic states, due to impulsivity. The likelihood of a psychotic episode also increases, the longer the mania is untreated.

Because mania can be such a heightened, productive state, a person at the stage of needing hospitalisation is likely to resist, resist, resist. When this happens, they may be held in a facility against their will – also known as being kept under the Mental Health Act.

A person suffering a manic episode may also be irritable, rather than heightened. They may also display a lot of goal-directed behaviour (completing tasks, unrealistic plans of tasks to be done, cleaning the house.)

As opposed to the “moody” stereotype of Bipolar, someone who is experiencing mania may appear high functioning, productive, and driven. However, as mania progresses, the lack of sleep and other symptoms can cause disorganisation and impaired functioning in all areas of life – which is required for a diagnosis.

A person with Bipolar One may also suffer a depressive episode. However, it isn’t required for a diagnosis. Depressive episodes can be characterised by a lack of energy and interest, sleep problems, thoughts of death, weight loss or gain, and diminished ability to concentrate.

Bipolar One is observed in males and females equally in most prevalence estimates. Interestingly, Bipolar is more common in high income countries and more common in separated, divorced, or widowed individuals, but the association is not clear in studies completed thus far.

Far from being an illness that can be cured with positive thoughts or yoga, Bipolar is largely biologically rooted. There is a 10-fold increased risk for a person to develop Bipolar if it is somewhere in the family. This risk increases depending on the degree of kinship of the individual to the family member with Bipolar. It can also be contributed to by stressful life events and trauma.

Treatment of Bipolar typically involves some form of medication, teamed with therapy. Medication is often an antipsychotic or anti convulsant, along with a mood stabilising medication. Psychoeducational therapies such as dialectical behaviour therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, interpersonal and social therapy may be used.

But it’s not all bad.

Many people with Bipolar One do recover with the right treatments, even though it is likely to affect job performance at some stage. Working within mood episodes also presents significant challenges. Career and job changes are common with Bipolar One, however, the diagnosis of Bipolar One isn’t a death sentence, once it has been stabilised.

Moods in Bipolar are often to the extreme. For the person suffering this disorder, it can be an endless fight to find the middle ground, rather than existing on either exhausting side of the thermometer.

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Obsessions and compulsions – no, it is not necessarily a spectrum

As someone who lives with multiple mental illnesses and aspects of others, one thing that I dread hearing is this:

“Oh yeah, I’m so OCD. I hate mess! I love stacking my Tupperware containers. It’s all a spectrum, after all. Everyone is on the spectrum.”

That is, in fact, not completely true. The DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the ICD (International Classification of Disease) are mostly categorical. These manuals are used by practitioners to diagnose disorders and disease. Both of these manuals acknowledge spectrums, but not necessarily as a means of diagnosis.

In their criteria, you mostly either have something or you do not. That is not to say that you can’t display aspects of certain disorders, but it does not mean you have some lesser form of the disorder, or that you are on some inventive spectrum where we all exist.

There is no diet OCD.

About ten years ago, when I was struggling with aspects of the relationship I was in, a well-intentioned GP suggested that I have OCD. Since seeing multiple psychiatrists, I have learned that I do not have OCD.

What I do have, are obsessions. For instance, I am obsessed with symmetry. I get pissed off when sentences or words have an odd number of letters in them. As I drive to work, my mind works like an abacus, looking at every sign along the way, to check for this symmetry. I have actually memorised every sign from The Gap to Ipswich based on its symmetry or lack thereof. I have memorised every sign in my work based on its number of letters.

multicolored abacus

I get particularly pleased when I find words that are twelve letters long. This is amazing to me. Peacekeepers, heterosexual, and organisation really scratch my itch.

However, I do not spend hours on this per day. I do it in the absence of other stimuli – so on the drive to work or when I am sitting around in a public place. I have an obsession, but not a compulsion. I don’t make my sentences fit into these symmetrical patterns. I don’t have rituals I follow around this symmetry. I do not feel that a lack of symmetry begets some scary outcome, like death or destruction. I don’t do much to scratch the itch of this obsession, it’s just a mind game for when I get bored.

In order to fit a diagnosis for OCD, a person must have a presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both. However, they must take up a lot of time, interfere with functioning, and serve the purpose of avoiding negative outcomes, or reducing anxiety and distress.

It also cannot be explained by another mental disorder. In my case, my need for symmetry is probably more indicative of my ASD or anxiety, both of which have been diagnosed.

So as you can imagine, with this criteria, your average person is actually not on the spectrum at all. Liking order is more a discrete aspect of personality or preference, as opposed to being part of psychopathology.

Assuming everyone is on the spectrum reduces the experience of those who are.

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The whole story


Throughout my life, I have always had extreme highs and lows. In high school, I was either on benders that involved no sleep and lots of guitar playing, or I would be sleeping, down in the dumps. I got to rock bottom a few times, where I could see no purpose in anything and I acted accordingly, but in my high times, I never quite fell into a full hypomanic episode. I would stay up for nights on end and then crash, rest, and reset, or hit a depressive stage. Alcohol was a big part of my life back then. Later in high school, I would drink four full-sugar energy drinks every morning during home room to give me an energetic edge. I had ADHD – which I still have – but I was unmedicated and very, very impulsive. 

Immediately after Soren’s birth, I was mildly depressed from the trauma of having to have my life stabilised after a massive blood loss, but otherwise, I was okay. I dealt with waking up every two hours and didn’t seem too tired. As soon as I was able, I started running again. I started off small, doing a few kilometres here and there, but somewhere along the way, I stopped sleeping through the night. I would wake several times a night to horrific night terrors, basically my own death in a thousand different ways – and sometimes, I woke up with paranoia that someone had taken Soren. Sometimes, I would leave the bed and check his cot, but he would be sleeping soundly. I would wake up at 3, toss and turn until 5, when I would leave the house and go for a run – usually around 5 or 6 kilometres. 

I was going pretty hard. About 3 months after birth, I ran my fastest 5km. I was barely sleeping, but I felt fantastic. I had a thousand ideas and I would bounce from running in the morning, to breastfeeding my baby when he woke up, to playing, to walking to the cafe and reading my textbook to my baby to get him to sleep, to walking home, to studying, to smashing out hundreds of words, back to playing, feeding, tummy time, and so on. I had no off switch. I remember thinking at the time, is this the motherhood that everyone complains about? 

I carried on this routine for quite some time. It probably started around mid-February of 2019. At the time, I was preparing to give a presentation about inclusion at a high school. I was also preparing a half-hour presentation for a conference at the Gold Coast. I was writing one paid article every fortnight and studying. Whenever Soren would go to sleep, I would get to work. No such thing as ‘sleep when the baby sleeps.’ I had stuff to do. 

One morning, while my wife was getting ready for work, I decided to bake. She asked me why I would do that? I didn’t know. I don’t even like baked goods that much. But here I was, at 7 in the morning, baking. When she told me to clean up the kitchen, I completely lost it. I could not understand why she wasn’t as excited as I was. 

That night, I had my first full blown panic attack since the birth. I was so overwhelmed by my love for Soren, that I felt death was around every corner. I would not let him out of my sight. I’m sure I must have needed a break, but I couldn’t imagine leaving him in anyone else’s care. I got panicky when someone else held him. I could not cope with these feelings. I went to see my doctor. 

My general practitioner prescribed me with an anti-depressant. At first, I felt okay. Then, I started sleeping the day away. I lugged myself from one baby activity to the next and then slept every time he slept. He was little, so this was a lot. I started to become worried that my two presentations were not going to go smoothly. I went back to my doctor and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist. I also went off the meds. 

“Psychiatrist? You don’t need one of those. Just keep seeing your psychologist and work through that birthing trauma.”

I found visits to the psychologist hard. Her office was in a small retail building off a main road. She had stairs. I would push Soren’s pram into her office awkwardly, then try to feed him to sleep in between discussing my intrusive thoughts. Sometimes, he would cry, and the appointment would be wasted. I counted every visit against my mental health plan and worried about burdening my wife with the bill of further sessions, because I was not getting anywhere with it. 

“So lucky I don’t have any clients in a wheelchair!” She said one day, as I pushed Soren’s pram down the stairs. I recall thinking that this comment was pretty off-colour, especially coming from a psychologist.  

By the time I had started seeing the psychologist, I wasn’t just tossing and turning. I was actively avoiding sleep. I knew I would inevitably be woken by a night terror, so I sat up most nights on Pinterest or chatting to friends on messenger. One such friend started to suggest my self-centredness I had adopted in trying to deal with my trauma could be a sign of narcissism or delusional disorder. The next time I logged in to Pinterest, my whole feed was flooded with articles about narcissism. I could not find any recipes or crafts, or the usual content I would look at. I idly wondered if Pinterest’s algorithms were targeting me to force me to confront something in myself that I had not been previously aware of.

No, I remember thinking. That’s mad.

I had started to unpack some of my childhood traumas to this friend, and she sent me articles about how childhood trauma leads to the development of narcissistic personality disorder. Well, I thought. It must be true, then. 

The more I read about narcissistic personality disorder, the more I became convinced I had it. I felt I would not connect with my son because of it, and I never stopped reading. I realised that it was malignant, incurable. 

One day, he was fussing while I was feeding him.

“I must be feeding him my mental illness through the breastmilk,” I cried to my friend. I was so conscious that I had not birthed him correctly, and I was turning him away further through the illness I was convinced I had. 

“Go and see another doctor.” She said. 

I booked in to see another GP down the road. The problem I had, was I would go to my doctor’s appointments with nice clothes, make-up, hair done, and speaking as an educated person. I did not appear as a mess. They assumed I was too high functioning to be mentally unwell. He did not give me a referral. 

“You’re doing better than you think. Just keep dealing with your birthing trauma. You don’t need a psychiatrist. They just deal in meds. If you get down, kick the cat.” 

And I paid $62 for that appointment. 

That night, I logged into Pinterest to see if I could find a recipe for baby food. I was keen to start the solids journey. What I saw shocked me. It was a “death cocktail” – an alcoholic beverage that contained Valium and vodka, designed to take someone out. My heart beat rapidly inside my chest as I was reading the ingredients. I never told my wife, for fear that she, too, would become sucked into my trauma with no way out. 

I started to really, truly believe that Pinterest was sending me secret messages that I needed to see, and I wondered if I was actually supposed to die during birth, and my death was actually waiting for me just around the corner. After all, my son did not need a mother who was a narcissist. 

Since seeing the cocktail on Pinterest, and becoming well again, I have never been able to find it. I actually question if this pin existed at all or if it was a figment of my imagination. 

The next day, I woke up for my morning run. It was still somewhat dark, with the slightest bit of sunlight peering through the fence of the high school I ran past every day. The light seemed to ricochet off the path and surround me, in a spinning, lighted tube that I was running towards. It was like a vortex, sucking me in. I could barely stay on the path because it was so bright and distracting. I kept hearing something behind me, so I paused my music and turned around. Nothing.  

When I was home alone during the day, I started to believe my son was not attached to me. Looking back in hindsight, he was so attached to me. He was very cuddly and excited when I would play with him or hold him – but I was so deluded that I thought I was a refrigerator mother figure, and that I was turning my son away from me. I kept telling my friends the attachment wasn’t right and that I was a narcissist. They assured me I was not, offered evidence to the contrary, and told me it was all fine, but my beliefs could not be shaken. One of my particularly clever friends asked who was gaslighting me into believing this nonsense. 

“It is not nonsense. This is the real me.” I said. 

By that stage, I knew something was gravely wrong. My frantic late-night Googling had offered me insights about post-birth mental health conditions, and I wondered if I was having a psychosis. I begged my wife to hospitalise me, but we ended up going to stay with my parents. She was worried that our son would be taken if I was in hospital. During that time, I became convinced the police were after me for misadventures from a decade earlier, back when I was a teenager. I became so paralysed, and so scared, that I could not even leave the house. I panicked any time I heard someone knock on the door, absolutely sure someone was after me. 

It got to a point where I believed my offences, my big, bad wrongdoings as a 17 year old, were to be dealt with by a federal authority. 

I still carried on conversing with the friend who had told me I was delusional. The conversations became increasingly dark and I realised she wanted revenge on her ex. When the friendship started to break down because I expressed to her that her revenge plots were a bad idea, I worried that she was going to set me up to get me in trouble with the law. I felt cornered and that I had no way out, that I was going to go to prison and never see my son again.

“Please make sure he grows up better than me,” I told my parents and wife. 

One morning, I woke before the sun at my parent’s house and began wandering the streets. I contemplated all sorts of things – including running away and disappearing. Ending it all.  Then I saw a car come around the bend, and I ran back to home base, terrified it was the police. I let myself in through the back door and I could hear my wife yelling for me. 

“I’m here!” I said. 

“I’m safe.” 

But I didn’t feel safe. 

The whole weekend was all about trying to get me admitted to a hospital. The first hospital we attended – a private one – refused admissions on the weekend. We then went to the Royal, where they left me in the waiting room with others who were going to be admitted. In the waiting room, I saw people who scared me. One man was playing with a tissue box.

“It’s a sign. Remember I took that tissue box home from work that one time? I may as well have stolen it. I am a bad person.”

I was so convinced that every tiny little thing I had ever done wrong was coming back to bite me. Every piece of technology – televisions, radios, my phone – they all had messages for me, and they were all telling me terrible things. 

After a wait, the nurse interviewed me. Her name was Rebecca Miles as well. I thought this was too close to be a coincidence. I felt like the police had set up an environment full of actors to get me to finally admit to all of my wrongdoings. I sat in the interview room, stone faced, not able to say a word. 

They assumed I just needed sleep and sent me home with a sleeping pill. 

The next day, I was no better. I was taken to another public hospital and interviewed twice, including once by a security officer, and then taken into the emergency department. It was absolutely terrifying. I sat on a bed with my family around me, unable to say much at all. The person in the room next to me was throwing chairs and screaming. Amongst her screaming, I heard her yell, “AND I HATE BUNDABERG!” I sat bolt upright in the bed. I had spent my teenage years in Bundaberg and had hated it too. 

Was she me, from the past? Or was she another actor? 

I was so agitated and when I did finally talk, I told the psychiatrist I was not going with her – I did not belong with those chair throwers. And I had an assignment that still wasn’t quite finished. 

“Here, take this,” she said, and handed me a pill. 

All I remember from that point forward was being seated in a wheelchair and taken into the ward, through the dark and dusty back hallways of the hospital. I could barely keep my head up. The porters who took me away started high fiving each other and moving the wheelchair all about the hallway. I was so tranquillised that I could not say a word or tell them to stop. 

I was taken to a shared room, where I apparently slept for two days. 

When I woke up, I was still completely paranoid. The nurses gave me olanzapine – an anti-psychotic – to try and help me come down from my paranoia.

The days in public hospital were spent watching many hours of TV – still feeling that it was full of secret messages – and attending group sessions. The nurses would check on me throughout the night and they shone lights into my face to check that I was safe. I never got used to that. 

At one stage, another patient cornered me in the laundry and told me about her baby who had been born with its cord wrapped around its neck, deceased. I told my wife, and she attempted to get me a referral to a private postnatal ward on the other side of the city. 

It took a while, though. In the meantime, I was allowed out of the hospital on day leave. My family took me to the Redcliffe Show with Soren and my wife. It was absolutely wild. There was a man with a puppet and smoke coming out of his stage. I thought he was somebody I used to know, and that he was going to follow me around to collect evidence on me. There was a police stand and they gave Soren a sticker when my parents took him to have a look. I would not approach them, though. I knew they could smell my fear. 

Once I got to the postnatal ward, I saw a psychiatrist who reassured me I was not narcissistic after interviewing me for what seemed like hours. I kept watching her phone on the table, wondering if she was recording me. She kept saying “Oh, that’s terrible,” an awful lot as I told my story, which felt oddly affirming. She changed my meds and got me booked in for an MRI, to prepare for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was so scared of ECT that I barely slept in the nights leading up to it, but my son was with me and I was surrounded by other mothers who had mental health concerns, so I was beginning to recover and realise I was, in fact, not alone. 

After I was discharged, I began to feel normal in some ways. I started functioning again and the paranoia disappeared. I was sleeping through the night and after six rounds of ECT, I was no longer plagued by night terrors. 

Since that time, I have had mini-relapses while trying to find the right meds. This came about in the form of mini hypomanic episodes and mild depressive episodes. However, I was aware of what they were and able to keep them at a manageable level. 

After finding the correct medication and sleeping all night, every night, I have become completely stable. In my journey, I also found a Mum’s group for parents with mental illnesses, and a better psychologist more suited towards trauma. As my stability increased, I started to take on casual days at work, which built my confidence again. I started to feel like myself. 

Maybe not the ‘myself’ that I was before the birth, but a capable and high-functioning 2.0. 

In many ways, I have had to grieve. I did not ever foresee becoming so unwell and the whole process was very traumatic. Prior to his birth, I was very stable and functioned very well, despite having a history of anxiety and depression. I did not ever consider becoming so unwell I could not function, work, or leave the house. I grieve the “me” that was there just prior to the birth, and I grieve the fact that I will now likely never know a life without medication and regular appointments with specialist doctors. 

The silver lining is that I stayed engaged with my studies throughout, I have amazing friends who share my struggle, and I am well enough to do all of what I need to do, to fulfil the life I imagined for myself back then. I have an amazing psychiatrist and psychologist who keep me on the stable path. In 2021, I will be undertaking DBT therapy to give me internal strategies to deal with triggers. 

Everything will work out, and my son and wife absolutely adore me.

Felix culpa. I say it often, but life really is good.

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Motherhood, reimagined

The birth of my son split me in two. It happened gradually, then suddenly. As far as children go, he was dearly wanted and now that he is here, he is dearly loved. I’ll come back to the part about being split in two – because sometimes it’s fitting to take it back to the very beginning. 


June 2016. I was working in a stressful job. A gay woman stuck in a religious private school. After two years of loyal service, and after witnessing many fellow staff members take leave to undergo fertility treatment, I approached my boss requesting the same. 


“Sorry, I’ll have to get back to you. No one has done this before.”

They had – they just weren’t gay.


In the months that followed, I timed my IVF appointments cleverly around the school day. My doctor was willing to see me at 5am, which meant I didn’t have to tell my boss. When the big day of egg pick up arrived, I needed the whole day. I rang my boss and told her I had a migraine.


“When you wake up from the egg pick up, the number of eggs will be written on your wrist,” the doctor said. 

“Now just lay back. Soon, you will fall asleep…”


I counted back from ten. When I woke up, there were six circles drawn on my wrist. Six! I was 26 years old and I got a measly six eggs. I was despondent. 
In the days following, our little future babies were placed in dishes with donor sperm. There, they made the fateful journey to conception.


Each day, I called to see how my dish-babies were doing. 


Six.
Five.
Four.
Three. 
Two. 

Two! After all that effort, money, time, stress, and hormones, we got two embryos. One barely made it to freeze and was considered unviable for pregnancy but was placed on ice all the same. 


“We are not doing part two of this process until you find another job,” my wife, Natalie, had said. 


It took me over a year, but I finally found another job – in a state school. I loved it. It was inclusive, and I became part of the furniture. I took a paid sick day, and we went back to our clinic. When the day of transfer finally came, I laid back comfortably as my doctor readied his implements. 


“This is purely diagnostic. It is unlikely to work. Don’t do anything differently, just live your life.”

“Okay.” 


He spread my legs and inserted the syringe. As he did, an entire waterfall of emotion washed over me. I sobbed. It was finally happening. But it might not work! 

“Are you okay? We’re done here.”


“Yes, I’m fine,” I sobbed. 


He patted my back.

“Best of luck!”


As we turned and left the clinic, I realised I had a two week wait before me.

“Don’t pee on any sticks,” was the advice given to me by a friend. 


By day four, I caved. I peed on a stick. I sat anxiously on the toilet, tapping the test like I was trying to get ink out of a pen. About five minutes later, a slight line appeared. I kept my obsessive behaviour to myself. I didn’t even tell my wife about that first pee-stick. With every day that passed, I peed on another stick. By the end of the two weeks, I had confessed to my wife and we had a bag full of sticks, each line appearing darker than the last. They clattered in the bag, as we emptied them every day and lined them up like assembly line soldiers. It was amazing, the first signs of the miracle of his conception. 


My luck seemed to continue after the easy conception. I stayed relatively slim throughout my pregnancy, didn’t have any sickness, and I managed to work until I was 34 weeks along. Sooner or later, though, I knew my luck was going to run out. 


“What I’d really like to do is give birth in water.”

My midwife jotted this down and explained that it may be possible if a bath was available. Perfect! 

Mere weeks later, the day finally came. I was four days overdue and it was time to see what was going on. The sliding doors at the Royal Brisbane hospital welcomed us. We sauntered down the corridor with giddy excitement.  We were welcomed into one of the consulting rooms, where I lay flat on my back, wondering when they would suggest an induction. I had desperately wanted to go into labour spontaneously, but nothing had worked – vigorous sex, running, time in the bath. 


The midwife poked and prodded my belly. 


“The baby’s head is displaced, and I think he or she may be quite big. Had they told you that during the ultrasounds?”


“Yeah. They said the baby is measuring ahead.”


“How would you feel about being induced now?”


I paused.


“We don’t even have our bag packed.” 


“That’s okay, we can send your wife home to prepare everything. We can take you up to the ward shortly.”


“I see you’ve expressed a desire for a water birth. Because we’re inducing you, that option will no longer be available.”

I lay in a ball, awaiting the next step. Any time my stomach hardened with Braxton Hicks, I became excited that this could be it.


“Nope, not yet.” The midwife shuffled in and out, checking on me, then going to do her rounds. 

The Earth inched towards evening as the sky lit up an intense orange, and then darkened; not that I could see it overly well through the hospital shades. As the darkness of night crept in, my labour was induced. My body had let me down – but I was not done. The contractions started and I knew I could do this. I crinkled my nose, proud of myself for how well I was handling the contractions. I laboured on for hours, with cervix dilating on schedule. As I started to become tired from a lack of sleep, the contractions intensified. It was a consequence of the induction hormones and it became unbearable very quickly. Nonetheless, I stayed strong.


“Hold onto me.” Natalie said, as I stood in the birthing suite, leaning forwards every time I contracted. 


Time passed and I waved one midwife off as the next came in and wasted no time checking my cervix. 


“It’s 8cm. You’ll have a baby in two hours.” 


I beamed! It was finally coming together. I continued to feel the tightening of my body with each contraction as they became more frequent. Soon, I felt a sharp, choking feeling around my middle. It knocked the breath out of me.


“Is this normal?”

“Here do you want some gas?” The midwife passed me the inhaler. 


I breathed in.


“Ugh, it’s not working.” 


The midwife asked me to spread my legs so she could check my cervix. She looked inside me, then paused. 


“Your dilation has regressed…” she trailed off and walked out the door to get another midwife. 


“Hi, I’m Cheryl.” Another midwife walked in, accidentally brushing my forehead with her fingers as she turned around.


“Holy smokes, you’re hot!” she exclaimed. She took my temperature. 


“Forty degrees!” 


About five minutes later, a doctor arrived.


“You have an infection, which is why you have a fever and regressed dilation. Your baby’s head is still displaced. We need to call time on this labour for everybody’s safety.”


“Just sign this consent form and we will take you off to the theatre.” 


I signed rapidly and a midwife came to remove my hormone drip.

 
“Your contractions should stop now.” 


As soon as she said that, my contractions went from lasting around thirty seconds, to a continuous sensation. 


“Ahhhh!!! It won’t stop!” I screamed. 


They started to wheel me down to theatre, ready to prepare me for a caesarean section. When we got there, the doctor started to explain the spinal block.


“We’re going to insert some fluid into your spine. Then we’ll put some water on your belly to see if you feel it. Then we’re going to cut just below your bikini line to deliver the baby. Do you want your wife to say if it’s a boy or a girl?”


“Oh my God, stop talking!” I writhed in excruciating pain. The contraction that started when they took out the hormone drip hadn’t stopped. 


The doctor stabbed my spine and I remained curled into a ball with an oxygen mask on. 


I leaned towards Natalie and the doctor leaned into her ear.


“You have to stay strong, for her.” 


My forehead was sweating and I couldn’t move. 


“Can you straighten out, please?”


The doctor rolled me onto my back and patted just below my bikini line. The nurse poured a few drops of water on the area.


“Oh my God, don’t operate!” I yelled.

 
“Okay, we’re going to have to do a general.” 


The anaesthesiologist leaned in and inserted a needle, which I couldn’t feel above the contractions. It all happened so quickly. This was all completely out of my control now. I had to let go. I inhaled sharply and expressed my only wish. 


“Don’t tell her the sex of the baby before I wake up!”

That was the last thing I remember as the curtain of unconsciousness fell down around me. 


The next thing I remember is that my eyes were too heavy to open and I felt disconnected from myself, like a butterfly outside of its chrysalis. 


Was I dead? 


I opened one eye. I could see the most perfect looking baby on my chest. No blood, no fluid, no bruises. 


“He’s perfect.” I exclaimed, making an assumption about the sex of my baby before drifting back into the woozy stream of unconsciousness. 


The next time I woke, someone was holding my baby up in front of my face. They swiftly yanked the nappy down to reveal the sex. 


“It’s a boy!” 


We had already named him Soren, for a boy or a girl. It hurt so bad, but I smiled. 


 “Why are you crying?” I looked over at my wife, confused. 


“It was just a C-section. They do these all the time.” I assured her. 


“You don’t get it. I almost lost you.” 


“You lost almost half of the blood in your body. They had to resuscitate you and you had tubes down your throat. It took a long time. Soren was fine, but you nearly died.” 


I felt like part of my emotional self was anaesthetised. I could see and hear my own mortality being shared around me, but I couldn’t feel myself hurting. It was completely numbing, as if I’d been sliced through the chest and I was watching my heart exist outside of it weeping and bleeding, but not feeling so much as a twinge. It was almost like my brain was dismembered from my body and I was merely a spectator. 


The mental impact of his birth raged on and I still feel it today. However, I could not have had my son under any other circumstances. This was his birth. As traumatic and as violent as it was, it brought him to us. 


Sometimes I still feel split in two, but together, we are family. Felix culpa.

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Repetition compulsion.

Why do we look at things which we know will trigger us? Both my psychiatrist and my psychologist have told me to stop looking at content that is likely to trigger me, and yet, I can’t seem to stop. Or I will stop for a short while, then go right back to it. I often spend time reading online about medical procedures and birth. The last time I forgot to take my meds and I stayed up all night, I watched open heart surgery.

Some psychologists and neurologists refer to this as ‘repetition compulsion.’ Rather than remembering something as a part of the past, we revisit it repeatedly in an attempt to master it. This makes sense, because the more I see triggering material, the more desensitised I become. Yet this would not be mastering the trauma, but instead, numbing it.

When I first awoke from the birth, and Natalie was crying, she then told me what had occurred. I remember feeling anaesthetised emotionally, like my mind was putting up walls to stop me from feeling the shock. It didn’t come until later when I became unwell that I really started to feel it, in the form of night terrors, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts.

What is keeping me stable at present is medication. If I forget to take it for a day, I suffer immensely. I don’t sleep, I have strange thoughts, and then my mood will be extremely low for days, even after I’ve caught up the dose. The medication, in essence, is flooding my brain with chemicals so I don’t have to feel the significant lows or the debilitating anxiety brought on by the birth. It is a numbing agent, to some degree. Fortunately, I have only forgotten a handful of times. I set reminders on my phone.

I wonder sometimes if this numbness is good. Then I remember what the alternative is like, and I will take numbness any day.

I guess this is my reality now. In many ways, I have had to grieve and adjust because the old me, the pre-birth-me, is never coming back.

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I am here to live out loud.

Earlier this year, I completed neuropsychological testing, referred by my psychiatrist. She wanted more insight about how my mind worked and organised ideas, so I completed the testing. A lot of it was puzzles, some of it was vocabulary, and I had to draw a clock showing a specific time. I failed at that task, drawing the numbers outside the clock face. I lost points.

“You do realise you have ADHD, right? And that’s not a pejorative.”

Unbeknownst to my treating doctor, I had actually been diagnosed by a paediatrician in 2001, aged 11. This was due to my impulsiveness and poor behaviour, as well as my disorganisation. At the time, I had been prescribed dextroamphetamine. I was on it for only a short time as my parents didn’t believe I had ADHD. It made me kind of spacey, but it kept me on track.

As an adult, I couldn’t imagine how I could have ADHD. I thrive in my studies and my work. I finish my assignments early and I get good grades, even in the face of multiple obstacles.

But I do get distracted.

So how do I cope?

I start everything early. If I have 60 days to complete a 4500 word assignment, I divide the number of words by the number of days and become micro-productive. It usually ends up being about 100 words per day and I can finish on time. When I’m in my flow state, I keep writing. That’s how I manage to finish early, most of the time.

So where do I feel it the most?

I am impulsive. I have racing thoughts and ideas. The fact that I took on a masters degree with a full time job was a complete whim, and one that I have managed to stick with.

I fidget. I constantly crack my knuckles, move my legs, and fiddle with my phone.

I am disorganised. As a specialist teacher, I move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. By the end of the day, my coat, instruments, hat, lunchbox, and water bottle are in all different places. This is how I managed to lose a box of LEGO when I was a learning support teacher, at 30 weeks pregnant.

I get distracted a lot. One assignment is usually full of many hours of looking at memes and true crime documentaries, as a side road to actually getting stuff done.

As a teacher, I often hear ADHD used as a pejorative to describe children who are not a ‘good fit’ for the classroom environment. However, I would urge people to give these children time. As an adult, my ADHD is my greatest strength. My impulsivity has forced me to make beneficial decisions for myself. My stubborn commitment to tasks sees me through to the end, though I do get distracted a lot.

Many so called pathologies have huge benefits when they are channelled in the right way. For some, this means medication. For others, it means finding ways to compensate.

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Don’t have much to say but felt like sharing this

Every time someone has a baby “naturally”, I feel such a sense of jealousy and resentment. I don’t mean to, but I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been thinking differently, though. My birth was such a mess and nothing could have saved it. The illness I had afterwards as a result was the second scariest time in my life. However, since this has happened, I have become more stable, stronger, more resilient, and more aware of myself.

As difficult as it was, I don’t think my son could have been given to me under any different set of circumstances. His story is our story and it binds us together.

Loving him is the easiest thing in the world.

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A semi-colon means there was a pause, you didn’t come to an end

I had always bitten my nails, but in the months leading up to the birth, I made a new friend who told me not to anymore.

“You don’t want your baby to have a Mum with chewed fingernails!”

That statement was enough to make me stop, and I had nicely shaped nails when I went in to give birth. I had photos of my beautiful, naturally grown nails inside the pulse oximeter they’d attached before they induced me. My wrist had reasonably fresh ink, a little crucifix next to a semicolon. It was a reminder that although my life had had some pauses and sad punctuation, there was more to come before there would be a full stop to finish it.

Three days after the birth, I was lying in bed and stroking that very tattoo while I let my brand-new son drain me of my nutrients. That was the day they had finally gotten me out of bed to walk to the shower, but I didn’t shower myself.

The pain of getting out of bed was nothing on labour, but it hurt just the same.

One of my friends told me that first baby labour could often last thirty-six hours and that I was lucky I had only endured around thirteen.

“It could have been so much worse. You could have torn.” She said as she held my baby for the first time. I had initially felt like an absolute goddess for enduring as much labour as I did, but she reminded me I’d only been able to do it with an epidural. I still maintain that induction hormones make the contractions a thousand times worse.

“Yeah, well, the contractions were unbearable. Remember I was induced.”

I had spent my days since birth tethered to the wall by three cannulas; one with anti-biotics for my infection, one with hydration, and one for something I can’t even remember. It made for a very cumbersome trip out of the bed for every feed, but I had no problem ringing the buzzer.

I had finally relinquished some of my control in the name of doing the best for my son.

He had taken to the breast like an absolute champ. He had an excellent and natural latch and I adored having him nuzzled into my chest as he guzzled intently. Despite my train-wreck of a birth, this was one thing I held onto as a measure of my motherhood. I never got bored as he spent his time snoozing, sucking, and swallowing.

Although it all appeared to be going well, my milk was yet to come in. Not surprising, considering I’d lost almost half of my blood in the birthing process. He was sucking a whole lot of colostrum and air, which was beginning to not be enough for his growing body.

The next time he stirred, I started to thread myself free from the cannulas to get him for his next feed. I struggled to pull the bed rail down and my abdomen sent pain all throughout my body. Up until that point, a nurse had been bringing him to me for feeds night and day because I was simply unable to after the birth. As I crawled out of the bed, half bent over, I became overwhelmed by my desire to pee. I rang the bell anxiously, worried that I may wet myself. The nurses had only just removed my catheter that day, so I was still getting used to the sensations of knowing when I needed to go.

A minute passed and I could feel my anxiety welling up, so I rang again.

“Ooh, someone’s a little needy.” I heard one of the nurses say in the hall.

After all, I was just one of many new Mums who needed help.

I rang the bell again, and a small amount of urine trickled down my leg.

“Please!” I whispered.

I shook and moved in my half-standing position, utterly helpless. Still chained to the wall, I either had to pee my pants or wait patiently, but time was running out. As I tried to regain my composure, I noticed small, brown streak coming out of my son’s nappy.

Maybe he hadn’t been hungry at all, I thought.

A nurse pulled the curtain aside brusquely and asked me why I had rang the bell so many times.

“I’m sorry but I really need to pee and I’m attached to the wall.”

She narrowed her eyes, silently pulling the drip machine out of the wall.

I moved as quickly as I could, relieved myself, and returned to my dirty, crying baby. I struggled to undo his nappy as my hand was thick with cannulas.

“He’s hungry too, you know. You need to feed him.”

I could feel tears welling up. I wasn’t one to cry, but I felt so hopeless and alone.

“I know. But I really needed to pee.”

The nurse noticed my tears but carried on aggressively.

“Why are you crying? This is your life for the next eighteen years. Buckle up, princess.”

I was indignant, but she was right. I sobbed, trying to wipe the tears from my eyes, but it was hard with a hand full of needles.

“Come on. You just have the baby blues, this is normal at day three. Don’t ring the bell unless you really need us.”

I gently removed my son from his swaddle and took him back to bed with me, sobbing at my complete failure to meet his needs. This was day two, and I was already failing him.

As the night wore on, I continued to feed, feed, feed, but the more I did, the less he was seeming to enjoy it. His wails were matching my exhaustion, hour after hour. As the clock ticked past midnight, he started to bash his head against my chest. I tried to reassure myself that it was all normal and I refrained from ringing the bell, the nurse’s ire fresh in my mind.

Even though I felt alone, you’re never really alone in a hospital and I could hear the nurse’s rubber Crocs grating against the floor, irritating me so. I worried that if they caught me on my phone, they’d think I was even more of a failure than before. As soon as I knew they were occupied in other rooms, I whipped out my phone and started Googling frantically.

Baby + headbutting + autism, Baby + headbutting + poor + attachment.

These were all threads of thought I had come across in my studies and I was worried that it wasn’t normal. He cried and cried in my arms, though I had long stopped, now just desperate for answers.

I was still cradling him when out of sheer exhaustion, I nodded off. It was somewhat peaceful, until I started to dream. In the dream, a man stood with his head fallen, cradling his own baby against a brick wall. He was rocking his baby, perhaps a little too hard, with a bottle teetering on the edge of his thumb. The baby was wailing. I felt compelled to help him.

In the dream, I edged slowly forwards to this mysterious stranger.

“Sir! Sir! You can’t feed him like that! The latch isn’t right. The bottle isn’t in his mouth.”

I felt my body melting into the perfectly groomed lawn around us. My forearm detached, then my hand, and then my legs caved in beneath me.

He looked up and scoffed.

“Why would I take advice from you? You can’t even feed your own baby. He keeps headbutting you.”

I jerked awake, ashamed that not only could I not feed my son, but I had fallen asleep on the job. As I looked around the room, I noticed that there were plumes of smoke emanating from the corner of the curtain.

No. Surely not?

As I grounded myself, the smoke drifted away. I was safe, for now.

At three am, I took a photo of the both of us when he’d finally cried himself into sleep. I figured I’d need a reminder to show myself in the future what I could get through when I tried – and more important, why I needed to get through.

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Of psychiatry and Pinterest

Before I became a parent, everybody was full of advice about how to be a parent. I wish someone had pulled me aside and warned me to be more selective about the company in my life, especially with new friends.

purple and pink plasma ball

Back when I first became a parent, I admittedly invested too much time into toxic friendships. One in particular stands out as this person was what I would call an armchair psychiatrist. Early on in motherhood, I was struggling with certain relationships in my life and so I sought counsel. This friend offered me the view that some people in my life had narcissistic personality disorder and introduced me to Pinterest and Reddit communities that were full of people whose lives were dominated by narcissistic partners, exes, parents, children, colleagues, and dogs.

I became wrapped up in these communities and after awhile, became convinced that the people I was having trouble with were full blown narcissists.

Reading some of the articles, I realised that just about every human tendency could be labelled as narcissistic. Self-centredness, ambitiousness, the desire to speak highly of oneself, or healthy self-esteem. It was all narcissism, apparently.

The deeper I got into Pinterest, the more I started to think that perhaps I was the narcissist. As time went on, the armchair psychiatrist continually posted and sent me articles about narcissism. I started to feel overwhelmed, but I had no idea how to back out of the friendship. In desperation, I sought out the help of a former colleague who had a knack with people. I considered her an empath and a wise counsel. She told me, kindly, to cut and run.

Since becoming more aware of this subculture of individuals I refer to as armchair psychiatrists, I have noticed it everywhere. I quit Pinterest as a result, as my feed was continually being flooded with narcissist articles and boards as a result of conversations I had with this friend. As a true-crime buff, I noticed that narcissistic personality disorder seemed to be the first diagnosis the armchair psychiatrists would jump to when a person had murdered someone or committed an awful crime.

There are books promoted to audiences that talk about how to deal with narcissists and psychopaths. I see them on my Facebook feed all the time. Realistically, these people only make up a very small portion of the population. They are not people you would meet across multiple contexts in your life, if most of the people you spend time with are average.

The most interesting thing I found about the armchair psychologist subculture is that a lot of the people who claim that everyone is a narcissist have multiple broken relationships in their lives, often with their children. I feel that more could be achieved by working on human relationships and promoting articles about that, rather than marinating in half-truths about narcissism. We are all broken but most of us are not narcissists.