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Text of my speech – West End Uniting Church

I’d like to start off with an acknowledgement to country. I begin today by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Jagera and Turball people and pay my respects to their Elders past present and emerging. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

Firstly, I’d like to say how honoured I am to be here today. I have had quite a journey in finding the right church and I finally feel like I am home… so thank you. My name is Rebecca-Jayne, or Bec, or RJ and… I. am. a lesbian. I am also a Christian. This process has been in flux for most of my life, so Paul has asked me to talk about my journey so far, so let me begin.

I don’t come from a particularly Christian home. However, everyone in my Dad’s side of the family, for a few generations, are Catholic in name. That is to say, they do not go to church, they don’t necessarily worship, but everyone is baptised so they can go to Catholic schools. I like to think we have faith in varying degrees, but put it this way, my parents were not religiously concerned when I came out. Nor should they have been. They had always assumed I was straight – why not? They did not have provisions for the ten percent chance that I wasn’t. But that’s okay. They handled it relatively well, all things considered. In fact, at the time I came out, my Dad had employed a gay man to work in his business. It wasn’t really a big deal. My Mum did say she was sad there would be no white wedding or grandchildren but that was always on the cards for me. I just didn’t understand the logistics at that time.

I followed my family into Catholic school, where I lasted all of three and a half years. You see, a fee-paying school was ill-equipped to manage and teach a child with complex mental, trauma-based and neurobiological needs. I was not good at sitting or staying. I talked out of turn, forgot to come back from playtime. Oh, and I flushed an apple core down the toilet to see what might happen. 

In other words, I was the naughtiest girl in the school and I did not belong. In my first year at primary school, my teacher dealt with me by hitting me on the arm or asking me to complete my work in the storeroom, at the back of the classroom. I continued to be naughty and she took away my desk. I couldn’t concentrate and I struggled socially, so she thought the best place for me was away from the other kids. Social contagion. 

This initiated feelings of religious failure. I felt like God didn’t love me and that I was a black sheep. I had not failed. I had been failed. Because they didn’t teach me the greatest truth, which is that we are all loved by God regardless. 

I was yet to learn about grace and self-empathy. After all, I barely knew how to tie my shoelaces. Theology creates some pretty complex ideas for an immature psyche. With that being said, I had a lot of dreams religious in nature at a very young age. I recall a dream where God threw me into a large trash receptacle and I couldn’t rise to the surface. Likewise, another dream I had at a similar age, being bolted down to the floor like a crucifixion because I just did not know how to be better. The stigmata came in the form of night sweats – at the tender age of six. Those vivid nightmares became night terrors as I confronted the grips of PTSD which developed some years later. They call that parasomnia, medically speaking. You may be aware you’re seeing delusional visions in the night but you can’t physically wake from them. 

In those early years, I had my own private faith and would pray. I became aware of my sexuality, maybe around the age of 3 or 4. I had a desire to be close to other women. At that stage, it felt platonic because I didn’t know anything more than that, but in hindsight, it was attraction. Homosexuality was not really talked about in the 90s and I don’t remember knowing much about it until I was in high school. 

In early high school, I had boyfriends. Boys at that age are pretty easygoing and we would just hang out at the shops, not doing anything in particular. But I never felt anything. No sexual awakening. I wondered why other girls would break up with boys and become upset about it. I just didn’t understand. 

After going through further issues in high school, I got kicked out of my first school, went to another high school, then my family moved us all to Bundaberg. There, they chose the most conservative Christian school for me. This was a school that did not spare the rod. Corporal punishment was in, your parents just had to sign the waiver.

At first, I was terrified. I sang in the chapel band. I prayed. I was a devotional leader in year ten. I went to youth group and sometimes, I went to church unaccompanied by parents. In both year 9 and 10, I received the highest academic awards as well as a sporting achievement award. I also competed at district level in athletics, and came 2nd in the 400m event at Christian schools athletics Queensland. I was, and still am, a high achiever. 

As soon as some of the fear of being new melted away, I made a very close friend. She was my first real love. It was very platonic at first, and then became a secret in the night. Sleepovers. Sharing the same bed because my parents had no idea. Spooning and cuddling, embracing and kissing. It was then I knew – really knew – who I was.

On the five hour bus trip to the state athletic event, my history teacher sat next to me. She straight out asked me about the friendship I had with that girl. When I confided in her, she sent me to the school counsellor who told me my relationship was the reason bad things happened to me – including the fact my friend had been involved in a car accident and was in an induced coma. She also made me a deal – that I would try not to be gay and she wouldn’t tell my parents I was self harming. Hmmm.

I was young. I was naive. I believed her, that I could change. And so I tried to pray this thing out of me. I believed good deeds were the path to reform. When nothing changed, I became despondent. And then, I was kicked out of school.

“Your values do not align with those of the school” was the official reason cited.

So I had a new school, new friends. I started praying harder than ever before. I got myself a boyfriend. I stopped swearing. Stopped filling my head with impure pop culture. But again, nothing worked. I deleted every impure MP3 on my desktop computer, but I was still existing as a gay woman. I felt broken, like I’d come out of the assembly line flat out defective and was trying to find the way to normal with parts missing.

Nothing worked. 

I started drinking. Yes, underage. I made a new friend who opened my mind again, to the idea of loving and being loved in return. She loved me exactly as I was and I returned the affection.

But I still felt out of step with my faith. After all, it had been written and said to me so many times. It was like I’d jumped out of a plane and the rip cord was just out of reach – I felt like I was descending into darkness. And I did. I became negatively buoyant. I sank. Deep into depression and despair, non acceptance. Melancholy. I had dark thoughts that were reminiscent of a mid-life crisis, rather than reflecting my sixteen year old self.

I had my first mental health crisis at the age of 17. I came very close to ending my own life. I can tell you, Ipecac tastes awful and I hope I never taste it again. I was very unwell, but in a small place and with a sense of shame about who I was, it was difficult to get help. The stigma was real. I stopped trying at school. I’d gone from a high achieving student to a hopeless case. My year 12 English teacher told me to forget about university – and to find a good stable desk job.

So I did. I hated every moment, counted every hour. Back then, I considered myself an atheist. I had done my time in church, and I was finished. When I moved back to Brisbane, everything changed. I started working in a special school as a teacher’s aide and I knew I’d found my people. I met and fell in love with a high school teacher and that was the humble beginnings of applying to university to change my life’s trajectory. The relationship didn’t last but she left me with a legacy of the passion I needed in my early adulthood – and she pushed me to be the first in my family to graduate from university. I also graduated in the top 5% of my cohort which was a nice touch. 

It wasn’t until I got into my final year of university and completed a teaching prac in a Christian school that I considered going to church again. About a year prior, I met my now-wife. We decided to go to our local church and we became part of the social fabric. It was great, until it wasn’t. 

I ended up working in Christian Schools, and this is something I don’t want to comment too deeply upon because it was so distressing and so homophobic. After 3 and a half years, I left both the church and the school. The covert and overt discrimination was too much. I ended up working in a mainstream primary school with very high social and academic needs. That was when I really felt I was doing God’s work – working in a highly complex environment with kids who desperately needed good teachers. I see myself in all of those little humans. Even if they struggle in different ways than I do. They are fearfully and wonderfully made – beautiful in every way, and I love working with them. 

In Esther, it is written that perhaps you were made for such a time as this. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the negativity of some of my experiences, I can’t help but wonder if what I went through made me a more successful and empathetic teacher as well as a better person. Call it a silver lining if you will. If I call it anything else, I’ll go mad. 

Because I’ve experienced adversity, I’m good at reading situations, I can understand intellectually the challenges that some people have, and I am good at building relationships. I’m a good listener, even if I talk too much. On a purely cognitive level, I seem to understand the barriers that people have because I have had barriers myself. I also seem to thrive in chaos. This is very helpful, because I work in a special school with kids who have multiple complex needs. So through my trials and tribulations, God has provided me the resources for such a time as this, to serve and love others, and be a reflection of Him in this world. 

With all that being said, I want to encourage all of you here today to take more chances with your God given talents. Climb more mountains – preferably with a backpack. Jump off more cliffs – just make sure you have deep water to land in. Go forth and do the thing, whatever it is. You will surely find joy in not just the destinations, but the journeys.

I have experienced the deepest, darkest depths, the dark night of the soul – but it has made me who I am today and I don’t regret any of it. Not even one part. Except I wish I tried harder in school.

I am still a Christian. I still believe. I am still gay. And like everyone else, I am still wholly loved by God. I want to take that love and spread it. Every day, in every way. 

Thank you. And God bless.

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My masters project – We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to become teachers.

I have recently started preparing for my masters project, which I am intending to start next year. I am currently doing a literature review around my researchable problem.

coffee latte near white wireless keyboard and Apple EarPods on the table photography

I first became interested in the identity issues around gay and lesbian teachers in 2013. I was in my final year of university. At the time, Bernard Gaynor stated that parents should have a right to ensure their children are not taught by gay teachers. I wrote an article at the time that went quite viral, and was published in MX Newspaper.

I became more interested in this researchable problem when I gained a teaching job in a Christian school. I noticed that I needed to be closeted, but teachers with other so-called ‘sins’ in their lives were allowed to freely flaunt them – such as living with their boyfriend or getting a divorce.

I lived in fear every day that someone would find out and I would lose my job, or be forced to work in a very hostile environment, all because of my relationship status.

I think the way that gay teachers are treated in the teaching profession is largely problematic.

People expect teachers to be the high watermark of morality. Married with children, no drinking, no swearing, no partying. No outward political opinions. After all, we are role models.

However, I am concerned with the fact that if a gay teacher is encouraged to be closeted, what message does this send to young gay and lesbian students? Or students who have gay parents? Or even heterosexual students?

It sends the message that who we are is shameful and wrong.

Therefore, my masters project is going to centre around exploring the lived experiences of lesbian teachers within the primary setting in Queensland. I am going to use ethnographical, semi-structured interviews to gain insight into whether lesbian teachers are out in their environments, how they form (or do not form) authentic relationships within their communities, and the reasoning behind their being out or closeted.

In my last year of high school, I was lucky enough to have an out, lesbian teacher. The administration of the school made it incredibly difficult for her, and they made it difficult for me too. The way I viewed that teacher changed the way I viewed myself. Here was a very normal, successful woman with a long term relationship, dogs, and a mortgage.

That was all I really wanted – was to be normal. To have a life like everyone else. A white picket fence, a wife, a child, higher education, and a job I enjoyed. I wanted a happy home. Through viewing this teacher as a role model, I came to understand that this would be possible for me.

This is why this research is absolutely essential and I can’t wait to continue sharing it with you all.

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ABC isn’t always so easy – choosing schools in the modern age.

“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” – Sydney J Harris

I love this quote. It is no secret that I am mad-passionate about education. I’ve spent most of my career in schools, working with children, since I was 19 years of age. First as a teacher’s aide, now as a teacher, and in the future, as a guidance officer. I believe that no educational activity is a waste of time, whether it’s primary school, TAFE, university, post-graduate learning, or learning on the job. It’s all good.

Theoretically, as someone who has the benefit of working in more than ten schools in a variety of roles, I know exactly what I want – however, choosing a school for Soren was a difficult task.

We sold our first house and moved to a suburb where we could access excellent state education options. No regrets. We love our suburb, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. We would still consider state schools if our first choice doesn’t work out. I’m not fussed on public vs private, I care more about quality of the school.

assorted-color neckties

When Soren was about six weeks of age, I started emailing all of our local private schools – Catholic, Anglican, and non-denominational. We settled on an excellent prep – 12 school that was non-religious, all boys’, and had a good track record with inclusion, with several same-sex families enrolled with no issue.

The process we went through in selecting a school exposed me to a side of the schooling game that is vile, anti-human, and quite frankly, offensive – not only to me as a parent and a human, but to me as a teacher.

Almost all of the Catholic schools we emailed took months to get back to us. When they finally did, it was evident that they were delivering a script with a lot of vanilla keywords about “inclusion” and “tolerance.”

Note – I do not wish to be tolerated. I am not a fly. I am a human.

However, like a fly I have razor sharp eyes that can see through all the educational buzzwords.

When I pressed them specifically on same-sex families, they would ignore that part of the email and not respond to it at all. Do you really think I’m going to trust you with my child if you ignore the most crucial part of my email?

A few other Christian schools would not reply for months, then tell me they wouldn’t discuss this via email, and to arrange a time for a phone call. I did a few of these phone calls, and boy, were they disappointing.

One school told me that “It’s okay, everyone falls short of God’s grace in various ways, yours is just your relationship. We accept everyone.”

Um, I fall short of God’s grace in many ways, but my marriage to my wife is not one of them.

The same school also told me, “The family unit is quite a personal matter anyway. It’s not something your child would need to bring up at school.”

Yes, it’s a personal matter. Very personal. But like hell it will be a private matter to make everybody else comfortable.

The same school allowed students of other religions to wear garments that weren’t part of the Christian faith. I guess that’s more marketable – so people can see how “tolerant” they are – whereas the gay family thing is still seen as taboo and immoral. No pride badges, no talking about your family because people are funny about it.

For what it’s worth, I think everything should be included. Religions, cultures, and all family structures – not a cherry-picked selection of things that tick the “diversity” box for marketing fliers.

In any event, I found the conversation condescending, vile, and offensive. The fact that they wouldn’t correspond via email was also a huge red flag.

I think it is absolutely fine if consenting adults want to be in environments where they are not around us rainbow folk. By all means, build your churches and your super-straight bars and exclude us. But when it involves children – who cannot consent and are being educated in these environments – I think schools need to be held to a certain standard, one that reflects the values of the secular society that is largely funding its existence.

Why do I care so much? When I was a child, I went to three different private schools – one Catholic, one Lutheran, and one Christian. I was exposed to extreme ideas of conservative Christianity in two of them, including physical punishments. In another, I was kicked out with no chance of redemption for what was realistically not a huge mistake. The lack of “grace” was evident.

When I first came out in year 10, I was gossiped about within my school community, sent to an unqualified counsellor who burdened me with guilt for my existence, harassed online, and I was then kicked to the curb.

Again, no “grace” whatsoever. I lost all my friends and had to move schools, because my values didn’t align with their “values.”

It was messed up and it did a lot of damage. Still, I can’t be mad because it gave me exceptional insight into how I make decisions for my family – what can be tolerated and what can be avoided if possible.

The only advice I have is to drill any potential school. Do a tour, or two if you can. Go to their open day. Ask every question that is important to you. If they take months to respond, consider it a huge red flag. Check out their Google reviews – often a very accurate picture if there are a lot of disgruntled parents. Ask anyone who has their child enrolled at the school what the pros/cons are. See if there is anything about the school in the media – child abuse cases and articles about extreme bullying or sexual harassment are often very easy to find if they have been published. Ask about their teaching strategies, class sizes, how they choose their teachers, and why they have chosen the strategies they use in the school. I always asked about the school’s vision and 5-year plan if I thought we may consider enrolment.

Overall, trust your gut.

I did all of this. Will it be the perfect school? Goodness no. Will we have frustrations and disappointments? Yep. Am I the perfect parent? Most definitely not. But I feel like I’ve done my due diligence for now.

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I live with a broken bag.

I never hold on too tightly to things.

It is not unusual for me to throw mental clutter and old ideas away like the bags of throwaways in the thrift shop bin by the train line. I hate collecting knick knacks, old papers, and books I’ve already read. If it has no purpose, it’s as good as gone.

Anything we hold onto becomes part of our tapestry and if you hold on too tight, it hurts more when you let it go because you’ve let it become part of your bones.

Oh, my bones must be weak then.

Some things we hold onto too tightly hurt us because they are bags full of secrets. Secrets that wield razor blades which slice through our bags and cut through our skin. Then it hurts even more to pick it all back up again and make order of a broken bag. The disorganisation will weigh us down, even more than the weight of what we’re holding.

No one wants to live with a broken bag.

My broken bag is the story of who I am.

It is my collection of traumas. It is my sexuality. It is my dark treasures, my little darlings, which have stained my soul and cracked my glasses.

I can’t see straight.

I once read that when a pilot can’t see due to weather and low visibility, they become disoriented. They think they are flying straight, but in fact, they are not. It is only when their wing dips and the airplane enters the death spiral that they realise something is really wrong, and by then, it is too late.

Isn’t that a bit like life?

woman in white and black stripe long sleeve shirt

You go along through life. You have tendencies. People are nice to your face. You bumble along, unaware of whatever is slowly eating away at you from the inside.

Then something changes.

Something big comes along. A near-death experience. A majorly traumatic experience. A grief. Or maybe all of the above, captured like a snowball rolling down your lifespan.

You begin to see things in your sleep. Visions of your own death a thousand times over. Your dreamscape becomes one never-ending snuff film…

Then you stop sleeping. Then you stop leaving the house.

Then your broken bag collects all manner of dirt and dust.

You can’t go on. But you do. And you do. And you do.

You never sleep, and you wonder why people always complain that nothing ever gets done. Have they not heard of the wee morning hours? Obviously not. The more days without sleep, the more momentum you gain. Then you peak. After that, it all becomes a little messy and disorganised again. You start drawing clocks with the numbers going around the outside of the circle. The doctor pulls you up.

“Are you taking the piss?”

Nothing makes sense.

“Maybe you just need some time away,” they say.

“At least it’s not cancer.”

“My friend had something like this.. they call it a disorder, can’t remember which one.”

The doctor interviews you. It feels like hours. You keep looking at her phone sitting on the table. You watch what you say. You are slightly paranoid. Whatever they’ve got you on, it isn’t working.

Electroconvulsive therapy has come a long way since the shock treatments of the 20th century.

First, they take you for a brain scan. They ask you if you feel safe as you cross the road.

The scan comes back fine and you’re cleared for your first round of ECT.

It’s not all bad and you won’t be awake for it.

You just wake up five minutes later, confused, in a room with a TV that’s playing One Direction.

They do it five more times over. You start to feel better.

You start to call your doctor, Doctor Frybaby.

The night terrors stop. You sleep through the night again. You won’t be able to thrash your body so hard you break yourself, but that’s for the best.

You begin to excel at your studies because this experience has gifted you an amazing insight into the human mental condition.

The only thing is, your mind never seems to shut off. The thoughts continue to race.

I can’t look at a licence plate without adding the numbers in my head. I get irritated when they aren’t even numbers. I can’t look at a sign without adding all the letters. Likewise, I hate a lack of symmetry. Even songs I listen to.. they have to be symmetrical.

Well, at least when my mind plays tricks like this, I am not having completely intrusive thoughts. It never shuts off, but maybe this is a small price to pay.

I can no longer shoot out of bed at 4am to run a hard and fast 5km…. but I know how many letters are in every word.

This is all exhausting. It is chronic. It is hard work. The self-criticism in my thoughts makes it all so much harder.

I keep an awful lot to myself and some of it is very heavy, and my bag is still broken.

I am not the person I was before all of this. But I am now a high-functioning sequel to the original horror story.

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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 with a background in mental health, 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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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.