Mental illness is the most challenging thing I’ve faced in my life. Here’s why.

In recent times depression and mental illness have been in the news again after the tragic death of high profile former AFL player and Television personality Danny Frawley .

Danny had spoken publicly about his battle with the “black dog” and many around him had assumed that he had recovered and his mental health had returned and he was in a good place.

He was a member of the hugely successful AFL program “Bounce” on Fox Footy and was for all intents and purposes the life of the party.

We now know Danny Frawley finally succumbed to depression and his death rocked the Australian sporting community, in particular his many fans in the AFL.  

It took me a couple of years before I even contemplated the idea of speaking publicly and telling my story publicly about my battles with mental illness.

My experience with mental illness was raw, confronting and traumatic. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve faced in my life.

Even after I was asked to write a book, (three years after my initial breakdown ) it took at least a year to come around to the idea.

There’s still such a stigma around any type of mental health issue.

It still exists today, but it’s not as bad.

I eventually felt that if I wasn’t going to be part of the solution, I was going to be part of the problem.

One of the reasons is very altruistic, I do want to make a difference, I do want to help the next family, the next person because there’s no real tool-book with this stuff.

But having thought about it a bit more in the last decade, the real reason both books were written were for me.

As selfish as that might sound, it was extremely cathartic to get it onto paper and was definitely part of the healing process.

You can move through it and move past it and look back at the experience very much from a perspective that this doesn’t touch me anymore.

It was important to deal with my own issues before trying to help others.

You can’t help someone else with something unless you’ve sorted it yourself.

Particularly with bipolar disorder and the massive highs and lows that go with it, it’s a management thing, you’ve got to manage it.

It’s a tricky customer managing big mood swings.

Some of the strategies that I’ve found helpful are getting plenty of sleep, minimizing alcohol consumption, eating well and alternative therapies such as reiki, massage and acupuncture.

It took time to recognise the warning signs of the illness.

It’s taken a good while for that insight to come and you get to know yourself better.

The trick is the high, because in the early stages of becoming elevated in your mood you feel great, and you don’t sense there’s a problem and you don’t see yourself winding up and getting towards the stage where you may become manic.

Believe me, no-one goes and sees a doctor when they’re high.

You feel better than good, but the price you pay during and on the other side of that is not worth it.

After highs, the depression that follows is truly awful so I recognized (after a good while I might add) that when you sense the signs of that manic state approaching you can “nip it in the bud” by slowing down, meditating, avoiding stimulants like caffeine, and doing yoga or literally taking your shoes off, walking on the grass to ground yourself.

However, the very nature of Bipolar disorder means there are still no guarantees that a manic episode can be prevented.

Manic episodes and the crippling depression that usually follows can we so hard to manage it can leave you significantly debilitated.

It’s not until you experience these episodes that you truly get an understanding of how hard the road can be.

I still believe there is so much more to learn about how our brains process things and the impact trauma, both emotional and physical, can impact on our mental health.

This is a whole of community issue.

It’s important for individuals, families, friends, workplaces and sporting clubs.

It’s not just Danny Frawley that’s inspired me to write this today, although the outpouring of public emotion after his death was certainly at the forefront of my mind.

It was the eight other Australians who will take their lives today, the eight others who will do the same tomorrow, the many more who will try and survive and those that consider taking their lives and not go any further.

There’s always a road back.

Ten ways to reduce the negative impacts of anxiety and depression

Can we improve our mental health without medication?

In today’s busy world most of us wait until we are highly stressed, anxious or even depressed before we act on our health. Even when we do take stock and ask ourselves the question “OK, I’m unwell and getting worse by the day, what next, what do I need to do to regain my health?”
Apart from medication is there anything else we can do to improve our mental health?

I believe the answer is “ABSOLUTELY YES.”

Only since my diagnosis with Bipolar Disorder One have I consciously started looking after my wellbeing. The main reason for change came about because without change my health would continue to suffer. My first internal check-up comes as soon as I open my eyes in the morning.

How am I travelling today? Is my mood higher than it should be? Do I feel slightly depressed? How am I really feeling? It has to be an honest appraisal otherwise the whole process is a waste of time.

We all need to keep an eye on ourselves

I think a lot of these routines are beneficial to everyone, not just people with mental illnesses. We all need to keep an eye on ourselves. Diet-wise, I’m imperfect, but I do try. I eat fewer processed foods.

I’ve slashed my coffee intake. When I first started in the media, I regularly drank five cups a day, two sugars in each. It was simply fueling an increase in adrenaline which with an increase in the hormone, cortisol, would set me up eventually for adrenal exhaustion. That was too much caffeine and sugar, too much fake energy. The slump would come in the late afternoon, further proof that highs always lead to lows, ups necessitate downs; the whole lot a balancing act, a non-stop game of give and take, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m down to two coffees a day because I just love a good coffee but the five and six a day is a thing of the past.

I have also cut back sugar consumption and this has also levelled out my mood, and actually increased my energy levels, not reduced them. I felt terrible without it for the first few weeks and definitely had withdrawal symptoms but I persevered…

When it comes to fitness, my routine varies. The problem is that I get very bored, very easily, so I chop and change my routines to keep them fresh. I have a once a week boxing class, a swim every now and then, I walk and do yoga either in a class situation or at home.

I believe that everyone needs a special routine or a place; one thing they know will make them feel completely free of worry. Mine is a 9.5 kilometre walk a meditation without actually sitting down to meditate. I’ve started plenty of these walks in a restless mood but I’ve never finished in anything other than great spirits. I’m so into it I forget that I’m actually getting exercise in the process. The heart rate is up without it being too much of a hard slog. The more I walk the clearer my thoughts become. I will continue to do this walk whenever possible and find some new ones to experience as well. And I’ll continue to look for other ways to support my health and wellbeing.

The sensory overload of bipolar can be overwhelming but most of the time I know when I need to pull back, take my time and take a long slow breath. Sometimes diving into the surf on those bitterly cold winter mornings will lift your mood. In summer the temperature will be between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius; in winter it might get down to 14 or 15. I choose not to walk with an iPod blaring in my ears. My phone is off or absent. I don’t want to be taking calls, I don’t want any artificial noise, I just want to find my peace. I find calm in the steadiness of my own footsteps.

I used to find time on my own difficult. Now I like time spent with myself. It’s a great challenge to keep your own company. It can be a challenge but the more you like your own company the more relaxed you will become.

My 10 point stay well plan

My 10 point stay well plan to manage and improve the debilitating impacts of depression, bipolar disorder, acute stress and anxiety are as follows:

1. Good sleep pattern
2. Regular exercise
3. Yoga
4. Meditation
5. Reduce alcohol consumption
6. Eat as much unprocessed food as possible
7. Surround yourself with positive uplifting people
8. Read the stories of others who have overcome adversity to inspire you
9. Don’t feel that you are alone as mental health issues are common
10. Seek help if you are overwhelmed.

Medication is also very effective for many mental illnesses and in many cases will be absolutely necessary. This is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, I have taken medication since my diagnosis of bipolar in 2000. And, I share this very openly, always.

There is nothing in my stay well plan that cannot work in tandem with prescribed medication.

The road back to good mental health

Life is a challenge. Often in life, our greatest challenges, adversity or suffering opens the way for us to experience the lessons we need for growth.

This has been my experience. If you had said to me fifteen years ago that there are hidden gifts in suffering, I would have dismissed the idea outright. In fact, for a year of my life at age 37, suffering made no sense at all and as my life began unravelling on all levels, the ‘quick fix’ was almost always at the forefront of my thoughts.

I was clinically depressed midway through the year 2000 and, at my lowest point, suicidal. Now I look back at this time as the beginning of my spiritual awakening. There had been many taps on my shoulder during the preceding years and all had been ignored. My life was so out of balance in every area and serious illness was the result.

The next chapter

In the years following that traumatic time, I have been able to reflect a great deal about the illness and the best way to manage it and stay well. There has also been an ongoing search for meaning, as well as the answer as to why this had to happen and turn my life upside down.

The next period of my life was spent walking in the ‘house of mirrors’ having an honest look at myself. It was not pretty. For most of my life, my thoughts went unchallenged, decisions were made without any consideration for consequences and little responsibility was taken for outcomes, unless of course they were favourable. My experience taught me a life lived in this way results in complete chaos. Life can be hectic, stressful and chaotic. It can also be the opposite if we stop and listen to ourselves and be honest about the way we live our lives.

The choices we make and the responsibility we take for those choices is all part of the learning, growing and healing process. Change is always possible, and in my case, was absolutely necessary. If you watch the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray you will get some idea of what I am talking about.

In short, if you are keen on doing every day what you have always done, you will keep on getting the same results!

The gift is that I have survived and can share what I have learned

I do not claim to have all the answers, but simply say I am more aware, ready to share and prepared to learn more. Bipolar disorder, like so many other mental illnesses, has a stigma associated with it that makes management of the condition even more difficult than it should be. For many people with Bipolar disorder, dealing with the illness and coming to terms with sometimes severe mood swings is something managed in secrecy, away from the eyes of even close friends and family. I know there is a road back to good health; I’ve been walking that road for 15 years.

My self-awareness is more finely tuned today to my stress levels and when I need to pull back, slow down and rest for the most part, I do. In the area of mental health, I simply want to make a difference. I believe we all need to drop the stigma attached to mental illness and make it easier for those who need to reach out and get help. There have been many blessings that have come from my experience.

A wise man once said: ‘If you want to change the world, start with yourself’.