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Don’t ask me what’s wrong – ask me what happened

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Maree-baw-850x575

I'm an artist, speaker, writer, teacher, wife, mum and founder of The Heartworks Creative.

I use every one of my bipolar brain cells, experiences and talents to assist and empower others on their own personal mental health recovery journey.

How would you describe bipolar disorder?

I like to call my bipolar disorder my personal assistant. It reshuffles my professional, academic and personal diaries around my moods, episodes, triggers, anxiety and impairments. 

It guides my life around what I am not only capable of, but comfortable doing. It tells me if I am pushing myself too hard or whether I just need to take time out and focus on self care.

My PA tells me to slow down when my thoughts are racing or my mind is spinning. It tells me to avoid social situations that are unhelpful when anxiety is screaming too loudly. It encourages me to care for myself when life seems bleak, dull and difficult. 

Bipolar disorder for me is the compass and earpiece guiding me to take stock and live authentically. It is exhausting to try and live a life with bipolar disorder that is nothing but real, authentic and wholehearted.

What were the signs that you had bipolar disorder?

The first sign was when I was in hospital for an asthma attack in 2011. I woke up during the night and thought I was having a heart attack. I couldn't breathe, my heart was racing, and I started to panic and gasp. I felt helpless and frightened. I pressed the buzzer for the nurse who quickly performed tests and determined I was not having a heart attack. I was awake for the rest of the night wondering what on earth had happened. That episode was later identified as a panic attack.

The second sign was when a nurse mentioned to the GP that I looked excited and animated during breakfast. She noticed my hands and arms were waving about while talking, my speech was rapid and loud, my voice raised and I was laughing inappropriately. I felt well considering the previous night's ordeal and was at full speed with my teacher's planner out. I was leaping from appointment to appointment. Nothing was going to keep me down. I felt high. Life was sensational and I was ready to conquer the world.

I felt offended by what the nurse had told my GP, who as a result prescribed medication. I dismissed it as the nurse not understanding who I was or the relief I felt when I realised that I was not going to die from an asthma attack. Unbeknown to me, they were the signs of elevated mood which would later tip into mania.

The third sign came from my family's observations. According to the kids, I was grumpier, 'a bit more yelly', abrasive, snappy, impatient, irritable and sad. My husband couldn't work out why my default setting had turned to anger. I feel justified in being what I termed 'annoyed' because I thought they were constantly intruding and harassing. One day, I felt that they were stalking me, watching over every move I made. That day, I decided I wanted to die. Also that day, I picked up a brush and I started to paint.

Three months later, I was diagnosed with a mental illness called bipolar disorder.

Do you have any self-care strategies?

In the early days of diagnosis, I swapped my bedside table for an artist easel. I knew if I stared at it long enough on the days when I couldn't get out of bed, it would annoy me enough to pick up the brush and start creating.

Together with the assistance of my wellbeing team (clinical and mates) I started the journey of not only living with bipolar disorder but walking alongside it, rather than trying to drag it behind me in resentment.

Self-care was paramount because I could not be what I wanted or needed to be for my husband (who has bipolar disorder type 2) and my children without taking care of myself first. Art has become a driving force and an integral part of my healing journey. Art, for a very long time, was the peacemaker. It became my identity, my comfort, my joy and my sticky tape to piece together my broken mind.

In many respects it became my voice when I couldn't articulate what was happening inside. Art became my motivator during depressive episodes. Bipolar disorder enabled me to learn about myself and gave me a way to share with the world who I was – without apologies, without shame and without fear.

How did diagnosis affect you?

I think being able to attribute your symptoms to bipolar is mighty empowering because you can begin to write your own story.

A diagnosis changes your relationship with yourself. You are forced to look at your life with a somewhat unforgiving eye and to be accountable for everything in it.

How open are you about your condition?

I am incredibly open about my condition. I won't hide away in shame. Having said that, advocating is a selective business. I own my story and my recovery. It has been hard-fought and is something I am proud of. 

I share my story in different ways to different audiences. I'm an advocate, a mental health writer, inclusive education recovery researcher and an artist.

What's the most frustrating misconception about bipolar you've encountered?

I remember giving a speech where I explained I had bipolar and hearing an audible gasp. Some people thought someone living with bipolar disorder could not possibly look like me – a well-kept, clean, authentic, honest, open professional who is educated, articulate and living life to the fullest while successfully managing a mental health condition. 

How do people typically respond and how would you like them to?

Most people are neither here nor there about my bipolar diagnosis. It would be remiss of me to say there isn't any stigma or prejudice surrounding mental health conditions because, unfortunately, it still exists and it is something we still challenge today. 

At the end of the day, I think everyone wants to be listened to, acknowledged and valued, without judgement.

What aspect of bipolar disorder won't let you forget it?

The aspect of bipolar disorder I can't forget it is to press the emergency stop button when needed. My life is divided into what I call 'Life Before Bipolar Disorder' and 'Life After Bipolar Disorder'. 

If those two worlds try to merge by over planning or trying to do too many things, then my PA must hit the emergency 'stop' button and wave a manicured finger. Trying to take on too much, or trying to be too many things is something I can no longer do and my diary is now adjusted accordingly.

How do you think bipolar disorder has influenced your personal trajectory?

In the past, if a negative value judgement was made, I believed it. On the other hand, graciousness, compliments and goodness were met with a sense of diminishing value and suspicion.

Before my bipolar disorder diagnosis, my self-esteem was weighed against my successes. If I wasn't achieving, then I was just boring Maree, nothing special, just beige. I thought I wasn't good enough and was never going to be good enough until I changed my own internal dialogue.

Enter yoga. I had to park myself on that hot pink yoga mat, sitting still with nowhere to hide, no escape plan or route in order to undo my own stories. The accountability and onus was squarely on my shoulders.

Today, my values sit squarely with me.

Bipolar changed my personal trajectory and provided me with a different path. I would have never dared think about. It also gifted me a considered life; a life where all is taken into consideration and embraced accordingly to value adding, compassion, kindness, loving, wholehearted authenticity. 

During the process of my diagnosis, and perhaps before, my internal dialogue was not my own voice. My own sense of self-worth, achievement, validation and acknowledgement was external.

What has bipolar taught you?

I am enough as I am. I don't have to prove or hustle or wager for my worthiness. Having bipolar disorder is not a defect or a mistake. Bipolar disorder allows me to be authentic, to strive to be a greater version of myself while embracing the knowledge that I am enough as I am.

This interview first appeared in Muse Magazine.

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