How I fell onto the wagon.

I’m not sure when I started drinking to make myself feel better. I guess I started doing it without really admitting that’s why I was doing it. A social drink with a meal or a beer with a few friends is great, but tossing back a glass of red to make the churning in my stomach go away was something that grew once I realised it actually worked. My burnout had so frightened me, and the anxiety had been so severe for so long, that even when I was in recovery I had a phobia about anxiety. If I felt those butterflies, and the heightened heart rate I would react to it and eventually my go-to was the bottle. After a drink, I felt so much better. I felt calmer, I worried less – heck I practically floated.

There were a couple of downsides I could see though. One was that it slowed me down and some things became harder to do. For example, getting dinner prepared and on the table was slightly harder after a glass of wine or a beer, so I had to go slower. I must admit it was much more enjoyable though.

The other downside was that I worried I was becoming an alcoholic. If I ran out of beer or wine, I was happily drinking port, and if everything ran out, I’d be grabbing the cooking sherry and neat brandy (yucko!). I was starting to keep an eye on stocks at home to make sure I didn’t run out. I started ordering wine by the case and stocking it in the shed. 16 months ago we went away for Christmas and I took the overnight ferry to the mainland with my two boys while my wife and daughter flew across. I smuggled port in an empty juice bottle in my bag, just in case I needed it.

My wife was really concerned with my drinking and she used to ask how many I had consumed for the day. This made me angry. It was my business, not hers. I felt like she was watching me all the time so I was careful to throw the empty’s in the bin so she couldn’t keep track. I think on a couple of occasions I’d cracked a bottle of wine in the shed out the back and from time to time headed out there to toss some back. She used to complain about the smell on my breath.

I didn’t feel good going to the bottleshop on grocery day with the kids in the back seat and emerging with four dozen cans of beer (because they were on special). The kids didn’t seem to like it much either and would ask why I was drinking so much these days. When I first started my “stay-at-home” dad routine, I had the whole day to myself in peace and quiet but my anxiety would grow the closer it came to 3.45pm. At this point, the kids would burst through the door after school like the hungry Mongolian hordes descending the steppes to invade peaceful China. I took to having a drink before they got home, so I would be blissfully calm and welcoming. It was great how the drink enabled me to not get angry about the uneaten lunches, the torn school pants, the drink spilled in the school bag, the forgotten homework, the chaos, the lost school hat, and the usual bickering. At times though, the pre-school-return-invasion drink happened at 11 am. I’m pretty sure the earliest I had a drink to quell the anxiety was about 9am.

I felt a bit ashamed. It was a dirty secret that I drank that early. The only person I told was my psychiatrist. I confessed to her that I was worried about my drinking. I drank every day. She didn’t seem to be worried however, which seemed odd to me. She said that as long as I was drinking less than three drinks a day, and had two days off each week, I wasn’t an alcoholic. Although I wasn’t drinking more than three a day, I was drinking every day. I justified to myself that I was just averaging it out. Did this make me an alcoholic? I reasoned that I could have a day off any day I chose (I’m pretty sure this is what alcoholics think too). Deep down, I knew I was dependent on the drink, but on a surface level I didn’t want to think about it and found it helpful.

Interestingly, my wonderful psych didn’t make an issue of it. She gave me ideas on how to reduce the drinking but was confident that continuing treatment for depression and anxiety would see my alcohol use decrease, and it did. Kind of all by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I still drink – most days. Maybe one, maybe two beers, rarely three unless it’s a dinner party of barbeque. And yes, I still drink if my wife and I have a fight – I find it dulls the pain (resilience is a bit of an issue for me – I crumble easily). But I can go a week without drinking if I’m away, or on a fishing trip for example. I’m paranoid that I’m going to need a drink and be caught short, and I’m certainly not drinking before the kids get home from school so I can handle it better. I think I have a better relationship with the bottle now, where I can enjoy it, without it being my lifesaver.

I feel lucky.

Parenting with Mental Illness – The Downside

In my last post on parenting with mental illness where it dawned on me that when in recovery, we do have certain advantages in parenting, there is also a dark downside for children. You see I’ve come to also realise over the last few months that I’m experiencing more anxiety that I thought I was and that I was either misinterpreting it, or refusing to acknowledge it because of my determination to get better. A two-day mindfulness seminar put paid to my suppression though. Slowing down enough to actually observe what was going on inside me (thoughts, feelings and sensations) revealed the anxiety simmering away in there.

How does this affect parenting? Hugely.

I’ve noticed (in another lightbulb moment) that much of the time I’m parenting out of anxiety. Anxiety is informing my decisions and how I behave toward the children. If they’re getting a little rambunctious  in the rear seat, I remind them of the rule about no rowdiness in the car, but sometimes even just a little laughter, giggling and squirming can actually really irritate me. This means I repeat the instruction, by which stage they’re too excited to calm down and they continue  – muffled giggles now. At this point I’m beyond irritable, I’m angry. I smacked them all after a trip recently with a chinese fan one of them had. Another trip, I made them stand outside the car to “cool off” even though it was raining. I nearly wound down the window on a highway and threw a telly tubby out after it was swung by the small one into the big one’s face (accidentally of course). Imagine what I’m like if there’s an argument in the back seat!!!

In actual fact to be honest, none of their behavior was bad. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just being kids. When they’ve grown up and left home, I’m sure going to miss that giggling. I know that if I’m doing better, I probably wouldn’t even react – in fact I’d probably giggle with them. Seeing three squirmy kids eyeballing each other and making one another laugh really is a funny sight and would make a great memory. Unless you’re experiencing anxiety.

Parenting out of depression and anxiety means we’re not parenting out of values. We’re just trying to control our children in such a way as to manage our symptoms. It’s unfair to kids to somehow make them responsible. I really regret doing this, and now that I’ve realised it, I’m trying to pay attention to it, but it’s really hard to separate out my motives sometimes.

I’ve noticed with my wife that the kids do certain things to trigger her anxiety, but it’s more around fear. She will try and control them so she doesn’t feel afraid for their safety. This is really stifling and the kids and I hate it the nagging. “Stop doing that!”, “Come away from there”, “Move away from the edge”, “Get down from that tree, “Don’t touch that”, “Stay closer to me”. She doesn’t even like them walking the 100m from the bus stop to home without being supervised because they have to cross two streets. The fear and anxiety is just too much for her.

Having said all this, I guess the question in my mind is “will this harm my children?” Hopefully not. But it’s certainly not what I want for them or for us. I want to live a life and parent out of my values not my illness. I want what’s best for my kids, not what’s least harmful.

Parenting with a mental illness

I’ve been invited to work with a national group called Children of Parents with Mental Illness to develop a new website for dads who have a mental illness. I’ve attended a panel interstate and am contributing to a wiki which will then be morphed into the website. Next month, they’re flying down to film my story for the website.

In the course of disgorging what I’ve learned about parenting with mental illness it struck me (eventually) that parents with mental illness who are in recovery can actually make better parents! It was one of those light bulb moments for me because I realised that I’d been teaching my kids emotional and coping skills that were never taught to me.

One thing that mental illness has taught me is an emotional vocabulary. Before my mental illness, I was an emotional neanderthal. Most men are. If you ask Average Man how he’s feeling, you’ll get grunts to the effect of “not bad”, “fine”, “stoked”, “dunno”, and “alright I s’pose”. None of which are really feelings, and none are very nuanced. In fact he may not even know how he’s feeling. (Yes girls, it’s shocking!) That’s what it was like for me.

I’m still learning to be able to know and describe my feelings, but I’m on the way. Mindfulness is helping me observe my emotions impartially and notice where they are in my body and their intensity. Yes I know it’s all a bit girly by normal standards, but normal standards aren’t helpful. What I’ve found is that to be in touch with one’s emotions is to be fully human.

So these are the things I’m teaching my kids. To notice their emotions and to be able to describe them honestly and without judgement. To accept them, and yet to not feel compelled to do anything about them. Emotions are the like the car on the road outside our house. They come, and they go. We don’t jump out of our chair and race to the door and feel like we have to do something about them (unless you’re a dog). We can acknowledge emotions, experience them, and be kind to ourselves about what we’re experiencing but we don’t have to be ruled by them or carried away by them.

It’s a great way to approach difficult emotions such as pain, suffering, grief, anger, frustration, hatred, rage, jealousy, and rejection to name a few. These are really uncomfortable and hard to process for all of us, so giving kids tools to do it sets them up for life.

The cockroach that killed a Giant

This isn’t quite the story with the good ending, but it must have happened in my loungeroom for a reason! In Aesop’s Fables, the mouse chews through the hunters’ net and lets the lion go. In this case, the smaller somehow managed to kill the larger.

I have an aquarium at home which I love (although the live amazon sword plant is a bit irritating because it won’t grow). In the four foot tank swim danio’s, flying foxes, neon tetras and a beautiful blue lone Siamese Fighter (note to self – get some girls for him).  Being a fly fisherman, I love seeing fish hit insects on the surface, particularly if that insect is an imitation I’ve tied and it’s on the end of my line. In between fishing however, I’ve taken to swatting house flies and dropping them in the tank. Generally one particularly aggressive Giant Danio motors up and snaffles it, chewing hard as it swims off. The smaller fish usually don’t get a look in, unless the Giant is off his game, or two are dropped in at once (he only has one mouth).

The house flies were fine, until we started dropping in small cockroaches. These would get picked at until they fell apart and were digestible by the fish. It’s all a bit of fun of course…. and the giant danio just keeps getting bigger. In fact, he’s the biggest fish in the tank, and spends most of his time motoring from one end to the other chasing all the other fish around. We also suspect that he personally accounted for around sixteen of the neon’s. Poor things.

A couple of days ago, one of the kids noticed the Giant floating motionless upside down – dead. Upon inspection, the killer was located. It was a small cockroach, jammed down his throat. He’d literally bitten off more than he could chew. It’s crazy I know. Why would a fish eat something that is so big, they can’t swallow? Surely something in nature would program into its brain some kind of ability to estimate size? And that’s when I realised – It was a metaphor for my ministry career.

I think in most churches, the pastor is the biggest fish in a small pond. It’s only stepping outside the church that I realised how small a pond it was that I was tearing around in. I mean it seemed large because the workload was overwhelming, because we were dealing with hundreds of people, volunteers and staff, but really it was small. And like the Giant, I was rushing from one end of it to the other, chasing all the other fish around.

By the time we went multisite, I had that much on my plate from God to governance, and management to ministry that it was like biting off more than I could chew. I was the giant that swallowed the cockroach. I was chewing as hard as I could and working so many hours and weekends, but still couldn’t manage, until I burned out. That bad-ass cockroach strangled me and left me floating upside down in my little pond.

In the end, my emotions and mental wherewithall gave out. I guess in life, we can only have so much on our plate. We can only bite off what we can chew. Any more than that, and we’re liable to do ourselves an injury.

On the upside, the Giant annoyed us. He would literally herd the other fish and chase them due to his size advantage. He’s gone now, and so has my career and ministry. But the upside for me, is I’m discovering how to live, how to slow down and pace myself. And I think I’m a better person for it all.

Ruminating like a cow. Why I may have four stomachs.

I’ve realised as part of my recovery and ongoing wellness, that I need to have time alone. Being an introvert, this is just the way I’m wired. I must say also, that I believe even extroverts need time alone, but are even less likely to get it or plan for it.

So I structured time alone – often at home. I’d get the kids off to school, and pretty much have my housechores done (the bare minimum usually) and then slum around. I get on the net, check emails, fart about on Facebook, blog a bit, read forums (freshwater and fly fishing of course), look up interesting things like how to repair the fins on my Hobie kayak and how to build my own custom fly rod.

I’d make cups of tea, drink a couple of beers, rarely check the TV unless I’d recorded a program, but even then, rarely watch it. And of course I’d warily watch the time….. knowing that at 3.45 pm hordes would descend on the house, crash through the door and pillage our family home leaving carnage and crumbs everywhere.

But most of all, I noticed that I experienced a low mood on these days. I think I have been ruminating – like a cow. Cows have four stomachs you know. And they chew over things, again, and again, and again. I do that. I ruminate over things, again and again. But not very helpful things. So they don’t really get digested. And they probably should be expelled. I saw a cartoon recently that said “don’t hold your farts in. They travel up your spine and into your brain and this is where shitty ideas come from”. I probably have that going on.

So it’s a dilemma. I know I need time alone to rejuvenate, but it can’t be unstructured, aimless, pointless time alone. I need to have something to do. And this is why it’s a dilemma. I’m a recovering Type A, performance driven, alpha male. I’ve realised how I ended up burned out and it’s because I’ve lived as a human doing for too long, instead of a human being. I don’t want to be like the masses who are so busy with their lives that they don’t have time to just ….. be! But on the other hand, if I’m not doing something, I ruminate – and research has shown that people who tend to brood, have higher rates of depression.

So after much thought (I do sometimes ruminate on useful things), I’ve decided that it’s not so much having something to do. It’s having something to focus on or aim towards. There’s a subtle difference. I might focus on repairing something, or tying up some flies, or reading a book, or writing stuff, but it’s a focus. It’s like having a game plan for the day – a road map if you like. But I try not to let achievement and performance dictate the focus – because I don’t want to end up where I’ve already been. That would make burnout pointless, and I can’t afford for it to be pointless.

It’s a fairly subtle change in approach to my cave time, but I think it’s going to work out a little better. I also know that this approach also helps depressed people in their recovery from the great darkness that it is. For really unwell people, having a list (below) can be quite a powerful aid to recovery, without which, they may never even venture out from under the blankets.

  • get out of bed
  • have a shower
  • have breakfast
  • go for a walk
  • read a book

So who’s looking after the ones who look after sufferers of depression?

It can be a confusing nightmare caring for a loved one suffering depression. I mentioned in a previous post, what might have been if only my wife had picked up on the warning signs early, but the fact that she didn’t is unsurprisingly common. This week I attended the Partners in Depression training for facilitators who will run six week support groups for carers of depression sufferers and I learned a lot about helping carers and their experiences.

The research conducted indicated five common themes for carers, that these new support groups are seeking to address;

1. Carers felt socially isolated. They felt that support from other family and friends was lacking and in the wider community due to stigma. This was made worse by the fact that they had turned down social invitations because they were in that caring role and these eventually dried up.

they didn’t come near me because they didn’t know what to say…..” “She didn’t want to go out, so we didn’t go out. We’d knock back invitations… then they stopped coming”

2. Carers felt a lack of engagement with healthcare providers. They were often excluded from the treatment and management of the illness, and due to confidentiality found it frustrating trying to get information and understanding as to how best to support their loved one.

we didn’t know, we weren’t told… it’s almost as if we are irrelevant and a nuisance…”

3. Carers stressed the importance of support groups or agencies. Organisations such as the one I work for have been able to let them know they’re not alone and assist with sharing information and offering useful strategies and even respite for those who qualify.

I needed the help as a carer, not anything to do with my husband…. it was just that I needed somewhere to go for support for me.”

4. The illness had a direct impact on the carers. They were often unprepared for the relentless nature of the caring role and rated high on anxiety scores, and ended up at higher risk of depression themselves.

You can only keep propping the person up for so long… and then you start feeling down.”

5. Carers intimate relationships had declined. There were intense feelings of sadness and grief over losing the person that was, to depression. This added further to the sense of isolation.

This is not the person I married four years ago…. he is just a shadow of who he was, and that is sad.”

It seems that carers are the forgotten ones who are shouldering a heavy load all alone. The keys to alleviating the carers stress revolved around education and self care.

If you’re a sufferer, do those caring for you have enough support for themselves in place and have a strategy for self-care? Do they have an understanding of what you’re experiencing and how best to care for you? How are they managing the challenge?

My warped thinking and a little ray of lucidity

Here’s an example of how warped depression can make one’s thinking. I mean suicide is the obvious example, and for me, suicidal thoughts was the thing that actually triggered help seeking. At that point, I realized I couldn’t be ok and started to get help. But the example of crazy thinking that I want to relate today, was a little more subtle, but possibly as deadly.

I remember I used to wish I could get cancer.

See I was stuck in this position that was literally killing me. My ability to get the job done was slipping through my fingers in front of my eyes. The less work I got done, the more behind I got and the pressure ratcheted up. I was stuck in the position because my vocation was my calling, which in my mind was my destiny, therefore there was no plan B. This was it! Being in full time ministry, leading a large church that would grow and impact the region was my life goal. I had no thought of resigning and doing anything else.

In my mind, the only way out was to be too sick to do the job. Ironically, I was already too sick to do the job, I just didn’t know it. So I wished I could contract cancer. The way my messed up mind reasoned it, was that if I had cancer, I could bow out, and go to bed. My wife would stop nagging and criticizing me. The church would leave me alone, except for the well-wishers of course. I could get some sympathy. But best of all, I could stay in bed all day and never come out. Then in a few months I’d be dead and everyone could just move on.

You might think that’s a naive thought. No-one who knows anything about cancer, would want to contract it. But I did. During the time I was ill, a close friend of mine in the church suffered the loss of his wife to cancer. I was the first to arrive minutes after she died. She was emaciated beyond recognition. I had watched her die over the months she had fought the melanoma. Yeah I knew what it was like alright, but I still wanted it. That’s how badly I needed to get out of my situation. The mind really does do some crazy things when depression takes hold.

But in a lucid moment, self doubt crept in and I realized this wasn’t normal. I typed into my browser www.beyondblue.org.au and looked at the checklist and mentally ticked off almost all the signs and symptoms of depression. This was the beginning and the end. The beginning of help seeking and the beginning of the end of my career as I knew it.