Today Catherine Irwin shares how her family has navigated through the experience of supporting a family member living with mental illness. Please welcome her as she shares her story.
Starting Over is Not a Sign of Failure.
Starting over is not a sign of failure, but a mark of courage – a willingness to give yourself and your life another chance. -Scott Stabile-
When this picture was taken, six months ago, our lovely firstborn, Holly Annabelle, was beginning an exciting new chapter in her life. She had been accepted into University, her future set on studying illustration and drawing. I adore this portrait, taken for her University ID card. It is one of my all time favourites. Full of fresh hope and expectant joy for the future.
Two months later, she was bedridden.
Our Holly is a passionate lover of animals (especially orphaned lambs and sassy horses!), crazy creative, tender-hearted towards those who find themselves in dark valleys and drop-dead gorgeous to boot.
In a matter of months after that photo was taken, she discovered something else – she is a bipolar sufferer. For those who don’t know what Bipolar disorder is, you may be familiar with the old-fashioned term, manic-depression.
When I was a teenager, a friend of mine had a sister who suffered from manic-depression. I remember feeling very scared to be in the same room as this young girl. I worried she would start to cry uncontrollably or be unable to speak at all. Shamefully, I thought that I might catch her depression, not unlike one catches the flu. This is how little I knew about mental illness.
Today, thankfully, more is known about our mental health but unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to a brain disorder.
It remains an unknown quantity and understandably, those who suffer aren’t too keen on coming forward and telling the world about it.
I have often said to Holly that if she were to break a bone, the recovery and convalescing process would be so much easier to accept. She would be able to physically see her form fractured. However, when it is one’s brain, it’s so much harder to process. And of course, society’s well-meaning encouragements of “just get some fresh air” and “distract yourself with other tasks to keep your mind busy”, makes that broken mind, feel all the more fragmented.
Bipolar is indeed a brain disorder, which causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Holly has Bipolar II disorder, which is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic
episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, and energised behaviour (known as manic episodes) to very sad, “down,” or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
We are just at the beginning of our journey together as a family and in these early stages, I would like to encourage others who are also on the same path, either individually or as a family unit. This is what we have learnt over the past few months:
1- Our girl isn’t defined by her illness. It is a companion along the journey of her life and yes, one, we didn’t expect, but like all of life’s curveballs, these trials and difficulties can be used to colour and strengthen the future. Think deeper compassion towards others, patience during suffering, trusting and believing in the comfort of the One who truly can give it.
2-Mental illness is not the end, it is just the beginning.
For us, Holly’s diagnosis was a relief, after nearly 18 months of doctor’s visits, counselling, using the wrong medication, yet knowing something was still amiss. Now we are armed with all of the power tools, the rocket fuel medication, the wisdom in learning about Bipolar and understanding how her brain works. It is freeing and empowering. We know our girl is on the right road to recovery.
3-It has made our family take self-care to another level.
We were already on the road of slowing down intentionally in order to appreciate being in the moment and stop striving for the next best thing. When Holly became unwell, we took it down another notch. Realising that less is more in our everyday and finding joy in the most simple of things. A trip to our local florist to hand pick a pretty bunch of flowers became a self-care ritual, an investment in the heart. The smile that lingered on my girl’s face was a double portion of goodness. Lighting scented candles and diffusing essential oils whilst listening to audio books, drawing comfort when the weather outside is gloomy and one’s heart is sad.
4-It has revealed true friendships.
This has been a difficult one to observe. We have all heard it quoted – hard times will always reveal true friends. This has been the case for Holly, which in part I understand, given the misunderstanding about mental health. A text, a card and just checking in regularly without expecting much in return, speaks volumes to someone who is unwell. Your friendship may not be the same for a time, but it will grow in different, beautiful directions, if you invest the time and love in that person. Many have been lost but a few precious ones have been found, and these have been a rich and perfect gift for our girl.
5-It has shown me that our girl is made of steel.
In her lowest of moments, she is still there. Her smile and quirky humour remain. Yes, the tears flow but her tinkly laugh can still be heard all through our home. Even a few seconds of chuckling, is music to my soul. We are so grateful, every day, for the true grit and determination that is Holly. Bi-polar is a part of her life, but her life isn’t all about Bi-polar. She is still Holly and we are seeing more and more of her every day.
We start over, again and again. We give our girl’s tender brain another chance, another hundred chances. To slowly mend and become whole again.
If you have a dear loved one who struggles with mental illness, a friend, or colleague, ask them how they are travelling. Then stop for a while and listen, really listen for the answers. You will be surprised by what you learn from these gutsy survivors.
I am an Australian mother of six, who home-schools four of her children in country England.
We live the slow life, whilst focusing on the simple things, and keeping family at the heart of home.
Our aim is to navigate, the inherent good that is life, the sadness that it also can bring, and the joy in looking beyond what can’t be seen with the naked eye.