Meet Henry

Meet Henry.

I created him at an Access Arts workshop. He has a depressive disorder & FND. He also loves pink flowers, art, the theatre, chocolate, going on adventures and talking about uncomfortable but important issues.

Keep an eye out for his fun adventures – he’s just taken a trip to space to spread awareness & break stigma about mental illness across the galaxy.

Six Hidden Realities of Living with Chronic Pelvic Pain

First, a warning without apology: this is a TMI post, discussing six hidden and very uncomfortable aspects of the pelvic pain experience.

No one likes pain and no one can begin to comprehend the experience of chronic pain until you’ve been hit with it. It’s uncomfortable, frustrating, incurable, exhausting and life altering. The chronic pain train also drags behind it carriages filled with medication side effects, fatigue, painsomnia, specialist visits, unemployment, disability, isolation, poverty and mental illness.

But chronic pelvic pain, by its very nature and location, adds a new dimension of humiliation, shame, violation and stigma. Pelvic Pain can be caused by conditions such as Endometriosis, Adenomyosis, fibroids, scar tissue, PCOS, Ulcerative Colitis, miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, Vestibulitis, Vaginismus, Vulvodynia, prolapse and poorly executed episiotomy stitches (yeah, there are a lot of reasons, and this isn’t an exhaustive list). In Australia, approximately 1 in 4 women between the ages of 16 and 24 have a long-term pelvic condition, while 1 in 12 men exhibit pelvic pain in the absence of a medical condition. So, in light of Pelvic Pain Awareness Month, here is a list of ‘hidden’ realities for women (and I’m sure men can relate too) that come with having chronic pelvic pain.

1. Your “Private Parts” Don’t Feel so Private

I don’t know any woman who likes getting a Pap-Smear or internal ultrasound; it’s awkward, uncomfortable and makes you feel vulnerable – but most of the time you have to do it if you want to maintain your good physical health. When going to the doctor with a pelvic pain complaint, they tend to examine the site of pain, some of this can happen by pressing on the abdomen, but a lot of it has to happen through an internal examination – yup, someone’s fingers poking and prodding in an already sore and tender vagina. Something which is supposed to be personal and private can suddenly gain a large audience in a small amount of time.

It was a sobering thought when I realised I have only had one sexual partner, yet I’ve lost count of the number of people (well, health professionals) who have put their fingers inside of me (charming, I know). 

2. Taboo

It’s fairly simple to explain that, “my knee is killing me because I’ve done my ACL,” “I have to stretch regularly because I have a slipped disk” or ”my left side is sore from a hip replacement.” Good luck trying to tell someone your cervix is cramping, that you have a stabbing pain stemming from your vagina, or that sharp pains are radiating from your clitoris without coming across crude, rude and totally inappropriate.

It’s not kosher to talk about your genitals, reproductive organs and sexual health. People don’t want to say the words and others want to hear them even less. It’s just too taboo. The problem is, when you bow down to stigma and stay silent, important issues go unspoken, unnecessary shame is projected and necessary medical treatment does unsought – and this is not okay. Everyone should be encouraged to seek medical advice for any persistent pain. Everyone should be given the basic human right of being heard when communicating their pain experience to others.

3. It Goes Undiagnosed and it’s Extremely Hard (and uncomfortable) to Treat

Referring back to the female reproductive system being a ‘taboo’ subject, I believe this is one of the reasons medical research in this area is lagging and why many GP’s are unaware of pelvic pain causing conditions. It’s also the reason why many suffer in silence, putting off seeking medical help and making the epidemic appear less severe than what it is.

But when someone finally decides to seek a diagnosis and treatment, it’s not a matter of having a blood test. The first step is usually an internal examination which is painful physically and can make one emotionally vulnerable. This can be true for teenagers, people who aren’t sexually active and especially true for those who have experienced sexual abuse/trauma. Treating the pelvic floor can be even harder for men, as the only way to directly and internally examine and treat a male with pelvic floor pain is through the anus.

Conditions like Endometriosis, Adenomyosis, fibroids and scar tissue find their most accurate diagnosis and effective treatment in surgery. For these and many more reasons, both men and women can spend years going from doctor to doctor, desperate for a diagnosis.

When you finally have a diagnosis, treatment can feel just as difficult, inconvenient, painful, distressing and violating. Once a medical condition has been treated, there is often residual muscle tension and nerves can become over sensitised to pain signals, which results in a Chronic Pain Syndrome in the pelvic region. The best treatment option I’ve found to reduce muscle tension, spasms and desensitise the nerves in the pelvis is seeing a specialised pelvic physiotherapy. Treatment from a Pelvic PT can include a pelvic remedial massage, the use of Vaginal Dilators and internal TENS unit). I have recently begun researching pelvic botox injections, and it seems to be having positive results.

My point is, managing any chronic illness and pain is difficult but trying to diagnose and treat pain in the pelvis has it’s own ‘special’ difficulties and frustrations.

4. Sex: a Painful Chore

Sex is meant to be pleasurable, bringing two people closer together physically, emotionally and relationally. However, it’s hard to enjoy sex, reaping its benefits in a relationship when it exacerbates pain. Some people experience pain during penetration due to a tight pelvic floor. For other women, any kind of sexual arousal and activity can cause a great deal of pain too. Others experience orgasms that, instead of bringing euphoria and a physical release that relaxes the body, turns each nerve ending of the pleasure centre into a vicious postman, delivering a package of pain to the rest of your body. In relation to women, the clitoris has over 8,000 sensory nerve endings (twice as many as men) which can affect up to 15,000 more nerve endings in the pelvic area. That means the pelvis is already a very sensitive area for women and when pain is involved, all those nerve endings act like speakers in a radio, elevating the sound of pain signals 

Bottomline, Pelvic Pain can make it hard to find any pleasure in sex at all – and that’s not fun at all!

5. It’s Rarely Localised

The pelvic floor is connected to muscles and ligaments that attach to the hips, groin, thighs, buttock and lower back. Therefore, pelvic pain is usually accompanied by pain in these areas. Sitting or lying in a position that alleviates pain from the pelvis usually can increase pain somewhere else in the body.

Pelvic pain can also have an impact on bladder and bowel functions. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Internal Cystitis also piggyback on other conditions I’ve mentioned above. 

When a girl’s gotta go, she’s gotta go! If my bladder is full, pain increases. Many Pelvic Pain causing conditions results in painful urination, frequent UTI’s and incontinence – the embarrassment just keeps on keeping on. Until a few years ago, going to the toilet was agonising because I had a lump of scar tissue between my cervix and rectum. And the longer I left it, the worse it got, so I avoided drinking fluids and was constantly dehydrated. I still have times when I experience sharp bladder pain, so on occasions, I use the disabled toilets – it’s not because I’m rude, lazy or inconsiderate – it’s because I actually need to use the bathroom ASAP.

6. It’s Expensive

If a GP doesn’t have the expertise to properly diagnose and treat you, referrals are necessary for proper care. You can’t just see a general gynaecologist, you need someone who specialises in your medical condition. You can’t just see a physiotherapist, you have to see a physio who has specialised in treating the pelvic floor. If pelvic pain impacts your sexual relationships, seeing a relationship counsellor who has experience in sex therapy can also be an expensive necessity for the longevity of the relationship. Medical appointments are expensive, specialists are even more so.

Yeah… so, please remember that vagina, clitoris and anus aren’t ‘naughty words,’ they’re just nouns describing body parts that 50% & 100% of the population have.

If you are experiencing pelvic pain, you’re not alone, there are others who understand the emotional toll it takes. I hope you can find safe people with whom you can be vulnerable and speak honestly about your struggles and frustrations.

Haven’t got Pelvic Pain? Be a safe person for someone who does. I hope that when you meet people who have chronic pain you are kind and compassionate… and next time you speak with someone who has pelvic pain, I hope you can empathise with the extra burden it carries. We already struggle daily with shame, taboo and awkward-turtles that come with Pelvic Pain, please, be a legend, listen with an open mind, don’t judge, empathise and be kind.

Have I missed anything? Please share and contribute to the discussion if I have!

If you’d like more information on living with pelvic pain, here are a few websites with helpful information:
Pelvic Pain Foundation of Austalia
Pelvic Pain SA
Australian Pain Management Association
International Pelvic Pain Society

8 Strategies To Get You Out Of The House When You’re Depressed

One of my strategies for managing chronic depression is getting out of the house every day. When I’m having an episode, most days I open my eyes, sigh with frustration and then begin the battle of my inner dialogue…

“Oh, another day. Time to get out o…”

“… close your eyes and stay in bed – just ten more minutes. Feel how tired you are!”

10 minutes later

“Okay, now I really have to get out of be…”

“…staying in bed won’t hurt anyone. You’ve had a busy few days. Besides, nothing bad can happen if you stay here in your comfortable, warm bed.”

“But, but I don’t want to waste the day…”

… and it continues. I am so glad that after years of unhealthily late sleep-in’s and ridiculously late nights, I’ve learnt;

a) that getting out of bed, despite my feelings is beneficial to my mental health, and

b) I can put strategies in place to make getting out of bed and out of the house every day possible.

So, here are a few strategies:

1. I acknowledge I am blessed to have a part-time job that I love, so three days a week I am obliged to get out of the house, and it has made a massive difference to my mental health. Don’t have a job or can’t be employed? Try volunteering; it’s commitment without the pressure. Before I was well enough to have paid employment, I volunteered at a local kids club, at church and for a mutual-help support group.

2. Organise to have a tea/coffee at a cute cafe least once a week with a ‘no pressure’ friend.

3. Spread out doctors, specialist and support appointments so they are on different days.

4. Access your local community centre or mental health support service. There are plenty of organisations funded by the government who organise activities (e.g. choirs, art lessons, computer tutorials, community gardens and tours) and mutual support groups for people with mental or physical illnesses.

5. Don’t do a massive grocery shop, rather, get what I need for a day or two. This forces you to go out and get a few groceries 3-4 days a week. This has the added benefit of cooking with/eating fresh fruit, veggies and meat.

6. Make bookings! I love going to the theatre and the cinema. Booking tickets in advance can force you out of the house, lest you waste good money on something fun.13987851_1063897257012450_1674396231_o

7. Make a list of all the things you enjoy doing when my mental health is good and give a copy to those in your support network. It can often be obsolete to say, ‘do something you enjoy’ to a depressed person as a symptom of depression is that you can’t think of something you could enjoy. This is where my list comes in handy, it reminds me (and others) of the activities that can get me out of the house/bed and will improve my mood – even if it’s a smidgen, it’s worth it.

8. Give yourself credit where credit is due and don’t be hard on yourself when you do stay in bed or the house all day. Learning to manage mental illness is a long learning process. Write-off a bad day and have an early night because tomorrow is a new day.

I’ll be the first to admit that balancing mental health strategies with physical illnesses can make this harder; for example, I’ve had non-stop dizziness for five days and can’t drive, leave the house or operate machinery (in this case some appliances/hot stovetop).

For these sick or flare-up days, my goal is to get out of bed, brush my teeth and eat my meals or watch Netflix while sitting in the sun. If I can add a shower, play with some pastels, paint, read, welcome a visitor, or walk to the mailbox, it’s a productive day.

Then when I get better, or my flare up ends, I’ll start leaving the house again.

What helps you get out of the house when you body is telling you otherwise?

30 Ways to Creatively Engage with your Illness

It’s easy to lose interest in life when you’re consumed with pain, depression and other awful symptoms. I’ve found engaging with my illnesses and experience creatively very empowering.

You don’t have to be the next Van Gough, Ansel Adams, Sylvia Plath, PewDiePie or Alicia Keys to be creative. I have compiled a list if ‘creative’ things you can have a go at, even if you think you suck.

By creative, I mean expressing yourself in an imaginative, artistic, innovative, inspirational, personal or unique way. You can ‘creatively engage’ with your illness by using any creative medium to:

  • process the pain and grief your illness has caused;
  • externalise overwhelming feelings;
  • articulate acceptance;
  • rest and relax;
  • create awareness about your illness;
  • reach out for support;
  • distract yourself for a while;
  • innovate a way to re-engage with an activity your illness has prevented you from doing;
  • encourage others to persevere;
  • show others they’re not alone in their illness;
  • remind yourself that you have hope;
  • share your story and experience;
  • reveal your resilience and strength;
  • ask for support;
  • project positivity;
  • express gratitude, and
  • break stigma.

Here is a list of 30 ways you can engage creatively as another tool to help you manage your journey with chronic illness.

morethanmanysparrows1. Go for a stroll in the park, a walk on the beach or simply sit in your sunny backyard and take a few pictures. Anyone can take a photo of the grass, a tree, a bird, the clouds and the sun on their phone. If you’re feeling a bit crazy, add your favourite filter.

2. Pick a photo you have taken, or download a free stock image and add the cheesiest quote you can find (or your favourite quote or verse from scripture.) You can use a photo editing program (like Photoshop or GIMP), a website (like Canva), or even Microsoft Word.

10383479_660858887316291_6416940749823705263_n3. Type and print encouraging statements with fun fonts to put on your wall.

4. Print your favourite family or holiday photos and make a collage. If you’re renting and don’t want to risk ruining the walls with blue tac, you can get a whiteboard or cork-board. I spray painted an ugly room divider to use as a giant pin board. …or you could finally scrapbook those holiday and baby photos.

5. Give colouring-in a try. The adult colouring in fad has taken the world by storm, have you tried it yet? Buy one from Kmart or your local bookstore, borrow your child’s activity book or find a picture to print through a ‘Google Images‘ search.

6.Communicate with pictures. Visualise your how you feel and what it’s like to live with your illness and paint or draw it.

244319_151690988233086_385182_o7. Experiment! Go crazy, painting, sketching and blending with different mediums. Most variety shops sell (oil, soft and hard) pastels, charcoal, (acrylic, watercolour and oil) paint and canvas pads. Experimenting is fun and can be a great distraction. On bad days I’ve been known to see how many shades of black, white and grey I can mix into one picture. When I’m feeling a bit more optimistic, I’ll play with colour.

8. I’m an awful drawer, but sometimes it’s fun to sketch. My favourite is creating stick-figure comics.

9. Too scared to try karaoke? You can now download karaoke apps onto your phone or tablet to take ‘singing in the shower’ to the next level.

10. Pick up the musical instrument you haven’t played in years. We all have a recorder hidden at the back of our wardrobe. My preference is the guitar – after 10 years I still can’t read music.

11. Write a song to share what it’s like having your illness and encourage others.

12. Don’t have a musical bone in your body? Try changing the lyrics to a song or nursery rhyme.

13. Create playlists for every occasion: to relax, feel like singing, angst, fight songs, etc.mr-g-gif (1)

14. Make up an interpretive dance – I can never go past Vanessa Carlton’s 1000 Miles.

15. Write a short story.

16. Create a character you can relate to and write a monologue, one-act play, radio script or a short film to explore and communicate the characters journey.

17. Start a journal/diary, blogging or (and you don’t have to edit and publish it for the world to see, but if you have a laptop with a webcam) a video journal. tumblr_n6eu9xazEC1s79tl2o1_500.gif

18. Write a poem – if you don’t ‘do poetry’ you could always start with a simple HaikuUntitled design or Limerick.

19.Write a letter to yourself.

20. Turn statistics, research and (accurate) medical information into an infographic.

21. Put on an apron and be a MasterChef by cooking your favourite cuisine or experimenting with a classic dish.

22. Create the next ‘Paralympic Sport’ – if there is a physical activity/sport you love, but can no longer play it due to your illness, come up with an adaptation that fits your physical
limitations.535131_752938168174916_8494518392625972808_n

23. Knit! You can never have too many scarves, beanies or comfort blankets. This beautifully adorable yellow teddy was made by Lee Miller.

24. Give your alter ego life and make a (sock) puppet.

25. If you’re a gamer and can code, create a game related to your illness – I dream of playing an arcade game called “The Angry Uterus.”

26. Design a personal tattoo (which is in no way a commitment to get a tattoo).

27. Make some (awareness) jewellery.

28. Design a t-shirt and wear your message. You can never have13064520_10153945092096329_3814720925769389373_o too many awareness t-shirts! (Although my mother would disagree.)

29. Get pretty and expressive, experimenting with makeup and nail art. This fantastic body art is by Kiley Inman.

30. Download a meme generator and amuse yourself.

If you can afford it, pick a hobby/skill and invest in some lessons. I’ve chosen to prioritise a half an hour singing lesson every two weeks into my budget. I then record the lesson so I can continue to practice between classes. It is both empowering and encouraging to see the progress/development of that still over time.

Ask others to get involved; sometimes it’s nice just to relax with a friend and have fun together. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. I’ve also had friends with artistic talent sit down and teach me for no cost.

The most important thing to remember is not to be a perfectionist. It’s not about the finished product; it’s about engaging with your illness, disease or disability in a creative way.  Short-term, being creative will help you relax, decrease tension and give you another way to communicate. The long-term benefits of developing this habit is often insight, acceptance and healing.

I’d love to hear from you!
Do you have anything to share?
Do you have anything to add the list?
Have you noticed the benefits of engaging creatively with your illness?

What ‘in Sickness and in Health’ Really Means

First published on The Mighty.

If you’re thinking about marriage – you may be engaged, talking about engagement or fanaticising about marrying that beautiful man. Whatever your status is, seriously ask yourself, are you really ready to say “I do.”

After writing a letter to my newly divorced self I realised, at 20 years old, my fiancé had no idea what he was committing to. When he looked into my eyes, shaking with nerves and excitement as he said “I do,” he actually didn’t understand what “in sickness and in health” meant.

I was pretty healthy! I was studying full time and had two jobs. Yes, he knew about my struggle with depression and had cared for me through many chest and sinus infections. Even though he knew all that when he put a ring on it, he was not prepared for Chronic Pain, Endometriosis and PCOS. Really, who is?

When we married in November 2010 we were both pretty healthy. Sadly, the chronic pain from endometriosis had well and truly set in during my January period. We had barely been married two months and his promise to love me in sickness and health was already being tested.

What does in sickness and in health mean?

Sure, you’re both healthy now. You can run, go for strolls on the beach, have a 10 pin bowling date, have painless sex and ready to stick by your partner for better and worse. But…

Are you willing to take an income hit when if they can’t work full time?

Are you willing to use days off to drive your partner to the doctors?

Are you willing to accept potential infertility?

Are you willing to see a marriage counsellor to help you process the grief and changes together?

Are you willing to see a sex therapist, even if it is super embarrassing and awkward?

Are you willing to deal with your grief?

Are you willing suck up your pride, seek your own support and see a counsellor yourself to help you accept, process and manage your own feelings of loss, disappointment, resentment, anger, bitterness and unfairness?

Are you willing to use your leave to help care for your partner if they need surgery?

Are you willing to watch the person you love the most in this world suffer physical and mental pain?

Are you willing to advocate for your partner when they have lost hope and when no one else will?

Are you willing to learn about the illness with your partner?

Are you willing to do ask your friends and family for support?

Are you willing to try new activities, ones that you can do together, things you wouldn’t have tried until your options were limited?

Are you going to stick around and choose to love that person every day until ‘death do us part,’ even if you hate the illness?

It is true that you never know how you will react in a situation until you’re in it. But if you can’t answer yes to many of these questions, maybe it’s something to think about.

 

Five Years Ago, Today…

Five years ago today I woke up bright and early, headed to Bankstown Hospital. I waited in a small room with an elderly couple until the nurse called my name. I am tagged, weighed and dressed in a beautiful white gown, socks that didn’t cover my toes and what I can only describe as a cotton, blue shower cap. I confirmed by details and hopped into bed. I had been told not to take any painkillers when I woke up, so they checked my details a second time and gave me some IV-Panadol. Not long after they wanted to be really sure they had the right person and checked my details yet again before rolling me into the pre-op room.

Enter Gyno, “so, Alexandra, I see we are doing a cystectomy today.”
“Uh, no. The cyst resolved itself; you said you were doing an exploratory laparoscopy.”
He giggles “Oh, okay then,” as he looks up from his notes.

They confirm my identity one more time before the anaesthetist gently squeezes my hand, gives me the mask and asks me to count slowly down from ten.

10… 9… 8…


I woke myself up with my own screaming a few hours later. “Did they find anything?”

It turns out, they did. Here Annie will show you what the inside of my pelvis looked like before the Gyno removed the Endometriosis (versus a healthy one).

Annie and 1st Endo (1)

Hi!

As I left the hospital a few hours later, walking in the hunched posture my body had become accustomed, a nurse said, “walk straight, you’re all fixed now.” I believed her.

Even though the surgery wasn’t a cure and it didn’t take away the pain, I was finally validated. I was no longer mystically causing myself physical pain with my mind. There was a reason. There was a disease. It was my diagnosis day.

Today marks my 5 year anniversary since I was diagnosed and look how far I have come since! Praise God!

So it with a healthy mix of sarcasm, cynicism, gratitude and hope that I say…

Happy Endoversary, Alex!

We’re All In This Together

I received some snail mail yesterday – an actual letter of the fun kind. It was such a joy to find it in my letter box, open and read it! A dear friend, a sister in Christ and chronic illness sent it from Sydney. We bonded during my gluten, dairy, and soy free diet trial; she was such an encouragement and had wealth of knowledge to make it a bit easier. When I opened the letter, I found “Chronic Illness Achievement” magnets. I was reminded that despite the pain, fatigue and headspins, I got out of bed, was kind and gentle with myself and I survived the day! It’s made this current, trifecta of a flare up just a little bit easier.

There are so many things about having an illness that is so hard, sucky and unfair. Yesterday I was reminded of one of the blessings – the community, solidarity, friendship and mutual support that can only come from shared experiences. It sucks that we have to go through the trails that we do, but at least we aren’t alone.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a member of some exclusive clubs:

When you can relate to people who also feel alone and misunderstood, no words can describe the relief and gratitude. While I was attending pain clinic, I made some beautiful friends whoes lives had been impacted in a similar way to me. One of the most significant and helpful parts of the program were these relationships. While I was in Lismore, I participated in a 12 step program where I found mutual support and understanding from others with mental illness. I made more more progress after 12 months of mutual help then I did with six years of one on one therapy. And last month I organised a met up with three other women who have Endo and living in Brisbane – we spent nearly 3 hours sharing our struggles and most of that time we were in laughter as we told our horror stories that no one else understands. Some of my closest friendships grew because we share pain, emotional and physical and had experienced the life-altering impacts it had on our lives.

I need to thank a zillion people for being on my support team – but this is my thank you to the many friends who have been able to encourage and support me as we have learnt to live with chronic illnesses. Thank you for being honest and vulnerable. Thank you for sharing and listening. Thank you for supporting me and letting me help you. Thank you for showing me I wasn’t alone when my feelings were telling me otherwise. Thank you for praying with me and for me. Thank you for your kind words and genuinely checking in when you were barely functioning yourself. Thank you for teaching me self-care and compassion. Thank you for pointing me to Jesus so that I could rely on God, rather than my weaknesses. Thank you for being a mirror so that I could see reality more clearly.

Remember, we are not alone and to believe that you are completely isolated is a lie from the enemy. You have me and have millions of others who, even though their individual experiences may be different, understand. They want to support you the way others have supported them and social media has made connecting and networking with people so much easier – especially the days you struggle to get out of bed!

My prayer is that you will find the courage, energy, and spoons needed to meet others who ‘get it and are also trying to manage their illnesses one step at a time. Feel free to send me a message – I’m an extrovert, so I love conversations and if I’m not well enough to chat today, I will tomorrow.

tumblr_mzsn1kDZD21tq4of6o1_250.gif

…and even though we may not be able to physically dance like the wildcats, we’re all in this together.

To My Newly Separated Self After My Illness Led to Divorce

Writing this was emotional and cathartic. Not yet had the guts to post this on personal pages – maybe one day.

To My Newly Separated Self After My Illness Led to Divorce

Two and a half years later, I’ve written the letter I wish I could have read when my marriage ended because of my chronic illnesses.

To my newly separated self,

It’s over. It’s actually over. The person you loved the most has gone. Your best friend abandoned you. The person who made you a lifelong promise of commitment “for better and for worse… in sickness and in health” in front of your friends and family has walked away. No more cuddles, no more sweet texts, no more dinner dates… just — gone.

Yes, it is unfair, and it is scary. I know you’re heartbroken, hurting, ashamed and grieving. I can still remember feeling as if my heart was being ripped out through my stomach. I know you’re hurt, scared of judgment and being alone…

… but please give yourself space to grieve. You had already lost so much, your body, your mind, your dreams for the future and now your partner. Loss of any kind is difficult to deal with, so allow yourself to grieve. Cry, binge on Netflix, burn your photos, buy some new clothes, change your hair, eat liters of ice cream, absorb yourself in a book or visit your best mate — do whatever you need to do to process the reality that the relationship is over. The only wrong way to mourn is to deny yourself of the right and necessity to grieve.

Know that your spouse wasn’t rejecting you, they were trying to escape the illness. I don’t say this to justify the broken promises, nor devalue your pain. I say it to discourage self-blame, self-hate guilt and shame, because it is not your fault. You didn’t get to choose to be healthy, but your spouse chose not to love you unconditionally or honor their commitment.

Please don’t isolate yourself — you are not alone. Many relationships in which one partner has a chronic illness break down. It feels easier to stay in bed and not face the world, but there are people in your life who care about you and want to offer support. Yes, yes, some people will always be ignorant, but many will surprise you, and you can learn to ignore the ignorance. Besides, those who have dismissed your illness in the past may finally understand how it has infiltrated every part of your life.

Allow others to show you compassion and how valuable you are. It will help fight against and disprove the lies that you are unlovable, worthless, damaged goods or alone. It will reflect how resilient you have become. When people reach out, don’t send them away and when people feel far away, ask for support.

Learn to accept and forgive. Unfortunately, we live in a broken world inhabited with broken people that have broken relationships. This sad reality means forgiveness is necessary, unless you desire to grow bitter. The spiritual and emotional freedom that comes from forgiveness will help you accept your new life and grieve. Forgiveness, freedom and acceptance are far better than being consumed by hatred.

So don’t lose hope. Instead, share your pain, fears, tears, tissues, Netflix subscription, and tubs Ben and Jerry’s. Remember to say to yourself, “I have a restored relationship with the powerful creator of the universe, and his faith gives me tangible hope. I am loved and resilient. It’s OK to grieve. I can forgive and persevere.”

Besides, now that you’re single, you no longer have to consider someone else in most decisions you make or shave your legs every week. You can eat the food you want, spend more time with friends, choose the TV channel and work toward regaining your independence. 

Know that you have the strength to grieve your previous life and accept this new one. Keep trucking on.

With care, compassion, empathy and love,

Your divorced self.

P.S. I don’t recommend looking at wedding photos too much — it’s not a fun time!

How To Support Someone With a Chronic Illness: Listen

If you love someone with a Chronic Illness, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, confused and hopeless. What can you possibly do to help them? It can seem impossible, especially when it’s a struggle for the unwell person to understand and comprehend what would help his/herself.

Last month I had a few friends join me to watch a special screening of a documentary called “Endo What?” After the movie two of them asked, “what can I say to, or do for someone who tells me, ‘I have Endo?’ How can I support them?” I confess, hesitated before I could reply because everyone is different and has individual needs.

Even when I look at myself, there is a stark contrast; what I need today is very different to what I needed two, four and even eight years ago. The only way to find out what someone needs is to listen to him or her. You may find that listening and believing what you hear is more than enough.

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At the moment, I am pretty stable. I am managing the symptoms well and have reached an emotional state of acceptance. The most supportive act someone could do for me today is to listen to my rants. I want to create awareness and help others to empathize compassionately with the next ‘Endo Sister’ they meet. I want them to recognize the signs and symptoms, so if they know someone who is suffering, they won’t conclude that they’re just “faking it” and instead, encourage them to look into Endo themselves. If you know more than ten women, you know someone with Endo, and many remain suffering, in the dark, undiagnosed.

Alex in 2005 and early 2011 needed someone to listen to my experiencing and validate the pain, not just assume I was overreacting or faking it. In 2010, I couldn’t drive, cook or clean and those close to me quickly knew I needed help with those tasks.

Two to four years ago, Alex needed someone to listen and hug me as I cried. I needed people to hear about the pain and acknowledge the strength it took to get out of bed every day.

18- 24 months ago I needed someone to listen and see how hopeless and suicidal I was. Those who listened understood I was desperate. They knew I just needed to hear someone say, ‘I’m here for you, and we will keep trying different treatments until you get better.’

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By truly listening to someone you can begin to understand what is at the core of the sorrow and frustration, and thus offer better support. This is called “active listening.” By focusing on your friend, avoiding distractions, being non-judgmental, reflecting and clarifying what you’ve heard them say and asking open questions are a few simple active listening skills. Active listening is the beginning of exercising empathy and compassion.

Sometimes we need a hug. Sometimes we need to grieve, cry and vent. Sometimes we need a good distraction, and sometimes we need to laugh. Other times we need practical help, for example, by being a taxi service, chef or offer room service. Often we can’t verbalize or even identify our needs are, but if you listen to us, you can help us reflect on our foggy and disjointed thoughts so we can start to understand ourselves.

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I believe this applies to any Chronic Illness. I would give the same answer to someone who asked for advice on how to support someone with PCOS, Chronic Pain or Mental Illness. The only way you can begin to help someone genuinely and effectively is to listen first.

If you ask the right questions and pay attention to what the person is communicating you will probably find they’re been trying to tell you what they need for a very long time. Unfortunately, medication, pain and other symptoms can mince our words, which require a bit more attention and reflection to get to the bottom of what is being said.

You can’t just assume that because your friend Jane Doe is having one experience, your cousin, Jillian is having the same experience. We all have different symptoms, comforts, effective distraction methods and relievers. Our functionality is as different as the severity of symptoms. The one thing we all have in common is the need to be loved, connected, wanted, valued, cared for and supported.

So the next time you’re feeling confused or overwhelmed by a loved ones illness. Stop. Ask. Listen. Reflect. Repeat. If you genuinely hear what’s being said and clarify: you can’t really go wrong, and at the very least, they will feel valued and validated through listening.

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‘Destined’ to be Depressed

The Problem with Dysthymia (or Persistent/Chronic Depressive Disorder)

Dysthymia isn’t a word most people hear, even for those with a chronic depression diagnosis. According to the DSM-V, Dysthymia (or PDD/Persistent Depressive Disorder) is a mood disorder where you experience a low-level depression that lasts for at least two years.

If you’re like me, depression is normal. When I reached high school and started to make genuine friends, I was shocked to learn that deep down, most people didn’t want to die. I was amazed that most other people didn’t cringe at the thought of spending another 40, 50, 60 years stuck in your body, living with yourself. But not only was that not normal; it wasn’t healthy.

Depression runs in my family, on both sides, so I knew I had depression. Unfortunately 15 years ago, no one would diagnose or medicate a teenager, let alone a child. But as an adult, I’ve tried every treatment for depression under the sun and when nothing seems to ‘fix you,’ it’s easy to start thinking ‘maybe I was destined to be depressed.’

The problem with Dysthymia is…

 …that it is exhausting and relentless.

Medication and psychotherapy improve symptoms but doesn’t relieve them. You don’t get a chance to ‘relapse’ because you were never really in recovery. Hopelessness is hard to fight against when depression is relentless and its core is pessimism, sorrow, apathy, agitation, emptiness, lethargy and self-hatred. Compound that with never getting a break. That hobby you love can only placate you for a few hours (at the most). That movie will only distract you for minutes.

It feels like no matter how hard you try, there is no escape route. Imagine the person who annoys you the most, that person whose company only agitates and shatters you. Imagine never being able to get a minute away from that person, because it’s you.

Getting out of bed often feels like I’ve exerted the same amount of energy as you would at a gym session. The motivation to make healthy choices and maintain personal hygiene is arduous. The mental and emotional preparation needed to participate in activities just wipes me out. It never ends. It is exhausting.

…that it has nothing to do with life circumstances.

It was day 2 of my honeymoon when I texted my mum, “I love my job, I love what I am studying and I’ve just married the man I love, but I am still depressed.”

I was shocked as I sent it. Why can’t I just be ‘happy’?

When you have dysthymia, you can’t honestly answer ‘good’ when someone asks how you are, even if your circumstances are ‘good’ and stress-free. This only compounds the hopelessness, adds to the sadness and intensifies to the guilt. You can see the good things happening around you. You can appreciate the beautiful people in your life. You want to enjoy the things everyone else does… but you can’t. 

…the preference to die.

How ungrateful! You should be thankful you are alive. Life is a precious gift. There are plenty of people who have it worse. Your life isn’t that bad.

All of these things are true. Logically I understand it, but emotionally? I just can’t. I’m not suicidal; I won’t kill myself, nor do I have the plan to do so – but all I want is to escape myself and for the depression to end. If a bus ran over me, I’d be okay with it. If someone told me that I had 24 hours to live, I think I would dance. Often the thought of living another ten years is overwhelming, let alone 50 or 60.

Expressing these thoughts and feelings can mean future, legitimate suicidal ideations appear fake or a cry for attention (rather than genuine help). To say, “I wish I were dead,” is not a lie. Unfortunately, most people cannot distinguish genuinely suicidal thoughts from a less extreme preference to die.

…it’s so easy to hide.

When you’ve been depressed so long, it’s not only normal for you, but normal for those around you. People may not realise you’re depressed because that’s ‘just how you are,’ and it’s easier to be labelled a pessimist. If the symptoms are normal and treatments haven’t seemed to work, I think most people are less likely to seek extra help and support. If there appear to be no red flags to, well, flag – why bother, why waste my time and the doctors? It’s can be easier just to keep trotting away, as you have been, pretending everything is okay.

…the high rate of comorbidity.

 Due to the chronic nature of dysthymia, it rarely stays at that ‘lower-level’ – enter Double Depression. Depression (Major Depressive Disorder) is episodic – it has a beginning and an end. Many who receive effective treatment only experience depression once and others relapse, but it ends. I believe this is why, in Australia, only ten sessions with a psychologist is covered under Medicare. Ten is often enough.

…treatment is as long term as the disease.

I’ve been taking medication since 2008, and I am likely to be taking it until the day I die. I have seen a string of counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals since 1998. I will probably have to for the rest of my life.

Because our brains have the ability to adapt constantly, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of treatment for all forms of depression. CBT is about thought monitoring: consciously catching, challenging and changing your thoughts. Over time, the way your brain processes information changes, your feelings follow and eventually this becomes the norm – welcome to recovery.

Thought monitoring is exhausting, but for me, it never ends. Despite nearly 20 years of CBT, my brain hasn’t quite been able to make it natural. So, if I want to manage my mood and maintain some control, I have to CONSTANTLY assess and monitor my thoughts so that I can challenge them. It’s the only way not to spiral into a dark pit when stress rears its ugly head. It’s the only way I can try to shorten and minimise the frequency and intensity of an episode of Double Depression.

Not only this, but long term depression can also trigger other health issues, like anxiety, side-effects from medication, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, tension headaches, IBS, TMJD, addiction, obesity and insomnia. Persistent depression is rarely ‘just’ dysthymia.

The good news is that you’re not alone.

Unfortunately, mental illness is common – 1 in 5 Australians will experience a mental illness in any given year. The good news is, this means that awareness is increasing and mutual support is easier to find. It means that everyday stigma decreases and a treatment becomes more accessible. Find comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

With the right support networks – GP, psychiatrist, psychologist, family and friends – I have become more aware of my mood and have finally learnt to manage it. Double depression is decreasing, as the depressive episodes get shorter. I’m learning to practice self-compassion, rather than guilt. Every day, it gets a little bit easier to exercise and convert my unhelpful thoughts to helpful thoughts. Hope shouts a little louder than hopelessness. The deeper my relationship with God becomes, my capacity to fully trust Him and have genuine hope for complete healing increases.

Exercise, forcing yourself out of bed every day, taking your medication regularly, contributing to your community, meeting with friends, prayer, participating in therapy and leisure activities are just a few thing prescribed to treat depression. Be patient and persevere – healing and developing healthy habits takes time. Be honest about how you’re feeling and coping with life. Follow the guidance and advice of health care professionals. Find people who understand and will show you compassion when you can’t show it to yourself.

If I can learn to manage it, so can you.