War Paint

A day after the Las Vegas shooting, a good friend of mine, who had cowered at the Mandalay all night, posted a pic of herself on Facebook, and I applauded.

She’s a good-looking woman Lori, and she looks good in pics, but in this pic she looked spectacular. Strong, Resilient, Determined.

Why?

She had her war paint on.

A flash of bright red defiance carefully outlining her lips, she looked every inch the Warrior Princess. Xena would have been so proud. I was, and in the month that followed, when everything turned to custard in my own DownUnder world, I had the need to follow her example.

The day after taking my man to the hospital I woke and dressed carefully. I was reeling. My face was wan, my eyes red and bagged, but on my lips, I applied my favourite red lipstick.

In applying the lippy I was screaming to myself, to the world, to God to everyone – I will not lie down and be defeated. I am strong. (Even though I don’t feel it.) I am hopeful. (Even though I can’t always see how it will be OK in the end.)

I. Am. Brave.

And all of a sudden I realised the power behind Rosie the Riveter’s red lips.

And the power of raising a generation’s morale during World War 11 with Victory Red (Elizabeth Arden). 

Perhaps, more movingly, I remembered this story about lipstick and the part it played in giving hope to the women in Bergen Belsen.

When the Allied forces freed Bergen Belsen on April 15, 1945, they were horrified by the brutal destruction. Men, women and children were dying at a rate of 500 per day. The soldiers were devastated by what they saw, and  Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945 said in his diary

I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.

But after the Red Cross visited the camp – no one knows if the visit was somehow connected with the event that came after – a large supply of red lipstick was donated to the female concentration camp survivors. As Gonin says, it was a stroke of genius.

I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Famed street artist and social commentator Banksy depicts the scene at Bergen Belsen.

Even at the brink of destruction women used their self-expression through the application of red lipstick, to scream – we are still here. We will not simply fade away.

We are still brave.

Then, and now, we can keep going.

How can I help?

mental-illness

The Top Ten Things You Can do to Help Mental Illness sufferers

The crisis is over. The prayers and thoughts have, no doubt, been said and thought, and we are returned to normal life. Our new normal. It’s like the old normal, but if you peer closely at the window you can see the cracks – tiny, ominous cracks – in the glass pane.

mental-illness
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Someone once said that no-one brings a casserole to the family of someone who has had a Mental Health crisis, and that has been my experience. That’s not because they don’t care, but rather they don’t know what to do. Instead, they say –

“..let me know if I can help…”

“…what can I do?”

“…you’re in my thoughts and prayers…”

All good and all appreciated. After all, who doesn’t want to be prayed for and thought of? But the other phrases are problematic, and it’s not because they are uncaring. Most often, they are said with great love and thought.

They just don’t actually help.

In saying this, I’m not trying to get at anyone. I completely understand that life is busy and demanding and people have their own shit to wade through. Believe me, I understand. I don’t doubt that people are genuine and really want to help, it’s just there are better ways of helping. Here are a few ideas of how you can help when someone you know is suffering through *Dante’s tenth circle of hell – mental illness.

1/ Don’t ask how you can help

I’ve asked this question many times myself and thought I was being kind, but I’ve just recently thought of something that might dissuade you from asking this.

When you ask the person (usually the ill one or their close relative/friend) how you can help you are actually transferring the decision-making process to that already burdened one. Hell, the sick one doesn’t even know what day of the week it is and their spouse is likely to be too concerned about real practical matters – did I feed the dog this morning? Can the kids let themselves in? Will there be cops on the road who will pull me up for having an out-of-date rego?

They don’t know how you can help! Hell, they don’t even know what they need!

2/ Be practical

If the ill one is an adult member of a family you can be sure of one thing – the family is likely suffering financially. They probably have suffered financially for quite some time as the ill one has become increasingly unable to contribute to earning.  In some mental illnesses, an irrational attitude to money can take over and the ill one can end up spending the rent on library fines, or on Lotto because God told them they would win big this week, or maybe they stopped contributing to the household groceries because they thought everyone had to go on a starvation diet.

What you can do

Instead of asking if they need meals, perhaps give them a voucher for the local supermarket. This is likely more helpful than money, especially if the ill one has access to the family funds from the hospital. Or maybe offer to make a deposit into the relative’s private account – if you have access. One of the nicest things anyone has done for me was giving me some cash that I could spend on myself. Granted I spent most of it on groceries for the family, but the thought still makes me well up.

3/ Be moral support 

It can be easy to forget the ones left at home. After all, they’re not ill, are they? Actually, they could very well be ill, and only just coping. Research suggests that mental illness affects everyone in the family group and that often couples match when both of them suffer a mental illness. Bummer! It is not uncommon for the Bipolar sufferer to have a clinically depressed husband, or for the Schizophrenic patient to have an Anorexic girlfriend. Birds of a feather flock together.

What you can do

For the time being the hospitalised one is getting treatment and care (we hope!) but the ones left at home are usually left to cope with an extremely difficult situation. Things that can help – take them out for the day! Not for deep and meaningful conversations but rather to a movie or for a drink somewhere nice or even for a walk in the park or beach. Do something nice for them. Or if time is lacking, send them a pedicure voucher or a massage treatment voucher – something frivolous and mood-lifting.

5/ Ditch the shaming

No one asked for this! Not the ill one, or their spouse or their family. Whilst it’s understandable that some people in the extended family can feel huge embarrassment about one of their own suffering a mental illness, it really isn’t on in this day and age. Shame helps no-one. Just as the ill one shouldn’t be told to ‘sort themselves out ‘ so to their wife or husband shouldn’t be reprimanded for feeling sad, grieving, or sorry for themselves. Shaming people who are already suffering just isn’t helpful. Stop it! Our society has come a long way from the days of Bedlam and the looney bin, we need to start being more supportive and more open of families touched by mental illness. We can all start by calling it what it is – an illness! Not a character flaw, moral failing or demonic possession.

What you can do

By all means, keep praying – everyone can do with some prayer – and thinking of them, especially if that thinking leads you to do practical things for them. Be open and honest about your own mental illness experience. Don’t give up on your friend or relative, they will get there, it just might take some time. Don’t be discouraged if they relapse. Don’t keep it a secret. Call it what it is and if that’s not possible, then be discreet. If you tell the curious that your loved one is in the hospital for treatment for a long-standing illness then they would have to be socially inept to push for more details. Let’s talk publically about mental illness, just as we talk about diabetes, cancer and broken femurs.

6/ Don’t speak

I admit it. I’ve been doing this one wrong for years. I always thought that sharing my understanding (and often, my story) with the suffering ones enhanced empathy, but reading this article blew me away. I didn’t mean to be conversationally narcissistic!

What you can do

We have two ears and one tongue for a reason. This is a very good time to employ the ears, not the tongue.

7/ Isolation

Mental illness, like divorce and cancer, is not contagious. There really is no need for the isolation ward. Whilst it’s true that some families prefer to suffer in silence and in private, others don’t need or want to be excluded from society. The same applies to the ill one when they return from the hospital. They do not need to be left alone, rather a great deal can be achieved with their return to normality. One of the most healing things we experienced as a family was spending a sunny afternoon with our neighbours, their kids and the dog, just hanging out. For a few brief hours, no one mentioned the war and it was bliss.

What you can do

Ask your friend if they’d like to join you on that trip out, or over for a BBQ. Don’t panic that the conversation will be awkward and there is no need to hide the ill one away from children, or elderly relatives. For a moment pretend they have a broken leg. Now, how ridiculous would it be to exclude them because their leg was in a cast?

8/ Don’t judge

Yes, it might be wildly inappropriate that your ill son’s wife drank a bottle of Chardonnay got messily drunk and wrote sadly passive-aggressive posts on Facebook, and that one of their kids punched the schoolyard Dennis the Menace in the nose. Inappropriate sure, but also understandable. People do weird things when they’re stressed, or grieving.

What you can do

Instead of judging (and seriously, who are you to judge?) be kind. Help them fix the mess and remind them that they are a fallible, stressed-out human who is struggling to cope. Remind them, they’re not on their own and you are there for them.

9/ Support Crew

There is this wonderful app out there called Support Crew which gathers together a posse of helpful humans and dishes out jobs they can actually do to help the family. Jobs like walking the dog, washing the car, registering the dog, making a meal, taking the kids out etc. I’ve not seen it used for Mental Illness only for families stricken by cancer or sudden death etc. but it should be used. It’s awesome. It completely takes away the need for the family to constantly ask for help. (see 1/)

10/ Don’t be obligated

It’s only natural you want to help, but if you were brutally honest with yourself, can you? Are you able to help? It seems the way of things that those who have too much on their plate end up being the helpers, and those who really could pitch in, don’t even think about it. Thing is if you go ahead and help out of your own lack and your own stressful situation that help will end up causing bitterness. Brene Brown talks about boundaries in her work and makes the salient point that if you give too much you’ll end up causing an indebtedness and eventually bitterness.

What you can do

Be realistic. What can you do that you actually want to do? Making a casserole might not be your thing right now with all those balls you got in the air, so why not schedule a coffee and cake with your friend. Or send them a take-good-care voucher. Or open your home. Or send them flowers (if they’re flower-liking folk) or chocolate or wine. Or take the kids out to play with yours. Or to school. Or make lunches for those kids. Or get Woop in for a week’s meals. Or walk the dog, wash the dog, feed the dog. Send them a card with true real tangible ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Or a Spotify Cheer Up Playlist. But whatever you choose to do, do it with love and in a way that’s mindful of your relationship with that person and what you can actually do.

So that’s my top ten things you can do to help someone and their family in a mental health crisis. Do you have any other things you’ve done that went down well? Would love to hear your thoughts on Facebook, or under this post in the comments.

*Dante didn’t mention Mental Health in his tome, but if he’d known about it he would have.

The Reckoning

I can’t remember feeling young. 

I was that kid who seemed to have an other-worldly shift about my drooped shoulders. At University I was the go-to for deep and meaningful conversations about life, the Universe and everything.

And yet now, I even type in old age into Google and I don’t get a sage old woman brimming with sense and wisdom. NO, I get that pic of a Bedouin woman, all dried out.

Dried out? And now I embarrass my children – dried out, really? 

I have been wise for as long as I can remember, and that’s OK. It’s just, recently I’ve been feeling old.

It’s not about the silver wisdom streaks I have painted in fire red at the hairdressers’ every six weeks or so. It’s not because of the silver streaks across my expanding flank, or thigh. It’s not about the lack of attention…I was promised invisibility in my forties and yet I still seem to enjoy the cheeky smile or cursive eyebrow that suggests something…

No, it’s not those typical markers of age and stage. It’s these, these new-age versions, of the same.

About two months ago my 40 kg puppy (it’s a mindset, not a body frame!) thumped into me side-on and dislodged my knee cap. Amongst the doctor’s whistles and gasps, he murmured about orthopaedic surgeons and on-going physio. I feigned deafness. (An old age sign if ever there was one).

I muttered and swore all the way, the entire 200m from my car to the x-ray rooms but when the elderly gent offered a kind arm I smiled and said ‘no thanks, all good.’ The x-ray results were good and bad.

I don’t have a torn meniscus (yay) but I do have arthritis.

Seriously?

That means, of course, that I can never again run-off the excess from a weekend of wine and pork. Does anyone know if Pilates can have the same calorie gazumping effect?

Following the arthritis diagnosis, which was by no means a small thing, there was the continuing discussions with my Mum who has been more than a little unwell. We’re not sure how old she is – she says 78yrs, my birth certificate suggests 80 years.

Does it really matter?

What does matter is that she has become increasingly unwell. Oxygen reliant, unwell. Prayers in the 2 am dark, unwell. My elegant, vivacious, character of a Mum. And yet in the midst of the stress and the drama I haven’t reacted well. When asked to transport her to A&E I freaked. Barely breathing (me as well as her) I drove like a nutter through the Brissy traffic to the private hospital. Except, no one told me that there are two hospitals side by side in North Brisbane. I’d arrived in my mercy chariot at the wrong one. In the end, I had to wheel the patient in her chair in 26degs heat from one hospital to the other.

Surreal. And sweaty.

To be fair, I didn’t behave well. I tried, but actually, I didn’t manage to pull it off. I was not Florence Nightingale under fire. More a sweary Nurse Ratchett in need of a drink.

I felt old then.

Tired. But then, as far as I’ve observed old and tired are somewhat the same thing. Tiredness can be physical, mental, spiritual. Sometimes, it can simply be all three.

The patient recovered enough to go home and maintain her independence, as is her raison d’etre. I ring when I can. It’s not easy.

I recovered from my sprained knee, but just this past week I’ve been feeling so terribly weathered.

One child (are they really children now?) has gained a boyfriend, one a ‘proper’ job and another a tertiary future she cannot wait to begin.

And me?

This week with the wind and the rain whipping at my heart and mind I’m feeling nest-empty-useless. Oh sure, not working every hour God sends has meant that I can reach out and help those around me, and there have been a few, but in my quiet moments, I wonder ‘what next?’

What’s my mission now? Another book? Sure. But what? What next? What should I be doing?

At 49 years old I don’t feel invisible at all. Perhaps that’s because I have never relied on my physicality, my sexuality. Instead, I’ve relied on my intellectualism. But I’ve never felt physically faded because in reality I never had that physicality at all. Yet, I feel weary. Will a holiday fix it?

My toy-boy husband, six years younger doesn’t suffer the same fate. He wears his wisdom streaks like armour. He should. He’s earnt them. Life’s not been fair to him and he is no longer the carefree young man he once was. I stand by him, and yet, and yet my arthritic knee aches…

Or is it a simple truth – my kids, my parents are moving on. I am no longer the Queen of my environs. And no matter what I do, I have chin hairs and a bloody good starter-beard. I am staring down the reality of an empty nest. Me, my arthritis, exhaustion, and all.

Middle age is a bitch. And no amount of oils, and smoothies and wellness retreats will make it better.

Some women enter the menopausal age with defiance. They are proud crones. Am I? Crone is my second to least favourite c-word. There’s no respect there.

What will make a difference, is a sense of purpose. I’m looking for mine, right now. I’m fighting back the urge to grab a backpack and go save the children. Or fight for the freedom fighters, or to slip the homeless a tenner, or to simply answer the dulcet Facebook Messenger tones when one of the womb fruit need me.

I need a purpose.

Do you have yours? Tell me about it. Inspire me. I have about forty more years on this planet, what should I do with it?

 

Begin again

Image from Pixabay CC

Chris Cornell is dead, and my Facebook feed is full of grief. And posts offering hot cups of tea or coffee and open doors to all who harbour the same kind of desperate suicidal thoughts that plagued the rock star.

But not mine. I don’t feel sad for the man himself.

I feel sorry for Vicky, his wife.

He is gone. He is no longer here to feel sorry for. No, I feel sorry for Vicky, his wife, the one left behind to begin again.

I  know how hard it can be when mental health problems worm into the heart of a family, and once lodged there in all that fleshy, juicy love and care, digs in and starts to poison it.

It’s true that I’m not familiar with the star’s music so perhaps that explains my inability to share in the public outpouring of grief. Or maybe it’s just because I am full up with sorry. 

I’m sorry for the woman who lost her soul mate. I’m sorry for the days, months, years before his death, that were filled with pain and anger and frustration. For all those bitter tortured arguments that lead to tears alone on a bed wondering if he would ever return from wherever he had stormed out to.

I’m sorry for the terrifying sense of responsibility. When you’re the well one in a relationship common wisdom would have it that you are responsible for the care of the other. You analyse the spat out words. Did he or she really mean ‘I hate my life’? How much, did he mean it?  Would he actually act on it?

You’re not the only one who lays the weight of responsibility directly at your feet. Our social services and our overburdened medical services do too. Oh sure, they can write the scripts and deliver the medical remedy, but it is the family who is sent straight back home with their messed-up loved one, to enact the care prescribed by the doctors in their tidy consulting rooms.

They’re the ones asked to monitor the taking of medication. To become immediate medical specialists in recognising signs of deterioration, to try and make do and mend. It’s a mental health crisis out there. So many people hurting. So many people with depression, but God forbid you or your loved one is diagnosed with the less trendy malady – bipolar or schizophrenia.

I’m sorry for the sense of loss. The happy ever after that didn’t happen. The anguish that comes from feeling there’s no way to stop the runaway train and the inevitable tragic end to the journey.

I’m sorry for the guilt. I’m sorry that no matter how hard she tried, how careful and supportive she was, it wasn’t enough to stop him. I’m sorry for her regrets. I’m sorry for her anger. And her soul-destroying guilt.

It never could be enough. We are not responsible for another adult. To ensure the quality and longevity of his life was never her responsibility, but I know she won’t hear it.

All those open doors on Facebook and all those empty tables resplendent with hot drinks and homemade biscuits are pointless hollow gestures.  Damaged people don’t often scour the streets looking for open doors. It’s hard enough calling an anonymous telephone number and crying for help. It’s even harder when they tell you, that your pain or your loved one’s pain is not enough. It doesn’t merit immediate attention. 

‘But if you could just pop down the road and find an open door…’

And let’s hope you don’t feel that way on a weekend when only crisis teams can help. Is it a crisis? How do you know? When they wheel his body away?

Of course, it is dreadfully sad that Chris’ last days were so tortured, that he so desperately needed help and couldn’t find it. It is tragic, but I still don’t cry for him. Funerals are never for the dead, they are for those still living but dying inside.

The helpers who tried to help.

The helpers who reached the end of their patience and kindness and compassion, and had nothing more to give from the empty shell.

The mother who couldn’t reach the son.

The friend who didn’t want to butt in.

The child who lost his Dad and he doesn’t understand.

The Facebook friend, with her well-meaning door wide open.

The wife who tried so hard and now feels this maelstrom of emotions – anger, guilt, fear, loneliness.

The ones left behind who realise just how temporary this life is. How fragile.  Who did what they could. The ones who have to begin living again when they don’t know how. I feel for them with all my aching heart.

What Mum Really Wants on Mother’s Day

Mother-love

She opened the packet with considerably more care than it had been wrapped. Seven-year-old eyes watched closely as she did. Waiting. Lip bitten. Butterfly stomach heaving slightly. Mother’s Day was always stressful.

Will Mum like it?

She’d made it in the lost hours between after-school and dinner time, a time she usually filled with riding her bike to the end of the street and calling out like Tarzan so her voice echoed around the neighbourhood. If not on her bike she would watch after-school programmes on the large square TV that commandeered attention in the lounge. The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, Worzel Gummidge. The best programming from around the world. She would watch transfixed, only moving if the sounds of the theme to Dr Who started. Then she would race to her hiding spot under the stairs where the Daleks could not reach her.

She had sacrificed these lazy after school afternoons to make this Mother’s Day present. The present itself was the best of three efforts and the product of numerous tears and yelps of frustration.

Mum peeled back the jagged strip of sellotape and opening the crumbled package, she took out a small bright red hand knitted rectangular item.

“It’s a purse for all your money!”

Mum carefully turned it over. The front featured a bright red button she’d knicked from the button drawer and cut out opening for the button to ease through. It was starting to fray.

“Do you like it?”

Mum smiled. “I love it.”

Mum leant over and planted a kiss onto dark curls. “Did you make it?”

The little girl nodded. “All by myself!”

The sound of crockery clattering interrupted the conversation and her older sister appeared at the bedroom door, arms full with a tray of toast and tea and a flower picked from the garden.

“Ah, and here’s breakfast,” Mum said with a smile that reached out like hands and pulled the daughters close to her.

“Happy Mother’s Day Mum!”.

 

There are only two things every single Mum wants for Mother’s Day, if not every day, and it’s not diamond bracelets, or expensive perfume, or fancy lunches out. It’s simply these two things.

Time off from the responsibility of being Mum. Time and space to just be and to mother herself, attend to herself for a time without stressing about what’s for dinner or whether there’s clean school uniform for the week ahead, or frantically trying to sort out arguments between siblings or even scheduling calls to absent grown-up children.

Time off. One whole day, each year. Two days if you count her birthday. Don’t mention Christmas, that’s not a holiday, that’s bought, wrapped, fed and delivered to the family by Mum, not Santa Claus.

The second thing is simply loving appreciation. Not expensive or extravagant displays engineered to give the effect of being seen to be loving. No, a clear expression of what being Mum means to those she takes care of. Not just from her children either. It would be ideal if the appreciation was expressed by her husband and all those others she mothers in the extended family and community.

“She’s not my Mum” shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inattention. After all, if all Mums (biological, emotional, spiritual. ALL Mums!) were to stop giving the world would be a far worse place.

The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world, they say. If you have doubt about that consider the twisted energy currently commanding world politics, and consider this question: What would the world look like if it was instead a maternal energy?

This Mother’s Day, go tell the Mum in your life (the person who is Mum to you) how much you love and appreciate her. Consider it your contribution to changing the global mood, or at the very least, honouring the person who has been the faithful midwife to your life and dreams.

And the little red, knitted purse?

It pretty much unravelled and never held coins, but rather it held something far more precious – the simply expressed love of a small girl for her Mum.