Welcome Aboard!

This blog is designed to share experiences, discuss mental health, and provide a platform for catharsis when required. Some of this may be difficult or uncomfortable to read. It is not my purpose to upset people, but from time to time, subject matter may prompt this. Please feel free to comment, or to share your similarities and differences. Look forward to hearing from you. Spammers, or those who are not interested in constructively sharing, will be blocked.

Monday, 10 December 2012


I didn't start out life a neurotic basketcase, it kind of just happened.  By means of an introduction...  I grew up in Kihikihi, a small town of a couple of thousand people in the heart of dairy-farming country, Waikato province in New Zealand.  The name of the town is the Maori word for "cicada", and we had plenty of those, so every summer I would get sung to sleep by them, and would laugh at girls who would run screaming from boys in the playground who would chase them with exoskeletons that they'd picked of trees from the cicadas' final moult.  I had a Mum and a Dad and a little sister and a cat, along with the occasional pet calves that ended up in the freezer.  Normal small-town Kiwi kid stuff really.  My primary school was awesome, we had a fantastic principal, I had a solid core of friends, some of them I'm still in touch with now that I'm in my 30s.  I had a climbing tree that I would scale to what I imagined to be great heights, mainly to escape my little sister, as you do.  I was a total tomboy and loved playing bullrush (tackle version preferably, 3-tag bullrush was for girls and sissies and I was neither).  Catch-and-Kiss, not so much.  We had a nice house and nice neighbours.  We weren't rich or anything, but we were comfortable. 

Apache - the heifer calf who really DID go and live on a farm,
because even Dad couldn't bring himself to eat her!

 My Dad was a self-employed builder, who was very good at his job and took pride in everything he did no matter whether it was an entirely new house or knocking up some cabinets for someone's elderly mother.  To say Dad loved fishing, and loved his vege patch, are complete understatements.  My Mum was a full-time Mum until I started Intermediate, and she was Supermum.  She's an awesome cook, she did all our baking, sewed and knitted a lot of our clothes, was on the PTA, and was always, ALWAYS involved.  She also introduced me to the world of the written word, the world of imagination.  It was my best friend as a kid, along with Misty the cat, but I had no idea it would become an enemy later on in life.  I also started playing the piano when I was about ten, which I really liked.

Dad working his vege patch, with little sis 

and I supervising

I loved primary school.  I did very well in class, and my favourite schoolmate was GT, whom I had a love-hate relationship with because he was my fiercest competition academically.  I doubt I ever told him he was my favourite schoolmate, but if you're reading, you were!  As a kid, I remember being for the most part happy, but on odd occasions prone to snapping and losing it.  My little sister copped it most, and for that I do humbly apologise, here in public!  Once I hit her on the head with the hockey stick.  Another time I pulled the garage door down on her head deliberately.  Then there was the time when we were at a BBQ and I threw a rigid polystyrene surfboard at her while she was in the swimming pool and copped her in the face.  And yes, I'm cringing sitting here typing this. 

Howzaaaat!  Backyard cricket.  Dad, caught and bowled by myself,
with sis in attendance as wicketkeeper.

It didn't happen all that often, but sometimes I would find myself losing my temper and hitting someone.  It happened at school a couple of times, mainly when I would see one kid bullying another.  I didn't understand at that age that a lot of kids who are bullies at school are getting bullied at home, I just hated kids being picked on for dumb things like not having cool clothes, or cool lunches, or for being fat.  I would see it and hear it and BOOM, I had punched someone before I even knew what I was doing.  The anti-bullying thing came from my sister wearing glasses from a young age.  I discovered that I could tackle because of one boy who told her he'd throw her glasses in the mud.  Although I was sometimes really horrible to my sister, I was fiercely protective of her.  Even at high school, I'd keep an eye on her current boyfriend if I saw him at a party and she wasn't there.  My sister and I had some tough times communication-wise as we got older, but I can quite honestly say I would have kicked the teeth out of any boy that hurt her if I'd known about it.  I don't know if she was aware of it back then, or if we've even talked about it, but I was always keeping an eye out for her.  As you can no doubt tell, anger became a pretty big issue for me as I got older, but now's not the time to go into that too much.

Cicada monument in my home town of Kihikihi,
it's one big bug.

So apart from occasionally thumping boys, when did things start to really go wrong?  For me, I guess puberty, that was when I started having trouble sleeping.  Starting intermediate was a big change for me, the school was about 3 or 4 times the size of my primary school, and I had simply never been around that many kids my own age before.  Most of the kids from my school were scattered here and there, and although I mostly pretended to dislike him, I was relieved that GT was put in the same class as me, the familiarity in this strange environment was something I appreciated.  My teacher, Mrs T, was a bit crazy.  She was like me, would randomly flip out, but she was an adult, and that made her somewhat intimidating, but also very frustrating.  My class was a strange mixture of really brainy kids, kids that were good at sport, regular kids who were okay at everything, and ratbags.  I honestly think Mrs T resented us brainy kids as much as she resented the ratbags.  We weren't smart-arses (most of the time), but she was unpredictable and you just never knew what kind of day she was having until it was too late.  Mostly things were pretty good, I made new friends and had fun and was still involved in all sorts of stuff.  I started playing the clarinet along with the piano. 

Nevertheless, around this time, I started to dislike school.  I started to have trouble getting a full night's sleep.  It wasn't a regular thing at that stage, but every couple of weeks I'd have a real shocker, and be exhausted at school the next day.  I would either wake up repeatedly, or I would wake up for a protracted period of time.  Either way, I'd be stuffed the next day, and I started to fear getting asked questions in front of the class on those days, in case I got them wrong, which would have been embarrassing.  Yes, I'm aware that that same scenario would embarrass any regular 11 or 12 year old kid, but for me, there was something more invested in it.  I was a closet perfectionist, if I didn't get 100% on something, it started to feel like the end of the world.  So those days where I was tired, and not able to concentrate properly, started to cause me anxiety.  And that, my friends, is where the world of social phobia for me begins...

Trapped in a Box

Welcome to the world of social phobia.  It is a wonderful world, full of panic attacks, completely irrational fears, and utter shame.  It is not a world that I ever thought I would inhabit, growing up as a reasonably bright and sporty child in small-town New Zealand, but nevertheless, I called the box home for a number of years.  Before I get ahead of myself, I'll give you the textbook rundown on social phobia (also called Social Anxiety Disorder).  Here's the skinny from the DSM-IV TR, that I obtained from behavenet.com...

  1. A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing. 
    Note: In children, there must be evidence of the capacity for age-appropriate social relationships with familiar people and the anxiety must occur in peer settings, not just in interactions with adults. 
  2. Exposure to the feared social situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack. Note: In children, the anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or shrinking from social situations with unfamiliar people. 
  3. The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable. Note: In children, this feature may be absent.
  4. The feared social or performance situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety or distress.
  5. The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
  6. In individuals under age 18 years, the duration is at least 6 months.
  7. The fear or avoidance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition and is not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g., Panic Disorder With or Without AgoraphobiaSeparation Anxiety DisorderBody Dysmorphic Disorder, a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, or Schizoid Personality Disorder). 
  8. If a general medical condition or another mental disorder is present, the fear in Criterion A is unrelated to it, e.g., the fear is not of Stuttering, trembling in Parkinson's disease, or exhibiting abnormal eating behavior in Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa.

All fun and games until someone ends up hiding in their wardrobe hyperventilating, huh?

In hindsight, I started experiencing symptoms of social phobia when I reached Intermediate school.  This anxiety was still fairly generalised, but it increased again when I started high school.  It was not until I was probably 16 that the specific nature of my anxiety really began to make itself known, that it began to be noticeable to me, and that it began to seriously hamper my ability to live my life.  At 19 I was a wreck, completely housebound, terrified of the phone ringing, perpetually fearful, having multiple anxiety attacks on any given day, heavily self-medicating with alcohol and cannabis, and hooked on the diazepam that the psychiatrist had prescribed me for my anxiety attacks.  

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  I'll end this post by making note of the main features I experienced.  The most obvious was a fear of social or performance situations, this was what I began to notice first when I was at high school.  I became convinced that I would humiliate myself in some way if I were in public, and I also formed the irrational thought that other people, even strangers, could see what I was thinking or feeling in some way, and that they would mock and judge me for it.  The next was a fear of eating in public, or in front of others, even my own family.  I developed this idea that I would vomit if I ate in front of others.  Initially I would not actually experience nausea, but later I did, as if my anxiety was trying to create some form of self-fulfilling prophecy.  The third was the anxiety attacks.  Those were frequent, distressing, and entirely out of my control for some time.  The combination of these main elements left me avoidant, in constant fear, and unable to manage even the most basic tasks, like hanging out washing, or getting my mail.  It left me feeling continually guilty and ashamed.  

In my next post, I'll discuss how social phobia progressed for me, and the impact it had upon my life.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

What's it all about, Alfie?

So why have I started this blog?  There are loads of mental health blogs out there, why should I start yet another one?  I guess I want to share what it's like to have multiple conditions to manage, which occasionally feed each other, and occasionally oppose each other (mostly the former).  I'm not interested in trying to tell people how to manage their own health, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a psychologist, and I'm not a mental health professional.  I AM an occupational therapy student, but more importantly, I'm someone for whom daily living can sometimes be a mission, despite doing all the right things.  I think it is important for people to understand this about mental health - even when you do everything by the book, things can still go wrong, sometimes just a little pear-shaped, sometimes to the extent that the wheels fall right off.  For people out there with mental health issues, this is important to know because it stops us beating ourselves up any time things happen to our minds that we don't welcome.  For people out there who know and/or care about someone with mental health issues, this is important to know because the person you are family, friends, or colleagues with is almost always trying NOT to be sick, and things happen despite their efforts.

So, what exactly am I dealing with?  My first diagnosis was social phobia, in conjunction with clinical depression.  I was diagnosed with these two at 19.  My second diagnosis was chemical dependence (aka addiction), which I was diagnosed with at 21.  My third diagnosis was bipolar I disorder, which nullified my initial diagnosis of depression.  This diagnosis came a few weeks before I turned 24.  A new diagnosis every couple of years, I know, it sounds like I was sitting reading the DSM-IV and thinking to myself, "I'm bored with this, give me a new set of signs and symptoms", but I promise you, it definitely didn't have anything to do with boredom!  I'll do separate posts about my diagnoses, in order to share some basic information about them, as well as to share my experiences with them.  At this stage though, I think it's important to put that basic information out there.

It's also important at this point, right at the beginning, for me to state that I do not believe that psychiatric disorders are a sham.  I do not believe that they are the invention of a field of medicine that wants to be in the limelight and receive perpetual funding, and I do not believe they are the invention of "Big Pharma".  If you're going to comment that I am some kind of dupe, or that I've been brainwashed, please do not bother, this is not a platform for that, and I am not interested in those kinds of comments, as I have seen too many people die because they listened to those sorts of opinions.  Ultimately, I guess I am here because I live with a host of strange phenomena, and I want to share this life honestly and openly.  If people connect with that, awesome.  If people can help, awesome.  If people receive help, awesome.  A little word on perseverance...

He moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka!
(The canoe can navigate a choppy sea.)