Light in a dark place

Recently I have been contemplating the good rather than the bad of my mental illness. This all started out from a question that my GP asked me: Can you see any positives in your disorder? No, not in my life but my disorder. If I had to answer the question: are there any good things in your life? I am prepared for that one but this took me completely by surprise. I mumbled some incoherent response but it started me thinking about the question. Most if not all the questions are about the negative and bad areas of my mental illness. As I have mentioned before my illness is multi-faceted and includes:

  • Schizoaffective Disorder
  • Generalise Anxiety Disorder
  • Paranoid Personality Disorder
  • Panic Disorder

I have also been seeing doctors, be they GPs or psychiatrists about my mental illnesses since I was 13 (not to mention a passing parade of counsellors, psychologists and others who put out a similar shingle). After all this time questions are nothing new and up until this resent meeting with my GP all the questions had been pretty much the same: how you doing; how has your week been; have you self-harmed (as in cut myself); have you had thoughts of suicide; do you have a suicide plan; blah, blah, blah. I am sure that you either get the picture or are used to having these questions asked. However, I had never been asked the question “can you see any positives in your disorder” before. I couldn’t dismiss it nor could I let it go. Once my mind locks on something, I can never let it go. The words kept echoing in my mind. If I slept, I woke up to this question. The voices in my head played havoc with me as I continued to ponder these eight (8) words though it morphed into CAN I SEE ANY POSITIVES IN MY MENTAL ILLNESS. Slowly but eventually the answer came as a yes. I must admit at first it was a faint “maybe” but the more I dwelt on the question the firmer that the yes became.

Positive No.1

Friends. I have never had such amazing friends. If someone puts up their hand and says I am a friend to someone with mental illness then they are an amazing person. The people that I call friend have seen me at my best and worst, at my highest and lowest points and love me anyway. They have sat with me in my depression and run beside me in my mania phases. They have listened while I have shouted and screamed at the voices that they tell me they cannot hear. They have driven me to the emergency ward of the hospital when they feared that I may off myself.

My friends have stood by my decision to look into getting a psychiatric service dog. One friend use to print out information about various breeds of dogs for me right when the idea was in the embryonic stages. When I could talk about nothing else but getting an assistance dog, they listened patiently and never once told me to shut up. While they may not have been able to see the benefits or impact that a mindDog (www.minddog.org.au) may have they encouraged me to keep going. Once my psychiatric assistance dog Buddy, became part of my life they accepted him. At no time did they ask me not to have him with me or tell me that they were embarrassed that he was with me.

My friends are awesome and if you are friends with someone with a mental illness then you are awesome too.

I think that this is summed up best by Stephen Fry, the great British actor and comedian who once said, “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.

Positive No.2

The way that I think. Ok, this one may seem odd but I look at issues differently. I don’t see the glass as half empty nor do I see it as half full but I see it has something in it and more interested in what it is. If someone tells a joke I analysis it. I need to know why those two guys were in the bar or the logic of it. This part can frustrate some people that I talk to but my brain works differently and to me that is a positive. I used to try to blend my thinking to those I was in conversation with but over time, I have learnt to embrace my difference. I am able to see that there are not two sides to an argument but so many more.  Sometimes this makes answering someone’s question quite difficult because I see more to it or my answer comes from a different point of view to what was asked because of how my mind works. To be honest I do love that I think about things differently to other people. Often people say, I never thought of it that way. So yes, this is a positive.

Positive No.3

Creativity. I see the world differently and helps with my creativity. I have found others with mental illness to be super creative too like my friends: Dawn-Joy, Ell, Arielle and Sally. These are four of the most creative people I have ever met and propel me onto a greater depth of creativity.

I choose many creative outlets like spinning fibre into yarn, knitting, colouring in and photography. My greatest creative outlet is photography because it lets me express what I think or feel about the world around me. My creativity helps me see, feel, express myself and connects me both to the world around me and to others. It is something that I love.

Positive No.4

Introspection. As someone with mental illness, I am asked an incredible amount of questions. I always need to know how I felt in a given moment to answer the question “how did you feel about blah, blah?” Over time, I have become good at knowing what is happening with my thoughts and emotions. I have learnt to be introspective and self-regulating. While it is true that the illness sometimes takes away this ability, I am able to know that when I start to consume a large amount of sugar or crave sweet foods then a depression is looming. When in the depression my introspection may falter, I am able to know what is happening in the lead up and to take precautions if I can or at least warn others about what is happening.

I am so connected to my thoughts and feelings and I like that.

Positive No.5

It is me. I didn’t ask for mental illness but I have it. In fact I was first diagnosed when I was 13 by a very switched on GP who sent me to see a psychiatrist. I have lived with being ill for 41 years. I hate the illness but it is part of me. In at least some ways it makes up who I am today. So I guess since I don’t like the illness I have to admit it has shaped the adult that I am.

Recently, I have started to do talks to other groups like Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, V.I.E.W Clubs, and PROBUS Clubs about mindDog and mental illness. Without the illness, I wouldn’t have Buddy (my ace service dog) or be able to talk to groups about this stuff.

Epilogue

While there are many, many, many negatives and struggles with my mental illness, I am glad my doctor challenged me to think. Anyone struggling with mental illness will tell you that it isn’t fun or wanted so please don’t hear in any of this that it is ok because it isn’t. I just wanted to be able to look from a different point of view even if only for a moment.

I am me. I have mental illness. I am alive. I struggle. I am me. I ride unicorns.

Moments

Moments come and moments go. Some moments we wait our whole life for. Some are just an instant burst of joy. Some will linger long in the memory. I just had such a moment.

To some this will seem quite a silly moment. Some won’t understand. Some will stand in awe and wish they had such a moment. While other’s will remember their moments like this and smile. No matter if you have or haven’t had a moment like this I hope you will join in the childlike wonder of the moment.

I have an Assistance Dog, Buddy. When Buddy isn’t working he is just Buddy. I guess like Postman Pat, he isn’t always a postman but he is always Pat. Anyway, one of the things about Buddy is he needs three to four toilet walks a day, after all, he is an Assistance Dog not a robot. He will not toilet on the house block but needs to go for a walk. This is actually good for my depression. No matter if it is a freezing frosty morning or like today a blistering hot afternoon I have to take Buddy for his walks.

We just got back from such a walk.

During this walk Buddy directed me towards a giant shade tree well more towards the shade of this huge oak tree. When it gets to hot on our walks Bud takes the opportunity to lie down. This time he put his nose to the ground and then rolled in the grass with a huge smile on his face. I started rubbing his tummy and then it happened I giggled. It just bubbled up from some deep well and before I even knew it was there on my lips. This sneaky giggle turned into a laugh and then it was an outrageous uproar of laughter. I was in the moment. If someone would have chanced upon this scene they would have thought I was drunk or out of my mind.

Then something else wonderful happened. I just laid down in the grass with Buddy. I giggled, talked, giggled some more and patted him. It was a perfect moment of peace in a mad world. The peace was all pervasive. There wasn’t a part of me that didn’t feel like I was at one with myself and this moment.

For the longest time I just laid there with my dog and talked and laughed and looked at his most amazing smile. It was like he understood. It was like we suddenly knew each other far better than we ever had.

Maybe this happened because it came at the end of a very stressful day. Maybe it just happened because I needed it. Maybe it just happened.

While I do understand the serendipitous nature of this moment I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I wouldn’t trade it for money or gold. This was a moment of sheer bliss. This was a moment of just being. I didn’t have to be anything or pretend I just went with what was happening. My spirits were lifted and I felt so incredibly alive. I was truly me.

This may not sound like much to you but as I have explained previously I have a range of mental illnesses and this is huge, trust me, it really is huge.

Just lying in the long cool grass, under the shade of that huge oak tree, with my best mate, now that was heaven on earth. I just wish I had the words to let you know how freeing, how calming, how relaxing and how life affirming it was for me.

 

2016

Well, another year has ticked over. I am well on the way to my 55th birthday. Life is not always easier, wait, strike that, life is darn hard with mental illness. Be that as it may, as all illnesses I learn to cope, adjust and hopefully move forward. I have decided to take a radically different direction this year.

I have decided to go back to something that use to make me incredibly happy. The one thing that growing older gives me is perspective. I can look back and see what worked and what hasn’t. Not that I want to be too philosophical about life. I sat down not long ago and thought if I could go back and do anything what would it be. The answer was immediate; Photography.

Back in the days when Kodak and Fuji battled it out on a global stage for the hearts and minds of photographers. When film ruled and digital wasn’t even a concept, I taught photography and darkroom technique. There was always something so powerful about squeezing off the shutter button and knowing I got what I wanted in the frame. Photographers have to be able to tell a story in one frame. Those who take still images have a far more difficult job than filmmakers: they get two hours to tell a story we have to do it in a fraction of a second. Unlike painters we have to work with what was in front of us we couldn’t just omit to paint that telegraph pole that we had to find a way to work around. There is joy in taking a photograph that you knew, just knew, was a goodun. Ah the joy of the days of not being able to see what you had until the film was processed.

When it comes to the darkroom. I will never forget that amazing moment when I saw the photograph I had taken suddenly emerge on paper in the developing tray. I cannot describe the emotions at that moment because how could I ever put into words, joy, happiness, electrifying ecstasy and wonder into one encapsulating phrase or term.

Long before I stepped into a darkroom I was taking photos but that moment galvanised my determination to be the best. I would never be another Diane Arbus (http://www.artnet.com/artists/diane-arbus/2) though she was always a hero of mine. A hero because she to had mental illness but was able to express herself though the art of photography. I probably would never be able to be as great as Annie Leibovitz (think the great images in Rolling Stone Magazine, think the pregnant naked Demi Moore shot on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, think the last photograph taken of John Lennon where he was curled up naked in the fetal position next to a fully clothed Yoko Ono, then you will know her work) but I was going to be the best with a lens that I could be.

I managed to win a fair few awards back in the day. I have not achieved two goals that I set out to accomplish. I have no produced a calendar and I have not had a solo exhibition. I will make these happen.

I decided that 2016 was the year I fight back. Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t do everything to beat my illness that I can but this was different this was a proactive start. I was going to take control from the very beginning. I was going to be in control. On the front foot and pull its nose in the process. This will not be the year I am defined by my Schizoaffective Disorder, Anxiety, Paranoid Delusions, Panic Attacks or even my Agoraphobia.  So I formed a plan and on January the first I enacted the very beginning of that plan.

I along with my psychiatric service dog, Buddy, took my camera down to Balmoral Beach in Sydney and took photos of the first ray of light for the dawning new year. This became important. This became almost an obsession. I had to be there to see the new year in. I didn’t want to see the dark at midnight. I didn’t want to have some drunken bum slobbering the words Happy New Year. I didn’t want to be at a party. I wanted to stare down the new year as it awoke on that first day. I had to be there and capture this in an image or images. I wanted to stand tall as if to say… well illness I am still here, I am alive and I plan to live. This was my great moment of defiance. My moment to claim this year as one I will live. I was here to say I will not go quietly into that good night. I will thrash. I will not be crushed. I will not be driven to my knees. I will stand up and be counted. Illness you do not own me!

On the first of January, 2016 I declared my independence. I drew the line in the sand and said here and no further.

On the first of January, 2016 I captured that moment in photos. I plan to make this a year of creative photography and with ever click of the shutter I declare I am winning and my illness will not break me.

If you are suffering with mental illness or any other demon then make this your year of independence too. Find one thing that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter what that thing is. It could be:
– Colouring In
– Fixing Old Cars
– Knitting
– Sewing
– Crochet
– Cross Stitch
– Tapestry
– Drawing
– Painting
– Baking
– Woodwork
– Photography
Whatever it is do it and bring joy to your heart and tell the illness, demon or monster in your life that you are not living their way any more. Draw your own line in the sand and say “here and no further”.

In 2016, live!

 

Service Dog Discrimination Must End!

Today a report surfaced that read, “POLICE have cracked down on a Batemans Bay food outlet after a blind customer with a guide dog was refused entry on Saturday, September 12… The shop owner would not let him enter the store because it was a food outlet”. (Read the article)

I am a person who has an Assistance Dog and while Buddy is not a guide dog it doesn’t make him an less needed for me to  live as normal a life as possible. Buddy is a mindDog. You haven’t heard of mindDog, well, you probably aren’t alone there. The point is that business owners and managers need to know the law. Assistance dogs have been around for sometime now and so the concept is not new. In the short time that Buddy and I have been a team and going out in public (October 2014) we have been kicked out of 3 businesses and one physically. This is an embarrassing event when it happens and it shouldn’t happen. I never mind if a person in any business ask about Buddy and Assistance Dog status. I try and stay calm and explain, show his ID card.

It is time for all the discrimination to stop. I personally think that this man was right in calling the police over being refused entry to a business. I do know a lot of people with Assistance (Service) Dogs think we need to tread carefully and educate the owners and managers. As a person with legal rights I do not think that this is my responsibility. I agree we who have Service Dogs have responsibilities but we also have legal rights. Discrimination in all its forms needs to be ended and if defending our legal rights via legal means maybe the only way. Once businesses know that we are not going to give in, give up or crawl away then things might change.

There are now service dogs assisting people who have impaired vision (guide dogs), impaired hearing (hearing dogs), a physical disability (physical assistance dogs) and psychiatric service dogs (mindDog). I know that there are other assistance dog organisations for other impairments and illnesses but you get the idea. There are more and more ways that dogs help people but none of this is new. If you own a business it is time to know the law and more than this you need to let every member of your staff to know the law to do with Assistance Dogs. It is not my job to do your staff training.

Since Assistance Dogs have been around for some time now this should be a no brainer!