Talking about mental health matters to me, it matters to my family and I have learnt that it matters to so many people around me. In Australia, it’s estimated that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime (1). It’s a conversation we need to engage and then keep on engaging.
I have always felt torn between sharing my professional self and my personal self. This is one of those blog posts that blurs the lines. I want to share the story of how I came to write the book ‘My Family is a Team’ and more importantly why I wrote it.
How it started
When my son Caleb was about 10 months old my husband Matt was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment associated with his bipolar type II disorder. It wasn’t the first time he had been admitted to hospital, but it was one of those times I remember feeling emotionally exhausted in the lead up to the admission. So that day, after admission I turned up to drop Caleb off at his early childhood centre and my educational leader and early childhood teacher hat were nowhere to be seen! I just felt vulnerable and overwhelmed.
I felt vulnerable knowing I needed to reveal this sudden change in our home life to Caleb’s educators. What would they think? How would they respond? Would this change things? I knew it was important to share our story in some way that day, it was Caleb’s story too and I knew I needed a shared approach to support him through some of these major transitions. Past experience also showed me that when Matt went to hospital it was not always straight forward and sometimes it could be months before he would be back home with us again. I had to find the courage even amongst my exhaustion, to share my personal self that day, on behalf of Caleb it needed to be done.
So that day I shared my family story with the lead educator of Caleb’s classroom. I also remember crying when I said goodbye that morning. I was not my usual self. But I walked away knowing that sharing the ‘load’ was important and I knew it would continue to be important into the future. I had done the right thing but boy was that hard to do.
As time went on I began to think about how the story of mental illness in families was not a common book found on the bookshelf of an early childhood centre. It concerned me that Caleb would not see his story in some way as part of the many other stories that are shared through literature in early childhood. So that’s when Matt and I decided we would tell that story, it would be a reflection of our own experience and it would be a book that children and educators could identify with and use every day.
Writing the narrative
Like most good ideas they don’t start out with a clear sense of the path ahead - it was more of a purpose, a sense of knowing this is what I needed to do. I didn’t know what I was going to write or even how I would say it. What I did know however was what I didn’t want.
I did not want a book that labelled the person with a mental illness as happy or sad – I felt that this can imply good or bad – and this language can lead to unnecessary judgment.
I did not want the person with a mental illness portrayed in a ‘poor light’ – this is not my experience of Matt’s illness – I only see strength in his ability to persist through significant challenges. Caleb only see’s ‘his dad’ who is all sorts of awesome.
I did not want to create a children’s story that sat on the ‘high shelf’ or in the cupboard only to be brought out when ‘that child from that family’ came to class.
Mental illness and the conversations that need to occur in the classroom should not have any barriers but I appreciate that they do given the challenge in breaking down a complex issue in developmentally meaningful ways. I hope that my book contributes to a natural and reciprocal exchange between teacher and child, teacher and family, child and family – and sits nestled amongst all the other books children have ready access to.
Once I recognised what I did not want to portray I pondered on the language I would use and created the descriptors ‘fast and slow’ days. This language seemed to be a much better fit with the rhythms of a mental illness such as bipolar disorder and certainly depicted our own experience as a family. I thought it was equally important to describe the distinction between fast and slow days with concrete examples. What might this actually ‘look like’ for a person who experiences a mental illness?
These descriptors are what I landed on and I have found helpful in explaining to Caleb the possible physical cues associated with how bipolar presents itself in our everyday lives. They have also offered a shared language to us as a family to explain the shifts in mood and therefore activity levels that Matt experiences, as a result of this we do different things on different days.
Matt is comfortable talking about his illness with others and has a way of describing his experience so that others can understand . One of the ways he describes the experience of depression has always stuck with me and underpins the ‘slow’ day depicted in ‘My Family is a Team’.
He says imagine being caught in a rip out in the ocean, for days and days (the rip representing the strength of depression) and you have to keep fighting this rip with all your power, swimming, kicking, struggling, anything to keep from getting caught in it. When the ocean finally becomes calm again and you find yourself lying on the sand, feeling breathless, exhausted and tired, it is impossible to just pick yourself up and start running the marathon of life again.
For me this metaphor represents the importance of teams, particularly when someone is struggling, exhausted and experiencing ‘slow days’. The rituals, routines and relationships we wrap around our lives represent the life jacket that is sometimes essential. As a family, we have always made the adjustment to suit the fast and slow days and have offered some of the practical ways we have approached maintaining strong relationships through the challenges of a mood disorder.
How the title came about
I would like to say there was a deep connection and revelation about every aspect of what has been included within the story of ‘My Family is a Team”……but there is not.
The title of the story came in a funny and slightly strange way. I was starting to get into a good flow with the narrative but I just kept stumbling whenever I thought of what it should be called. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to come up with something – it just wasn’t happening! I was starting to feel the pressure knowing the title of any book is the catalyst to pick it up and engage with it. Lots of friends said not to worry it would come when you least expect it. And so it did! In fact one morning not long after Caleb had finished watching his then favourite show ‘Dora the Explorer’ he declared to me in his 2 year old excitement ‘mummy we a team!’. I knew in that moment I was inspired to name the book ‘My Family is a Team’ – it captured so beautifully what we were and the word team is so significant in terms of the community around us.
Being a team is a concept we can all relate to. We all need a team in our lives and this is even more so if you experience a mental illness. I reflected on what a team looked like for our own family, essentially an extension of our family – friends, doctors, therapy groups, support groups, our workplace, early childhood centre, pets and the many other people who have connected into our community.
One of the things that Matt has always demonstrated in his own mental health journey is vulnerability. His willingness to reach out to others, to seek support, to let others in and share his story. Brene Brown says ‘Most people believe vulnerability is a weakness. But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves, are we willing to show up and be seen?’.
The book launch - May 2016
The launch of the book was my opportunity to be 'seen', to share my families story and I had great vision for how this would be. The stage was set for a great night with a wonderful guest list which included family, friends and work colleagues not to mention the mayor of my local community and our opening speaker founding chairman of beyondblue Jeff Kennett AC. Looking in from the outside it was pretty outstanding and a night not to be missed!
However the one person missing from the guest list that night was Matt.
He had been admitted to hospital a few days prior with a relapse of his illness and I found myself vulnerable as ever. No fancy hair-do as planned, no nails polished as I had thought and an extreme case of nerves: how was I ever going to stand up and share something so close to home at the very time we were also going through it!
I realised in that moment just what Brene Brown referred to when stating 'courage requires vulnerability' and was reminded to live the purpose of why I wrote the book: to shine a light on an important conversation. So I stood there that evening on behalf of Matt, Caleb and myself and shared a small part of our own story to launch “My Family is a Team”.
I am pleased to be able to put forward a resource that contributes to bringing out of the shadows the conversation of mental illness – to support children in making sense of their world. It took me one year to bring this book into the final product and I couldn't be more thankful for the beautiful visual story that Dina Theodoropoulos created in the illustrations. By sharing my own family's story, I hope it offers you ways to engage in mental health conversations with those around you, perhaps your classroom or perhaps your own family or friends.
My Family is a Team
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