Interview and images by Samantha Moss
Content Warning: this article contains references to suicide and disordered eating.
Forever pondering the possibilities of the kitchen plate is Emily, aged 22, a thumb twiddler, sometimes chef (@LocalSimple) and nutritionist in the making. In between battles with type 1 bipolar disorder, Emily is fond of dabbling her hands in poetry writing, tending to her garden and strolling through local parks.
What is your personal experience with mental illness?
Emily: I am 2 years diagnosed Bipolar type 1 disorder. However, the doctors believe I’ve suffered from undiagnosed Bipolar specific mania since I was 14 with this being the age of my first manic episode. Although, unfortunately at this age the doctors placed me on antidepressants, labeled it textbook teen depression and called it a day. And I lived those days of confusion and dissatisfaction until I was correctly diagnosed at 20 years of age. And I think that’s important to talk about - wrong diagnoses by your GP because some inner ego problem by them and refusal to refer you to the people you need. And so 20 came with topsy turvy life change with a diagnoses that FINALLY, actually made sense and here I sit today, not cured but stable, maintained and well. But this wasn’t easy- I hit my low, my rock bottom, and with break down came steps towards this diagnoses. I think it’s important to be able to say pre-diagnoses (and correct help) that I wasn’t okay and I wasn’t healthy and this was because of a bucket load of problems: wrong diagnoses meaning wrong medication, bad lifestyle, bad diet, immaturity and the layers of issues that come with growing up in a lower-socioeconomic family with no deeper understanding of mental illness. My personal experience is a rocky road and my bipolar disorder is something I’ll clash with in endless ways for the rest of my days but with each new day I find a new way to recognize that I have a mental illness but my mental illness is not me.
What was your experience with mental health growing up? What did you know about mental illness and how did that influence your experience?
Emily: As a child I feel like mental health was always the elephant in the room. My mum has always her whole life suffered really badly from depression and PTSD and a prolonged list of mental disorders that were never spoken about. So it definitely existed and I always knew my mum was never really okay but it wasn’t until we started getting a bit older that we understood that mum’s sick and this is okay. Then my little brother, he was the first one to get diagnosed, was very young when he got diagnosed with ADHD and it was very much a shake up in the family because everyone was like “Oh now we’ve got to talk about this, this is a thing, he’s got ADHD”. I found then growing up within that sort of family, in which mental illness is treated like an elephant in the room, even in my wider family, that I was the first one in my family to come out and be like “Hi, I have Bipolar”. I went through the struggle, I was a very troubled teenager but then when I was diagnosed with Bipolar it was a very open experience within my family that I went through because I had to move back for recovery, so reaching out and speaking about it was challenging because of the pre conceptions my family had of mental illness. I found a battle in itself dealing with the perception my family grew of me— ‘the crazy one’. With the classic line at family dinners of “Are you taking your crazy pills?!” . These have all been barriers I’ve had to overcome, to stand by the strong person that I know I am and to stand by the need for mental illness to not just be spoken about but properly spoken about, to challenge the prejudices. I still today stand by the notion of talking openly despite prejudice for the sake of those in my family younger than me that will grow up one day and possibly go through similar things and need to know that it’s going to be okay and they aren’t alone in these struggles. That’s my responsibility- to be the person I needed when I was younger.
How does your mental illness manifest physically, mentally, emotionally?
Emily: Bipolar is complicated because it’s such a range of symptoms and with medicated the symptoms are (thankfully) mellowed out. I think there’s a misconception that Bipolar disorder symptoms are ridiculously instant mood swings and a complete lack of consistency from moment to moment. But, for me, it was never like that. It was long periods of pure ecstasy, on living on a high euphoric level above my peers, insomnia, inability to focus and crippling joy (the sort that would stomp out all ability to see and feel logically). My bipolar symptoms were rose coloured glasses, sound’s great right? Living in a reality that you manage to construct with in your own mind. Ultimate optimism. Back then, I felt like I couldn’t trust myself to make decisions, to hold a stable relationship, to understand my limits. This saw sleepless nights, reckless decisions about my body, consumption and stability.
And then I’d wake up when my cycle would change and I couldn’t get out of bed. The crippling optimism faded to crippling depression. I would live a week here. A week of coming down: low moods, suicidal thoughts, unexplainable pain.
And I lived that for 6 years until during one of the worst depressive periods of my life I saw a tv episode that focused on a mother’s battle with bipolar and for the first time in my life I felt understood, like there was someone out there who felt the things that I did in the way that I did. And I went home and I promised myself I’d get better. And now I’m medicated and my symptoms are kinder. Less severe but still cycling. With the mellowed cycling of mania comes episodes of bad skin, of depression and of lack of motivation. I am living with the need for self awareness, to ask myself: is this who I want to be? Who do I want to be? (And it’s never the person I was when the symptoms were bad).
What was your experience telling people around you about your mental illness and what was the reaction?
Emily: My experience was very open, like “Hello everybody, I’m not okay, this illness is destroying me. Please support me as I help myself.” But that was very confronting because some of my family were like “Well obviously we’ve always known you were bipolar” and it was like, I have been suffering this for six years because nobody could give me an answer: thanks for the heads up, guys?! I felt troubled by the natural label as “crazy”. And now in present times, the challenge is that any time that I’m a little bit messy or really enthusiastic or excited they are like “she isn’t taking her medication, she’s manic, she’s fallen off the wagon again” but that’s not the case and I’m very much doing well and on the wagon, I’m just human and within that really happy or calm and feeling natural emotions. You can be happy and not manic, I can still be enthusiastic about life. The stigma is definitely there, and I feel like I’m in a better place now that I’m a bit older and I’ve been in recovery mode for several years now. With each day I’m learning to know who i am, what I can be, what I want and what wellness entails. I am my own person, I am separate to my mental illness. My mental illness is just a shade of me sitting away in my back closet that I sometimes manage to bring out at parties or when things are especially tough. I’m learning to be friends with her. I’m learning to teach her new ways to be.
What was your experience getting help for your mental illness within the australian healthcare system?
Emily: Coming from rural NSW, where there is a real gap the healthcare access coupled with coming from very much a lower-socioeconomic family, my experience getting help was horrible. Ranging from a repeated misdiagnoses by several GP’s who saw it out of their means to assist me in getting the proper help I need. I was left in the dark, taking the wrong medication with a feeling of isolation from anybody who understood the things that I felt. I ask myself so often, how can we have a GP system that is supposed to be the first port of call for medical issues (including mental illness) if they refuse to refer us to the places we need to go? From 14 and all throughout my teenage years, I was sick, I was vulnerable and I needed help and it wasn’t provided. At 20 and my lowest point, with the realisation that it was time to get that help, I approach my GP with what my later psychologist referred to as a ‘textbook case of bipolar type 1’and they still refused understanding and attempted to tell me that the problems were simple depression based, they prescribed me anti-depressants and i refused. I promised myself ‘no more’ and with no choice took the initiative to get the help I required and recover from my mental illness. I sat in the doctor’s office that day and told her I wouldn’t leave without a referral and her script was not needed. And with my referral I found understanding and answers, finally. I found out that the medication I’d been on and off for 6 years had been making my mania worse, I lamented the unnecessary pain that I went through because of those GPs and I came to terms with it all.
After battles both pre and post diagnosis I have been pushed to more holistic healing methods through complementary medicine. I’ve found an understanding of mental illness that is deeper and all encompassing and an understanding of healing that is multifaceted, just like my disorder. I am focusing on the maintenance of my overall health (physically, spiritually, emotionally and circumstantially) in order to maintain my mental illness now. Private health insurance is unaffordable and I can’t rely on this public healthcare system (which I call bullshit that this is the situation we are in) but I’m working with that.
What have you implemented into your daily life to combat your mental illness?
Emily: First and foremost, medication. To me, with bipolar, medication is a simple chemistry: a lack of lithium regulation within my brain = the requirement of calculated dose back in. It’s blood tests and calculations and trial and error. But that’s not to say I rely on medication but rather keep it there as a safety net. Medication can’t fix all of my problems because it’s not all chemical- it’s circumstantial, too, that’s what it is to be a multifaceted being (which we all are). I live by the 80/20 rule (we can’t always live ideally, all of the time, life happens) and within that rule I maintain routine because, for me, that’s what works: structure. I go to bed and eat at certain time, wake up at a certain time and promote a simplicity within my life: maybe this is a step towards the idea of slow living, I’m still learning. I found myself for many years struggling with recovery from anorexia nervosa all the way up until this year when I stopped myself and began to look at eating differently- a box to tick to maintain my health. It’s been a long learning process but I see food as necessary now, I see a plate and a meal differently. I maintain a concept of taking life slowly because, in my experience, the peaks of my mental illnesses have been circumstantial, the ricocheting of chaos within my own life. I maintain my diet strictly: listen to my body in all its many needs and for me that’s been a complex battle between coeliac disease and the many other intolerances I’m slowly understanding. I’ve cut out refined sugar, dairy and lowered my saturated fat intake, these are what makes my body feel best. I’m taking some prescribed natural herbs for anxiety and I’ve minimised my alcohol consumption to almost non-existent for the sake of my serotonin. Coffee makes me anxious so that’s been the most recent to go. I’m doing well in seeing a nutritionist/naturopath to discuss what’s best for my body because to maintain my gut health is to maintain my mental health. I think we need to open the discussion towards maintaining your gut health and understanding the complexities of your body and the impact that these have on your mental health.
I am still learning the many ways to manage my mental health but I think that feeling like you have a safe space (whether it’s your favourite cafe or your aunt’s back porch, somewhere that you feel home) is one of the things that ground me most, this and finding stability. I’m lucky to be in a place in my life where I feel like I have a network where I can say “I’m not dealing with this…” and that’s a privilege I never want to stop taking for granted. And lastly, I take time to practice mindfulness in the most simply ways: long walks with my phone at home, taking deep breaths and smelling the air.
How do you use creativity as an outlet?
With each new year I find myself growing in my creative expression in line with my own personal growth. I’ve found that when I am most fulfilled creatively- I am calmest. And I think I’d bewilder people to tell them that apart from creative writing, my main tool for this is cooking because people instinctually associate food with survival. But I found my calm place in the kitchen. Food, to me, is an artform. I see plates and blank cakes as artworks waiting to happen, as composition and colour and remarkable possibility of flavour, too. I struggled during my period of diagnosis of both my mental illness and coeliacs disease to accept my need to step away from working within a commercial kitchen full time for the sake of my health but with that, my relationship with food has grown. With mania, you can’t often stay still or focus and in the kitchen it offers me a relief from that: I find purpose and direction, my hands become tools, my ingredients: paint and the plate, an empty canvas. I feel focused and like I’m finally free from the layers of mental chaos dancing loudly within my mind. I found this put the pieces of my mental state back together many times over and for that I’m privileged. Cooking has been my creative expression but also my weapon against the symptoms of my bipolar, in particular, social anxiety provoked by the manic depressive episodes that make your life a mess. With a need to jump out and socialise but a self-destructive anxiety ticking within, I’d find myself insisting to supply baked goods for new friends or acquaintances and within that I’d tell myself “they may not like me, but they’ll surely like my cake.” and that would get me through, just as food always managed to do.