Sunday, 31 May 2015

Into the belly of the beast

Last week I started a new job. As senior journalist for the Joburg North West branch of Caxton Newspapers. Mainly the hard news beat for the Northcliff Melville Times, Randburg Sun, and Roodepoort Northsider which, together, cover a pretty vast section of Johannesburg's north-western suburbs.

The people are great, the office is nice (a little cramped and sometimes a bit noisy for my liking, but not unbearable), and the commute totally doable. When all the traffic lights along Beyers Naude, from home in Northcliff to the office in Honeydew, are actually working, it's an easy 20-minute drive, against the worst of rush-hour traffic. When one or more lights are out, however, or there's loadshedding in the area, it's a complete nightmare.

The workload is pretty intense. Office hours are 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and during that time each journo has to turn in three stories a day, every single day.

On top of that, each journo has one week a month when we are 'on duty' 24 hours a day for seven consecutive days/nights (Wednesday through Tuesday), including the entire weekend. In other words, over and above our regular office hours, after hours we also have to attend any important meetings or functions, be on standby for any breaking news (mainly crime stories), plus attend back-to-back events on both the Saturday and Sunday.

My first 'on duty' week is 3rd - 9th June. Which basically means that from 4pm on Wednesday 3rd June till 8am on Wednesday 10th June, I will be working round the clock. When I knock off duty after those seven days/nights, another journo will take over and I will revert back to my normal office hours. To recharge our batteries after one of these grueling 'duty weeks', we get that Friday off (in my case, 11th June). It works on a cyclical roster system, with each journo having an 'on duty' week every four or five weeks.

My first story with pictures last week was called It's a dog's life, and it focused on the far from favourable living conditions of animals in a Kya Sand squatter camp, about 10km from the office. We were escorted by a Constable from the Douglasdale Police Station.

Below: A video clip I took from the back of his cop van, as we arrived at our first port of call. Kya Sands was the site of brutal xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in 2008, with SAPS deployed to the area to try and curb the violence.

Below: A series of pics I snuck in for my blog, in between the ones I took for work.

I am probably not going to have the time (or energy) to blog much from now on, but if you want to follow the writing and photography I do for work, I will be regularly uploading links to all my best stories in this board on Pinterest. Be sure to follow!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Witch and chips for my tea!

Today I went to check out the annual Kingsmead Book Fair in Rosebank, now in its fourth year running. The first time I went was two years ago, and I was astounded by how much it's grown in such a short period of time. The school grounds were literally bursting at the seams with hungry bibliophiles of all shapes, sizes and persuasions. From tiny tots to octogenarians, and everything in between, there was something for everyone; a veritable smörgåsbord of food, books, and entertainment. My only gripe was not being able to access the free wi-fi, but otherwise the organisation and facilities were flawless. A phenomenal experience indeed.

Above: Jenny Crwys-Williams facilitating a hilarious panel discussion about revealing oneself in weekly columns and memoir writing

Below: PJ Powers

The Gruffalo was a huge hit in the kiddies section

This is a highly recommended day out for the whole family. Put it in your diary for 2016!

Friday, 22 May 2015

My mad Granny Monica, & other animals

My biological maternal grandmother, Monica Meyer, died at the age of 48. Married three times, with scores of lovers in between, her official cause of death was acute liver failure caused by acute hepatitis B, a viral STI which my birth father believes she contracted as a result of her highly promiscuous lifestyle. Although she was never diagnosed while she was alive, anecdotal evidence of her behaviour from her 20s onwards strongly suggests she suffered from untreated bipolar disorder. And speaking from my own experience with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder, which I firmly believe I inherited from her, my manifestation of symptoms was very similar, although they started earlier, in my teens, and could also be attributed to what is often referred to as Adopted Child Syndrome. In my case, it's a kind of 'chicken or the egg' scenario. I've come to accept that I'll probably never know which came first - the BD1 or the ACS.

Because I never met her (I had just turned five when she died, and was only able to trace my biological family when I turned 21), I don't feel qualified to write much about her. That is a memoir my birth mother is working on, about her own life growing up with a mentally ill parent, and what it was like having to relinquish a baby (me); a story which I look forward to reading one day. In spite of all her faults (hell, she very nearly ended my life before it even began!), I feel desperately sorry for my grandmother. Had she been diagnosed and treated, I am quite convinced her life would've turned out very differently. Although it took me around 15 years to figure out that the mental instability I was living with was not 'normal', and that there was actually medical treatment out there to help people like me lead a more 'normal', less chaotic and dangerous life, I was luckier than my grandmother. I managed to get the kind of professional help I needed, before it was too late.

Being on psychotropic meds during my pregnancy and breastfeeding five years ago proved rather complicated. But that was nothing compared to the double whammy of surgical menopause and its ensuing endocrinological challenges, which came crashing into my little world just nine months after Goran arrived. In four months from now, I will be four years post-menopause, and they have been by far the most character-building of my life to date. All I can say is that I owe my life to doctors and drugs. A tiny army of medical specialists and a delicate cocktail of psychotropic meds and hormone replacement therapy, which needs regular tweaking. I also find that just talking about issues faced by people like me, and sharing information with friends and family, is incredibly beneficial. Knowledge is power. And the more I can educate people about my own two chronic conditions, the better. For them, and for me. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

Which is why, when my friend Maya in Edinburgh sent me the link to this article, I couldn't wait to share it here on my blog. Written by the mother of a bipolar son, it is one of the most eloquent pieces I have ever read by a lay person on the subject of living with mental illness - specifically the importance of knowing one's 'baseline' and being 'med compliant', in order to move from 'suffering from' to 'living with' the affliction.

So without further ado, I give you a direct copy-and-paste version of the article which resonates with me so deeply, in the hope that it will enlighten and inspire you, too.

Above: Mädchen Amick with her son, Sylvester Amick-Alexis.
Mädchen rose to fame on Twin Peaks (and will reprise her role for the show’s reboot). She’s also appeared in Gossip Girl, Mad Men, Damages, and Californication, among other shows.
My son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, and I’m telling our family’s story as part of Discovery Life Channel’s Psych Week, a series of thought-provoking documentaries that will air next week and shed light on spectrum of mental illnesses. My husband and I thought we had equipped our son with all the tools needed to become a “successful” adult. He entered college with exceptional grades, had an athletic scholarship, and for a while many considered him the “golden-boy.” In hindsight, there were indications that our son was battling the onset of bipolar disorder, and that we, as a family, lacked the mental health knowledge to identify his symptoms.
After four agonizing years of our son going through multiple hospitalizations and eight rehab centers, he’s finally found the right balance: he’s been properly diagnosed, he’s med compliant and has a good support system. Now, that he’s working hard to get his life back on track, I’m able to look back and reflect on the things I wish I had known earlier on.
At one point high-school counselors called us in for a family meeting with concerns that our son may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At the time, we considered this hysteria and over-diagnosing. Therefore, we took our time, did some research, spoke with other professionals, and as a family decided to not medicate but to closely watch his symptoms. This was the right decision for us. We have since learned that medications to treat ADHD or depression can trigger the early onset of a psychotic episode (if one has an underlying mental illness). I point this out not to discount the legitimacy of learning disorders but merely to encourage families to educate themselves about mental health. I worry that when educational counselors and teachers call in families with concerns of a child having a learning disability that we aren’t always looking at the “complete picture.” In the way that our school system feels strongly about requiring vaccinations and annual physicals, I feel strongly that it is essential to add a mental health component to that annual physical.
In college our son began to derail from his goals because of excessive partying.  At the time, we didn’t realize he was actually “self-medicating” the onset of a mental illness. Our son was unknowingly using alcohol to battle severe depression, along with marijuana to counter his mania. As his parents, we struggled to understand why he would jeopardize his scholarship and academic career after how hard he had worked for them. What we later found out, and not until we were in the throws [sic] of his hospitalizations and treatment programs, was the impact of the biochemical imbalance that occurs with his illness. In most cases, the onset of a mental illness shows itself between the teenage years up until the mid 20’s. I want other parents to know that while it may seem “normal” for college kids to experiment with drugs and alcohol and push boundaries, sometimes there are deeper issues, and kids might be self-medicating in order to attempt to gain control of their feelings.
We have yet to find a true "Dual-Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness" facility. “Tough love” from family and friends for people who are struggling with addiction can be important in them seeking sobriety. However, when someone is having a “mental episode” (mania or depression), a different approach may be needed. Someone who is in the swing of a "psychotic episode" is experiencing delusional thinking because the biochemicals in their brain aren’t allowing them to think rationally. It can be so confusing when you’re dealing with two separate illnesses at the same time, like in our son’s case: his disorder initially presented itself as addiction. The behavior of a person "intoxicated" and a person having an "episode" can look similar, but this is when family or friends who are familiar with their “baseline” need to intervene and make sure their loved one gets immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, as of now, our medical field has divided treatment for addiction and mental illness, and quite frankly, there is very little funding for the mental health side. This has created a situation where the money lies in “addiction treatment,” and the facilities can get additional funding if they meet the “dual diagnosis” standard, which quite frankly is very low. This means the responsibility to seek out the appropriate treatment center lies in your hands! Do your research to make sure that the facility is primarily a mental health treatment center. Be prepared to appeal to your insurance company and fight for an "adequate facility."
One in four people will be affected by a mental illness in the course of their lifetime. The biggest advice I can give loved ones who are supporting someone navigating a newly diagnosed mental illness is: patience, patience, and patience. It can take up to a year for the brain to recover from neurological damage of a single manic or depressive episode, so prevention of multiple episodes is crucial. Medical professionals will need to evaluate your loved one for an extended period of time in order to give proper diagnoses. It will then take some frustrating “trials and errors” to find a successful combination of medications and psychotherapy. Once a balance of medication, therapy, and healthy living has been achieved, the work begins… Setting up a support system, being “med compliant,” and on-going communication with a psychiatrist is essential. Also, remember as the biochemicals in the body naturally change, the medications may also require adjustment. As much as I wish there was some “magic pill” to make it all go away, there just isn’t. This is a lifestyle adjustment for the whole family, and the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you and your loved one will heal and begin to flourish.
When someone is diagnosed with an illness like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, we immediately feel compassion for his or her struggle. The latest research proves that the five major mental illnesses [sic]: depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism are genetic. [Note: Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, not a mental illness, but I can see where she found her info - in the first sentence of this 2013 press release by the NIMH.] It just happens to affect the brain instead of another organ. Be sure to keep a calm attitude and attentive approach to your loved one’s needs. You are going to have to learn to separate your loved one’s “rational thinking” from their “biochemically induced delusional thinking.” Remember that even though people in the medical profession have good intentions, they don’t know your loved one the way you do. Family, friends, and significant others are the ones that know his or her “baseline”. This is an essential key to the doctors’ ability to evaluate what medications and/or therapies are working. It is imperative to establish routines, and it is just as important to avoid triggers.
As parents, we knew that sleep and exercise were essential to our family’s health, but we didn’t necessarily know how important they were to keep mood swings stable. In some people, like our son, not getting enough sleep can trigger mania. In fact, if you notice your loved one getting less and less sleep, it’s a strong indication they may be entering a manic phase. On the other end of the spectrum, regular exercise has proven to combat our son’s depression. We also knew that a good diet was needed for our bodies’ overall health, but like most people, we didn’t necessarily know the importance of eating specific “brain healthy” foods. We raised our kids with a focus on balance, structure, and routine, and even though we were sometimes accused of being the “strictest parents in town” by our children, we have since learned that these are key elements in not only the recovery of addiction but also maintaining mental stability.
In closing, I feel that the media can tend to sensationalize and only report the very dramatic and tragic events surrounding mental illness. I choose to focus on the many, many success stories. It is possible and very common to overcome and manage a mental illness. There isn’t any one “type” of person that it can affect; it doesn’t discriminate. You would be shocked at how many extremely successful individuals are not “suffering from” but “living with” a disorder. Although, it is important to accept a diagnosis and work towards recovery, a label doesn’t solely define anyone. I hope to be joined by many others to work together to erase the stigma around mental illness and have an open and brave conversation about how important mental health is for everyone!
Mädchen is an ambassador for the nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind, which hopes to end the stigma associated with mental illness. Psych Week airs on May 25-29 on the Discovery Life Channel.
For those of you who may be interested, there is a free SADAG support group talk at 7pm next Thursday, 28th May 2015, at the Mosaïek Church on Danielle Street, off Davidson Street, in Fairland. I will be there.