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Once again it is RUOK day, and I can bet you that if you asked anyone who is alive right now, the chances of a “No” answer would be pretty high.

 

We all know the reasons for that.

 

Today I want to talk about grief.

 

Grief is “a strong emotion that appears when we face loss” from something that we have formed a strong emotional connection to. There are a few different types of grief, including anticipatory grief (when we anticipate losing something or someone), and disenfranchised grief (when society does not recognize your loss as being “worthy” of grieving over). We don’t just grieve when we lose someone – we may be grieving a loss of identity, sense of safety, autonomy, or dreams and expectations.

 

Six months after the pandemic was announced, and after the adrenaline has worn off, after all the sourdough has been baked, we are all dealing with some kind of grief. For some of us, the grief is substantial, all encompassing, it has taken over our world and swallowed us up completely and we cannot see the way out, especially in the harsh reality of Lockdown 2.0. We are drowning in our grief. For others, the grief is partial and compartmentalized and pops up at unexpected times.

 

The experience of grief is a very humbling one, that reminds me, in a very raw way, of what it is truly like to be human. Usually, grief is experienced in relative isolation. Other people aren’t involved in our grief or if they are, they experience it differently. Now, we are all grieving together, though we might be grieving different things.

 

Many of us are grieving the fact that we cannot continue on with the rituals and habits that we were used to. Family dinners, family holidays, birthdays, catching up with friends. Being able to be face to face with someone we love. We also grieve the lost opportunities in the future. Not being able to celebrate a special birthday. Religious festivals. Weddings and funerals, graduations. All the glue that bonds us together as a family, a community, a society. For those of us with family who live in other states or countries, there is the grief of not being able to see our loved ones, and not knowing when it will be safe to travel again.

 

Heck, I couldn’t even post a photo of two hands holding each other, because that’s not appropriate in the time of COVID.

 

Even in the relative freedoms of where I live (Sydney) there are reminders of how life has changed. We count heads carefully before organising a get together. We check the weather because it’s safer for us to meet outdoors. Choir and wind instruments are banned at school. Awards at assemblies appear without us being able to have the satisfaction of seeing our child walk up and receive it from the Principal. We haven’t attended a birthday party for months.  This year’s Book Week Parade will not be seen by any parents, unless on Zoom. And while I complain about it every year, there is something wistful about seeing one’s child parade around the school oval dressed as a little witch, a Pokemon Trainer, or (this year’s attempt) – Moby Dick. It’s a fragment of life that we put away in our treasure chest of memories of “when you were little”.

 

But these are all very small things compared to the businesses that are closing, dropping like flies, across our country especially in Melbourne, where they must remain closed due to the ongoing high community transmission. And the grief that holds me down the most is that I am separated from my parents and family and friends in other States and countries, and I do not know if I will see my parents again because they are elderly and time is not on our side.

 

The grief of COVID is different for everyone. Noone’s grief is more or less valid than someone else’s. For some of us, there is the grief of losing someone dear due to COVID. Losing the ability to make a living – the disappearance of an entire industry with all its trappings. This has many consequences – loss of identity, a lifestyle, a purpose, friendships at work, maybe even a home. Loss of our habits and our routine. Loss of somewhere to go every day. Loss of hopes and dreams.

 

We have lost the ability to collectively celebrate and collectively mourn. Gone are the weddings where dancing and toasting, hugging and kissing were the norm. Gone is the ability to mourn together, instead there is the counting of heads and the Zoom links to a wake.

 

So today, after you ask someone else “RUOK?” I’d like you to also ask “What have you lost and how does that make you feel?”

 

How can you help someone else with their grief?

Here are some ideas.

  • Just listen. Don’t suggest or advise.
  • Ask how you can help in a practical way.
  • Don’t highlight the positive in their situation – but if they can see the positives, encourage them to keep doing this if they can.
  • Be patient.
  • Encourage self help and support.
  • Just be there.

 

And as for yourself?

 

  • Allow yourself to mourn.
  • Allow yourself to express your grief.
  • Seek help – from your friends and family, from health professionals. Remember there are additional psychological sessions available for people in Victoria under the Better Outcomes in Mental Health scheme. (See below for some useful resources). 
  •  Be patient and kind with yourself.
  • Keep looking after yourself. Eat well and exercise. Don’t forget the simple things – a walk in the sun, a laugh over the phone or Zoom, an activity that you love. 
  • Watch the alcohol intake. You don’t want to numb your pain. Enjoy a glass of wine if you must, but if you’re using it to numb grief, put it away. 

 

And for us, as a community?

 

Let’s come together to collectively grieve and mourn, and support each other. Be kind on social media. Be patient with every human you have an interaction with. This will take time. Allow it to happen.  Keep on sheltering in place, if it’s not safe to be outdoors. You are saving lives, as much as it hurts to do so. I’m so sorry.

Some day we’ll look back together and feel a lot stronger. In the meantime, keep asking RUOK (not just today) and be prepared to sit by someone’s side (figuratively) while they tell you about what they’ve lost. 

 

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If you need immediate help please contact your GP, your nearest hospital, or Lifeline on 131114

https://www.beyondblue.org.au

https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au

https://headtohealth.gov.au

https://headspace.org.au

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baby-84626_1280Well, hello there! I feel very guilty for not following up with Part 2 of this series in a timely manner. Thank you for reading and commenting, and sharing amongst your fellow PhD mothers (and dads). The response to my first post on how to finish a PhD with small children really surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have – I should have known there is such a great need for support and advice during this time. A PhD is daunting even for those without small humans to feed, love, burp, toilet train, and sing to sleep.

Some of you have asked about my children in the context of my PhD journey. When my first child (“Star”) was 8 months old I started working casually as a research assistant on the project that was to be my PhD. It was funded by an NHMRC Grant and based on a pilot study I conducted as a Masters student (I handed in my thesis for that when I was 35 weeks pregnant). My supervisor was  the Lead Investigator. Some six months later, my supervisor suggested I turn it into a PhD saying “you just have to write a thesis at the end”. Ha! famous last words. So I officially began a part time PhD with Star as a 15 month old. Two years later I took maternity leave for my second child, “Owl”, for 7 months, then returned part time initially for a few months, later switching to full time for a year.

So here you are, PhD mums and dads – Part 2 of my series on How to Finish a PhD while Raising Small Children (ok, maybe the series will just be two posts. Feel free to let me know in the comments what else you would like to know!) I will apologise that this post is largely written for PhD mums. I recognise that dads play a huge role in children’s lives and often face the same insecurities but I argue that unconscious bias means that the experience of being a PhD dad might be slightly different from being a PhD mum. But I’d love to hear from you about this.

Managing my mind? What do you mean by that? 

In my first post I wrote about time management. This is super important. A strategic approach to your very precious time is key to your success. But even if you manage your time like a ninja, you will still have to deal with the thoughts in your head, and ultimately, how they make you feel. So this is about managing your mind (and your emotions, and energy).

1. First, ditch the guilt. 

Guilt about not being with your children, guilt about not making them organic purees to eat every day, guilt about handing them over to a carer while you work on your PhD. Being a PhD parent can be incredibly guilt-inducing. There are so many different types of the guilts that we are subjected to. Basically, particularly if you’re a mother, society implies that your role is to stay at home with your cherubs, baking cookies, making play dough, taking them to Gymbaroo, colour coding the nursery, singing nursery rhymes while you cook a nice hot meal for dinner. Not dropping them off at daycare and then heading to the lab. The guilts can come on quite insidiously – a flippant comment from a colleague. An article about Ten Top Craft Activities for your Toddler. My favourite line, said to me by a slightly snarky (non PhD) mum was “Oh, I couldn’t do what you’re doing“. And not meant in the positive way.

I want you to ditch the guilt. I unsubscribed to any social media or newsletters that perpetuated my sense of guilt (think Kidspot, etc). I learned to accept that everyone has opinions and are entitled to them, but it doesn’t mean they are valid, and most of all, they have no business commenting on my decisions. DITCH. THE. GUILT. Hasta la vista, baby. You have every right to choose a meaningful life. You are contributing to knowledge. And motherhood was never designed to be endless years of staring at your baby as it babbles. Mothers all around the world have continued to work, bringing their babies along in a basket on their backs, or leaving them with the village/older children. It’s only in our society, with its peculiar cult of intensive motherhood (look it up…) that we get the guilts about not being with our children all the time.

If you feel guilty about daycare/childcare, please head over to my (somewhat outdated) post on on it.

2. Remember, you are important. Yes, YOU. 

Question – who is the most important person in your life? Is it your gorgeous eight-month-old? Your cheeky, rusk-throwing two year old?

No – it’s you. YOU are the most important person in your life.

Look after yourself first. Like, not just because you will be the best version of yourself, and won’t be the crankypants version. Not because you want to be less irritable with the children, more productive with writing etc. Because you deserve to be looked after, as a human being. Repeat after me. I MATTER.

3. Be kind to yourself. 

Being a PhD student AND parent is pretty nerve-wracking. You always feel like you’re never “good enough” as a PhD student, there is so much to learn, you’re out of your depth. It’s the same with parenting. You are always dealing with a new stage – once you get over the teething, then there are the tantrums, and the toilet training (why do these things always start with T???). I can’t tell you how many times the phrase “I have no idea what I’m doing” came to me during parenting or PhD-ing.

What helped me immensely was practising self-compassion. I learned to be really kind to myself. I gradually worked to remove the nasty voice in my head that said negative things about my performance at all times of day. Now, there is a gentle, encouraging, and wiser voice that picks me up when I’m down and challenges assumptions when I start going down the rabbit hole of “I suck at this”. I’m so glad, because it turned out I didn’t suck at anything at all – I raised two beautiful children and finished my PhD submitting it one month BEFORE THE DEADLINE and after moving interstate and starting two new jobs.

You do not suck at this. You rock.

4. Get help. 

You can’t do this alone. During my PhD candidature I went to my Uni counsellor regularly. She was a very kind woman who sat and listened while I told my stories of woe, overwhelm, insecurity. She validated how I felt. She listened. She understood.

You will no doubt seek support from family and friends, and I hope you are lucky enough to have a loving household setup to support you. But there is something about seeking a professional’s help to walk next to you on this journey that can make all the difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A counsellor, psychologist, your GP are all highly skilled and qualified to help you optimise your mental health. Please see your GP if you are struggling with anxiety or depression (low mood, feel flat all the time, tired, and not enjoying anything any more). I’ve been honest about my own struggles with mental health and I really encourage you to honour yourself by taking care of your mind and emotions. You are important!

5. Take breaks. 

It’s exhausting being a PhD parent. You need to take a break from both. Go on holidays (difficult during COVID.. but maybe a staycation). Have fun. Get someone to look after the cherubs so that you can have a day off just to do nothing, or a night off to have dinner with your partner or friends. Take a break from the exhausting grind of nappies, rushing out the door, cleaning up after toddlers, scraping poo off tiny Crocs (true story), and dealing with the pressures of the PhD. At the end of the day, can you steal a quiet moment, even if it’s lying next to your demanding toddler at night, to breathe and connect with yourself? That’s a break too. Go on. You deserve it.

6. The “no regrets” rule. 

Throughout my PhD tenure I lived by one rule. Whatever decisions I had to make, I carefully considered if I would regret them years later. This meant that I ended up deciding to do some hard things, but not other hard things. For example, I was struggling with being part time – I just wasn’t getting the traction on my writing that I needed to. But I didn’t want to miss out on some of the lovely aspects of being a parent to small children, like spending the morning in pyjamas, visits to the park and zoo during the week, playdates etc. So I decided to switch to full time but spend a 9 day fortnight on my PhD (and additional work as a GP). One day a fortnight I woke up, didn’t check email, didn’t write, and planned catchups, playdates, play dough, Story Time, whatever it was that I wanted to do with my children. Those were some of the most precious memories of my time with them as tiny children. But it meant that I was also able to progress well on my PhD.

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I don’t have a single regret about my time as a PhD mum. (I wax a bit lyrical about it in one post – please note that I had rose-coloured glasses on at this time as I had finally done the bloody thing!!) Well, one. I wish I had been kinder to myself. I wish I had learned how to manage my mind better. I kind of stumbled on it along the way. I am grateful for this experience, because it really highlighted how much I needed to be on the ball to manage my own mental health. Once I realised I had to work on that too, everything fell into place a lot more easily, and I have continued to learn difficult lessons through my postdoc.

Please write to me (drcarolynee@gmail.com), comment, add your experiences (be aware that the above experience is just one PhD and everyone’s is completely different), give me feedback. Share with your PhD parent friends in case this helps. Maybe it won’t. and that’s ok!

May the Force be with you all!

 

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IMG_4053When you came along, I thought you would be different.

I thought you would be a halo of peaceful luminescence, interspersed with cute yet amusing events such as laughing at how little sleep I had had. I thought my baby would look at me and smile on Day One (I know, right? Nobody told me otherwise…)

Instead you dragged me, completely unaware, into a place of terror, confusion, at times despair, and you threw me into a deep hole of where I felt like I was drowning in my own inadequacy. Why won’t my baby stop crying? When will I get some sleep? What day is it? Why can’t I get this right? Why is everyone else coping so well? I pleaded.

You brought me strange gifts – guilt, mostly. I felt guilty all the time for not being a good enough mother. You brought me exhaustion like I had never known before. Anxiety – lying in bed with my heart pounding in my ears, not able to breathe properly. Self-doubt. But with these, you gently brought some other gifts into my life. And tentatively, I began to notice and accept them.

You brought me connection. In those early days, I learned who my tribe was. I walked for hours with my tribe and our babies. Some of them were experienced mothers with adult children who emailed me from across the seas, with encouragement. Their babies had been like mine. They turned out ok. More than ok. They knew what I was going through. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

I now know how to seek out my tribe, wherever I go.

You brought me tenderness, and with that a fierce protective love that buffered me through those difficult early months and years.

Courage in the face of vulnerability.

Empathy. Compassion for people who are in a dark and desperate place. I can now sit next to them knowing that is probably all they need.

Humility. Awe. Hope.

You forced me to confront the neuroses that had haunted me all my life – my impostor syndrome, for example – but that I had always managed to blithely ignore because I was a young, carefree child-free adult who could patch over these difficult emotions with my holidays, my yoga classes, my fancy dinners for two, my weekends filled with enjoyable and non-confronting things like having coffee in a trendy cafe, or visiting a museum. I now know what I must do instead. Be mindful. Name emotions. Channel my wiser self. Practise gratitude. Reset my comparisons. Be comfortable with the discomfort. Breathe.

One of your most difficult lessons was about self-care and self-kindness. I get it now.

Each year, you bring me an opportunity to reflect on how time is marching on. Those wrinkly babies grew into chubby toddlers, boisterous preschoolers, and I now have a ten-year-old who prefers to keep her room door closed, thank you. My child-free friends have to rely on New Year and birthdays for this opportunity, and they don’t get to see how much life changes in one year. With each milestone – first steps, toilet training, reading, learning to shower on their own – we let go, just a little bit more, with both joy and trepidation.

Thank you, Motherhood. For the gifts you brought. For your wisdom, even when your lessons were harsh and I resisted. Thank you for the joy.  And the heartbreak. It has made me authentic.

Thank you for the opportunity to make memories for two of the Earth’s members.

And thank you for turning me into a leader.

On our ten-year anniversary, I can honestly say I’m so glad you entered my life. And will continue to gratefully accept all the gifts and lessons that are yet to come. My heart is full.

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Today marks 28 days since I started working from home and 21 days since my children have been home from school. To sum up the ups and downs of the past week, it’s been something like this:

Week 1: Checking the news about 4 hours a day, lots of meetings about managing the pandemic, dealing with PPE and COVID swabs at the clinic, lots of anxiety, going into a bit of a rage every time there is a press conference and schools STILL aren’t closed.

Week 2: School is finally closed. Reading the news 3 hours a day, rest of the day seems to be spent figuring out the school schedule, checking second grade maths and English, and wondering why teachers prescribe activities that require scissors, or “play this fun game with an adult”.

Week 3: Everything is changing, every single day. Overwhelmed. Checking news 2.5 hours each day. School schedule is a little easier but still feel like head is about to explode for at least 8 hours each day.

Week 4: Checking news 1.5 hrs a day. School holidays finally begin on Friday. Head begins to clear. Finally! Spend the weekend sitting in the sun, reading, drinking tea, and napping.

The Easter weekend has been a lifesaver and has given me enough space to think beyond the next 24 hours. I hope it has been the same for you. This break has got me thinking to a very important time: the end of lockdown, whenever that might be. Is it 3 or 6 months? or 12 months? Whenever it is, I’m now ready for the marathon of being at home. And I’m finally ready to go beyond survival mode. (If you’re not ready yet, don’t panic. You will emerge once your basic needs are met and you feel safe.)

This week I am thinking about the person that emerges at the end of lockdown. What will she have learned? What’s her health like? Her mind? Is she at peace? Has she made changes? Will she go back to where she was before?

I call this person Future Me. (Or maybe Post Lockdown Me). I care about this person very much. She’s counting on me right now.

I don’t think Future Me wants to go back to Previous Me life. Previous Me was always very stressed, juggling too many balls, taking work phone calls while driving children from birthday parties to swimming classes, sending emails at pickup time, always tired. Previous Me had staff who said “I wish you would take more time for yourself” and “I wish you wouldn’t take on so much“. Previous Me outsourced like a boss, but the end result of all this carefully orchestrated planning creates an illusion that Previous Me could do anything. Previous Me got to Wednesday and felt like she had nothing left to give.

I want Future Me to be happy, healthy, and to feel like she has the capacity to give to others without suffering some kind of minor collapse. Future Me’s cup needs to be filled. I’m starting with staying physically healthy. Being in lockdown means that our exercise habits have to change to adapt, and yet, I am finding that not commuting buys me more time. I’m focussing on strength training because that can be done indoors, for free, with my existing kettlebells. (I love kettlebells!) My go-to Youtube channel for kettlebell and other workouts is Bodyfit By Amy. I am sure you have your favourites, but if you don’t, give Amy’s a go!

Fun fact: did you know that strength training is recommended twice a week in our national physical activity guidelines, and builds muscle (therefore boosting your metabolism)? 

Future Me also needs Present Me to eat well and to not succumb to too much stress baking. Baking has been a coping mechanism of mine ever since I was in high school. Sadly, I cannot bring the leftovers to work now, and so to keep Future Me happy, I’ll have to keep an eye on how many funfetti cakes I end up making with the children. I also did the CSIRO Healthy Diet score to see what I needed to change in my diet. I’ve been recommended to have more low-fat dairy and fruit, and so I’m focussing on these for Future Me. I know Future Me will be thankful, particularly with reducing the risk of nasty things like osteoporosis.

So when you’re ready to come out of survival, take some time to think about Future You. Not only does it orient us beyond Netflix and donuts (which only benefit Present You), it gives us hope, and extends our vision beyond what we need to get through the next day, or week. Of course, if you can’t do this yet, it means that the very thing you should be doing is just getting through today. That’s absolutely ok. I’m not experiencing the intense stresses that many are facing. I still have a job, I have company at home, everyone is well.

But if you can, just picture the Future You in your mind, and do what it takes to look after him or her. I have a hunch you won’t regret it. For me, I’ll continue to enjoy the stress relieving benefits of baking, but only on special occasions.

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March 11. That was the last time I was on the outside. For work, anyway. It seems so long ago now, a world away. I had just finished chairing a symposium of >100 people – an unimaginable number of people! It seemed like we were using draconian restrictions for our attendees at the time. We told people who had been overseas anywhere in the last 14 days to stay away. So we lost a proportion of attendees. This is me, having a glass of bubbles after finishing my 12 hour day.

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The next day, COVID-19 was upgraded to a pandemic. The following Monday, I worked from home and attended emergency meetings about the pandemic. The rest is history as they say.

Like all of us, I’ve been through the rollercoaster (and still am) of emotions, sometimes on a hourly basis. I’ve watched our nations being ravaged by the virus and by the economic and social devastation. And I’ve been bombarded on every level by new information – the news, work emails, the enormous changes in general practice (hello telehealth!), school at home, yoga at home, exercise at home, home retreats, Zoom house parties, dance parties at home. Learn a language, embrace your vulnerability, reflect, spend time with your children, connect with every single person you know because social connection is so important, grow an orchard, teach your children amazing science facts, watch a million documentaries, sign up for a yoga retreat, and don’t forget to do a cute dance routine with your family and post it on social media. Use this time to grow. I just want to use this time to nap. 

All along, we lose so many parts of what we hold dear: Time spent outdoors. Having a job. Going to the supermarket without worrying about catching a deadly disease. We’ve had to let go of so many things. Many of you hold very heavy burdens – national death tolls in the thousands. Losing a livelihood. Losing a loved one, or two, or three. Not being able to say goodbye. Being afraid to go to work. Abuse at work. Abuse at home. Being alone, all alone. My heart breaks every single day to think of the suffering.

The rest of us, all of us, are likewise struggling. School at home plus trying to keep a full-time job? That’s like asking me to fly to the moon!

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Working parents right now.

I don’t have all the answers. I am still working things out every day. I just wanted to say I’m thinking of all of you. Whatever you’re holding, whatever you’re going through right now, I can’t pretend that it’s also my lived experience because we are all unique. But I know that everyone is scared. At least a little bit. At least some of the time. I’ve been scared too. Especially scared to go to the clinic.

I invite you to be kind to yourselves. I’m trying my hardest. Look out for the little things, which are really the big things. Don’t worry about the children’s haphazard “schooling” but rejoice in the fact that they’re home, safe, well, boisterous and resilient, and have food in their tummies and sleep soundly at night safely at home. And at the end of each day, no matter how the day has gone, congratulate yourself on reaching your personal best in number of days lived on Earth. Still here. Still showing up. Ask yourself what you need right now. Is it a cookie? is it a cup of tea? is it a nap? (My answer is always a nap). Do you actually need some time alone – strange concept in this day and age – but has the constant Zooming, Whatsapping, instant messaging, binging and bonging, has that been too much for you? Do you need to go outside and see the sun to remind yourself that the Earth still turns on its axis, the birds still sing in the mornings and fly home in the evenings, the dragonflies are out in force and bumblebees are returning to our gardens? Or do you need to cry? Ask yourself these questions as though you’re caring for a very  very dear friend. We’re in the survival phase. It’s ok to feel this way. You’re doing AWESOME.

Don’t forget that you can still access support for how you’re feeling – from your GP through the amazing world of telehealth, from your counsellor or psychologist, from the helplines that volunteers are manning – Lifeline, Beyond Blue, or your chosen organisation. And if the only thing that makes you laugh is a Youtube video of babies farting, then so be it. (This may or may not be a true story). Embrace the joy in the small things.

I’ll send you a letter regularly from now on. I didn’t want to do it too early into the pandemic as there has been so much noise. But I’ve been writing daily Wellbeing tips for work, and everyone seems to like them. If there is anything you would like me to say, please send me an email on drcarolynee@gmail.com or comment below.

Stay safe everyone.

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190307-AcuPCOS image-three women brunette smilingAs some of you might know, as well as being a GP, I am a postdoctoral researcher trying desperately to balance work and life, and learn a little bit about this thing called “resilience”.

For the past two years I have been researching Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is incredibly common – around 1 in 10 women in Australia will have symptoms of it, and those symptoms range from difficulty falling pregnant and irregular periods, to hairiness where you don’t want hair to grow, and even anxiety and depression symptoms. As the women in one of my studies said, the “whole package deal” of PCOS is pretty confronting. But the thing that concerns a lot of women is the weight gain that can be more stubborn with PCOS.

I’ve been looking for a non-pharmacological treatment that may be able to help with some of the symptoms of PCOS, and naturally acupuncture comes to mind because it’s a treatment I’m familiar with (being a trained Chinese medicine acupuncturist as well as Western doctor) and it’s also a relatively safe treatment.

Some preliminary studies suggest that acupuncture may be helpful for weight loss, in conjunction with lifestyle changes, and so I went about looking for funding for a trial on acupuncture for weight loss in women with PCOS.

In a serendipitous turn of events, my encounter with Bearded Man, which I describe in my post Why I’m Done With Impostor Syndrome, led to a little pot of funding for my clinical trial.

I really really enjoy clinical trial research, because I get to talk to so many people about what it’s like to live with what they live with. I talked to hundreds of women about their hot flushes. Now I talk to dozens of women about PCOS. But I need more women.

This is therefore a shameless plug for my clinical trial, my pride and joy, on acupuncture for weight loss in PCOS. We have an amazing team of some of the best researchers in the world in PCOS behind us, and my research assistant Adele is also pretty fantastic herself.

This is for women in Sydney aged 18-45 who are not on the pill, Mirena/other hormonal treatments or Metformin, and who aren’t planning on getting pregnant in the next 3 months.

We desperately need to find more options for women with PCOS so they can lead healthy, happy lives. Please consider sharing with anyone you know who may be interested and who lives in Sydney. They can sign up for our trial here or email me at c.ee@westernsydney.edu.au.

Thanks for helping me find a way to help one in ten women. 

 

 

 

 

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My family know that I am in no way a gardener; instead of having a green thumb, I seem to not be able to keep the least demanding plants alive. Until now.

A few months ago, a good friend told me that I could plant cherry tomatoes with half a bought tomato from the supermarket. My six year old adores cherry tomatoes and they are expensive little things (the tomatoes that is, and perhaps my six year old too!) so I thought, what the hey, let’s cut one up and plant it.

We buried two cherry tomato halves in soil and waited patiently. I obediently watered our tomatoes whenever the soil looked dry. Every day we examined the soil for any sign of greenery. Nothing happened for a few weeks. I thought my fate as a non-gardener was sealed. But I kept watering, and hoping, and thinking of those tiny little seeds lying buried in that dark soil.

Eventually, on a very thrilling morning, we saw a couple of tiny leaves poking through that were decidedly not weeds. Oh, the excitement! I kept dutifully watering my little seedlings, and added some fertiliser every week.
Thomas (left) and Thomasina (right). And yes, those are eggshells in the soil. Adds calcium and helps little plants grow! #greenthumb
Thomas (left) and Thomasina (right). And yes, those are eggshells in the soil. Adds calcium and helps little plants grow! #greenthumb
I pulled out weeds and kept the soil moist. I was really rooting (pardon the pun) for those little leaves, and started looking forward to seeing them every morning. My little leaves grew riotous. Every day, they poked up further and further, quickly becoming tall and bushy, so much so that I had to begin to stake them. (Yes, me! Staking tomatoes!)
Thomas and Thomasina - early days
Thomas and Thomasina – early days
Getting big - gotta stake them!
Getting big – gotta stake them!
In a bit of a Boaty McBoatface moment, we named one Thomas and the other Thomasina. I started talking to Thomas and Thomasina every day, just spending some time watering them and sending them my encouraging thoughts. In fact, they became a big part of my stress management plan. Thomas and Thomasina rewarded me with tiny white flowers which turned into tiny green tomatoes and then – weeks later – actual red tomatoes. 
#proudmummymoment
#proudmummymoment
 

I planted Thomas and Thomasina at a time when I, too, was ready to thrive. The last four years, on top of what seems like a whole adult life of anxiety, neuroses, hangups, and a complete inability to be kind to myself, were intense. Intensely dark at times, with incredible stresses I had never imagined. I felt, at many times, what those little seeds must have experienced – the oppression, the terror, the overwhelming panic of being buried. But like my little seeds, I eventually learned (with help) to relax into where I was and start caring for myself. I tamed that awful voice in my head that gave a running commentary of how I was stuffing up, again, in all areas of my life. I made space for the person I had forgotten I used to be. I asked myself, during challenging times, what I needed at that moment. I learned how to take proper breaks. I stopped working at nights and weekends. I gave myself little pep talks whenever my knees felt shaky. I let my loved ones care for me. I spent time with my beautiful family. I learned to breathe slowly and deeply through every waking moment. I put myself first because I realised if I didn’t, I had nothing left to give. And when all else failed, I phoned a friend and had a laugh.

Thomas and Thomasina have taught me so much about life. When you feel buried under it all, relax and take a breath. Start where you are and use what you have. Shower yourself with self care. Believe that the sun is still out there. Don’t give up hope. Add the things that truly nourish your soul and give you the courage to put out tiny roots. And when you break through the surface, and see that amazing blinding sun, keep reaching for the stars. Stand tall and proud. You are amazing!
 
And most importantly, you exist to keep the circle of life going. (I love the song. It’s actually my ring tone). You will bear fruit and this gives everyone hope and spreads the love. 
 

Like Thomas and Thomasina, I was buried but reached for the sun and stars. I’ve learned so many things about how to care for myself so that I can be my best self and help others. And I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey so we can learn from one another and stand tall together. Just like Thomas and Thomasina.

When I see those blessed red tomatoes now I imagine they are whispering to their seeds,

It’s ok. They buried me once. And look at me now!” 
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Today, on World Mental Health Day, I am hoping everyone checks in on how they’re travelling. Are you waking up feeling energised and enthusiastic about the day ahead? Are you finding joy in the small things? Or do you wake in a panic, already drowning in a pool of dread about the insurmountable problems that make up your life?

If you’re doing the former, well done! You’ve clearly prioritised your mental health. If you’re the latter, welcome to the club. You’re not alone. That is actually a description of me, just a few months ago.

I’ve been honest about my mental health, partly because it’s therapeutic to write about, but increasingly because I see the need for people to put their hand up and say “I’m needing a little help right now”. It’s not ok in our Instagram-obsessed world to not be perfect, it seems. And to be really honest, most of us don’t have the time or space to seek help. We’re so busy just trying to survive the onslaught of the day.

The thing is, if you had a sore leg, or a funny rash, you would eventually go to see someone. You would walk in and say, “Doctor, I have a sore leg/funny rash. What’s causing it, and what can I do?” It’s a shame we are not as forthcoming with our mental health as we are with our acute physical health. It’s not like poor mental health doesn’t impact on our function – our ability to thrive, contribute meaningfully and joyfully, and be at peace. It does, and very much so.

I sought help. I went to my GP, found a Lovely Psychologist, and she helped me with my long standing anxiety. I’ve even recently graduated from therapy! And I no longer wake up in a pool of dread. I find joy in very, very, small things. Just the other day, when I was replacing the toilet paper – joy. In the smallest of things…

Image result for toilet paper
Who knew toilet paper could bring so much joy. Not me.

*One thing is, when you ask for help, please go to the right people. While there are many excellent allied health professionals and complementary therapists, who may understand many aspects of mental health, and are often wonderful team members, treating people with mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders usually also needs expertise within general practice, psychology and often psychiatry. You may also need screening for physical disorders that can impact on mental health. I won’t go into how woefully underfunded mental health services can be, as that’s another story. *

Here are three things that I hope people will understand about asking for help. First, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of immense courage. The courage to be vulnerable, as this lady would say.

The indomitable Brene. If you haven’t heard of her you may have been living under a rock

 In Japan, broken pottery is repaired with gold. Each piece is considered beautiful because of its’ flaws.

Image result for kintsukuroi

Also – this from Leonard Cohen.

Image result for leonard cohen cracks light gets in

I hope you ask for help this week, if you are needing it. If you’re not yourself, if the wheels have fallen off, if something’s just not right. You are not alone. I hope my story illustrates that a little.

And that you start to let some of the light in. x

If you are feeling suicidal please seek immediate help from a trained mental health professional. Your GP, hospital, or Lifeline (131144) can help. 

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Active, Adolescent, Affection, Child, Enjoyment, Family

A very dear friend, whom I consider to be one of the wisest and kindest in the world, said these words yesterday and I could not agree more with her. The other amazing thing is that she said this in front of a group of people living with Type 2 diabetes, during a program we are running for a research project. What does grief have to do with diabetes, you ask? Well I can’t tell you the details of what we discussed, but as a GP, I see the effects of grief frequently, and I don’t think we give it enough space. We are afraid of acknowledging it, often not even aware that it’s there. But it’s absolutely true that joy and connection are waiting on the other side.

 

Trigger warning : I am going to talk about stuff that makes people sad, and this may make you cry. That’s ok. Crying is a great way to release emotions, and I am not embarrassed to say I am crying right now.

 

Grief isn’t just about losing someone you care about when they die, although this is a common form of grief and often the most painful. You might be grieving the loss of many things – your health, your youth, your children’s youth, the fact that you can’t have children. You might grieve a function that you used to have but no longer have. The first thing about grief is that it’s final and you can’t do anything to bring that person, experience, or thing back. The second thing about grief is that you grieve because you care.

 

I’ve been grieving over the past few years. My grief is intense, and also intensely personal and private, and not something I can share beyond a few close friends (and my Lovely Psychologist). (Grief is even harder when you can’t speak about it openly, I find). And yet, despite this, despite waking up each day knowing that the world has changed forever, I have managed to experience joy. I have actively sought joy because I have to believe that the world goes on and life is good. I have watched movies that made me laugh so hard I thought I would be incontinent. I have had wonderful family holidays, and made lots of memories. I have kissed my sleeping children goodnight every single night, and breathed in that wonderful sweet warm sleeping children smell, and felt that amazing gooey melty feeling you get whenever you touch a cheek that is still round, still innocent, still full of wonder and curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm. I’ve savoured being in bed each night, tired muscles, tired brain, tired head on pillow, just feeling so good because I’m finally lying down. I’ve enjoyed food, wine, sunshine, the beach, the forest, ice cream, hugs, and cat videos.

 

Grief makes you realise nothing can be taken for granted. Your world could collapse (or feel like it’s collapsing) with one phone call. Grief hurts a lot, but there is no painkiller that doctors can provide. We are absolutely powerless in the face of intense loss. Grief invites you to do nothing else apart from to sit with that pain and ride it out. Initially you might feel very very alone, but if you allow yourself to do so, people will help you. Maybe it’s a stranger, maybe it’s a colleague you barely know, or it could be your best friend or someone you know well. Maybe it’s just a dogwagging its tail in the park. But on the other side of grief, first there is connection with other living things. You are not alone. It sucks being human, sometimes. (or like my nine-year-old says, “I just don’t understand life”). Then it will, slowly, start to suck a lot less, with time. Then, one day, joy bursts into your life, and much like the sun blinds you when you walk out into it after being in a dark room, it’s very very very bright. And you realise the sun was shining all along – you just needed to be in your dark, alone room until you were ready.

 

So if you’re grieving, I invite you to sit in that room and honour the memory of whatever it is you are grieving over. It’s clearly important to you. But keep your ears, eyes, and all your senses open to joy. Joy is waiting for you, I promise.

 

If you are struggling with your grief, please talk to a trained professional. In Australia, you can call Lifeline if you are in need of immediate help on 13 11 14. 

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When you were babies and I went back to work and a PhD, it was all about you.

I worried that you may be somehow compromised by having a mother who left you on some days of the week to pursue a career. This was a selfish and dangerous act, I was told by the media (and indeed, by other women). My babies would end up depressed, anxious, starved of love, neglected, and generally traumatised by our separation. I was told you would never grow up quite right, that the experience of having a mother who wasn’t always there would somehow affect you forever and you would end up needing therapy.

I was also told I was a bad mother, or worse I wasn’t even a mother, but that’s for another post.

So I did what every other parent who works outside the home does. I loved you as much as I physically and emotionally could when I was around. I read to you every night, rocked you to sleep, slept with your little faces close to mine, took you for walks, to the park, planned your birthday parties, had playdates at the zoo, gave you baths, taught you how to use a spoon and fork. I did all the things. I fit my schedule around you. Throughout the PhD I made sure to fit in days to wake up late with you, to have a pleasant day wandering out to the playground followed by a nap, and a play at home. This would compensate for the times when you were suffering without me, in the care of another loving adult.

Now you’re in primary school – where did the time go? And along with you eventually becoming toilet trained, learning to strap yourselves in, do up your own shoes, shower yourselves, read and ride a bike, my PhD has morphed into something called “academia”. Last year was a blur of meetings, grants, conferences, deadlines, crises, reports, and way too many weekends spent “working”. Throw in clinical work and I was one stressed mumma. Yet you continued to flourish and thrive despite me not being around all the time. You are, undecidedly, two of the most loving, confident, infectious, joyful, resilient and engaging children I’ve ever met. And you love kale. Kale is your favourite thing. How did I pull that off?! I may be biased of course, and you’re not perfect (Exhibit A Your Honour – yesterday’s bickering in the car which required my “mum voice” and an order to please cease talking immediately or mummy will lose her shiz big time) but somehow, in the midst of the PhD, while I was trying so hard to ensure your needs would never be unmet, you’ve grown into two beautiful and bright little people.

Sometime last year, I cannot remember when, I experienced “The Meltdown”. This went on for quite a while. I had the sense of losing complete control over my schedule. I was hurtling down into an armageddon of endless demands. To compensate, I did what I’ve always done- worked harder. It finally occurred to me that this could not be the solution any more. I was working myself into the ground with nothing to show for it.

I’m now in recovery. And I’ve made a conscious decision to pull back, to say no, to protect my weekends and even my evenings. Work smarter not harder. Take breaks. And I’m not doing this for you this time. I’m doing it for me.

I need you like never before. After a week of battling my old friend Impostor syndrome, of juggling students and meetings and projects and people, I need to listen to your fart jokes, see your wide smiles breaking like the most beautiful sunrise across a beautiful little face. I need to be lulled by the gentle rhythms of the weekend – lazy breakfasts, baking, going to the beach, watching Pokemon. I need to listen to the musical chatter of your imaginative play, and I need to kiss you every night, once when you go to bed, and once more when I turn in, so I can see you sleeping and feel my heart explode. You complete me and revive me in a way my career never will. You put the strength back into me that ebbed away during the week. On Monday mornings I feel human again, I feel whole, and I have enough charge to get through another week.

Maybe I’ve always done all the things for me, and not for you. It’s just that parenting always seemed to focus on the needs of the child and not the parent. I’m learning now, the hard way, that self care for parents is the number one priority.

So it’s not you, it’s me. I’m saying no to weekend work, to the demands, not because you’ll be compromised and need therapy, but because I will. It’s time for me to thrive and flourish.

Thank you for growing up into the beautiful people that you are today. It gives me faith every day that I’m somehow doing the right thing.

Your loving mumma

x

 

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