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Anxiety in context

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:02

I had a mammogram yesterday, just a routine call up because I am 50. The leaflet that arrived with my appointment was very detailed about the pros and cons of screening, as a part of the informed consent. I found it an interesting read as we explore the ethics of screening as part of K219 'Critical issues in health and wellbeing'. My husband was quick to ask how I felt about going for screening and whether I wanted to.

But I have no anxiety at all about health screening. My anxiety in my bipolar disorder is caused by unfamiliar environments and I've worked in health and social care, practice and teaching, for over 30 years. There is nothing unfamiliar about anything health related, I live and breathe it. I have no fear of dentists either, I see being jabbed with needles in the mouth as a parallel with me having spent years jabbing needles in people's eyes. 

But, obviously, many people with mental health challenges do find screening a cause for anxiety. This is because people's experiences of disability and mental illness are individual and contextual. This is one of the criticisms of the social model of disability, that it sees disability in the form of barriers that society creates but neglects the individual and how they see the world. And it's the reason why I'm a fan of a more emancipatory approach, which promotes voice and participation. The social model is very useful for breaking down barriers, especially physical ones, but its time to empower disabled people to take control and this can only be done by respecting their individual needs.

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Starting professional doctorate studies

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:04

Most OU modules start this week so it is always busy for an Associate Lecturer in the first few weeks of October but this year was extra busy for me as I started my Professional Doctorate in Education. Don't know what this is? Well, it is basically a part time doctorate for people in professional practice. Unlike most doctorates which are done at the beginning of a career, a professional doctorate is done later in a career within your own work environment. The OU offers a Professional Doctorate programme in Education or Health and Social Care  http://wels.open.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/edd

The year 1 residential was last weekend and what an intensive time it was. Not only was it a fantastic opportunity to meet fellow students (it's a distance learning course so meeting others is a valuable experience) and to share ideas and interests, but it was a helpful approach to cementing identity at the beginning of doctoral studies. I was able to explore what it means to be a research professional, reflect on the ethics of research and learn more about critical review of literature. I saw a research project in action which had many similarities to my own. The library session was immensely useful; I may be an AL but it was very helpful to have one to one assistance from a librarian and to learn about relevant software to aid my studies.

Now I'm off on my research journey. I am lucky in that I have a firm structure to work within: 3 days of OU work punctuated by two days for study, an obvious necessity for a manic depressive who needs to plan her schedule clearly to avoid stress. There will be some overlap though as I am doing action research. My current working title is 'How can Students with Mental Health Challenges be Empowered to become Independent Learners within the Technology-enhanced Learning Environment?' but more on that another time.

Now to start my Researching professional development Plan.

Annie


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March mania

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:04

Having blogged about the February blues a month ago I thought I'd speak about the antidote now. For whilst February is a dark month for me, March is an altogether different thing. You see, there is a recognised rise in hypomania amongst people with bipolar disorder in March.

This shouldn't be surprising as many people with bipolar disorder also have seasonal affective disorder. But I think it goes beyond just having longer days with more sun. March is full of bright new things; the flowers are out, the blossom is on the trees, the birds are singing, the days are warmer... and people prone to mania tend to react to stimuli. I love March, I love walking in the sun and looking at nature in bud all around me. I find walking both a grounding experience and a joyful one. My love of March is matched by my love of September, 6 months later, when the seasons again go through a dramatic change.

The clocks will change tomorrow and British Summertime begins. Rejoice!


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It's done!

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:07

I've finally submitted my application for doctoral research. And i don't even feel anxious about it (that may well change!), just an overwhelming feeling that this is the right time and what I need to do. It helps that it is a subject that I feel passionate about - students with mental health challenges. I feel very happy to take this next step on my journey.

And it's just occurred to me that I am sharing my 50th birthday with the OU this year. What a good year for both of us.

Annie

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Time out

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:08

Well, I've just finished the marking marathon of November so thought it might be a good time to reflect on how I am getting on with my increased workload.

October is a month of welcoming and signposting, phoning students and getting to grips with module structures; a busy but enjoyable time as you meet new people and learn new things. November is a different beast - virtually every module has an assignment due in November which needs marking.  Marking is by far the most labour-intensive parts of an associate lecturer's role and also one of the most important. Not only is it part of a student's continuous assessment, it is also one of the main ways ALs use to communicate with students and advise them of their progress. So it is important to do it properly, hence the time consuming nature.  In my case I had 4 lots of assignments over a 3 week period from the end of October. I'm now on a week's break from marking before more 3 lots of assignments submitted over 2 weeks. It's a bit hectic!

Of course, by break I don't mean a rest; I have 3 tutorials to plan and deliver in the next 2 weeks as well as as the usual emails, forums, admin and telephone calls as well as staying up to date with the 3 new modules I'm teaching. But it does mean the pressure is off and I can relax and take stock. Being a great believer in the connection between physical and mental health I'm also using this week to detox and take some mental health walks.

So, on reflection, how has the last month gone? Well, I got all the assignments back on time. The first ones were returned very early due to my increased hours allowing for more efficient timetabling. My last lot only just got back in time but that's how they fitted in the bigger picture so that's okay. I paced myself well; I decided in the end not to fill whole days with marking but break my days up which will have implications how I manage this period next year when I hope to be studying a PhD alongside my teaching. 

Most importantly, my bipolar disorder seems to be under control with no adverse effects from the increased hours. I am neither more manic nor more depressed than usual, despite being tired by the end of the last marking period. The last lot of marking was a slog and I had to give myself several pep talks but it worked. I am approaching my work this week with a positive mental attitude and am also keen to get back to work on my research proposal tomorrow. So all in all a win.

Annie

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Reflecting on my new timetable

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:09

Well, I'm a month into my new increased schedule and I thought I'd have a reflection on how it is going.

I'm surprised how smoothly the new routine has fitted into my life. I'm not having any problems arranging my work and I have noticed several improvements as well as noted a few areas where my homelife is having to adapt.

Firstly, my initial fears that I wouldn't be able to switch off on my days off has proved unfounded. After the first few weeks of constantly checking emails and forums I have settled down and can switch off. Not only has it not increased my mania but I've had a few days where I'm not hypomanic (unusual for me as I'm I have high functioning bipolar disorder so hypomania is a prominent feature of my life). Obviously, due to the nature of OU tutoring I do have to sometimes teach or speak to students during my downtime but I am balancing this well.

Some things have actually improved. When I only worked 13 hours a week teaching 2 modules I always found marking weeks hit and miss as they took up 12-15 hours of time and did not slot naturally into my life, leading to prevarication. But now I work 26 hours I can schedule these better and have days available for marking; for the first time have actually managed to mark straight away after the submission date. This improved scheduling is very important as, obviously, I also have far more marking to do but I do feel more efficient. We will see how this progresses as marking and teaching increases.

The impact on my home life is interesting. Being an early bird, I'm making an effort to sit down to work before my night owl husband leaves for his work. This gives me a visible presence as a working person which can be missing from home working and I'm noticing him acknowledging this in his attitude at home. He's also leaving earlier for work rather than rolling in late and staying late (he owns his own business)!

My children are old enough not to disrupt me at work too much but dinner has definitely got later and less fancier (I love cooking). But I still have days off to get things done.

So, all in all a positive change. I looked at it again in a month to see if 4 lots of marking have changed my opinion!

Annie

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Happy mania

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:10

This afternoon, I went for a walk across a nature reserve in the blustery wind and it was wonderful, I felt so alive and part of the landscape. I could feel the wind around me and was filled with joy to experience the wonderful world we live in. I have 'happy mania'.

One of the main consequences of self-managing my bipolar disorder is that my normal mental state is one of mild hypomania. Whilst this has some drawbacks, including potential lack of concentration and slow processing of information, it is also a wonderfully creative place to be. A bipolar friend describes my normal state as 'happy mania' and professes her jealousy of it.

You see, whilst my 'happy mania' can hamper my ability to comprehend if it gets out of control, it expresses itself in an enormous capacity to feel. When I was a child my mother used to say I had second sight; that I could feel atmospheres and read situations. Later in life, when my father had respiratory failure and my mother had to make that difficult decision for the ambulance men not to resuscitate him, it was me she asked afterwards if it had been the right decision (it was). I can still read people like books and I genuinely like people and find them interesting, even those I vehemently disagree with. My empathy shows in quirky ways, like unconsciously changing my accent according to who I speak to. What my happy mania gives me is a heightened perception of what is around me and for that I am glad; it's a feature not a bug. 

Nature has a great capacity to bring healing to those with mental health challenges and I recommend daily walking as a means of escaping the stresses of everyday life. You might not come home as buzzing as me but the exercise will do you good and you might find some spiritual solace.

have a great weekend

Annie

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New blog post

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:10

I recently decided to increase my work hours. It was something I had wanted to do for a while and this year finally presented an opportunity for me to apply for several appropriate modules. I had a firm idea of the number of hours I wanted to do and was lucky enough to get offered modules that met this requirement; in fact, I had to turn two modules down.

So why did I want to increase my hours? Well, the most straightforward answer was that I had time on my hands. My children are now teenagers so I need to be around less for them and I wasn’t studying last year so I was bored. I needed something more challenging to do with my life, which brings me on to my main reason for taking on more work; I wanted a career again. I now had the time and opportunity to make a serious career in academia, I was applying for a Doctorate and the time was right to make a big step forward.

I also hoped that increasing my workload would provide more structure to my life. Only working a few hours a week can create a feeling of being disconnected but by increasing my hours I could formalise my days. This isn’t just important for getting my own work done and managing my own haphazard mental processes but also also ensures my new workload is recognised at home. Like many work-at-home parents, most of my work is hidden. My family need to know that I have work to do, that I can’t just drop everything to pop to the shops for them. So, by having firm perimeters my status at home changes. If I want to successfully build my career my work must be visible at home as well as among colleagues.

To do this I have given myself 3 full working days plus the necessary flexibility for the odd evening or weekend tutorial to make up my hours. I also have a day set aside for study; this year it is used for background reading and small projects, next year it will be part of my PhD timetable. I’m only 2 weeks into it but I can see how it will be effective in organising my time and I feel purposeful. What I hadn’t anticipated is the difficulty switching off in between work days, I have a constant urge to check my work email and forums. As someone prone to hypo-mania this probably isn’t surprising but I’m hoping this will settle down as I get used to the pattern and as my students settle into their modules – routine is the key. But yesterday (my day off, otherwise known as the day I do the housework) I managed to switch off completely. I will keep monitoring how I am keeping to my timetable as the academic year progresses and the workload varies from week to week.

Annie


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Unsettled

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:12

Like many people with bipolar disorder, I have a problem with anxiety. Stress is a major trigger for bipolar disorder and my main method of controlling my stress, and consequent anxiety, is to meticulously plan my life. I don’t like surprises and I try to limit my exposure to them. Friends know not to turn up randomly on my doorstep and I plan my work diary efficiently with achievable goals. And this all has a positive effect on my working life as it means I am able to meet deadlines and have the time and space to manage any extra issues that crop up; phoning worried students, covering for colleagues, etc. I live a very organised life.

But it does mean sudden, unplanned changes to my routine make me anxious. Perhaps in some ways the method I use to combat anxiety can also cause it and today is a fine example.

We’ve been planning to get a new drive for several months but pinning builders down has been difficult. But suddenly we had an offer to do it today so we snapped it up.

Today I had planned to spend the whole day working (I work part time). I would spend the morning doing admin, sending weekly emails to my students, planning a tutorial, updating forums. This afternoon I would do marking. This was all in my diary. But my day has been unsettled and I cannot get my head around my work. The builders aren’t that noisy, I’ve heard far worse. But they seem to insist on the occasional social interaction which involves discussion which I don’t necessarily know the answers to (and numerous requests for tea). They also keep telling me things which they say my husband agreed but I am not so sure. To make matters worse, they cut through the internet cable first thing (I am currently borrowing the neighbour’s wifi, with their permission) so I have no landline and no way of phoning my husband, who has since reassured me via email that he will try to work from home this afternoon. But I need to feel settled to work properly and at present I am on edge. I know there’s no point in marking this afternoon.

My usual daily routine involves an afternoon walk and that would do my mind the world of good but I don’t want to go outside and speak to the builders. I suppose I could sneak out the back but what if they need me for something while I’m gone? More anxieties raise their ugly head.

The marking will get done this evening when the builders are gone, the world is quieter and all is well again. But I do know the next time we have builders that I’m going to plan to spend the day at a museum or gallery instead.

Annie


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Cloudy with sunny intervals

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:13

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog for some time now, partly prompted by the debates about equity and diversity in education studied in my recently completed Masters. It was always clear to me what my main focus would be as it is a subject close to my heart. But my personal knowledge of the field also meant that I needed time to think about my approach, as it is a subject that makes some people uncomfortable.

An example of this would be at a recent seminar when we were asked to find out more about our neighbour. I enthusiastically discussed my disability, my management of it and my passion to be an advocate for others like me who were less able to have a voice. By being open and frank about my experience I could empower others to speak out and remove the stigma associated with it. But when we fed back to the main group, my new friend did not name my disability, it was my ‘sensitive issue’. And this has been my experience on many occasions, no matter how frank and open I am and the permissions I give to discuss my disability, others are still reluctant to call it for what it is. It is a ‘personal difficulty’ or a ‘time of difficulty’. I’m sure you’ve guessed what I am referring to, it is my mental illness; I have bipolar disorder.

It is hard for someone who has never experienced mental illness to imagine what it is like and the unknown can create fear or misunderstandings or incomprehension. Likewise empathetic people don’t want to say the wrong thing, to offend or upset someone. Or fear they might breach a confidence (something perhaps we are even more sensitive to in my own field of health and social care). And these are all valid explanations. But they are also the reason that I want to be open about who I am, so that others can have an insight into what life is like with bipolar disorder and to encourage other manic depressives to speak out.

Culture and upbringing have a big influence here. I was brought up in a working class family where disability was visible and cared for within the family. My mother had poor mobility and my twin brother was born partially sighted and attended a school for the blind. My happy childhood memories are of visually impaired children charging around on horseback. I grew up with a very positive perspective on disability, and especially visual impairment, which eventually led me into specialising in ophthalmic nursing (where patients would comment on my very natural and relaxed approach to guiding). When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was supporting newly registered blind and partially sighted people to come to terms with their blindness so had a practical knowledge of identity and disability.

But not everyone feels this way or has these experiences. In the summer I attended a Christian festival with a reputation for inclusivity. The Sunday morning communion was entirely presented by disabled people and was a joyful experience for me. But when I turned to a close friend and asked him what he thought about it, I was amazed to hear him say that he found it very negative. Momentarily shocked into silence (which doesn’t happen often) I asked why and found he was sad that so many people had to live with these problems. In K213 Health and illness we look at the research of Blaxter (2010) into lay people’s understandings of health and illness and his responses are similar to how she found other highly educated, well off young men view health, focussing on absence of disease and physical fitness.

Our culture and experiences construct our perspectives so divergence of opinion is to be expected. If attitudes towards mental illness are to change there needs to be a cultural shift away from stigma, shame and silence. I want to use my voice to embolden others to share their stories so that there is a wider understanding of the lives of those with mental illness. As an Associate Lecturer I particular want students’ voices to be heard so that we can have a greater understanding of their needs and facilitate them in a way which maximises their potential, and next year I hope to start doctorate study to research into the experience of distance education in those with mental illness. By looking at how it experienced now I hope to develop an understanding of how education should be delivered in the future.

Annie

(The discussions in this blog are my personal opinions and not necessarily the views of The Open University. I’m a reflective practitioner so they might not necessarily stay my opinions either smile )


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