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An unusual book through my door...

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:06

*Warning - sensitive discussion on death*

One dark evening in December, I received a book through my letterbox called 'Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers'. Now, some people might find that a creepy book to get posted through your door but luckily I knew who had posted it. I had recently struck up a conversation with a local ex-councillor who wants to set up a community meeting to discuss advance directives (where you set out what treatment you would like in the event of not having the capacity to decide for yourself during serious or terminal illness). I am interested in death cafes so we had a meeting to discuss it. Hence she thought I might enjoy a book about cadavers.

She was right, my reading taste is determinedly non-fiction and I teach K220 'Death, dying and bereavement' so the book was up my street. All the same, it wasn't the sort of book I would usually buy as I avoid what sounds like sensationalist literature. But I actually found it very interesting. Some of the discussion was familiar to me such as medical dissection and forensic science. Other sections weren't (the contribution of cadavers to car crash legislation, for instance). But what was most fascinating was my emotional reaction to the discussion - I didn't have one. Well, not until we got to the chapter on organ transplants.

Let me explain. I was a nurse for twenty years and during that time I cared for many dying people at various stages of their lives, including directly after they died. Whilst I am a very empathetic carer and would often cry with patients and relatives, I have no fear of dead bodies nor am I squeamish. I can also separate out the concept of a dying person and a lifeless cadaver - I held my mother's hand as she died and I visited my father in the mortuary. So most of the subject matter did not produce an emotional reaction in me other than interest in the detail given. But the chapter on organ transplantation was different; I was filled with immense sadness and wanted to cry. This is because the person involved had a beating heart and pink skin, she had the obvious visual features of a living person - she looked like an unconscious patient and was cared for as such. But she was brain dead and in that grey area between life and death and soon someone would be mourning her loss. This was interesting for me as I had never seen transplant surgery from the perspective of the donor before, only the mourners and the organ recipients. It was worth reading the book just for this new level of empathy.

Annie

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Managing lows

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

I openly discuss my bipolar disorder so it sometimes comes up in tutorials when we are discussing health theory or disability. Recently I was discussing the concept of 'curing' in a K219 tutorial and one of the examples being discussed was mental health so I gave my personal opinion. I enjoy the positive reactions I get from students when I discuss my mental health, students are very encouraging on the need to reduce stigma and often come out with their own experiences. Someone mentioned how mental illness can creep up on you and I acknowledged this, pointing out I often don't realise I'm manic until well into an episode, partly because it is enjoyable, and the need to have a confidant who is able to recognise and discuss it with you. A student then said 'What about the lows?' and I realised that I very seldom discuss the lows.

I don't have lows very often, my bipolar mainly features hypomania and I seldom have deep lows since the first ones I experienced when I was first diagnosed 20 years ago. Manic depressives are often diagnosed during a depressive episode, mania can be enjoyable but depression isn't. McKeon (1995) suggests that the first depressive episode is often triggered by emotional stress switching on a genetic mechanism. Mine was triggered by my father becoming seriously ill and almost dying. 

I discussed my mental illness at a church meeting this week and my husband said that he could detect my mood swings and we then worked together on strategies to manage them. Later I challenged him on this; he actually identifies my manic periods but not my depressive ones. Mania is a very public thing, it is outward in its appearance, but depression is quite private and inward. I can't always tell I'm depressed myself until well into a period, it creeps up on you as noted earlier but it is also difficult to tell what normal is if your moods are usually abnormal. 

I've had marking over the last few weeks and I've been prevaricating over it. Now, finding displacement activities to avoid marking is quite normal, I'm sure, for most ALs. But it was when I was crying at the thought of it that I realised that I was depressed not just avoiding work. Recognising it meant I could develop strategies to manage it. Firstly, giving myself very small goals, perhaps 2 papers to do,  to make it manageable. I often find if I set myself to mark 2 papers I actually mark 4 as starting is often the hardest thing and once I'm into an activity it provides a welcome distraction from my emotions. I also prepare myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I make sure I go for two walks a day and get some fresh air and exercise. I eat healthily and take vitamins. I meditate and say a prayer before working (non-religious people might consider an activity such as writing down some positive things to be thankful for and some short term, achievable goals). I take regular breaks and have a cup of tea.

So, why I am I writing this? Well, in my experience, students with mental health challenges often face similar struggles when writing an assignment; it becomes a big wall that seems impossible to get over. As ALs we need to recognise these hurdles are real issues and work with our students to overcome them. Acknowledgement and empathy is the first priority alongside open channels of communication so that students can voice their fears and anxieties; this does much to reduce the burden. Work with students to come up with achievable goals over a period of time, perhaps just listing key points at first, then developing a plan for an essay, then tackling a paragraph a day so it does not become overwhelming. Plan ahead to the next assignment so that they are prepared in advance. Encourage them to look after their physical health too, to take regular breaks and get some rest. Most of all, let them know that you value them and you are on their side, even if their decision is to take a break from their studies. 

Most importantly, listen to their voice so you can empower and support them to achieve their potential in whatever way they can.


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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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Reflecting on 2018

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

2018 was a turning point for me. It was the 20 year anniversary of my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, the year my life was turned upside down and which led me to give up my dream job as a university lecturer, move away from London and start again.

So, in 2018 the time was right to reclaim my academic career at the age of 49. I doubled my working hours from 13 to 26 and took on higher modules to teach. I became more active in the university online community, starting my blog and generally contributing more in forums and community discussions. I also became more vocal about health issues outside the university, giving a talk to my church about mental health (which has led to a higher profile of the needs of disabled members) and I’m in discussion with community leaders about starting a local death café. I planned and wrote a research proposal for a doctorate which I hope will benefit students with mental health challenges.

I used a year off from study to reflect on what I learnt on the Masters in Education and put new ideas into practice, including improving how I maintain dialogue with students via email and the PT3 form. I recommend the Masters programme to other ALs, I learnt so much from it, especially about conducting research and transforming practice, though it was very hard work.

2019? I want to write more about the experience of living with bipolar disorder and start my doctorate research. I know I go on about my future studies but I find studying truly exciting as I came from a working class background and never went to college; my life has been changed by the Open University in many ways.

Have a happy new year

Annie


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New blog post

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

Last week I finished writing up my research proposal for my Doctorate application. This is a big milestone for me as it represents something that that I once would not have a imagined I could achieve.

I left school after my O' levels to go on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) scheme in a care home. But this wasn't the career I wanted as a child; I'd always wanted to be an English teacher. But such a job was completely out of reach for someone from a rough council estate in Luton. Whilst I wanted to be a teacher it was something I knew was out of my league, it was an impossible dream. I didn't know anyone who worked in a professional job; my father worked in a dairy factory, my mother was a canteen cook, and all my family worked in either factories, shops or child care. I didn't know anyone with a degree and my friends and boyfriend went on to do apprenticeships, even the ones with A' levels. Besides, my parents wanted me to get a job and pay rent so it was the YTS scheme for me. I lacked the social and cultural capital (key concepts in KE322) to make my dream come true.

So how did I get here, a middle class academic working in Cambridge? Well, even on the YTS I was discerning on what I wanted to do and requested elderly care not child care as I felt that would offer more opportunities. And it was in a small private residential home that I was empowered to change my life. The home was owned by a lovely pair of best friends, a nurse and a home economist who had previous taught teenage mums, who saw in me a potential for reaching higher. Their support and influence provided the social and cultural capital to successfully apply for nurse training in my local hospital. My nursing qualifications then enabled me to move to London, opening myself up to new world views. In the language of Goodhart (2017), also from KE322, I moved from being a 'Somewhere' to an 'Anywhere' person. Moving to London offered me a wider scope for developing as a professional but also introduced me to a wider range of people from different classes, especially when I started attending a large city church. Meanwhile I started an Open University module on research methodology, which then led to a degree. Having friends with Doctorates normalised academia in my life (back to social and cultural capital again) and I knew I wanted to teach nursing (my bipolar mania also contributed to my professional progress but that is a different story). I now teach health and social care undergraduates, live in in a city which has twice the number of graduates than the national average and my son attends the top state sixth form college in the country. How life has changed.

I now straddle two universes; the middle class world where I live and the working class world where I came from. When I did my Masters in Education I found the alien language frustrating and wrote on a bit of paper by my computer 'Academic language exists to disempower the working classes'. It has got easier over the years to bridge the cognitive divide but I still have a deep empathy for students who enter this new world with its of unfamiliar language and rules. My research will look at one of the groups who have more hurdles to overcome than most, those with mental health challenges, and I am excited for the opportunities this research might bring for empowering this group of students, just as I was empowered as a young girl to reach outside my socio-cultural boundaries.

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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Home working

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

This week I thought I'd reflect on home working in relation to hours "worked". Associate Lecturers are appointed to modules with specific hours allocated so there can be a natural tendency to measure your own workload as hours working at specific activities rather than an overall picture, especially if you only teach one or two modules. This means that your focus on work is very different to in a traditional work place. Let me explain.

When I taught two modules I was employed for 13 hours a week. Obviously I need to keep in contact regularly with my students and update forums, and there were sudden periods of intense marking or preparing for a tutorial. With so few hours it made sense to think of my time in hours.

But now I teach four modules for 26 hours and this approach no longer seems appropriate. For one thing, my hours now fit neatly in to 3 full days with occasional weekend or evening tutorials. I don't need to measure hours. But it also has reminds me why home workers can often end up working more intense hours than those in the office. You see, when you allocate yourself hours at home you are very exact, you stop measuring them when you leave your desk for a cup of tea or a reflective walk. Your hours are tightly packed with work in a way which isn't reflected in most work places. I've worked as a lecturer in a bricks and mortar university, there you would converse with your colleagues on arrival, walk to the library to read a journal, take tea with colleagues and attend meetings alongside your teaching commitments. All of which would be part of your normal working hours. Yet as a home worker you feel the need to justify every minute of your time because you are not being supervised.

Routine is very important to my mental equilibrium and I allocate my week's activities in advance. But I'm only just realising that working 3 full days a week gives me more freedom to relax about work. I will still keep a list of my tasks and hours completed as these are useful for reviewing workload. But from now on I'm going to see my hours as full days, cups of tea and all, and recognise that those breaks from work where I decide to take a walk to reflect on what I am doing are just as much of my working week as those in which I am marking assignments and giving tutorials.

Annie

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Reflections on a funeral

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

I teach on K220 'Death, dying and bereavement' and shared this reflection on my tutor group forum today for discussion and thought I'd pop it up here as my weekly offering.

"I went to the funeral of an elderly relative yesterday, my husband's grandmother who died at the grand old age of 98. I thought I'd note down a few of my observations. These need to be seen in the social context; my husband's family are evangelical Christians of an Anglican background. My in-laws are theologians, my mother in law (whose mother had died) is a well known preacher who used to do Thought for the Day on Radio 4.

It was a small grouping, mainly family. This reflects her age, she was the youngest of 10 children and the last to die (this was brought up during the talk about her life and resonated with me as I am the youngest of 8), her friends had died and she spent the last year or so in a care home. 

The coffin being carried down the aisle and the order of service reminded me of a wedding service. One of the hymns was an old one based on Psalm 23 which my own mother had at her wedding and funeral.

There were no tears and lots of laughs. This reflects not only her age and that her death was long expected but also that evangelical funerals tend to be celebrations of end of the old life and the coming of the new.

I realised I had never been to a graveside burial; my family are cremated. I pondered this with my husband and suggested this might be a class thing as my family are working class and his are middle class and cremation is cheaper than burial. But he had a more intriguing reason in that my family were non-conformists (my parents were Baptists). I am a historian as well as a nurse and this makes sense as from the seventeenth century non-conformist were not allowed to be buried in Church of England graveyards and were given their own burial grounds. This separation of burial from church could mean it is easier for them to make the move to cremation, which was promoted in the nineteenth century. My own parents were cremated and their ashes scattered in a favourite river spot. I don't have any particular preference for what happens to my body, I have no particular urge for anyone to sit and mourn at my graveside so perhaps I will also find a place to be scattered in the wind.

Anyway, I thought I'd share my reflections. Feel free to share your experiences of funerals."

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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Oh, my eyes!

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

One thing I didn't anticipate when taking on more hours was the effect on my eyes of the increased screen time. As a trained ophthalmic nurse perhaps this should have been obvious to me, especially as I know from previous experience that I sometimes get dry eyes doing my eMarking. But it took me by surprise and it is something I definitely need to address, especially as all my module materials are online and I'm going to be spending a lot of time staring at the screen. I'm glad that I've settled on my work days being Monday, Wednesday and Friday as this at least means I will get breaks in between (though Tuesday is my study day so will require some pc work).

So I need to make an action plan to minimise effects. I know the main problem with staring at a screen is dry eyes from not blinking so I'm going to buy some artificial tears as I know they have worked previously. I also need to get up and take regular breaks away from the screen (always good for me anyway). Next time I get my glasses updated I might get some extra screen coating too. I might also experiment with screen lighting and shading.

So, time for a break.

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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Don't shoot - I'm disabled

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:11
I had intended my first blog of the academic year to be about the trials and tribulations of being an AL, preparing for new modules and incoming students and then having your pc die a sudden death during an online meeting on the first day back (agonising enough for anyone but especially for a manic depressive who keeps her anxiety at bay by having an impeccably structured life unhindered by nasty surprises). But today I read an article on the BBC was website which moved me deeply and I felt I had to write on that instead.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-45739335 This article is both shocking and very, very sad. These people who died were unarmed and not committing any crime; one was naked in his shower. What they all have in common is lack of communication, some of them had learning difficulties or mental health challenges which meant they did not understand the commands they were given, one of them was deaf. 

Hey, wait, let me back track a little. It wasn't these communication difficulties which caused their deaths but the poor communication skills of the police.

This is not a blog on guns or police policy in the US, I value my sanity far too much for those discussions. But these police officers seemed to go into situations using aggression from the outset, shouting at the person even in the situations when they knew the person was disabled. Were they not taught any communications skills during their training? Do they act like this in their everyday lives? Do they not know anyone disabled: do they fear them or think them sub-human?

I've had bipolar disorder for 20 years and know lots of other people with the same condition. If someone is in a manic state, aggression will just heighten it and stress can be a big trigger. Manic depressives can also have problems processing instruction so even if they are listening to you they still might not have the foggiest what you want them to do. Similar issues happen with other mental health issues. But this goes far beyond disability, it seems that some people in authority think aggression is an acceptable way to carry out their job and that challenges can be met with violence. There needs to be far greater education on understanding the needs and experiences of people with disabilities, especially mental health and learning disabilities, and the communication skills needed to communicate effectively with them. But these are skills which will benefit all people, they are basic rules for engaging others in all walks of life in a respectful way. We need to resist a culture which thinks 'shoot first, ask questions later'. A little empathy will go a long way

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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