Erin was a teenager when she first experienced disordered eating, panic attacks, depressive episodes and anxiety.
Her twenties are a bit of a blur for her, she says, where she’d move to Sydney, experience manic episodes and then burn-out, come back to New Zealand to get treatment and then return to Sydney. Before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was hard to discern whether she lived with a mental illness.
“I’d stay up all night drinking but I was 23 in a new country and having fun meeting new people. It was hard to see it as a manic episode, but I’d get through a week with no sleep, I’d go out by myself and I’d put myself into really dodgy situations. And then there was the spending. A lot of spending!”
She spent $10,000 in four months, for example, but she jokes it was a great time to be her friend.
“I’d be spending money on anything and everything and for anyone. It seems like a lifetime ago now, as I’ve got systems in place where I wouldn’t dream of having a credit card.
“For years I sort of convinced myself that I had a physical illness and not a mental illness because my body would ache, I’d be tired, I’d have headaches. At one point I convinced myself that I had mercury poisoning. I also was into yoga and meditation, which confused things. At one point I started seeing God and envisioning myself as the scheme of the universe - basically tripping out - but I didn’t think anything of it.”
After a period of feeling like a zombie and losing days of her life as a result of trying to find the right medication she went to an amazing private hospital in Australia, she says.
“We’d have therapy from 8-5pm everyday. I was totally immersed in wellbeing learning tools, which I really did learn. I really stabilized, and once I was discharged I kept everything up, and started to enjoy life, which was incredible.”
Now, back in New Zealand, it’s these tools that have helped her get through life in the mirumiru/bubble during COVID-19, she says. “I now know what I need to do to keep myself well, that doesn’t mean I do it, necessarily, but I can pick things up a lot faster.”
She sees a psychologist every three weeks, and her recovery programme includes two meetings a week, and one meeting a week with a peer support group. It’s been business as usual, but simply via Zoom.
“Just because we can’t see each other in person that doesn’t mean we don’t need support through this time. We’re doing it differently but it’s a must in order to keep well.”
Erin’s peer support group is for those who have or who are thinking about tapering off psychiatric medication. She went at first as she was thinking about coming off her medication but after an unsuccessful attempt she now goes to support the wider group and remain in touch with people who have similar lived experiences. “The conversations aren’t limited to the topic of medication so we find support just by telling our stories.”
The support group has also been good because it means Erin stays connected. She’s in-between jobs at the moment and she’s naturally inclined to completely disassociate with the world.
“I have absolutely loved my time in lockdown, which I have to be wary of. It’s my jam. I’m naturally introverted so I tend to isolate anyway.”
She has had to be strict on herself though, she says. She’s had to manage her sleep hygiene insofar as she could easily fall into the trap of sleeping in late everyday, and staying up late “bingeing on Netflix”. She’s also had to manage her eating habits - Erin’s always had a difficult relationship with food so she’s made an effort to give herself permission to eat when she feels like eating, and being mindful not to restrict, binge or purge.
“I suppose I haven’t done as well as I should have, but I’ve kept my head above water and I’m doing pretty good.”
Erin thinks she hasn’t been struggling as others have been because she’s almost in a better position than most as she’s been through a crisis before.
“A couple of people in my support group have said the same thing. We have the experience and the tools to get through crisis periods. It’s like putting theory into practice. Where some people might be feeling anxiety, and strange, I feel like, no, I’ve got this.”
To stay well Erin does yoga when her body tells her to, she reads, watches television, listens to podcasts, limits her consumption of news media, and sits “in the sunshine whenever it’s available and watch[es] Tui and Fantails in the garden”.
“I almost always have at least one cat on my lap and I regularly go on walks around the neighbourhood to spot teddy bears.
“I give myself a break - when I’m tired I have a nap, if I can’t be bothered having a shower in the morning I’ll leave it ‘til later in the day. Some days are hard, and that’s ok. I just chill on those days and don’t beat myself up about it.”