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An outer layer of skin.

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Wednesday 2 November 2005

Rachael Krinks, author


An Outer Layer of Skin  


Most of us have felt vulnerable at times in our lives, due to emotional or physical threats to our wellbeing. This sense of vulnerability is often prompted by an external threat, such as a relationship breakdown, job loss, a natural disaster or the threat of physical attack. However, can you imagine having your emotions, perceptions, cognitive abilities and sense of wellbeing constantly undermined by a threat that is internal ? I am talking about mood swings - not the general swings that make people crabby or very vivacious - but swings that cause a person’s concept of who they are, what they are capable of and their satisfaction with their partner, job and/or life goals to change completely, rapidly and without any apparent cause. 


This is how I experience the illness known as manic depression. While significant mood swings are difficult to live with there are a number of vulnerabilities created by this illness that I believe are not very well understood even by my friends, family and colleagues. One of the worst features that I experience is how quickly a mood change can occur: my mood changes can happen within a moment. A lover has seen my face and manner completely change within seconds, as if a dark cloud has suddenly fallen upon my head. At work, typing in our happy office, I have felt my mood fall so rapidly that within half an hour I had to leave, weeping, unable to stop the dark cloud of melancholy descending.  


A second and less understood feature of my experience of manic depression is that the illness affects not just my emotions but my cognitive skills. With depression, my mind becomes foggy, my memory less reliable. I struggle to take action with files that yesterday or tomorrow I could handle with aplomb. I draw a blank in general conversation instead of easily using words that are at my disposal every day. It can be acutely embarrassing but also professionally damaging. Significant changes in mood, memory, productivity and cognitive abilities that happen with great speed are naturally very hard for even well meaning colleagues to understand.  


A third source of my sense of vulnerability that I did not fully understand myself until recently is that mood swings are not always triggered by disasters or stressful events. My highs and lows are equally triggered by absolutely nothing or by the most seemingly insignificant things that many people take for granted. A good coffee, too much wine, a busy weekend away and stimulating visits from friends and family have all at various times triggered a leap for me into a wonderful but agitated ‘high’ or a fatigued, irritable and mentally crushing low.  


Fourth, when escalating into a ‘high’ I often join and take on roles in groups with whom I feel comfortable and who are aligned with my personal values. However, when the inevitable ‘low’ hits, I withdraw from these people and activities. This inability to consistently commit to engagement with like-minded people and community groups is an ongoing disappointment to me. Lack of consistency is one of the biggest difficulties I face. When in the middle of a ‘high’ or to escape the onset of a low one of my strongest instincts is to run. I have had more jobs, lovers and homes than I can count. Over the last 10 years I have moved 12 times, always believing a lover, job or lifestyle was negatively affecting my wellbeing, only to discover the problem had moved with me and the chaos had begun again.  


To manage my illness well I need consistency, structure and stability. Yet manic depression by its own nature tends to ensure these things elude its sufferers. However, this year I decided to stop running from the whirlwind in my head. A supportive partner, family and work colleagues, appropriate diagnosis, medication and lifestyle changes have all contributed to my new wellbeing. While I still have mild lows and highs often I am ‘normal’ - whatever that is! Research and my family history tell me manic depression is both a curse and creative gift but I see it as a structural vulnerability that means I wear my heart on my sleeve. I feel things intensely, love deeply and often respond to music, art, animals, flowers, inanimate objects and people as if no boundary exists between the world and myself. I’ve been described as being so sensitive it’s as if I walk around without an outer layer of skin. Well, what a gift and (most of the time) I wouldn’t want to be any other way.  


Guests on this program:

Rachael Krinks  

Freelance writer and artist