My very real fear of one day losing my sense, losing my connection to reality, losing my mind, is always and forever connected with an absolute fascination with stories of madness.
My favourite Shakespeare play is perhaps Hamlet (and I say that cautiously given my deep love for Measure for Measure, Henry IV part 1 & 2, and The Tempest). Aside from the tremendous social commentary and brilliant first tv role of David Tennant, Takin’ Over the Asylum remains one of my favourite mini series’. Crime and Punishment, A Scanner Darkly, The Outsider, The Yellow Wallpaper, and so many more which focus on the descent of madness on a mind, dominate my list of favourite books.
I often wonder what it is that draws me to such texts. Recently I read Flowers for Algernon, which whilst it doesn’t deal with madness as such, does examine the sensation of a split mind, of watching one’s own intellect slipping away. Madness and intellect are linked, for me. Which isn’t to say I believe uneducated people exist in a state of madness, rather that I associate sanity with the ability to trust my own judgement, be assured that my logic is solid and reasoning rational and allows me to learn, and express myself in intelligible ways. One of the difficult things about coming to terms with cyclothymia has been the feeling of not trusting my own judgement when hypomanic.
I’m not sure how other cyclothymic folk experience hypomania, but for me, it’s often a sensation of knowing two contradictory things at once. Namely, that taking an impulsive and occasionally dangerous action is a good idea, and, simultaneously knowing that my ability to make that decision is being influenced by an irrationality uncharacteristic of me in normal life.
I also know that I can’t trust everything my eyes and ears tell me; I don’t experience auditory or visual hallucinations as such, but something about the heightening of the senses that hypomania brings on ends with me continually whipping round at something I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye, or turning off the tv in order to hear again the chirp, or scream, or ring I’m sure I noticed on the very edge of hearing. There’s never anything there.
Stories of madness offer me a comforting point of recognition in these experiences, they also caution me of what may wait around the corner, of what is looming. For every story which romanticises madness as freedom and a new, truer way of seeing (Prozac Nation, The Bell Jar, I’m looking at you) there is another offering terrifying isolation, disenfranchisement from everything that once mattered, that does matter. I seek an answer from these media – where is the line? When do we cross it? How can we tell? And it is the latter which I seek most vigorously. Instead, what the stories portray is how narrow the line between madness and sanity is, they show that we more often dance on it than cross irrevocably from one side to the other.
I think that’s what I’m coming to understand about cyclothymia; it’s a state of continually dancing on the line, of often feeling that all that separates us from the oblivion of insanity is letting go, giving in, releasing ourselves to our most overwhelming impulses. Peculiarly, this state of being categorises us all as suffering a ‘mild’ mental health issue.
Psychosis sees no incongruity between perception and reality, sanity sees perception and reality as being mutually constructed but equal and never at odds. Cyclothymia offers both and neither. Continually shifting between confusion and clarity, happiness and confidence and doubt and misery. Fluctuating between a sense of seeing the heart of life and finding it horrible when depressed, and feeling the world can be bent to my will when manic. And somewhere, in the middle, trying to hold these shifting perceptions together, trying to balance and order and understand it all, is my ‘sane’ mind, the one that emerges between the downswings and the upswings, the one I think of as me and not cyclothymia.
But what all the texts and films and stories tell us is that true madness emerges when we fail to integrate the parts of ourselves, so am I all of these things – madness, sanity, balance, or none of them? I keep looking for an answer, I think that’s why I’m still drawn to such stories. Whilst I live in such a liminal space I think I will remain restless to understand which way the chips will eventually fall, or if they will fall at all.