Monthly Archives: May 2014

Head above water

I’ve been struggling to turn any of the drafts sitting in my WordPress dash into posts in the last few weeks.  I’m super low on energy just now and have spent the last week and a bit shunning most day-to-day social interactions and doing what I can to conserve the energy I have.  I know that this is a herald of a down-swing, how severe that down-swing is depends – I’ve found over the last few years – on how rested I am.  Until it reveals itself I’m living, fairly happily, as a hermit.

Today I went swimming, it’s one of the few things I do no matter where my mood is, and universally makes me feel better.  When my head is under the water and my whole body is working to propel me forward, my mind goes quiet.  I was struggling today and felt as though I was a car revving in neutral – no matter how hard I pushed I just couldn’t seem to generate my usual speed and ease in the pool. I think perhaps I’m carrying a virus and it’s wiped out my (physical) energy reserves.  I felt heavy, almost as though I couldn’t float.  Which reminded me of an opinion I held as a child.

I could never understood how people who could not swim, drowned.  For me, floating is second nature; I can’t remember a time I couldn’t float. I relax my muscles, let go, and I float the surface of the pool.  I recall asking my mother why non-swimmers didn’t simply relax and wait to float.  Of course, drowning – and floating – are rather more complex than that, but it did get me thinking about the commonly used metaphor of struggling with mental health issues as being like drowning.

Right now I’m rationing out my social life, pushing myself to meet up with friends at least once a week even though all I want to do is stay home and listen to music.  It’s a bit like trying to take big lungfuls of air when sinking below the waterline is an inevitability.   I recognise these last gasps of air will sustain me when I simply cannot socialise, but taking them hurts; my lungs are already beginning to burn, my muscles ache, I want to let go and let my head dip below the water’s surface.

As you drop below the surface of a pool, sounds become muffled, the water presses in around you, your body is suspended – neither floating nor drowning.  Just hanging between the surface and the bottom.

Cyclothymia can be like that.

Part of the world and yet separate.  Seeing the same landscape as everyone around you but through a lens which distorts and refracts.  Hanging between sane and crazy, floating and drowning.  Half-welcoming the silence and calm that comes as you dip below the surface, half fearing it because after a few moments – or days – luxuriating in that silence your lungs begin to burn and feel like they will burst, the surface feels too far away to reach before you let go of your breath and suck down a lungful of water…

But I’m not drowning quite yet.  At the moment I’m floating on the surface, sculling along with my ears below the waterline, only conscious of the water lapping against my cheeks, sounds coming to me distant and echoing…calm, quiet, alone.

 

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Builder of Routines

A common symptom of both down swings and up swings for me, is anxiety.  And with anxiety, come compulsions.

Let me be clear, I don’t have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, nor am I ignorant enough to suggest I’m ‘a little bit OCD’, I’m not.  What I do experience, is an urge to fulfil certain behaviours during times of high stress and/or anxiety.  These compulsions, these habits or routines, are crutches I fall on.  They are as comforting and as irrational as a child’s security blanket.

I’ve mentioned before, briefly, that I am a Manic Street Preachers fan.  The most recently released album included a track called ‘Builder of Routines’ which articulates the feelings I have around the routines, or compulsions I sometimes feel (You can listen to the track here).  In order to talk about how this mood takes me, and the experience of being gripped by compulsions, I’m going to work through some key sections of that song.

I have sealed myself in /Laminated all of my skin/Sellotaped my world in bits/I must embrace paralysis
I go into a closed loop, no new experiences or sensations in – the very idea petrifies me – but so doing closes off the world to me. Everything outside my front door is overwhelming, too much noise.  But working within the closed loop, closed system, robs me of any creativity or originality. I become paralysed as I repeat the same actions and activities over and over.

Builders of routines/It makes me safe and clean
Everything calms down when I start going through a routine. Cleaning the kitchen, picking pieces of fluff from the floor, remaking the bed, brushing my teeth in a particular order with rinsing/spitting/brushing, listening to the same song again and again until I get it right…I can’t even articulate that last one properly.  I have to go through it, singing, or running through the lyrics, again and again until I get it right. Or I practice conversations – how will I introduce a funny anecdote? What is every possible response I could get? How will I reply? How will I pronounce each word?  Over and over, running through every scenario, past present future.

It doesn’t make me safe and clean, as such though, because the execution of the routine is never perfect. But trying, doing it over and over, silences the frantic parts of my mind for a few minutes at a time. And a few minutes silence can be worth every agonising moment of precise action.

It crucifies parts of me/But never seems to make me bleed
There’s a numbing quality about doing things over and over, be it eating the same dinner every night for three months (it was beans on toast when I did that) or cleaning the kitchen just right, making it ‘safe’ enough to rest.  Part of me goes to sleep, is silenced, is numbed, is crucified.  It doesn’t leave a mark though – the hours, the days, spent doing the actions that bring temporary quiet to my mind – no evidence of the violent compulsion that came before.  Not a drop of blood spent.

 

Writing this entry has been excruciating.  I am going through a period of compulsion and anxiety and getting each successive word down has been like pulling out a piece of me. I’m left exhausted after each sentence. Pushing out of the compulsion, pushing out of the places I feel safe, in order to write something ‘new’ is a huge undertaking. It’s easier, maybe even safer, to stay sealed in.

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Mania Misunderstood

I’ve written previously about cyclothymia being misunderstood, and that having cyclothymia is not only and always characterised by bad things/negative symptoms, but I want to revisit parts of both of those posts and talk about a common belief that mania (or in the case of cyclothymia, hypomania) means feeling incredibly happy and positive.

It is true that hypomania can sometimes be an enjoyable stage in the mood cycle; hypomania can be characterised by feelings of happiness and well being, but it doesn’t end there.  To illustrate just how difficult hypomania can be, let me describe the circumstances which led me to be diagnosed with cyclothymia.

I had come out of a long term relationship and had a messy break up.  I moved into a new flat and I started going out.  All the time. With everyone. Dancing, drinking, a snifter of drugs here and there.  I’d go to work with a raging hangover on 4 hours sleep, then do it all again the next night.

In itself, probably not that remarkable.  But instead of levelling out, having my moment of grieving, and moving on and dropping back into a normal rhythm of life, everything got faster.

Drink, fall in to bed, sleep a couple of hours, work, drink, dance, fuck, sleep, drink…repeat.

I was at every party every night of the week, and if there was no party, I’d down a bottle of vodka at home.

I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t be quiet.

One day I got up after almost no sleep and rolled into town.  I started shopping. And I didn’t stop until my credit card was maxed-out.  I remember calling my best friend as I walked from one shop to the next. I was annoyed because I couldn’t find much to buy in the last shop I’d been in.  I gabbled down the phone to her for a few minutes and she cut in; “are you drunk?”

And so it continued.

Being [hypo]manic is like being drunk, but it stops being the fun kind of drunk really quickly.  It’s more like being drunk at the end of the night, everyone has gone home or fallen asleep but you’re only just hitting your stride. Except unlike being drunk, you’ve been ‘hitting your stride’ for days. Unlike being drunk, you can’t use tried and tested strategies to sober up. A good sleep, rehydration sachet, a jacket potato, black coffee, none of it works. And some of it, like a good sleep, is flat out impossible.  I’ve stayed awake through a triple dose of sleeping pills.  I’ve slept fitfully for 4 hours, felt exhausted but simply been unable to close my eyes and drift off. Day after day. Night after night.

And then there’s the spending. It took me over a year to pay off the credit card I maxed out in a day. People like Stephen Fry can, I am confident, afford their hypomanic spending sprees, I can’t.

Nothing is interesting enough to occupy you for more than 20 minutes.  You run rings around people at work and they look like they are moving at a snails pace to you.  Nothing you can smoke, drink or snort hits your brain where you want it to, occasionally it just takes the edge off long enough for you to fall exhausted into bed and sleep properly for a few hours.

It was in this state, nervous, anxious, exhausted, unsettled, bored and overwhelmed, that I went to my GP. I sat down and it all poured out of me; can’t sleep, exhausted but can’t stop moving and thinking and doing.  Calling my friends because I can’t bear to be alone but none of them having the energy or time to keep up with me.

He prescribed me sleeping pills. Assured me it would be ok, he would help me get help.  And I sat there, feeling empty and lost.

Later came the referral to a psychiatrist (although my GP was as good as his word, I recall only waiting a week or two) the anti-psychotics, and finally, a diagnosis.  And with the diagnosis came recognition and, over the years, an understanding of my mind.

Hypomania? It doesn’t mean happy to me, it means being afraid of the speed and volume of my thoughts. It means urges and compulsions that just cannot be quelled.  It means go, go, go.  It’s means exhaustion, it means an energy debt that’s going to be paid, really soon, with an almighty down-swing. It can be fun – free-wheeling confidence.  But it can take me to the very same dark places that depression does, and further, because insatiable desire and unquellable tongue are difficult to be around.  I think it can be harder to support someone who is manic than depressed because they barely know where to begin with what is wrong.  Even now, I rarely know what will help.

Sometimes I ride it out, grabbing at the good things that go past.  Other times hypomania is a terrifying ride in a car with no brakes, and I hold on terrified I’m a moment away from being smashed to the ground.

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