David Bowie, hypomania, itchy brain and grief

Those of you who follow me on twitter will know that the death of David Bowie (and it’s taken me 2 and a half weeks to be able to put the ‘d’ word next to his name) hit me hard. He was and is an idol of mine and, like so many others, I grew up with him – image, music, films, words – in my life.  I crafted myself, came to know myself, through and alongside him and I am still, as so many others are, trying to reconcile myself to a world, and a future, without David Bowie.

I have thought often, over the life of this blog, about what constitutes an ‘on topic’ post and what subject material is too tangential to include here.  David Bowie straddles that divide.

From a purely personal point of view, the very real grief I felt in the days immediately following the announcement of David Bowie’s death (still not comfortable putting that word with his name) was absolute and consuming.  Grief is an extraordinary emotion, utterly inescapable and totally consuming. Despite the fact that grief mimics so many of the emotions of various mental illnesses (insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, dysthymia) I never mistake it for that or fear I have crossed into the darker side of cyclothymic symptoms.  Grief is raw.  And it is exhausting.

So exhausting, in fact, that a week after David Bowie died I found myself spiralling up to the familiar cloud of hypomania.  It was one of those rare hypomanic periods were I welcomed the excess of energy and overriding sense of well-being.  I needed respite from my grief and my brain offered it’s own solution.   I was still immersed in my reflection on David Bowie’s life and work, but with a cushion between me and the raw pain of loss.

With hypomania, unfortunately, there must always come the crash.  The downswing.  And come it did, bouncing me out of the week with numb sadness and a listlessness which persists to today, despite the most crushing elements of sadness having largely dissipated.

Music has always been a refuge for me, a refuge from my thoughts, a distraction from my emotions and, most often, a method of illustration or enhancement of my feelings at times I struggle to find expression.  David Bowie, like me, had a brother with schizophrenia.  Like me, his proximity to such absorbing and total madness scared him.  He ran, as I do, from what he feared was inside him and experimented with the limits of his sanity.  Coming down, sometimes, in pieces on the wrong side of that blurred line.

During hypomania I often enjoy the excesses of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  I empathise with the isolation and paranoia expressed on Station to Station.  When I am in a downswing, the abstract soundscapes of Low and Heroes provide solace.  The quite reflection and acceptance of mortality on Heathen and The Next Day offer me reassurance without being brash and insistent.  But one album which I can never reconcile myself with is Aladdin Sane.

Today, as so often is the case immediately following or immediately preceding a mood cycle, I have what I describe as ‘itchy brain’. A sort of internal restlessness which differs from hypomania in that it doesn’t urge me to action, but tickles and scratches at the edges of my consciousness demanding something I can not understand or deliver.  I think of it as the sensation of homesickness when you are at home. A rumbling, restless stomach which seems to cry hunger after a large meal. A sensation that you have lost something and would miss it, if only you could remember what it was.

I hate this feeling.

I decided to give Aladdin Sane another try; perhaps it could offer the solution to the question I am not quite able to form, the lost thing I don’t remember having.  I listen to Aladdin Sane very infrequently and unlike all the other Bowie albums, I have never bonded with it, never kept it on repeat on my stereo for weeks at a time.  Never memorised each line.

Today, I think I finally honed in on what it is that makes me keep it at arms length; it scares me.  Aladdin Sane, the character, was, Bowie said, schizophrenic.  Such characterisation is thrown around carelessly – how often I’ve heard energetic, frenetic paintings or music described as schizophrenic, or wildly reasoned academic theories described in that way.  But for Aladdin Sane, I think it echoes a truth.

The discordant compositions and use of instrumentation across the album, spread across the tracks, catching you off guard as we switch from the melodic Prettiest Star to the frantic – and to me, impenetrable – Lady Grinning Soul are just two small elements in the landscape of unease which the album creates for me.  Drive-In Saturday feels close to stadium rock but then Panic in Detroit comes in and you’re wrong footed again.

Numerous reviews and retrospectives suggest that Bowie himself was losing his grip on his own sanity through the pressure of creating, sustaining, and embodying Aladdin Sane (and Ziggy) during this period.  I’m not surprised.  Delving into that album feels like letting go of my grip on my own mind.  The music is consuming, it seems to surround you and drag you down to the fractured and frantic world of Aladdin Sane. I feel trapped and I feel manic when I listen to that album.

Which brings me to a conclusion of I don’t know what.  Bowie made me feel less alone with my fear and fascination with madness.  He showed me the possibilities of letting go of your desperate grasp of sanity and the freedom which can come from allowing yourself to express emotions and experiences beyond the rigid boundaries of ‘sanity’.  But he is also a cautionary tale; Aladdin Sane was a step too far, a threat too great, a disruption too unstable.  And, for me, I think that the album scares me because it reiterates just how close one can come to falling over that line and getting stuck.  It calls to parts of my mind – which feel as though they are getting switched on and spun round, made dizzy by the compositions on that album – and it makes me aware they still exist, even though I may not listen to them, or awaken them often.

Aladdin Sane is the fear of madness writ large. It is exhilarating but terrifying journey through what might be, and through what is always nearby.

And I suppose, one of the greatest things I am mourning, is losing a man I am sure still has a lot to teach me about navigating ones own mind and ones own sanity.  Because I feel alone again.

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3 Comments

Filed under hypomania to the rescue!, media &c

3 responses to “David Bowie, hypomania, itchy brain and grief

  1. Lou

    Hi,
    I’m interested in what you said about itchy brain. I thought I might’ve been the only one to name a sensation this. I feel restless and absent and intense at the same time. I’d really love to hear more about this particular feeling. I’m trying to learn more and understand my waves of feelings with cyclothymia, and this really helped.

    Best,
    Lou

  2. I am sorry for your loss. At least you will always have that connection with his music. I am sure that you will soon think of his life, rather than what came after.

    I think it’s great to use music as an outlet, expression or soothing of your moods. My understanding of my own listening tendencies is more simple. When I’m stressed the hell out, I listen to Enya and think of my one trip abroad – to Ireland. It helps me find peace. When I’m at baseline I listen to James Taylor. It has this ‘home’ feeling to it. It’s also nice to think that here is a man with his own mental health issues, but made something so beautiful despite it. It gives me a sense that I’ll be okay. When I’m in a good hypomania I listen to upbeat music while I run or walk.

    It’s interesting to hear the ‘itchy brain’ description. It’s as if you expect to be in a state but you aren’t. Perhaps you were at baseline? There are times that I feel numb and I try to make myself cry because I crave feeling some sort of emotion. I’m so used to grief or elation that when I feel neither it’s as if I’m confused.

    All the best.

    • Thanks for your reply. Nope, itchy brain is distinct from baseline. Baseline is more or less where I am now and all is quiet. Itchy brain, as I call it, tends to come just before and just after a mood cycle. I think it’s sort of the tailing off of the various chemicals involved in causing a mood cycle.

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