A few months ago I saw an ad in the local hospital for a bipolar support group. It said “having bipolar is like being allergic to stress”. That’s about the most accurate description I’ve seen, I think.
I haven’t posted much on here in the last few months because I have been finishing up my doctoral thesis, then I took a holiday (my first in 5 years) and now I’m working on job applications. It has been, in every sense, an exceptionally stressful few months.
It is perhaps curious, then, that it is only in the last week, a month and a half after I submitted my thesis, a month since I got back from a lovely holiday, and a week after I got a job application in, that the crushing anxiety, panic and low mood has really set in.
Whilst bipolar is an ‘allergy’ to stress, the reaction is often delayed and it can be hard to deal with that. Immediately after submitting my thesis I braced myself for a downswing, cleared my diary and prepared to meltdown. But it didn’t come. ‘Perhaps it’s not going to!’ I thought. ‘I’ll just get on with preparing for my holiday!’. In the first couple of days of my holiday, whilst I was in Zagreb, I began to feel the black edging into the edges of my thinking – ‘ah! here it is! Best take myself off somewhere quiet to mope’. But again, it never really came through – I travelled south in Croatia to Split and the sun was out and my troubles seemed to lift. ‘Maybe I really am cured!’ I thought. ‘Perhaps the secret cure for cyclothymia is writing 80,000 words followed by sunshine!’
There was a nagging sense, deep inside me, that all that was happening was that the holiday was delaying the inevitable. That low, that allergic reaction, was just waiting for me, biding it’s time.
Buoyed along by a busy schedule and post-holiday glow (literal and metaphorical, managed to get a lovely tan in 7 days in the sun), the week following my holiday was pretty solid. But, little by little, I began to slow down. Waking later, sleeping longer, heating up meals from the freezer instead of creating culinary masterpieces from scratch. It was coming. Having terrible dreams, waking up sweating and gasping for breath. The first signs of the inevitable reaction – the mental health equivalent of itchy skin, fuzzy tongue, sneezing.
And so, we come to today. Woke up, after another night of terrible dreams. barely able to walk in a straight line (anyone else experience low swing as significant impairment in physical-coordination?) Ate breakfast. Fell asleep again for 2 hours. Stumbled about for a few hours, tried to boost mood with music, ended up crying to Vivaldi, of all things. Tried to work – read the same sentence of an article 4 times in a row before giving up. Tried to sew – took me three times as long as normal to do a small section, abandoned. Considered visiting family, decided it wasn’t worth risk of an argument. Digestive system, which has been merrily melting down in response to stress since May, reaching it’s peak in pain.
Do I feel stressed? No. Do I have any urgent jobs, bills, or commitments? No. The peak stress is gone. There are, of course, still various tasks and events on the horizon which will be challenging and likely stressful, but nothing in the immediate future. This is cyclothymia. This is what stress does. It goes in, gets absorbed, and then, when there’s nothing pressing, when there is time, it’s released throughout your mind and body, disrupting all the vital systems, leaving you on your knees amidst apparent calm.
I’m falling to pieces in a house well stocked with food, bills paid, jobs done. I’m struggling to sleep in a large bed when I don’t have an alarm set for the morning and I couldn’t tell you the name of the thing that is worrying me half to death.
For people with bipolar spectrum conditions, stress is so like an allergen. It’s a constant presence in life, ebbing and flowing with the season and the location. And it is almost impossible to protect yourself from – it sneaks into your world, leaking through the cracks in whatever plans you make or precautions you take.
Right now, it feels like the UK is in meltdown. As the government and new Prime Minister push ahead on the disastrous Brexit plan, the main opposition party is in disarray and entirely incapable of coordinating a strenuous response to the inevitable public funding cuts, Brexit, and the terrifying rise in hate crime and hate speech. This is stressful. And, along with the undefined worries which already plague me, I can feel my mind absorbing it all, quietly storing it away, ready to top up my anxiety at any moment.
Sometimes it feels like cyclothymia disqualifies you from living in the world at all.