Category Archives: extended metaphors

Stress Intolerance

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.

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Filed under extended metaphors, sleep, symptoms and habits

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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Filed under extended metaphors, symptoms and habits