Category Archives: media &c

The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive

On Monday of this week, 15th February, BBC showed a documentary [still available to watch on iPlayer if you are in the UK]  following up on Stephen Fry’s landmark documentary on living with bipolar disorder, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which was shown 10 years ago.  I remember watching that documentary vividly.  So much of what I heard and saw from the contributors resonated with me – I didn’t have a diagnosis of cyclothymia then, but I did have suspicions.

This blog is part live blog, part reflection on the show. In bold is the key event/moment in the show, the rest of the paragraph is my commentary which I hope will be intelligible even if you have not watched the programme.

Stephen Fry, post suicide attempt, decides to see psychiatrist – and then he sees one!  This is evidence of a BIG difference between private healthcare and dealing with the NHS. And he tells us he was immediately admitted to hospital. Again, wildly different than experience of NHS – with the enormous and unending cuts to NHS mental health services there are no beds. And in most cases there is no possibility of hospitalisation without a section – and a good deal reliable rumours suggest doctors are avoiding sectioning people who need it because they simply have nowhere to place them.  Stephen Fry’s experience is (absurdly given how essential mental health treatment is) one heavily inflected by his economic privilege.

Kids in the school talking about how “bipolar” is used as an insult really drill to the heart of living with bipolar spectrum disorder.  People do not like it.  It’s not charming, it’s not represented as ‘useful’ (however inaccurate that is) and featured in a regular show, it’s not cool.  It’s also something I reflect on a lot in terms of disclosing my mental health issues – I am always conscious that once people know my diagnosis they will rationalise or dismiss everything I do or say in reference to that label – enthusiastic? Nope, just bipolar.  Annoyed? Nope, bipolar. Inspired? Loud? Introverted? All symptoms.  You stop being a person.

Stephen Fry’s psychiatrist is talking about how difficult travel and crossing time zones can be to managing your mood. It reminds me of the difficulties I had whilst I backpacking round the world with my then-partner.  She would become furious that I was exhausted by our flights across time zones, and furious my mood would plummet with my exhaustion, and furious I could not explain why I was so unhappy so suddenly.  It made me anxious, guilty, furious at myself.  I turned her lack of understanding inwards and began to hate myself for all the things I wasn’t; all the ways I couldn’t be.  We split up many years ago now, and since then I have learnt a great deal about my needs in terms of rest and sleep – but those experiences burned me and I find it difficult to imagine being in a relationship ever again.  Who would live with cyclothymia if they didn’t have to? That’s what dating someone with cyclothymia means; you have it, we have it.

Narrator is talking about frequency of self-medication versus reluctance to take prescribed pills.  Sadly, the show seems to dismiss this as bipolar folk simply being unwilling to put up with side effects and preferring to manage our conditions in other ways.  This obviously resonates with me – I’ve written before about self-medicating and my attempts to manage my cyclothymia with lifestyle and other changes.  But, as I’ve also written, the choice between medication side effects and uncontrolled mood swings is nowhere near as simple as psychiatrists would have you believe, or this program suggests.  Medication side effects are brutal.  Not enough is done to facilitate good medication choices, not enough is done to help people manage the side effects, not enough is done to acknowledge how destructive side effects can be on every other part of your life.

I note that, in reference to Scott’s experience, the psychiatrist shrugs off his query/anxiety that he will be ‘like a zombie’ on mood stabilisers, exactly the conversation I had with a psychiatrist, and it proved completely inaccurate.  I was zombified.  It became untenable for me to live like that.  No follow-up on Scott after he doubles his lithium dose, I hope it works for him, I fear it won’t.  I note also, there’s no discussion of talking therapies or alternative approaches to treatment – it’s ‘medication or nothing’ on the NHS, regardless of how ill fitting that may be for an individual.  This issue – and the considerable weight of evidence which suggests medication-as-only-intervention is an inadequate way to manage mental ill health – is offered in response to the show in this blog by Richard Bentall, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Liverpool University.

Rachel’s story of experiencing her worst lows at night, alone, as a teenager resonates with me.  The difficulty for parents to identify more-than-average-teenage-melancholia is enormous. The story of medical services failing to identify her mania after she jumped from a balcony is all too common.  The discussion between Rachel and her CPN about sectioning her if she becomes a danger to herself in future is really concerning for me, because it’s evidence of fire-fighting rather than working on managing and improving her overall health through a variety of interventions (not just medication, which is all they say she has currently) now.  But I may be making too many assumptions with not enough information here.

It strikes me there is an enormous selection bias in this show towards people who believe it is easier now than ever to speak about mental health issues and receive a positive response.  Because if you’ve not disclosed to your friends, wider family, whatever, it’s because you are aware (or sure) of the potential for a negative reaction – so you’re certainly not going to blow your cover by contributing to this show.  If you’ve experienced negative responses you are not going to keep talking – this idea that ‘we’ can only combat stigma by talking is incredibly problematic for me.

When you are subsumed under stigma, you simply cannot speak, cannot contribute to some ill defined, under funded campaign to combat stigma.  Time to Talk Day came and went this year and I did not mark it on here.  Why? Because I didn’t talk about my mental health on that day to anyone who did not already know.  Had any of my friends who do not know about my cyclothymia asked how I was, I would not have disclosed my difficulties to them – not least of all because my mood was pretty good on the 4th of February, but also because a charity-sponsored day does not make people more prepared to deal with the mental vomit that is chronic mental ill health and the ongoing needs and demands that generates for me.

On Time to Talk Day  I asked all my friends how they were and made myself available to them in all the ways I always do.  But whilst starting a conversation may be a manageable goal, it’s continuing conversations about mental health that is the hard thing, and it’s continuing conversations which will actually start to change or erode stigma, and generate sufficient public feeling to pressure the government to actually invest in mental health services.

The ‘not so secret life of the manic depressive’? For me, save for this blog, it’s still a secret. Stigma around mental ill health is still enormous. And there is still so little out there to help people like me – and people, perhaps, like you – live with bipolar spectrum disorders including cyclothymia; regardless of well intentioned attempts of shows like this to change that.

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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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World Mental Health Day

I planned to post yesterday in recognition (celebration doesn’t quite fit does it?) of World Mental Health Day but my home broadband is on the blink.  Although, posting a day ‘late’ sort of illustrates what I want to talk about today.

I’ve always been a bit sceptical about specific ‘days’ for various causes, awareness raising or similar because what does it mean to say there is only one day you need to stand against homophobia? Or only one day on which bisexuals become visible? Or only one day on which we need to try and prevent suicide?

I like the idea of rallying people to a single day, bringing the energy together all at once for one big bang of impact.  I understand none of us have the energy to fight, full whack, every day, for each and every cause that has a day. But how many people think about these causes on other days? How many people thought about the importance of campaigning for better funding for NHS mental health services today? How many will think about it tomorrow? How many will act on it next week? Next month?

I don’t have much confidence in ‘awareness’ days. I don’t think they shift how people think of things in any significant way. And I think it’s too easy for politicians, celebrities, and anyone else with only a passing or superficial interest in these topics to ignore the ongoing issues of underfunded mental health services, and WCA-driven suicides (to mention just two of a hundred pressing issues) if they have paid lip-service to ‘caring’ and being ‘active’ on those things in the news and papers the day before.

Ultimately too, for me and for so many of you reading this, ‘mental health day’ is every day of our lives. Thinking about how my mental health is today (good, bad, hypomanic, depressed, stable, wobbly, neutral…) is the most consistent, basic way in which having a mental health problem has reshaped my life.  Even when my mood is fine – neutral, not at either end of a swing – contemplation of my mental health is the foundation of my day. How do I feel this morning? How much can I do? When will this stable mood end? How much can I do before then? What should I commit to now if I might be miserable next week. For this reason, days like World Mental Health Day seem like another reminder of my difference from the cognitively normal who get to neatly end their contemplation of mental health with the conclusion of the day.

What do you think? Does World Mental Health Day mean something significant for you? Does it achieve more than my cynical rendering acknowledges?

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Creativity and Mood Swings

I have a real problem with the persistence of the idea that madness – in any of it forms but most often bipolar spectrum conditions – gifts sufferers with unique creative abilities.  This idea is circulated by seemingly unending articles and books featuring the work of artists who ‘suffered’ from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, Amy Winehouse to Virginia Woolf.

In part, I (and I’m not alone in this) think it’s a case of uneven representation – the many bipolar and cyclothymia sufferers who produce nothing of artistic or literary value are never reported on, the tiny fraction who do are proportionally over represented.  There are some convincing studies which suggest creative professions are disproportionately populated by people with mental health problems – again I feel cause and effect are getting muddled here.  Madness does not make you creative but if you are mad, creative industries are one of the few which are flexible enough to allow mad people (whose ability to work varies wildly as their health fluctuates) to succeed.  It’s something I wrote about briefly in the Great Big Cyclothymia Q&A in relation to work.

I can almost hear someone out there asking ‘why does it matter that people say creativity and madness go hand in hand? It’s only ever a compliment!’.  Well, quite simple; with the suggestion that madness gifts creativity and originality comes the implication that in the misery of mental ill health we should be celebrating our unique, special and oh-so-valuable gift of creativity.

I’ve often tried to comfort myself with that pleasant lie; ‘I’ve got as far as I have because cyclothymia has given me this bolts of insight’ – both when I am hypomanic and when I am depressed.  But the truth of it – or at least the thing that feels more true – is that I’ve got as far as I have with my academic studies in spite of my poor mental health and not because of it.

Despite this – or perhaps because of my own uncertainty about whether I am helped or hindered by mood fluctuations – I find depictions of madness in art and literature absolutely fascinating.  I recently read Barbara Stok’s Vincent which manages to beautifully illustrate Vincent Van Gogh’s period living in the South of France.  I was particularly struck by the way she illustrated Vincent’s deteriorating mental state.  In the three panels below, taken from several pages apart, you can see the ‘specks’ closing in on Vincent (click to embiggen).  The clear skies of the first panel become busy as Vincent begins to panic in the second, and finally almost obscure the colours around him as he becomes despairing in the third panel

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Later still, in moments of agony and disassociation, the frames spill out from their previously precise squares into jagged explosions.  What a remarkable skill Stok demonstrates, to so ably transfer a mental experience to a visual one.  And that, I realised as I read Stok’s book, is what really appeals to me in depictions and descriptions of mental ill health.

From Allie Brosh’s now famous depiction of how depression feels and Ruby Etc’s comical piece on how listening to music can vary so wildly with bipolar, to monsters which illustrate different mental health diagnoses and the exploration of anorexia Manic Street Preachers offer; art can tell us something helpful about mental ill health.  It can, in a way more immediate than dense prose or long blog posts (!), assure us our experiences are shared and give shape and substance to that thing inside ourselves which we struggle against.  Perhaps that’s also why so many people with mental health struggles feel compelled to try and record something of them in their creative output; naming the beast, drawing the beast, finding the beast in the hope it can be slain.

As for creating art and literature when mad? It has before now been a way I monitor my own mood* and what I produce when hypomanic versus when I am unhappy, or even fairly stable, is one of the many signals I use to understand when I need to take a break, ask for help, or even schedule extra working time into my month.  But does any of it happen because I’m mad? No, it’s always the things I would be doing anyway amplified, or muffled.

 

 

* I produced two self portraits some years ago, the first when I felt fairly stable, was in my typical style, the second when I was hypomanic came out of me without my really understanding how I painted so differently.

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Selfies and vlogs

Update: Leaving this post here as a general reflection on vlogs and blog posts and mental health information generally.  However, Mind have got in contact about the issues I raised here and this is their response;

Hello, thanks for letting us have your feedback on this, it really helps us to keep the site as useful as possible for everyone who needs it. We’ve had a bit of this conversation on Twitter but we know it’s come up a few times so worth reiterating here!

We definitely haven’t replaced blogs with vlogs, our blogs are some of our most popular content and we’re desperate to get them back on the new site! The issue is money, unfortunately, we’ve moved a huge amount of content across from the old site to the new one so far but there’s still more to go, including older blogs and news articles. Our developers estimate this will take a full week of development time, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate is enormous! We’re seriously looking at other, quicker, cheaper ways to do this so we can get them back as soon as possible. It’s high on the list as we know how frustrating it is for people who have written or found a particular blog useful in the past and are no longer able to access it. We’ll keep you posted via social media as soon as we get the content back.

As for site search issues, we’re also working on this, largely to prioritise information articles as there’s a bit of a bug with this at the moment, but also, as you say, to improve tagging. By identifying cyclothymia here you’ve really helped, it’s actually fairly simple to add this as an SEO term within an article, we’ve done this today for you and others who have undoubtedly been looking: http://www.mind.org.uk/search-results/?q=cyclothymia Do let us know if there are any more like this which we haven’t captured so far, we’re keen to make sure everybody can find what they need on our site as easily as possible.

Thanks also for your comments on vlogs and mental health selfies. These are a separate project run by the info team and have been particularly helpful in allowing us to engage with young people, but they are in no way designed to overshadow our use of blogs – we’re big fans of shared written experience and blogs are certainly not going anywhere for us!

Take care, Mind’s digital team.

 

For some time now, I’ve had a draft post on here waiting to be finished on my feelings about Mind’s website restructure which saw them delete all their text blogs by people like me, and begin to replace them with ‘Mental Health Selfies‘.

The argument against these short videos (or vlogs) I was beginning to put together runs something like this; my browsing habits simply aren’t compatible with watching videos – I browse whilst watching tv, listening to music, eating lunch in a public cafe, travelling on a bus, or otherwise surrounded by people who don’t want to hear what it is I’m looking at. Vlogs don’t allow for easy and simple repeats of sections (whereas you can easily reread a sentence or paragraph), they can’t be watched on the bus or in the cafe unless you have generous data allowances on your phone or access to wifi, they also require you to plug in headphones so you don’t disrupt those people around you – or unwittingly announce to everyone within earshot your browsing habits and with it, perhaps, a hint of your mental health status.

Moreover, I read very quickly – much quicker than most people speak. Text based information allows me to scan through for the key points, or re-read sections if their meaning was unclear on the first pass.  There are other advantages to text based resources; they allow you to copy and paste words from one tab into a search in another.  This is particularly relevant to mental health information given the unusual and unfamiliar spellings that characterise the names and treatments of many conditions. How many people can spell cyclothymia correctly after hearing it spoken for the first time? Or some of the drugs used such as amitriptyline, quetiapine, or mirtazipine? What about even more commonly used words in relations to mental health – psychosis, dysthymia….the list goes on and on.

Finally, and for me this is perhaps the most important aspect to my disinclination to replacing written blogs with vlogs.  Vlogs can contain a lot of information – visual, audio, changing lighting, indistinct details that draw the eye and distract the mind. When I am feeling overloaded with information, with life, I can settle down with a text source and bring my focus back to one thing, perhaps even providing the information I need to navigate through that sense of ‘overload’ later. Thinking about accessibility more generally – and I must confess I haven’t gone in to great detail investigating what modifications are available on the Mind site – I have a couple of friends with Aspergers for whom vlogs over written information would represent sensory overload in an already overwhelming world.  I also have a couple of Deaf friends whose experience of vlogs is either of complete disengagement – because they are not captioned/subtitled, or poorly subtitled – or huge frustration.  Speakers of English as a second or other language can also face challenges parsing fast paced verbal information versus text which can be crosschecked with dictionaries, or navigated slowly.

However, and as you probably guessed reading my conditional introduction, last week I watched a vlog that changed my mind.  I follow Jonny Benjamin on twitter, having first encountered him through his powerful ‘Find Mikecampaign (if you haven’t heard of that, I really recommend clicking through on those links and reading up).  During the low swing which I wrote about in my last post, Jonny happened to tweet a link to this video, entitled ‘You are not your thoughts‘.

The content of that video was extremely affecting and I recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. I found myself in floods of grateful, pained tears by the end of the 7 and a bit minutes.   What that video did was allow me to look at a face that was mirroring my own. In the quiver in his voice, the face-on camera angle which makes every word feel like it is addressed to you personally, and the clear visual ‘stripping away’ of negative thoughts to a new way of understanding them, the video actually achieves an immediacy which can, as it did for me, penetrate the numbing and disconnected feelings that comes with depressive periods.  In a way which words on a page could not, this video made me believe Jonny’s key message; you are not your thoughts.  That is a valuable and important achievement, vlogs then, certainly can have their place in mental health information sites.

Returning to the Mind site by way of conclusion it must be noted that cyclothymia is under-represented and under-explained on the site (I searched for ‘cyclothymia’ on the site today and this was the result).  As well as still having people contact me on twitter more than a year after my piece for Mind was published, I also saw the charity tweet a link to my blog as one of only two resources on their site in response to a twitter query for information on cyclothymia.  About half of all the hits on this blog come via google searches.  There was and is a clear demand for straightforward written information and rather than increasing content, Mind have dramatically reduced it by erasing existing blogs in favour of these ‘selfies’.

The obvious solution, perhaps, would be for me to make a ‘mental health selfie’ but I won’t be doing this.  Partly because I can’t bear to see myself on film, partly because to make any useful or coherent comments I would have to script my ‘selfie’, and partly because a video of me talking about my mental health experiences would strip away a necessary – but small – piece of anonymity I need to maintain for the time being as a result of my professional and my family situation.  I fear many more people are losing out on finding support and information as a result of the restructure, than are gaining from the type of emotional immediacy I experienced via Jonny Benjamin’s video.

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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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The irresistible draw of madness

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.

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