Jay Griffiths’s book Tristimania tells the story of a devastating year-long episode of manic depression, culminating in a long solo pilgrimage across Spain. From a desperate night alone in the snow- blanketed countryside, tempted by a roomful of glinting knives, to the tender salvation of poetry, friendship and pilgrimage, her account is an intimate and raw portrait of the psyche in crisis.
Why write about that terrible year? a friend of mine asked me recently. How can you want to revisit it?
– Why would you climb the mountains of the mind? Because they are there, my friend, because they are there.
Because manic depression seduces, like mountains do, and kills, as they do. Because, too, it is survivable with skilful help.
Because this condition can be seen as a form of illness, but it is not only an illness; it also hurls the mind into a world of metaphor, and to regard it solely as a medical issue is to devalue it and to demean it.
Because this condition is a bittersweet privilege,a paradox of insight and madness; because it breaks your heart wide open and cuts you to the quick, yet there is honey on the razor’s edge. Because this condition is often portrayed as simply one of emotional highs and lows, but there is far more to it: it alters how one hears music, sees art and reads poetry, and I want to explore the psyche’s accents and alterations.
Because manic depression seems to me a misunderstood condition, and I want to describe it for those who have never experienced it but who perhaps know someone with it. Inevitably, I must portray my own experience, but it is an illness with considerable commonality and I want to describe my journey through it for those who have experienced their own journeys, because what is individual can speak to the general, and if this book can befriend just one person in that terrifying loneliness, it will be worth writing.
Because, at the heart of it all, I lost my words and found them again with a gratitude and a devotion which any writer living in service to their art may understand. Language and literature are the longest loves of my life and in their signs I saw my way. If this book leans on them – on etymology, on poetry and on precise and precious words, it is because I know nothing wiser, I love nothing so much and I trust nothing more than the truths of language, the greatest artwork ever made, created over thousands of years with the signatures of millions.
How to describe this crazed state? What are the words which capture manic depression, particularly in its mixed- state form? What are the terms through which one feels understood and by means of which other people could understand? ‘Tristimania’, coined by eighteenth-century American psychiatrist Benjamin Rush, tells it true to me.
Rush may have meant it as a precise shading of melancholia, but it works perfectly for the tristesse, the distress coupled with mania, which a mixed-state bipolar episode provokes.
Some people find manic-depressive breakdown a form of spiritual experience, offering a sense of divine insight. Many people with manic depression create (or need) music and poetry.
The Old English term wōd, meaning ‘mad’ or ‘frenzied’, was replaced by the word ‘mad’ in Middle English. ‘Mad’ denotes the crazy state, but it connotes little. Wōd, though, carries connotations and etymological links which give insight of a whole other order into the madness of manic depression. The Indo-European root is wet – to blow, inspire and spiritually arouse. Wet is the source of the Latin vates, meaning ‘seer’ or ‘poet’, and also source of the Old Irish word faith, meaning ‘poet’. Wōd is linked to Old English woþ, meaning ‘sound’, ‘melody’, ‘song’, and cognate with Old Norse óðr, meaning ‘mad, frantic, furious, violent’. (As a noun, óðr means ‘mind, wit, soul, sense’ and ‘song, poetry’.) Wōd is linked to Odin, too, god of war and wisdom, shamanism and poetry. The Roman historian Tacitus considered that Mercury was the chief god of the Germanic tribes, almost certainly because he saw in Odin the qualities of Mercury. Odin, like Mercury, was a ‘guide of souls’ and was said to have brought poetry to humankind. Wōd also gives us Wōdensday, Wednesday, the day of Mercury, and – appropriately – this was the day of the week when I had been at my most wōd.
Some people find manic-depressive breakdown a form of spiritual experience, offering a sense of divine insight. Many people with manic depression create (or need) music and poetry.With the word wōd, everything links and the savage beauties of this madness become more eloquent. Looked at one way, it is medical. Looked at another, it is spiritual. Looked at a third way, it is poetry. Or, indeed, love.
In medical terms, like most people with manic depression, most of the time I have no symptoms. Also, like many people with it, I can see a genetic pattern. An episode of manic depression can be seen to have a medical or psychological aetiology including being affected by lack of sleep, stress, alcohol and psychological trauma (particularly involving humiliation), or loss. Psychologist Richard P. Bentall writes of studies which show that there is a high rate of ‘intrusive’ events in the weeks preceding psychosis, including unwanted sexual propositions. People with manic depression also have an increased sensitivity to light and, according to Bentall, sleep deprivation may provoke mania; he also notes that before the advent of modern lighting, when people were more accustomed to longer nocturnal darknesses, the full moon would have had more of an effect on insomnia, and there would surely have been a greater link between the lunar and the lunatic.
Lovesickness was once considered to be a medical illness. Its symptoms included loss of appetite, headache, fever, palpitations and insomnia. Some medieval writings describe lovesickness in terms of symptoms which today would be seen as those of bipolar disorder: so a person diagnosed as lovesick may display rapid mood swings from manic laughter to the anguished weeping of depression.
The electricity of mania coursing through you does predispose you to fall in love and, yes, in the months of recovery, I did ‘fall’ in love. Or, rather, slip up on a banana skin; daftly, inadvertently, unrequitably, mistakenly, seriocomically, as the guy in question was completely off limits.
This particular unrequitable love wasn’t in the slightest bit sad. I didn’t mind. In fact, I quite liked it, because it was one of the ultimately safe love affairs, like my other grand passions for Rupert Brooke, Michel de Montaigne, Dafydd ap Gwilym and (life-long) Shakespeare.The thing about love is this: I love being in love. I love loving people and animals, words, flowers and jokes. I love the way love courses through the spirit, how it brightens everything around you, how it inspirits you, lifts the drooping head of aquilegia, raises the downcast expression, brings more colours to the rainbow.This is what manic depression does, too. In the throes of it, I feel an incandescent sensitivity by which everything is only too much alive and calling. My nerves are exposed: the world is ferociously present. In love with mania as I was, falling in love with a person was something of a misattribution.
Various anthropologists have argued that, although our society interprets certain psychological conditions as a medical issue, other cultures have construed exactly the same states of mind as shamanic, divinely inspired wisdom, and those possessed of such insight may be honoured. Professor of psychiatry Richard Warner, noting the work of Mircea Eliade and Black Elk, describes how: ‘In non- industrial cultures throughout the world, the hallucinations and altered states of consciousness produced by psychosis, fasting, sleep deprivation, social isolation and contemplation and hallucinogenic drug use are often a prerequisite for gaining shamanic power.’ As Mircea Eliade writes, mental illness reveals a shamanic vocation, and shamanic initiation is equivalent to the cure:‘The famousYakut shamanTüspüt (that is, ‘fallen from the sky’) had been ill at the age of twenty; he began to sing, and felt better… he needed to shamanize; if he went for a long time without doing so, he did not feel well.’ (An Icarus, by any other name, would fly as high and fall as steeply.)
Dr Orhan Öztürk, a Turkish psychiatrist, writes: ‘A person may be hallucinated or delusional, but as long as he is not destructive or very unstable he may not be considered insane… Such a person may sometimes be considered to have a supernatural capacity for communication with the spirit world and may therefore be regarded with reverence and awe.’
The medieval historian Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) describes a phenomenon which would most likely be understood as mental illness today but which in his own
time was taken as prophecy:
Among the Welsh there are certain individuals called Awenyddion who behave as if they are possessed… When you consult them about some problem, they immediately go into a trance and lose control of their senses… if you listen carefully to what they say you will receive the solution to your problem… They seem to receive this gift of divination through visions which they see in their dreams. Some of them have the impression that honey or sugary milk is being smeared on their mouths; others say that a sheet of paper with words written on it is pressed against their lips.
American anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes how Siberian shamans ‘are individuals who by submission to the will of the spirits have been cured of a grievous illness… Some, during the period of the call, are violently insane for several years; others irresponsible to the point where they have to be constantly watched lest they wander off in the snow and freeze to death… It is the shamanistic practice which constitutes their cure.’
In the time of Plato and Socrates, the gods were thought to communicate with poets and priests through inspired madness and enthusiasm; the passion of the god within, entheos. ‘Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human’, according to Socrates, in Phaedrus; far from being stigmatizing, ‘Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.’ Dionysus, meanwhile, subject to great agony and equally great ecstasy, is the god in the grip of this wildness. Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, wrote of Aristotle’s view that melancholia caused men to experience ‘many times a divine ravishment, and a kind of enthusiasmus… which stirreth them up to be excellent Philosophers, Poets, Prophets, etc.’
In Ion, Plato has Socrates say: ‘For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him… for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine.’ Oscar Wilde referred to ‘the old fancy which made the poet’s art an enthusiasm, a form of divine possession’.
For the early Church Fathers, David was the greatest of all poets, able to move between divine gift and human consciousness. Historical figures such as the medieval Margery Kempe, who would today be viewed as psychotic, were considered mystics. If you see visions, are you delusional and sick, or a spiritual visionary? Ancient Norse bards considered poetry to be a gift of the gods which was then shaped by human skill. Traditional Arabian belief in djinns suggested a sense of being possessed by spirits who gave people knowledge but could also drive them mad.
Alexandre Dumas wrote of the poet Gérard de Nerval’s episodes of madness: ‘Our poor Gérard, for the men of science he is a sick man and needs treatment, while for us he is simply more the storyteller, more the dreamer, more spiritual, more happy or more sad than ever.’The link between manic depression and the artistic temperament has been much studied, including by Kay Redfield Jamison in her fascinating book Touched with Fire, which, like all her work, is priceless in the way it comprehends, counsels and consoles the manic-depressive psyche.
Interestingly, one feature of hypomania and mania is hyperacusis – an increased awareness of objects in one’s environment – which is certainly an aspect of artistic sensitivity. In general, manic depression is a condition of passion: the ability to feel pain, to create and to love. The word ‘passion’, in its root, means ‘to suffer’ (as in the ‘Passion of Christ’). Olive trees were, for Vincent van Gogh, associated with Christ’s Passion, and, if I look at his painting Les Oliviers (Olive Trees), painted while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, I see it instantly: the suffering art in his agitated, manic swirls, the turbulence which cannot be calmed. In this Passion, the trees are screaming. No wonder he sliced off his own ear, for the world was shrieking at him and his psyche could not be quieted.
When mania falls to depression, it is as if the storm clouds have congealed, solidified to dank fat. Time itself goes stale. Depression, swollen and greedy, is a slug-glutton, feeding on the tender green soul.
An Anglican clergyman of the seventeenth century specialized in treating people he called ‘unquiet of mind’ (the beautiful phrase adapted for the title of Kay Redfield Jamison’s record of her own illness), and it is a deft definition, a listening definition, for those in manic-depressive crisis do hear the sounds of madness within, the weird singing of a high-tension wire or a wind-wolf and, indeed, hear the sudden silence as the mind crashes inward during a conversation.
People in mania often don’t write about it, say psychologists, and cannot remember it until they are in that state again. Richard Bentall comments on the ‘poor descriptions offered in the classic literature of psychiatry’ and suggests that ‘likely there is something about the manic state that makes it almost impossible to portray in words… accounts seem curiously incomplete. It is as if the break from normal functioning during an episode is so severe that the mind, on returning to sanity, cannot comprehend it.’
I’m not surprised.When your mind is in flight you don’t leave tracks on the ground, so there are no prints: neither footprints nor printed letters on the page. But I felt fiercely that I had to take notes during this wōdness, that I had to mark the tracks of its passage. I’ve trained myself to jot down notes wherever I am: in the dark, while walking, while driving, while climbing, half asleep, underwater, in deserts and icescapes. This was just another form of difficult terrain, and I leant on my habit and training.
In my previous episode, years before, I had taken no notes, and had had no comprehension of what was happening; instead, I had to rely on the observation of others. My flatmate at the time said she felt she was helplessly watching me float upwards, borne skywards, holding the string of a helium balloon, rising, dangerously rising. She wanted to grab me and pull me down, but I slipped ever upwards, out of sight. The painter Benjamin Haydon, a friend of John Keats, used a similar image: ‘I have been like a man with air balloons under his armpits and ether in his soul.’
Describing mania is like a sundial trying to tether the shadow of a sun gone AWOL, zigzagging across the sky. Sometimes I felt weirdly still, both weightless and vigilant, hyper-aware like an inconcrete meerkat fascinated by a mirage. Sometimes the opposite of wistful, I felt wistless, recklessly so. Sometimes my mind was a giddy, vertiginous mosaic of turquoise lettered in gold. Sometimes the restless energy coursing through me was like being possessed by a divinity lightfoot in pursuit of feathers: shimmering, galloping and surging.
Rilke described his breakdown as a ‘boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit’, and manic-depressive people often use images of the natural world. Shelley described Byron as ‘mad as the winds’, and it was an image Byron echoed: ‘If I must sail let it be on the ocean no matter how stormy’; and he writes of the voyagings of poetry,of sailing‘in the wind’s eye’ and bringing back images to ‘counterbalance human woes’.
But the flight cannot last.When mania falls to depression, it is as if the storm clouds have congealed, solidified to dank fat.Time itself goes stale. Depression, swollen and greedy, is a slug-glutton, feeding on the tender green soul.
It is payback time.
Sometimes the payback is literal, as people have spent and squandered money, giving it away and racking up debts.When mania turns to depression, the payback is also emotional – a sense of guilt about what sufferers have done, and taxingly difficult repayment, the Danegeld of guilty gold, particularly when manic depression has encouraged overspending oneself sexually in impetuous affairs. Darian Leader points out that the Greek word mania, usually translated as ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’, in its plural form evoked the Eumenides,‘whose function it was to pursue those who had not, precisely, paid their dues’.
Manic depression can’t balance the books, and it struggles in a mercurial seesaw of credit and debt, extravagance and penitence, exuberance and recoil, the endlessly kinetic commerce of Mercury.
Manic depression is more usually called by the chilly term ‘bipolar’, a bipedal term: mathematical, binary and wrong. ‘Mania’ leans to the waltz, falling and rising in threes.
In mania, the mind dances faster than usual: thoughts are quicker and speech is quicker. It also feels like an increase of ‘quickness’ – of aliveness or vitality – which is paid for in depression later at the price of an increase of deadness. ‘I felt a Funeral, in my brain,’ as Emily Dickinson wrote.
The kinetic quality of mania involves many moving parts: physical energy in the need to keep moving, to run, to spend energy of all kinds. Money moves quickly in mania’s hands; it runs, its currency (from correre, ‘to run’ in Latin) is spent at speed.
People’s speech runs fast in mania. Coleridge’s intense talkativeness ‘dazzled bystanders by containing too many ideas in too few words’ according to his biographer Richard Holmes. Sometimes the speed of connection in one’s thoughts is so fast that the steps are invisible and a lack- brain hearer may dismiss it as disconnected, whereas it is the result of an over-connected mind, going at the speed of light, faster than the speed of sound.
Welcome to the foundry.
Here we have Mercury or Hermes’ half-brother Hephaestus, the blacksmith of genius.And here we have melting of bells. Hear the silent temples.You may steeple your fingers at your head and pray, aspire to the pealing of gold, but madness has your feet to the flames, molten and made into bullets you can shoot – straight through your temples.
Mixed-state manic depression is manic depression on speed. In mixed state one’s moods oscillate within hours, even minutes; a flux of unplannable ecstasy and unpredictable agony.
The hurricanes within want serenity but get doldrums.The doldrums want breeze but get hurricanes.
As this episode for me began, appropriately, in the autumn or fall of the year with a literal fall down a rabbit hole, it was a falling into madness of a paradoxical sort; a soaring fall, a falling flight, tripping the switches. (‘I feel like I’m tripping,’ I often said to friends at the high points.) It was a sick, lurching helter-skelter of the psyche. The fall from hypomania to depression may be a matter of quicksilver timing, but then mania re-erupts through depression’s stupor. It is self-provoking, this gyre, self-swerving around an elastic axis, turning and turning. The licked finger circles and circles the rim of the glass till a wail rises and the glass shatters itself, shards of broken-heartedness which will stab the barefoot psyche.
I developed an obsessive terror of losing things, particularly my notebooks, which I clutched at compulsively, sometimes every minute, checking they were still there. If I left my house, I often had to walk with my hand in my satchel, fingers touching the pages. I had to check every packet of empty Rizla papers several times before I burnt it, in case I’d written a thought on one of them and would lose it. Scraps of paper, shopping lists, odd reminders, the little docket with the next doctor’s appointment written on it; all were nervously guarded. I felt real panic when I thought I’d lost a hat, and emailed and phoned friends trying to find it. Mad as a hatter, Mercury brimming. If I can’t even hold on to a notebook, how can I hold on to my sanity? was my reasoning. If I lose my hat it shows that I am losing my mind: lostness was the pivot of my panic.
And then I crashed my computer, losing at a stroke the ability to receive the slips of sanity my geographically removed friends were sending me. It happened late one night. I was drunk. Both my common sense and my computer were running dangerously low on battery power.A red warning sign popped up on the screen telling me to turn the computer off immediately or there’d be trouble. It was an odd but precise parallel to what had already happened to me the day I went mad: I ignored the red warning sign, and then all of a sudden the screen froze. True to its word, my computer wheeped and fizzled out to black. It never worked again.The motherboard was fucked. I knew the feeling.