traveling beyond on the bipolar express

In Tristimania Jay Griffiths tells the story of her struggle with a year-long episode of mental disturbance caused by bipolar disorder. Struggle indeed: the entire narrative bristles with her tension, bitten-down fingernails of reason digging down to keep a thin grip on sanity. She writes beautifully, skillfully, documenting every subtle aspect of her plight with clarity and astute detail, and the confidence of a master wordsmith. Griffiths claims to be sharing her story altruistically, “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.” Yet the fierce energy driving every page belies a desperation deeper than any community-mindedness: this woman writes to exorcise her demons.

I read the book with the particular critical insight of a fellow adventurer in bipolar lands, and I share my thoughts here through the lens of unpsychology, which Steve Thorp describes as ‘post-civilised neurodiversity and wild mind.’ Similarly, the Icarus Project has positioned neurodiversity within the spectrum of civilised and wild states, and more specifically as an issue of oppression whereby ‘normality’ can be viewed as the colonisation of one’s mental space. Rhiana Anthony of the Icarus Project teaches that authoring our own stories allows us to claim that mental space as our own territory, by deconstructing the labels that have been assigned to us by our families and communities.

Griffiths is familiar with the tension between the civilised and the wild. She earned her chops with a book entitled Wild, in which she traveled world to report on the impact of so-called civilisation on indigenous cultures and natural habitats. But where Wild goes on a freedom ride, Tristimania creeps along buzzing with anxiety. If the entire book could be condensed into a single idea it would be: don’t let go. She stands at the brink, stares down into the abyss, shivers with awe, goes so far as to stretch an arm out into the void – but she never takes the final step, over the edge. She never lets go. She never learns the secret of letting go: that she will be held, that she can fly.

My own experience of mental unraveling put me in a similar situation to the one described in Tristimania. For well over a year I held my shit together with increasing strain and exhaustion, avoiding crowds and phone calls like the plague, shaking with anxiety and panic in any shop I set foot into, talking and laughing to myself as I walked along the pavement. I managed somehow to keep up with a job and with parenting, but the pressure was building steadily and the steam beginning to push through the cracks. My distress at the state of the world turned inward, because our civilised society insists that the state of the world is the benchmark of normality. But unlike Griffiths, I didn’t reach the other side of my experience with my grip still on that precarious wooden-slat bridge of sanity. The pressure within me imploded, and I let go, into full-blown psychosis. I let go. First I plummeted; then I flew.

I don’t mean to romanticise something that is ugly and traumatic. The crippling undertow of depressive anxiety turns the most basic steps of living into an ordeal. Crossing a room becomes as complicated a challenge as crossing a desert. One wakes each morning to bone-deep weariness and fearful misery. Breath comes short, tears well up, hands shake. The world closes in upon you, leaving your lifetime of experience to feel as empty as a cardboard carton crumpled up and tossed into a bin. For many people, the pain digs in so relentlessly and horrifically that suicide beckons as bittersweet relief, an oblivion that can be bargained for. Is this the same as letting go? Or is it the ultimate expression of clinging on, one’s fists clenched upon the steering wheel of existence, crashing into a wall of despair?

Griffiths has written honestly in Tristimania about the energy-sucking negativity of the bipolar downswing. For her honesty, and her courage in opening herself up to scrutiny, I respect her. Yet I can’t help but surmise that she wouldn’t respect me in return. Her judgment upon me crops up in the myriad ways that she holds herself apart from the other crazy people – the really crazy people, the ones who do let go. Her doctor shores up this invisible line: “I never lost my insight, according to my doctor; never lost the overseeing part of the mind which charts the craziness of the other parts…. He said later that he thought hospitalisation would make me worse, and that the other patients, in particular, would affect me badly.”

Griffiths comes across as an apologist for the status quo, framing her annus horribilis as a breach and an offense to her narrative voice. Embarrassment and shame nip at her constantly, even prudishness as when she sniffs in distaste at an impulse to run “barefoot and naked” through the streets of London. (“Dangerous stupidity?” Bless you, Jay – it’s really not as bad as all that. There’s been far more harm done in the name of clothing than actual “trouble” caused by the odd naked rambler. Think sweatshops, illegal trade in endangered skins and furs, the psychological torture popularised by the fashion and modelling industry, the carbon cost of landfilled textiles… shall I go on?)

She relates her story with a constant grinding disappointment for falling short of normality: “When I was flailing around trying to force myself into recovery, impatient and angry with myself for all I could not do, [my doctor] gave me wiser counsel, permission to be ill, repeatedly saying that if I’d broken my leg, I’d have no problem accepting that I couldn’t use it properly.” Since when is propriety a benchmark for health? Are we really well-served by placing mental health within the medical model – casting mental irregularity as pathology? The mental landscape is more diverse than all our earthly ecosystems put together – so why do we try to pin it down into binary categories of normal vs abnormal?

Griffiths too expresses a vein of doubt about the medical model: “He seemed to think of psychiatric illness purely as a brain malfunction, a mechanical problem. To me, the psyche is also a matter of the soul.” She goes on, “Where does self end and illness begin?” Where indeed? The devil in me advocates: define self, define illness, define soul, define mind. Take your precision to its illogical conclusion and see it for what it is: an arbitrary boundary upon the essentially boundless. Let’s open up that can of worms, and let them all go, to wriggle back out into the mud and the grass.

However much we try to map out the terrain of our mysterious minds, we reside mainly in the precarious chasm of a many-coloured, shape-shifting, uncanny unknown – and it evokes fear and trepidation in most people. Griffiths herself acknowledges this in Wild: “I was taught – as we all are – to be scared of the prowling Unknown, of the wild deserts of Beyond.”

Yes, I was taught that too – but I am so very, very thankful that insanity took me by the hand into the wildest of wild places: my wild mind. Tristimania, for all its eloquence about the manic depressive experience, paints a view from the threshold but never ventures Beyond.

You can read more about my travels Beyond in the Climate Minds Anthology of Unpsychology Magazine.

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