When I see a new psychiatrist or psychologist – and in the almost three years since my diagnosis, I’ve seen three – one of their first questions is usually whether I’m able to pinpoint when I had my first real “episode”.
It’s not too difficult for me to pinpoint, actually, as it involved a debilitating panic spiral and a prescription for beta-blockers.
The context was Sixth Form College, I was 18-years-old, and it was a few days before I was due to sit my A-Level exams.
I’d always been a grade A++ student in every single subject, bar sport (and we’ll get into that, at some point, as I’m now realising that my motor for being so consumed by and obsessed with academic achievement, my need to be “best” or “top” or to get 100%, can likely be linked to my bipolar).
At this juncture, a few days before the exams which would determine whether I would go to university, my first serious boyfriend decided to end our relationship.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not blaming him for this episode.
When I look back on that time, it is with a great deal of fondness, even if the memories are now viewed through a lens of mild embarrassment. Chiefly because I’m not sure anyone who knew me at the time can remember what my face looked like, as it was pretty much super-glued onto his, and I’m sure there were plenty of people in the Sixth Form common room who frequently wished we’d just “go get a room”. It was my first sexual relationship, and I think that’s all you need to know in that department.
But he was also my best friend, and I know we were good for each other, for the year or 18 months we were together. I remember writing the letter that landed him a Saturday job in a computer store in town. Recently, he credited me and another friend of his with being the impetus behind his decision to go to university. We are still friends, albeit Facebook friends, and I’m happy to see, from afar, that he’s done really well for himself. No regrets, ever, is my motto.
But I don’t have a great track record with impulse control – which is another point we’ll be revisiting – and I’d been unfaithful to him while away on a week-long French residential course at a place called Villiers Park, to study French literature.
My memories of Villiers Park don’t involve much French literature. Instead, they mostly revolve around evening visits to the local pub, listening to “Mixed Up” by The Cure, a trip by coach to see “Dangerous Liaisons” at a theatre in London, and a tall, dark-haired boy called James with a biting wit, which slowly reeled me in.
When I returned from my Villiers Park interlude, I confessed to my transgressions. Predictably highly-strung teenage melodrama ensued, and my boyfriend and I broke up for a while. (Meanwhile, James sent me red roses, and we tried to keep things going via letter and phone for a time, as he lived a couple of hours away by train, but long-distance relationships have never been my forte.)
My boyfriend and I ended up getting back together for a few weeks, or maybe even months, but I think we both knew that we were broken; that I had broken us. When he finally ended it, he told me he knew he’d never be able to trust me when we went away to our respective universities at opposite ends of the country. He was clairvoyantly right about that, of course. My track record only worsened over time.
After we broke up, I spent hours howling into a wet pillow. The despair – over losing him and the entire circle of friends that was part and parcel of being with him – spiralled out of control and morphed into something else that took hold of the reins and made me seriously question whether I was losing my mind. I couldn’t focus or concentrate. Revising was out of the question. The voices were telling me I was doomed. I was going to fail everything. My future was over before it had even begun. I was locked away in a place of hysteria and panic, and my mind, busy doing those ever-decreasing circles, had thrown away the key.
A family friend, who was also a Doctor, and whose kids I’d babysat for on numerous occasions, was prevailed upon to come and see me. He listened to my wails, then prescribed me with a course of beta-blockers; enough to see me through to the end of my exams.
They worked. I sat my exams, in a strange parallel state of sedated, detached calm. I got my straight A’s, after all.
Like many people, in times of stress, my most frequent nightmare involves an exam I have to take that I haven’t been able to revise for.
But it’s only years later, with the clarity of hindsight and the armed with the knowledge of my diagnosis, that I realise this was my very first journey into mixed-state territory.