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.

12 thoughts on “a-levels

  1. Ok, so I gave him a heads up, he’s read it, and he’d like to add that I missed out the fact that a new word was invented in our honour: “cardiganing”.

    I’ll leave the definition of said word to your imagination.


  2. Cardiganing sounds so very Pandora Braithwaite as a teen ahahahaha!! I was recently reading Sherlock Holmes to my eight year old son when I realised that Conan Doyle describes Holmes in a way that he has to be bipolar. I don’t know much about the subject, but am loving reading about it from your view point, but the oscilations between depression and energised activity described in Holmes’ personality made me consider it. There’s just one doubt I have, and I hope you don’t find it offensive my asking, is it always common in bipolars to “sleep around” – in lack of a better word, because honestly I find nothing wrong with someone having had several sex partners as long as it has always been consensual and something both wanted to engage upon, and safe of course. – have multiple sex partners? I have read or been told, I can’t remember, that it is usually a sign of possible bipolar disease someone who often engages in casual sex, and after reading this post I wondered if it was right, because I simply cannot believe that everyone who likes having sex and has engaged in it just for the sake of sex, just because they felt attracted to someone, is bipolar. Please, don’t take this the wrong way, don’t be offended by my asking!


    • All questions are permitted here, I’ll just choose whether or not I want to answer them.

      In general, as you know, I’m very open about things which concern me, but cagey about writing about my partners, as I don’t want to put stuff out there that might upset others.

      I have a huge questionnaire to fill in at the moment, and one of the questions is (translated from the French) : during a period of hypomania (up), do I flirt more than usual and/or am I more sexually active?”

      I also had to say whether I saw myself in the following statement “my sexual needs/appetites fluctuate between two opposite poles: high sex drive to complete disinterest.”

      I ticked both boxes.

      I’ve also been asked whether I ever engage in risky sexual behaviour (the definition of which seemed to be lots of sexual partners, but no protection).

      I don’t, and never have.

      I mean, when single (not a state I’ve enjoyed very often as I’m a serial monogamist), I had a couple of phases lasting about six months where I had a few one-night stands or impulsive encounters.

      As a teenager, as in this anecdote, when I was getting to grips with the power I could wield over members of the opposite sex and sometimes had the impulse to “upgrade” to what (seemed like) a better model, I tended to have overlapping relationships.
      But I think that’s all pretty normal stuff.

      NB I didn’t sleep with this James, by the way, we SNOGGED.

      Right now I’m in an “up” phase, and one thing I’ve decided not to do is put myself out there sexually: i.e. I’m hold off on creating a Tinder profile for the foreseeable future.

      Knowing yourself is half the battle.


  3. You wrote a post in 2007 that struck me deeply; it was about a feeling you called the spiral, and I called the fog. It comforted me then, and haven’t forgotten it. So good to see you writing again about emotions and relationships.


    • I’ll have to go back and re-read it! I’m also told that re-reading my book in the light of my diagnosis is an interesting exercise, but I haven’t managed to do that yet (not re-read since the copy-editing stage, almost 10 years ago…)


  4. Do you ever notice if either men or women are more perceptive about behaviour – either themselves, or others? I used to work with a girl that could read me like a book – as I began describing some ridiculous thing I had become interested in, she would interrupt and predict exactly what I was going to say, and inform me that I went through the same patterns every few months…


    • The only person who ever asked me whether I’d had any sort of diagnosis was a once close (male) friend who happened to read my book several years after publication.

      I spent a long time writing about my behaviour without knowing what I was describing or having the wherewithall to be able to step back and analyse it.

      I think if I re-read some of my old writing now, my diagnosis would be staring me in the face (or hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer).

      And I plan to explore this at length in later posts…


  5. I am so thrilled to see that you’re writing again and so glad I didn’t give up on occasionally peeking at the old blog… I was never one who commented on the “old blog” though I always related to so much of what you said. I loved the way you wrote/write and the beautiful way you conveyed (and now continue) so many raw emotions – I especially loved your humor! Now that’s far too many *I’s* in so few sentences… but thank you for sharing all of this, truly.


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