hair trigger

I remember once describing to a psychologist – years before my diagnosis – the feelings I was having when I got into a argument with my soon-to-be-husband. After one phone exchange, a wall of orange-red rose up in front of my eyes, like a migraine aura, clouding my vision. There was a ringing in my ears, as though I were about to faint, a tingling sensation in my extremities, and a tightness in my chest. I wondered if this was what having a heart attack felt like. Was I dying?

But it was just my body, mainlining anger-fear-panic. Maybe the person who had coined the English phrase “to see red” had been experiencing something similar.

The psychologist calmly discussed mechanisms for safely exiting this state without hurting myself or anyone else. So I bit down on my pillow and and closed my eyes, waiting for it to pass. I don’t even remember what the fight, or fights were about. Just the feeling of being overwhelmed by the physical manifestation of my emotions. I haven’t seen red for many years, but there are other feelings that my body gives voice to and magnifies in ways that I’m not sure other people’s bodies do. Or not with quite the same intensity.

I find it simplest to describe these using the vocabulary of recreational drug taking, because drugs tend to enhance your perception of feelings and emotions in a similar way. In my youth I tripped out on mushrooms and LSD, rushed on speed, coke and ecstasy, and blissed out on MDMA, so I have some material to work with.

There are my whooshy adrenaline rushes. The good happy ones where I soar, head upturned to the sky, blissed out on the best home-spun MDMA, usually with a musical accompaniment, because feelings like that really need one. If the rush gets really powerful, I might even let out a quiet little moan, after checking there is no-one in the immediate vicinity. Or stop and lean back against a wall; take a few deep breaths. If it feels too strong – like too many lines of coke, strong – a beer will bring me down a notch, so I might stop at a bar and drink one, alone.

Then there are the bad “the bottom just fell out of my world” dives. These are the worst because I can be on a hair trigger sometimes and truly never know when I might step into the down elevator and plummet. The ground comes rushing up to meet me; the panic, the fear, the nausea become all I am. There is always a reason, but my body’s reaction to whatever circumstance is not a rational one, and I lose all ability to react in a measured and logical way.

So I have learned to withdraw when that happens, to try to remove myself from certain situations until the feeling ends. My default position is head between knees, somewhere private: a work toilet cubicle, any toilet cubicle. Breathe in, breathe out. It will pass. Like any bad trip. It’s just a too high dose of something, coursing around my body, scrambling my brain.

Hopefully, when I emerge from the cubicle, pale and a little dazed, and pretend to wash my hands, the hand dryer won’t strike up a conversation with me, like that time I took LSD in Manchester in 1994.

involuntary descent

I plot the telltale signs that I’m losing altitude.

The first thing I note is that my energy levels, instead of being Duracell bunny “on” all day long, are beginning to ebb and flow throughout the day.  I’m sleeping through the night, until 7am, instead of getting 3 hours’ sleep. My racing thoughts and rapid-firing synapses are beginning to stutter and slow. I’m updating my secret Instagram account less often.

Denial is pointless: I’m losing my hypomanic superpowers and I feel bereft. After being an unstoppable force for six weeks or more, I don’t care to return to mere mortal status. Normality holds no attraction. I want to be me, squared.

When I look at the woman in the mirror, my eyes are less charitable. I see fine lines, a multitude of imperfections. I had shed weight, but now I can almost feel my metabolism slowing, becoming sluggish. Am I already heavier, or is my perception skewed?

I’ve spoken to good friends before about this. Do I really change that much when I come down to earth?  Do I still make them laugh? Do I look different? Do they still like me the same?

The verdict seems to be that the difference is mostly in my own head – which is not to say that I don’t dress, move and behave differently as a result – but you’d probably have to be paying close attention to notice.

Right now, I’m trying hard to postpone the inevitable any way I can. Loud music in my headphones. Alcohol. A crazy, intoxicating mutual infatuation with a boy that hits some of the same endorphin high notes. I have faith that I’m going to weather this involuntary descent okay.

But I still wish I could have held onto my superpowers for a little longer.



The signs are very familiar.

The need to have my blue Sennheiser headphones clamped to my ears every time I go somewhere – even if it’s just to nip out to fetch bread from the baker’s – so that my life is set to a soundtrack of my choosing. My brain craves the stimulation, and the volume is cranked up to full. Sometimes the combination of music and street stimuli gives me such a pure physical rush that I walk, head upturned to the clouds, remembering with every fibre in my body what MDMA used to feel like.

If the sensory overload gets too much, I stop in a bar for a beer, to take me down, just a notch.  If I start to slow down, I drink an espresso. Careful buzz maintenance.

My mojo has returned. A different walk.  A bounce in my step. I swing my hips and arms a little. I caress the handrail as I dance down the steps to the metro. I hang from the pole in the carriage, eyes closed.

I’ve lost weight; it’s just melted away. My fun clothes have come out to play, my crazy shoes. I apply a little more make-up, get my roots done. I start seriously considering that ladybird tattoo.

In the street, I meet the eyes of the men who stare at me. And they are looking. They even say “Bonjour”. The elderly guy from the Tunisian grocery store on the boulevard made some borderline-filthy joke about his “belles dattes“. Some alchemy has occurred: I’m no longer invisible. Something about my altered state is perceptible: to men, in particular.

Re-reading something I wrote here about not letting myself create a Tinder profile while “up” makes me smile. I’m not on Tinder, but a good friend persuaded me to try out some similar apps just before this altered state took over, to break with my three years of celibacy, and it has been serendipitous. Because this edge, this high is making me very good at seduction.

Side effects of hypomania include making “sufferers” charismatic, witty, gregarious, confident and impulsive. I concur. I am a charm offensive personified right now.  My libido is ten stories high. Any boy in the path of hurricane me is likely to have difficulty resisting.

This is the me I like best. The creative me who has been making things on the internet, taking photos, and chatting up a witty storm with multiple boys, putting the restlessness and the racing thoughts and flights of ideas to use.  But it’s me undiluted, when really you are supposed to add 90% water to taste. If you drink me like this, I may be too sweet, and I can’t rule out a bitter aftertaste down the line.

This version of me might stick around a few weeks, or a few months. I have no way of knowing. What happens next is an unknown quantity, too. I might come down slowly, like a hot air balloon, or I might crash land in spectacularly messy fashion. I’ll withdraw into my shell, to some degree. I’m never sure how much of the change is in my perception of myself, or how other people perceive me. I suspect it is a combination of both.

In the interim, I’m taking my meds, and being as honest as I dare when I see my psychiatrist, but I’ve resisted his attempts to increase or tweak my lithium dose, for now. Not taking it is never an option. A simple blood test would expose the truth, which is precisely why it was prescribed after I was admitted to the hospital: to police me.

But I’ve resisted any dosage-tweaking because I’ve spent too much of the past two years feeling hollowed out inside, numb, barely setting foot outdoors aside from work or necessary commitments for the kids, with my libido at ground zero.  This is not my definition of living.

Every time I complained, I was told this was an acceptable trade-off for staying well (read: alive).  I disagreed, but wasn’t in the best frame of mind to argue.

So while I know that I need to play safe, and absolutely acknowledge that I will have to pay some price for this period of euphoria one day soon, I’m also secretly hoping that I’ve reached the point where my brain has got acclimated to the lithium and will now regularly enable me to feel things again.

And if not, I intend to revel in this while I can. I need it.

I choose life, of course I do, but if it’s an option, I choose this version of my life.