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.