a-levels

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.

birthday

It’s not easy to forget the date, as the diagnosis came on the eve of my 42nd birthday.

I was signed off work for 15 days, initially.  But those days stretched into weeks, then months. I finally felt sane and stable enough to make a decision and negotiate my way out of my contract in early January, signing the exit papers in March, a full (*counts on fingers*) 7 months later.

That day remains a bit of a blur, to be honest, but here are the things I do remember.

It was a Monday.

I was a mess but I dragged myself to work because, for the first time in my life, I found myself afraid to be at home alone.

I’ve never come close to contemplating self-harm, but that day my brain was racing around in ever decreasing circles, like the needle on a record, and there were voices (well, my voice or, to be more accurate, a whole cacophony of my voices) echoing in my head.  I couldn’t pick up the phone or write an email. I hadn’t slept. My heart was racing. My palms were sweaty. I’d lost about 7 kilos (a stone!) in a single week.

But despite all this, I didn’t want to stay at home, even though a note from my GP, allowing me to do so, was burning a hole in my pocket.

I spent a good deal of time that day in the staff toilets, head firmly wedged between knees, trying to focus on breathing.  I spoke to the nice lady from HR, at length. I went for a long walk at lunchtime (because eating wasn’t an option). I took Lysanxia after Lysanxia, but the drug no longer seemed to be having any discernible effect.

Mostly I waited. For my appointment in the late afternoon with a psychiatrist at the Centre for Stress and Anxiety, conveniently located close to my place of work.

Extract from an email to my Mum, at 00:07 on Sunday: “I had some blood tests today – well actually it’s yesterday now – just in case thyroid or some deficiency could be to blame. In the meantime I have some pills to calm the adrenaline (remember my A-levels) and am seeing the psychiatrist I saw once before on Monday.  I think I’m willing to get some proper medical help with my ups and downs which are getting a bit too extreme for me to cope with.”

I’d seen the same psychiatrist exactly a year previously. September always seems to be a bad month. Back down to earth with a crash after the holidays. Back to work for me. Back to school for the kids.

The last (and also first) time we’d met, I remember her asking me some questions about the highs and lows I’d been describing. Did I spend more money during the highs? Did I engage in any risky sexual behaviour? A colleague of hers had been seeing me on and off for “anxiety issues” for the past three years, but I think this lady put her finger on the problem that very day and, if memory serves correctly, the word “bipolar” was even spoken aloud.

I didn’t return to see her for a whole year. I must have felt better, shortly afterwards. Or perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to face the music just yet.

The day before my birthday, when I returned to see her, I tried to explain how out of control I was feeling, in between the sobs.

Gently, she explained to me that I was experiencing what is referred to by psychiatrists as a “mixed state” – a state combining features unique to both depression and mania. The despair, blended with fatigue, contradicted by the racing thoughts, the flight of ideas, the nervous energy, the depressive ruminating (moo!) … all this madness could be labelled, explained, and even knocked on the head, simply by taking a small, white pill.

As I walked along avenue Marceau, prescription filled, I called my husband, in floods of grateful tears.

There was something wrong with me, but I wasn’t broken.

I could be fixed.

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