Making sense of mania
It started with a phone call. A distant voice came from the handset, clipped and delayed as the signal bounced from satellite to satellite. The caller explained he was from the British Embassy in Nigeria and that my father had been taken hostage.
I would have got my mother to handle the call if I’d been able to. So that an adult could have taken the details about the firefight at a remote oil terminal in Forcadas, of how they didn’t know which group was holding my dad and his colleagues, of how they would try their best to keep informed of ‘the situation’. But I couldn’t, she was ill upstairs, bedridden with Labyrinthitis; an inner ear infection which left her debilitated for the best part of a month with me caring for her. I was fifteen.
My dad was ultimately able to evade his captors, four days after been taken. Escaping on a Zodiac Nautic under cover of darkness and later picked up by a passing Dutch oil tanker. Although it sounds like something out of an airport bestseller it was, by all accounts, pretty prosaic. He came home for a worryingly short amount of time, returning to his position in Africa in somewhat of a whirlwind.
A few days after he left, the phone rang again; a close family member had died suddenly. With my mam still ill and dad unable to get back to the UK, it was down to me to arrange the funeral with my Aunt. These three back-to-back events were the origin story to the two-faced, depressive villain that would loom large over my next 25 years.
I hadn’t thought about these traumatic events for a long time, but I’ve been revisiting them as part of a series of counselling sessions I’ve been accessing for the last few months while I waited for, and finally received, my diagnosis of Cyclothymia.
Cyclothymia is a mental disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and ability to think clearly. Those with Cyclothymia experience rapid mood swings between hypomania and depression. While the exact cause of Cyclothymia is unknown. It is widely believed to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain and seems to run in families. It is also thought to be triggered by stressful circumstance or situations.
Cyclothymia can be a uniquely wild ride. During manic phases you can feel almost euphoric, full of boundless energy, highly ambitious plans and endless ideas. You also make some spectacularly bad decisions, such a spending a terrifying amount of money of things you can’t afford. You don’t sleep well, don’t want to eat, all while being highly animated one moment and full of anger the next. Mania has been a main stay in my life, however not until my diagnosis could I give these episodes a name, or even try to explain my actions.
Odd behaviour had been with me from childhood; from obsessive collecting and cleaning or staying up all night watching the same movie on repeat. It was simply, as my family and friends will attest to, who I was. As I got into my early twenties financial recklessness became a thing. I amassed over £20K in credit card debt before leaving university and walked out of my six-year part-time job on whim at the age of 23, despite it being the only thing paying my rent. Safe to say, mania was a mainstay in my life.
It wasn’t all bad, mania allowed me to talk myself into TV writing roles, receiving a Cease-and-Desist notice from an 80s movie star about the ridiculously offensive comic book I co-wrote, blagging jobs in the brewing trade, somehow getting hold of arts funding for a high-end literary fiction magazine and even getting to fly to Los Angeles to make a documentary.
With my highs, however, came the lows. As each phase of mania peaked with whatever ridiculous thing I’d ended up doing / buying / imbibing / agreeing to, came the race to the bottom. The depressive yin to my elevated yang succeeded in sucking the joy from everyday life and filling me with dark thoughts, extreme lethargy, and crippling anxiety that make each day feel like a hopeless struggle.
A breakdown of a relationship in 2008 triggered my worst phase; a spiral into a deep depression and borderline alcoholism that lasted several months. I was unable to work, isolated myself from family and friends and entered a pattern of, not to put to kind a point on it, risky behaviour. It was a dark, self-destructive time but one which led me asking for help. My then employer offered a counselling service that I was able to call on. One emotional late night phone call to their 24-hour helpline saw me placed with a counsellor in Newcastle whom I visited for four months, while my GP trialled me on various anti-depressant medication.
My highs and lows continued to fluctuate over the years but thankfully never to the debilitating extent they had in the past. With a strict focus diet, exercise, and mindfulness meditation I managed to, for the most part, self-regulate.
Then came the Pandemic. The loss of order was the fan to my mental health’s flame. My drinking increased, I started smoking again after a decade long hiatus and exercise and self-care went quickly out of the window. Of course, my patterns of manic behaviour increased dramatically.
From buying countless vintage cameras, a ludicrously expensive guitar, having not played in the best part of two decades to starting a charity T-shirt side hustle. All my countless grandiose plan making was all followed with a cliff edge drop into depression quickly after. This time was slightly different; I’d started to see things. I’d catch glimpses of people in my house in my peripheral vision. Whether cooking a meal, watching TV or working from home, I would often be on the hunt for these invisible visitors. It was unsettling to say the least.
My mania and depression began to increase in both strength and duration, culminating in me taking a calamitous fall down a flight of concrete stairs after a particularly exuberant night. I somehow manged to walk four miles home with ripped jeans and huge, bleeding cuts on my legs. This was the wakeup call that I wasn’t going to get better under my own steam. I needed to get help.
I reached out not just to my GP, but also to my employers to access our freely provided counselling services. Our staff our incredibly fortunate to be able to make use of unlimited telephone counselling and a minimum of six sessions of face to face therapy with a counsellor of our choosing. It’s a genunie gift of a staff benefit. I was able to quickly pick my counsellor, whom I researched on Counselling Directory, and start attending bi-weekly sessions in work time. It was remarkably quick and easy to do.
These sessions have been a genuine lifeline. Up until this point, I’d felt adrift, unable to tackle the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing. Counselling has been a tonic, allowing me to work through my current feelings and patterns of behaviour while being given the opportunity to look back over similar occurrences and triggers in my past. My sessions have given me the insight to start and keep myself within a window of tolerance.
Counselling has also guided my treatment plan; helping me provide much needed information to the mental health team who have been able to quickly find me the right specialist to work with. In the months that have followed I’ve been able to keep myself grounded, create healthy intentions for the future and be more able to not let my manic spells run riot over my life.
It difficult to put into words the benefits that come with talking therapy. Gone are the difficulties in speaking to loved ones or any potential embarrassment about opening up to friends or colleagues; it’s completely impartial.
My counselling has been ably assisted by a twice daily dose of top drawer CBD that has help calm my racing thoughts. My particular brand of choice is Liverpool based Plantcraze. It’s about as far from the huge CBD brands as you can get, serving up only two main products; a 30% Full Spectrum Oil and Balm. Super potent and the only offering that I haven’t found to be snake oil. I’ve been a fan for two years now and simply wouldn’t look elsewhere. Use my referral code if you fancy giving them a whirl for £5 off your first order.
Another absolute lifeline is the generative music service Endel which provides personalized soundscapes to help you focus, relax, and sleep. This sensationally smart bit of software pulls in data to better tailor its soundscapes to you; from weather data from your location, motion sensors from your phone or your current heart rate from wearables. It’s both immersive and soothing and what I’m listening to now as I write this piece. It’s also the only piece of software I’ve ever sprung for lifetime subscription for.
The amazing folks at Endel have supplied me with a code for a free month of their software with no credit card needed. If you are working for home, struggling to focus with constant interuptions, have a shocking sleep schedule or just need to time to recharge, give Endel a whirl.
Oh, and getting outside. Do it. It’s vital. This wonderfully engaging post from Tammy Bergstrom will explain why.
Regardless of my sub-lingual / software additions it’s vocalising my issues that has made the most difference to my life. Talking about your issues really is the first step in making sense of them.