Authors: Jay Griffiths
Copyright Â© 2016 by Jay Griffiths
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Lines on p. 168 from
In Praise of Mortality
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead, 2005), reprinted by permission of the translators; lines on pp. 177â8 and 184 from
Selected Poems: Rumi,
translated by Coleman Banks (London: Penguin Books, 2004), copyright Â© Coleman Banks, 1995; lines on pp. 97â8 from “Hymn to Hermes” from
edited by Nicholas Richardson, translated by Jules Cashford (London: Penguin Books, 2003), copyright Â© Jules Cashford, 2003.
Originally published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House UK
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Griffiths, Jay, author.
Title: Tristimania : a diary of manic depression / Jay Griffiths.
Description: Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2016008987
Subjects: LCSH: Manic-depressive illness. | Manic-depressive persons.
Classification: LCC RC516 .G77 2016 | DDC 616.89/5--dc23
LC record available at
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e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-804-3
If I had to pick the moment when it all began, I'd have to choose the afternoon at Twyford Down when I fell down a rabbit hole. Yup, 'strue. So much pain, like lightning striking my ankle, sharp tears smarting in my eyes, the swelling, hobbling clumsy-walking: none of these mattered much. What did matter was that I could not go running and my mind began to fall down its own rabbit holes: it needs to run with serious intent, seeking the self-medication of endorphins, the runner's natural high, leading to the easy tranquillity afterwards.
So, then, I could not run for a month, and something began to go awry in my mind. It was the beginning of a year-long episode of manic depression. For much of the time it would, from the outside, look more like the years left blank in the Medieval Welsh Chronicles as if to say
Nothing Happened This Year.
I did not do any of the things associated with mania and hypomania: I did not have sex with dozens of men; not even one. I did not spend myself into dizzy, indebted oblivion. I did not have any car accidents. Following an earlier episode of hypomania some years before, I'd learnt the pitfalls, so this time I had three rules: no sex, no big spending, no driving â the latter after I had two near-crashes. I sat in my
favourite corner of the sofa, nearest to the woodstove. I smoked one rollie after another. Intermittently, I drank too much. End of.
Except it wasn't. The curtain lifted, the veil of the temple of the psyche was rent: I fell through into a further reach of my own mind. The world turned headside out. The interior was made exterior, writ real as plumbing, enormous as opera, jangling with life as if a zoo had eloped with a circus.
According to psychologists, there is an increased risk of manic symptoms in bipolar people at times when they have achieved an important goal, and I was just finishing a book on childhood,
which had taken six years of research and writing. I had been working long hours with very little time away from my desk for the previous eighteen months. I was, as one friend said to me, âwriting till the lights go out'. I was burning out, but also, in one of the paradoxes of the mind when it starts to tilt, I was becoming fascinated by the dangerous sparks flickering at the edges of my vision, catching fire and flaming across my mind.
Do episodes of madness have causes? What do they need, to unfurl themselves? They unfold like tragic dramas and, just as tragedy needs a tragic flaw, a backstory and the dramatic incident which kicks off the drama, so chapters of madness also need a tragic flaw (genetic vulnerability), a backstory (long-term stress) and an incident (a trigger).
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Genetic vulnerability. Tick.
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Long-term stress. Tick.
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Trigger? Happened like this.
I'd met a man who was trying to persuade me to work on a project with him. He seemed clever and interesting. We'd gone for a long
walk in the hills to talk over the idea. It was a hot day. Halfway up, he wanted to rest and offered me a foot massage. I love foot massages, and I said yes. Foot massage it was, to begin with. I fell into a warm, dreamy state, eyes closed, that deep-relaxation state. And then he wanked all over me.
I would like to tell you that I kicked him in the balls, spat in his face and maybe ironed his nose with a fair-sized rock. I did not. I froze. Like a child in the clutch of a monster, I froze. Like an animal choosing fight, flight or freeze, I froze.
As sexual assault goes, this was mild. Very. But any one-sided sexual encounter is nauseating and utterly humiliating. It left me not just frozen but dazed, bewildered and sick. Soon after he had come, he started saying sorry: he was under no illusion that it was something I wanted â his repeated apologies made that clear. Later, alone, I blamed myself for freezing, for being hopelessly ill-equipped, for âletting it happen'. I tried to forgive myself. I ran it through in my mind, many times, as if it were a film and I could re-shoot the crucial scene. (Or, indeed, him.) Nothing helped.
In the days after that, I could feel my mind on a slant, every day more off-kilter, every night sleeping less. And then I began to lose my appetite. There are those who comfort-eat, a pal said to me, while there are those who comfort-starve, and this was my pattern. I could not swallow. I could put food in my mouth, but my throat closed up and I had to spit it out.
The clock hands were counting back the hours I could sleep: eight per night, seven, six, five, four, three. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus prays for the hours not to pass: I prayed for them to speed me in sleep. A significant lack of sleep or food (or both) can in itself trigger mentally unstable episodes, and my own genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder or, as I prefer it, manic depression, hurls
me to heaven or hell (usually hell) every once in a while. Finishing a book always leaves me vulnerable and exhausted. But in whichever ways one counts the causes, the result was a perfect storm. For three weeks I was in a state of slippage, a gap widening between me and my usual self.
The last time mania had tripped me up, thirteen years previously, I had gone to climb Kilimanjaro, taking my highs to a new height, and then, in the ensuing depression, I had sought help from a shaman in the Amazon who gave me ayahuasca, a profoundly important medicine used in healing for thousands of years. Now, though, there was simply no time.
I knew I had to get to the doctor. I say âthe' doctor because there was only one I'd ever met who I believed could help. He was a local GP. I knew him, and he knew me. I hadn't needed to see him for years, but at the first appointment of this episode, I was crazed with distress. It was not a state bordering on depression but poised on a terrible brink, standing unbalanced and weightless on the rim of a volcano's crater. He didn't hurry me: a ten-minute appointment overran to forty minutes and longer, and I was choked with chaos. He offered medication, which I refused initially, but that night I felt worse and made an emergency appointment to see him the following day.
By this time, there was a rupture between what was happening in my mind and what I could say. I couldn't translate myself outwards into the world. I tried to tell him about that terrible disjunction, as if the cabin pressure of my mind were at variance with the pressure of public air. In madness, the head can feel as if it is in a wholly different atmosphere and the consequent psychic pain makes you want to scream.
My doctor contacted the psychiatrist immediately, asking for an
urgent appointment. He knew how far and how fast I was falling away from myself and, when he said it was urgent, he meant it.
The following days and nights picked up the reverberations of a sinister percussion, as if my mind were set to an inexorable rhythm, a threatening, ungainsayable, hideous enemy â a drumhead mass, a rhythmic ritual playing me into a deadly war. I felt trapped in a tragedy of terrible teleological intent. Reason was being drummed out into a courtyard to face a firing squad.
In an attempt to feel some kind of control, I tried to chart how mad I felt and put a wavy zigzag line on the pages of my diary, with a note when I first felt my mind slip: November 11th, âMercury Goes Awry'. Mercury, god of writers and â surely â god of manic depression (that most mercurial of illnesses), was to play a big part in this strange drama. He flirted with me from the start. I âheard' (while knowing it was not real) a voice saying:
Meet me at the crossroads.
That, without question, is the voice of Mercury. And his locus. But he is never punctual, and
will never wait.