MEMOIR: SICK/WELL (Updated, New Postscript)
Yesterday, a cold, wet Monday in July, I did about three days’ worth of Korean language lessons on Memrise, read two chapters of a Joan Didion book I’m working through, went to the local pool and slogged out heavy-duty walking laps for a full hour (so probably a bit more than a hundred laps), despite dreadfully agitating noise conditions. Later, when I came home, I wrote two long chapters for this book (about 3500 words total), took a long nap, and was in pretty good shape for Michelle when she came in late last night from work.
Yesterday was a regular sort of day for me lately. Some days in recent times I’ve done three chapters for the book. Some days I’ve done four days’ worth of Korean lessons. Yesterday was the first time I’ve tried to do a whole hour of walking laps, though. Up to that point I’d been doing 45 minutes, and thinking that was plenty. I’m going to try for an hour again next time because today I feel quite okay.
I saw my psychiatrist last week. I told him the book has been gushing out of me. That I’ve been exercising every day. That I have a clarity of thought that is pretty much new to me. That I feel consistently decent from day to day. That even the Trouser Department is reporting for duty. I’ve even been losing weight. That part has been very hard. I’m having to drastically reduce what I eat down to one meal a day in order to get past the effects of Nortriptyline, but it’s working. My doctor tells me that the combination of fasting and Topamax, another medication I’m on, in part for its weight-loss properties, is good for clarity of mind. He said he’s never seen me look so well. He said I’m “overflowing with energy”.
The last time I was anything like as productive as this was in 2015, when I was writing ETERNITY LEAVE. But the rest of the day I was a heap of dirty laundry with sick flies buzzing around it. I wasn’t able to get out of bed before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I was a greasy smear on the couch. But I was writing up a storm, because my doctor cut back one of my drugs, and suddenly I could think. Within a few weeks of him cutting back that dose, I started writing that book, and was finished the whole thing in only 80 days.
What I’m experiencing this time is different. I have much the same productivity, but I can get out of bed like a regular person. I can function and do things. I can think and learn things, and go to the pool and work really hard. And write a big pile of words.
I was thinking about this yesterday, while I walked, trying to think of another time in my life when I functioned this well, and I couldn’t think of a single one. I was having to think back to when I was a writing-mad teenager, whose bedroom walls were covered completely, all over, with science fiction artwork from SF MONTHLY, the 1970s British magazine that used paperback book cover art as pull-out posters, often featuring, for example, the dazzling work of Chris Foss. In those days, when I was a green potato of a boy, writing like mad, for hours and hours and hours a day, to the point that my parents would bang on the walls to make me stop, when I could produce multiple terrible short stories each day. Because I was mad about science fiction, and because I was mad. I was manic, and had no idea. All I knew was that the throttle in my brain was open all the way, and I was roaring.
That was the last time I had productivity like this. When I was desperately sick.
Am I sick now? Am I well?
I’ve been thinking about this for months now, because for years I have felt sick, like something was wrong. I often didn’t know what it was that was wrong. At one point, when going about my life was like pushing through heavy, sticky syrup in order to do the slightest thing, when it was as if breathing was exhausting, it turned out I had an underactive thyroid. Excellent, I thought at the time. We can get this fixed and we’ll be in business. The feeling of wellbeing lasted at most a couple of weeks, then it was back into the treacle. No matter what we tried, there would be a brief lift, then back to the treacle. It was terrible. Something was wrong, something obvious, something trying to get our attention, but we were distracted.
So yes, I was definitely sick then. And I appear to be in rude health now. Right? Right? Because what would “well” look like if not like the picture I described at the beginning? I feel fine. I’m able to work hard at my chosen activities. I can do all my jobs around the house, and I can study. All the activities I’ve designated as meaningful to me, as being part of the pursuit of a peaceful and contented life, are there.
So why do I hesitate? Why do I stand before the door, and not go through the door? Because something is making me hesitate. In part I’m not convinced I’ll ever truly be well. That I’ll always, in some profoundly fundamental way, never quite be right. When I was in hospital last year, going through the worst of it, when I “couldn’t regulate my emotions”, when I’d find myself in tears at the slightest thing, and feeling utterly broken, unable to function, I sometimes thought of myself as Pinocchio, who wants only to be a Real Boy. I think I have always, and especially since my initial diagnosis, been Pinocchio, and I have always wanted to be a Real Boy.
It would be nice, I sometimes think, to forget that I was ever sick. That I ever had a diagnosis, that I ever had a file thick as an old phone book. Over the course of many years I saw that file grow, like a tumour. It was a visible sign of my illness. I hated it. I wanted to burn it. I wanted to remove all trace of myself from the system.
But I know none of these ideas would work out. I’d be burning the map, not the territory.
People sometimes speculate about what they would do if they had a time machine, and where they would go and what they would go and see. I’ve written about such people at scornful length in a couple of books. Because for me it’s not a fun or idle question. It’s life and death. If I were to lose my memory of having the illness, the illness itself would soon remind me, and simply show up. I would fall ill because I wouldn’t be taking my meds. And that’s the thing. If you travel back too far, you lose access to good medication and civilised treatment options. It’s extremely scary to contemplate just how recent the current array of psychiatric treatment options really are. Not that long ago people like me were simply locked away. Or in any case would not have lived long because the illness would long since have driven them to suicide.
I can’t imagine actual wellness. I can be fine, functioning better than at any time in my life, but in my blackened heart I know that no matter how many thousand words a day I do, or how many laps at the pool, or whatever other measure I choose, I’ll never quite be a Real Boy, because I’ll always be just a tiny bit sick.
A FEW WEEKS LATER
There has been a development. On the whole, all is amazingly well, as I outlined above. I completed the first draft of this book in two months flat. I started writing a novel (am already up to almost 20K). But I am having an increasingly difficult time with noise at the local pool, and specifically the noise of very small children playing. I’ve written about the anxiety I have to do with certain kinds of sound (see my piece, “Murder Sounds”, about misophonia), and when I’m at the pool there are often a lot of kids, and those kids love to squeal, scream, yell, and otherwise loudly vocalise in a piercing manner because the indoor pool acoustics make such sounds really bounce around, and my hyper-vigilant brain interprets such sounds as mortal threats. They feel like knives going through me. They feel like punishment. It has come to the point where I have no problem slogging out the laps, but I hate being at the pool. It makes me very unhappy. I need to talk to my psychologist about this.
There must be something I can do. I often think of the techniques my psychologist teaches me as “Jedi Mind Tricks”, and I hope she’s got a good one for this problem. Because it’s a doozy. I’m currently wondering about going there early in the morning, for example, when there should be no kids about. I’m reluctant to choose the obvious option of simply not going because I have two good friends who work there. I need a way to be there that doesn’t feel like a threat to my life all the time. Because that’s how all that noise feels. Every squeal, scream, yell, all happy and joyful sounds, all little kids having a wonderful time–in fact just as I would have had when I was their age!–feels like it’s going to kill me. It hurts me and I don’t quite know what to do.
It is this sort of thing that pops up from time to time to remind me, when I feel, as I have been feeling, bursting with wellness, that I am in fact still very sick. That I am in fact still Pinocchio the puppet. That I’m not a Real Boy after all.
POSTSCRIPT: HYPOMANIC PHASE
My psychologist has recently explained to me, after some investigation, that the extraordinary burst of creative, productive energy I experienced around April to Julymthis year, the time when I wrote the early draft of this book and eighty percent of my GOOD INTENTIONS novel as well, was very likely a “hypomanic phase”.
Not by a any means to be confused with a much more scary “full manic phase”.
It’s more that I had access to a temporary power-up that improved my INT and WIS for a limited time, during which I had extremely rare mental clarity and insight. It was really neat!
I was speaking to my psychologist about this, that I wasn’t happy it went away, or ran out, or whatever. How could I get it back? Could i get back? Maybe, she said, or maybe not. Okay, then. Well, how should I feel about the book I wrote under the influence of hypomania? Should I feel worried? Is it okay?
She smiled and pointed out that some of the most inspired, most wonderful and creative works of art ever produced were produced when their artists were in hypomanic states of one degree or another. That even actual full-on mental disturbance has, at times, sometimes (by no means every time) led to some great works.
So relax already, she said!