Hypergraphia ~ the Midnight Disease (a brief explanation of a complex condition)

Hypergraphia ~ the Midnight Disease (a brief explanation of a complex condition)

   I first came across the concept of Hypergraphia through the magazine New Scientist, for which we have had a subscription for many years. By one of those coincidences that occur, I had a tiny snippet of a piece in the section at the back reserved for humour called Feedback, which the editor had though funny enough to add a cartoon to. The main focus of the whole magazine that issue was about the science of the creative process and what caught my eye was an article by a Harvard professor who had herself suffered(though she doesn’t actually regard it as suffering) with two bouts of the condition. Dr Alice Flaherty lost premature twins and some days after the grief had really begun to bite, she began to experience a strong compulsion to write. I really mean compulsion; she was in the toilet at the time and seized some toilet paper and began to write on that. As the experience continued, she wrote constantly, day and night and used huge amounts of post-it notes which wallpapered her home with snippets of thoughts and words. If she was driving, and it came over her, she would write on her own arm. Then, it simply vanished. It occurred again some years later after another trauma but by then she had begun to investigate the phenomenon. She wrote a whole book about it, called The Midnight Disease, which my parents ordered for me and has yet to arrive!

Now, the two recognised triggers for the condition are temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder.

The first of the two needs more explanation. When you think epilepsy, you tend to imagine either a person staring into space oblivious of others(Petit Mal) or thrashing around like an electrocuted fish (Grand Mal) but temporal lobe epilepsy is neither. Seizures are very brief and the person remains conscious but paralysed throughout. The temporal lobe is the area of the brain associated with mystical experience and has been stimulated in experiments to produce profound religious experiences even in strident atheists. Dostoyevski was known to suffer with this condition. The after-effects of seizures vary but the mother of all headaches is usual, and in those with a faith, the conviction that the divine has communicated with them is often reported.

Now whatever the cause, hypergraphia usually produces gibberish and random words; it’s the physical process of writing that is the issue. In Dr Flaherty, she found some coherence in the writing she did and was aware she was trying to say something of great importance; the ideas that were coming through were still great ideas, just coming too fast for her to collate them in an organised way. She was a scientist but not at that stage a writer. When the condition hit me, I had already had a lifetime of both writing and story telling and instead of gibberish, I came out with a novel, fully formed and near perfect. It would be like the difference between giving performance enhancing drugs to a couch potato and to an Olympic athlete(I’m not intending to imply I’m an “Olympic grade athlete” but rather than I had all the right muscles and years of training). The couch potato might run a bit, and feel as if they did better than they otherwise would, but for the athlete it would be rocket-fuel.

Hypergraphia is described as a compulsion and in medical terms this means something more than we commonly think of compulsion. A compulsion is rather stronger than merely wanting or desiring. The Oxford Handy dictionary states  “irresistable urge to a form of behaviour esp. contrary to one’s normal wishes” and this is pretty much how hypergraphia  can take people. Under it’s influence, people will write on any surface with any implement if denied the usual pen and paper or keyboard. They will write to the detriment of home, family and health, ignoring their job, their hobbies, their friends and pretty much anything else. It’s rare that what they write is actually worth reading, though far from unheard of. 

I was never formally diagnosed with the condition, though I did email Dr Flaherty who confirmed that what I had gone through was almost certainly a form of hypergraphia and she also agreed with me that it was actually quite enjoyable! My GP, who had never heard of the condition, was quite prepared to send me for referral if that was what I wanted. I didn’t, largely because I had enjoyed it and the results had been very good, but I had visited my doctor because I had felt I needed outside confirmation that I wasn’t errm.. how shall I put this….actually mad as a hatter and needing psychiatric care. I had also worried that if this was the result of an unusual seizure that I might need to have it looked into to prevent actual brain damage. I have had experiences that make me think I am subject to either (a) divine contact or (b) temporal lobe seizures or (c) quite possibly both. I’ve also had tentative diagnoses of a milder form of bi-polar disorder that have never gone further than “Well, we’d like you to try Lithium and see if that helps, because you are showing some signs of it but not enough to really worry too much at this stage…”

Doctors, huh!

My episode, if that was what it was, lasted about a month, during which I wrote 105,000 words longhand and then typed it all up on a pc. I felt bereft when the words stopped pouring into my head and out through my hands. I felt …emptied.

Even though since then I have written another eight novels and begun a tenth( almost completed as I write now), I have never written under than sort of compulsion again in the years since it happened. Oh, I get into a sort of trance when I work or when I walk, letting the tales grow in my mind, but never like that. I lost ten or twelve pounds in the seventeen days I was writing longhand, I stopped sleeping properly, I was buzzing with nervous energy and couldn’t keep still. It felt magnificent but I think it might have killed me if it had continued for too long. I know my husband was watching closely to see what happened but while I know it could have been very, very bad for me indeed, I would love to have it happen again. It was simply better than any drug, any experience of my life so far and to put it simply, I felt completely alive, and I’m a person who aims to live life to the full every day.

It’s just as well that you can’t create the trigger or I’d have my finger on that trigger right now.

For those who are curious, this book is now published: https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/books-the-bet/

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8 thoughts on “Hypergraphia ~ the Midnight Disease (a brief explanation of a complex condition)

  1. Fascinating post.
    I did not have a clue about this.
    From your description I think I can see how it would be enjoyable for many reasons.
    I wish for you another short safe episode or a mild case forever :).

  2. Viv, I’ve sent this off to a friend who confirms that she has these types of symptoms, albeit not with writing. So this is a very poignant post for her. Blessings on your openness and willingness to share these experiences.

  3. Hi Viv!
    That is fascinating! I have never heard of that before, but I can imagine that I could be pretty a pretty useful disorder for a writer to have on occasion. Lol.
    I find I go through periods where words just flow through me, but not to the detriment of everything else, and I suspect that I have the ability to control this phenomena if I got really focused and actually wrote every day.
    Sadly at the moment, I am on medication that makes mw want to do nothing but sleep and knit. Hopefully the side effects will wear off soon.
    Thank you for this!

  4. I believe I had this compulsion to write , as in 2009 I wrote 6 manuscripts in 6 months time, I also painted over 98 paintings in a month would that be the same compulsion as the arts are related?

    • It may be, but without more details of your state of mind etc at the time, it’s hard to be sure. Many writers can produce a very impressive output of work when they are in the zone. It’s hard to tell what is compulsion in a medical sense and what is sheer hard work and discipline.
      But for what it’s worth, such a feat is extraordinary whatever drove it.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting.

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