An Epiphany, of sorts
Today marks Epiphany, the festival that for most marks the end of all things Christmas. It commemorates the arrival of the Magi, coming to pay their respects to the infant Jesus, though much of what people think they know about the Magi is a much later medieval addition. The bible does not give names to the visitors, nor does it state that there were three. That aside, it’s a charming addition; it personalises these shadowy visitors and gives them flesh and human attributes, as well as the gifts they brought, which were largely symbolic ones. I am sure that the holy family valued the gold; it probably got them through lean and difficult times. Frankincense was at one time worth the same ounce for ounce as gold and myrrh not far behind. I burn both during the Christmas period and I usually burn some beautiful incense called Three Kings after I take down the Christmas decorations (though the crib scenes remain until Candlemas).
But that’s not the epiphany I am talking about. The word has come to mean a sudden, dramatic and powerful revelation. During a recent episode of extra-nasty depression (that general base line for me is just fairly nasty and the extra-specially nasty was paralysing and unbelievably destructive) I had an insight I have had to sit with to see if it may be true, and that insight is the epiphany I’d like to explain.
If you have followed this blog for any length of time (it celebrates it’s 10th birthday next month) you will know that some years ago, a tiny piece in my personal mental health puzzle fell into place. I was diagnosed with bipolar II. It made sense of quite a lot of things; the psychiatric understanding of bipolar has become more refined and expanded into sub categories so while the issues had been going on all my life, for much of that life, bipolar was known as manic depression and the symptoms that showed you had it were on the extreme end of the scale. That meant that if you experienced less extreme versions of the range of symptoms, you didn’t get a diagnosis. It was flagged up as possible about twenty years ago, when I had agreed to take part in a trial via the psychiatric department I was then visiting; answering a couple of questions clearly pertaining to bipolar disqualified me from taking part. The shrink was disappointed not to have me taking part and he briefly commented on the possibility of me being bipolar.
Subsequent to that, cut free from all mental health support services (which now no longer exist, anyway) I managed my symptoms, using meditation, drumming, running, walking and other methods, but when we moved to the Midlands, something happened a few months after we had settled in the new house. Stories began thundering in my head. I’d stopped writing when the sheer stress and heartbreak of trying to get a publishing deal had rendered me almost dead (long story short: I had a brain haemorrhage). It took a little while for me to realise the only way I could get any peace was to start writing. And once I started, I could not stop. I later realised that the writing was something called hypergraphia (look it up) which is caused by one of two things: one is temporal lobe epilepsy and the other, guess what, is bipolar disorder.
Even then I didn’t quite twig. I spoke to my GP who was understanding without understanding, if you get my meaning. She saw the compulsive writing as a purely good and enjoyable thing. Except it isn’t. Writing until the skin blisters (I started longhand, pen and paper) and not being able to sleep, is not a good thing. It’s like being driven by some mad thing inside that won’t let you rest. I wrote The Bet in a frenzy, finishing it in 17 days, during which time I saw clients, I walked the dog long miles, I completed the housework and cooked, as well as writing up to 11 thousand words a day. It was marvellous but it wasn’t good for me. It feels like burning up inside. I had more episodes and in two years, clocked up a fair body of work, much of which remains on my hard drive, waiting for a chance.
But when we moved again and I went into a different line of day job, writing time became precious and a lot rarer, and, unknown to me, I had Dexter the parathyroid tumour working his dark mojo on my health, and that took a toll. It meant that the unconscious processes that basically wrote stories in my head, and then dictated them to me, had been disrupted. Writing was much, much harder, and in the time since then, quite frustrating. Compared to just tuning in and pounding away at a keyboard, it was almost impossible. The kind of fiction I’ve always written is the kind that cannot be planned. I tried. Believe me, I tried. I found I could still write short stories, and that was a comfort. Except people don’t like reading short stories; publishers seldom if ever take short story collections, except by already famous people. I have a nice collection of them, waiting for a few things like final proofing and a cover, but I’ve been so paralysed by fear (fear of failure, among other things) that it’s just sitting there.
Anyway. Almost out of the blue, it came to me, that the hypomanic episodes that led to hypergraphia were important. All last year I had tried very hard to write; there’s a number of Works-in-Progress that are going nicely but very slowly. I realised I was deliberately limiting how long I would spend on writing in a session. An hour or a thousand words was my goal, and then I’d stop, because I could feel something stirring. All the work I have done to contain the illness, to restrict its negative effects, meant I have been trying to tame a wild beast. I’ve come across other writers who have had a similar experience (I won’t name names because that’s unfair) where they have had to stop writing because writing itself can trigger a manic episode. I have a fair measure of brain fog because of my other long term condition (not going into that here) so it takes me a while to get started, mentally and emotionally, when it comes to writing. I am starting to think that the reluctance and the disinclination to actually apply bum to seat and fingers to keyboard may well be something inside me seeking to keep me safe from the ravages of that wild beast I have been caging. I can feel, around the hour or the thousand word mark, something stirring and stretching and yawning, and it scares me. Hypergraphia is a truly amazing feeling, liking flying in a dream, but it can destroy you. It can take away your capacity (or even need) for sleeping, for example, and not sleeping for any length of time brings psychosis in its wake.
But here’s the rub. Not writing is also destroying me. What and who am I if I do not use the very real gifts I have? The process of letting a story rise from my unconscious like a dry Kraken of ink and sea foam and the cry of the gulls, is the way my words work best. I do not control them; they may be my words and my ideas and stories but they do not yield to control, they resist and they snarl and then they sulk and retreat and hide. I am having to negotiate with them, and it may not go well. Much of me thinks, let the beast rise and to hell with the consequences.
That’s my epiphany. I think I prefer waiting for the Magi; they might have wisdom and grace to help me deal with this gift that is neither golden nor scented.