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/

Halcyon Day


Halcyon Day


Over the last month or so I have set myself a challenge of mapping my mood using a spreadsheet. I take three separate readings morning, noon and night each scored out of twenty, and also comment on any unusual events during the course of that day. The purpose of this is several fold: to try and understand how and why and when my moods change and what(if anything) triggers the changes. I chose twenty as my figure, though usually people mark it out of ten, but I felt twenty gave greater scope for subtlety. Ten is a baseline for normality, neither high nor low, but an acceptable level to live at generally, zero being about as low as a human being gets and twenty being scrape me off the ceiling time. I am also trying to figure out whether there is a bi-polar element to my depression, though should this prove to be the case, I am not sure what if anything I can do about it beyond accept and work with it.

So far I have noticed a number of interesting facts from the data so far collected. First, I noticed quite quickly that my mood starts pretty low every day, generally below the acceptable ten and sometimes climbs over the course of the day quite steeply. I can’t be sure yet with the month of so’s data whether there are consistently any factors that seem to correspond with this climb, but the sharpest spikes so far seem to correspond with a certain kind of event. This sort of event can be summed up as being one in which I am able to express myself: either verbally in the context of intense conversation or by being able to write and express myself in that manner.

A curious thing though, because I discovered also that the scale I have used, 1-20, does not relate to actual happiness. Over the course of the month, I have discovered that this scale I set is utterly two dimensional, in that while it measures a score of the high or lowness of my mood, this is unrelated to any feeling of happiness or anything else. It doesn’t relate to energy levels or of satisfaction or anxiety: just high or low. It pays no attention to my periods of desperate questioning that bring me to emotional breakdown on a fairly regular basis, or of external circumstances, good or bad. In essence, it’s a measure of something I can barely define.

Let me illustrate. During the course of my life, I have had moments where I have been flooded with a bliss that comes out of nowhere and has no particular relationship with whatever is going on in my life at that moment; it’s like having your soul swathed in the softest silk or velvet, balm poured upon your wounds and your heart is held in a loving embrace by something much greater and more wonderful than you ever imagined. I had such a day on Monday. Nothing externally had changed. I still wrestled with the same questions, I still lived the mundane life, I still grieved with those who were hurting. But this velveteen bliss coated my internal consciousness and filled my eyes with a kind of compassion and love and selflessness. The faintest shreds of this remain with me as I write this, as a kind of record. It’s not like being high, or happy, or content or really anything I can suggest as a comparison, and it certainly had nothing at all to do with circumstances either internal or external. It just was. The last time I remember this occurring, was Christmas Eve 2003 and I wrote the following poem to try and record the feeling:

Deep bliss: a feeling of velvet inside,

An inarticulate rightness of being

Brightness of being right

And I cannot tell why or how this feeling comes

A simple certainty that all shall be well,

Now and always.

I cannot capture this feeling, pin down

and dissect it, tear its secrets apart

And reveal a truth I already know.

An image of bright butterflies

the lark rising with its song

A moment of pure knowing

beyond that of the intellect

And I sit here now, passive, creative:




I named this post Halcyon Day because this is what it is. The Halcyon days are the days during winter when the seas miraculously become still and calm for approximately seven days amid the season of storms; the story can be found here  and for me, the kingfisher is a potent symbol of being oneself, and showing your true colours. Even as I write the memory of that feeling slips away, like a dream at dawn, so that only a faint memory remains with me, enough to remind me that it may come again.

You cannot live to pursue bliss, because bliss comes when it wills, not when you will it. You cannot call it to you, or recreate the conditions in which it was born. Like the wind, it blows where it will and is gone. But once you know it exists, you will know its touch when it comes again.

And come it will, I promise you.