I’ve always loved fairytales. I was lucky that my parents supplied me with a lot of books when I was growing up. I had volumes of the classic stories collected by the Brothers’ Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, but I was also given stories of Tzar’s palaces and crafty peasants from pre-revolutionary Russia; tales of giants, warriors and shape-changers from Irish folktales; fables of djinns, flying carpets and talking animals from the Arabian Nights; and modern fairytales written by Enid Blyton. What I believe is interesting to children about this kind of story is the way that something completely out of the ordinary can be explained away and accepted by the characters on the grounds that it is “magic”. What has this got to do with being bipolar? Well, In recent years, I’ve found myself contemplating fairytale characters that I haven’t thought about for decades, as a result of developing certain, ahem, “magical” powers of my own.
Many people will have read the story of The Golden Goose (Brothers Grimm), in which a poor woodcutter called Simpleton, who is the youngest and least promising of three sons, lives in a kingdom where the princess is permanently sad. The king has issued a proclamation that any man who can make his daughter laugh shall have her hand in marriage. You can read the details of the story here, but essentially Simpleton succeeds in this task with the aid of a magical helper. The King, however, is less than pleased with the idea of his daughter marrying a peasant, so he quickly raises the bar and sets some additional conditions. First, he stipulates that Simpleton must show him a man who can drink all the wine in the King’s cellars; then he says that he must find a man who can eat a mountain of bread. Much to the King’s surprise, Simpleton is able (with a little help from magic!) to find a man in despair over his insatiable thirst, and man who is crying because he cannot satisfy his hunger. Between them, they gladly consume the mountain of bread and empty the King’s cellars of wine. Finally the King demands a ship that can sail on both land and water; this too the magical companion provides, and the King is finally forced to allow Simpleton to marry the Princess.
Old Peter’s Russian Tales contains a story called The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, which is very closely related to The Golden Goose. The eponymous Fool is again the youngest and least clever of three sons, with a desire to marry a Princess. In this version, the Tzar has let it be known that anyone who can bring him a ship that can sail the skies may marry his daughter. Again, the Fool obtains a magical helper, who provides him with a fantastical ship of the skies. Flying along in his vessel, the Fool comes across a man who is able to hear everything that is being done in the world at once; a man is able to cover the world with a single stride; a man who can shoot game a thousand versts away (which Google tells me is about 1000km); a man who can drink a lake; and a man who sees a sack of bread as a tiny snack. These strangely talented men - the Listener, the Swift-Goer, the Far-Seer, the Drinker and the Eater - all join The Fool in his marvellous ship. Of course, this collection of people with extraordinary powers is eventually able to assist the Fool in marrying the Princess, despite the Tzar’s objections.
For months at a time, I have been the like that unsmiling princess; permanently sad, feeling as if I am sitting cut off and alone in my tower, while my family worry about what should be done for me. When in deep depression, I also seem to be permanently hungry. Like a bear heading towards hibernation, all I want to do is eat and sleep, but no matter how much I eat, I still want more. Now that I have started on lithium therapy, I find myself incredibly thirsty; I have never drink so much water in my life! No wonder I relate to the Drinker and the Eater. Today I can’t seem to stop crying. I can’t say that there is any particular reason for it; in fact, I wish I knew why I was doing it. On days like this, when the tears seem never-ending, I feel like the Princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans, who weeps so much that she eventually cries an entire lake.
It’s not just depression that gives me “magical powers” I didn’t ask for. When I am hypomanic, I often experienced heightened senses. Colours look brighter (sometimes to the point that it hurts to look at them) and food tastes more intense, but the most difficult to cope with is increased sensitivity to noise. Like the Listener, it really does feel as if I can hear the whole world. Even if I stay at home, everyday sounds like my own footsteps, the TV or ticking clocks are unbearable. It’s very difficult to manage being in a shop or restaurant, or on public transport, because I can’t filter out other people’s conversations or music, and sudden noises make me quite literally jump. Hypomania can also remind me of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes, in which a poor girl called Karen bullies her adoptive mother into buying a pair of expensive red shoes for her. Once she has obtained them she ceases to care for anything else, to the point of abandoning her adoptive mother when she becomes fatally ill, in order to go dancing. Her mother dies, and Karen finds she now cannot stop dancing, and is unable to take the shoes off. They force her to dance through the night, wherever they decide take her, until her legs and feet are scratched and bleeding from brambles and thorns. Many people who experience a bipolar high will relate to the feeling that you can’t stop, even if you want to, because your brain chemistry simply will not let your body rest; sadly, they may also relate to the way in which hypomania can make you absorbed in your own experience, and aware of the needs of your family.
When I did my literature degree, I read a few different studies of fairytales, including psychological interpretations of what the (often repeating) characters and plot elements represented. I never saw anyone suggest this, but these days I begin to wonder if some fairytale characters are a reflection of a pre-scientific culture trying to make sense of people who were in some way beyond the ordinary. It would certainly be nice if, like magic in the fairytales, our bipolar “superpowers” could be accepted as something that “just happens” and not seen a reason for stigma or judgement.