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The Tipping Point

Charlotte Walker

Last Tuesday, I was telling my friend Anna that generally speaking, I am quite self-aware when it comes to my bipolar moods. I have never been able to understand it when people say things like, “I was depressed, but I didn’t even know it”, because I am so acutely aware of my descents into low mood. I have tried my best with mood monitoring systems, but I tend to find that they just tell me what I already know (usually that I am mildly hypomanic, since that seems to be my default state these days). But, I explained to Anna, there is a point at which I lose all self-awareness, as I move out of happy, productive hypomania and into something more intense and potentially destructive.

As I was saying this I watched, as if from a distance, my hand sliding up and down, up and down, the necklace I was wearing. A part of me, also from a distance, observed that when my hands get busy with sliding, tapping, twitching, flapping, this generally means that things are moving up a gear. And then I put that thought away.

On Wednesday, I wrote furiously, all day, feeling resentful about the need to stop to eat or have bathroom breaks.

On Thursday afternoon, I texted my partner. “Have cleaned and scrubbed kitchen bin, cleaned bathroom, bleached kitchen sink, washed up and done two loads of washing, worked on book – going into London to meet Helen now!”

It would be fair to say that usually I consider housework incredibly dull. If I suddently start doing lots of it, and doing it cheerfully, my partner knows this means trouble.

His return text read, “That’s great, but... alarm bells...are you heading into a manic phase, my love??? Slow down a bit!”

And that was when I noticed. 

I noticed that I was sleeping less than I had done in months.

I noticed that I was talking more and faster, so that people’s eyes were beginning to glaze over.

Most of all, I noticed that I had completely stopped employing my self-management strategies. I wasn’t defying my established rules (such as “no more than one activity per day” or “always take a day off between social activities”), I was just so focused on enjoying myself that I had totally forgotten my rules existed. I looked back over my diary, and found that somehow, without even noticing, I had arranged to do something every day for the next five days. Worse, almost all of my plans involved going into central London, using busy transport networks and being around countless strangers. Crowds, excitement, and running around the centre of town (especially during an extra busy time like the Olympic Games), are all things guaranteed to feed the increasing high. Always, as I get still higher, there is a risk that the switch will flip and dysphoric mania will kick in. And that is something I would rather never happened again.

I still don’t have any real understanding of when the tipping point came, the point at which I lost awareness of what was really going on. I’d thought that although a lot was happening inside me, I’d held things together externally so that I appeared pretty normal. This illusion was blown out the water when another friend, Jude, said to me yesterday, “What happened? Because there was a sudden, very noticeable, shift of gear when all at once you got much higher.”

It’s worrying to me that was obvious to Jude completely escaped my notice, that I was explaining the tipping point to Anna, without noticing that I was reaching it. This is where I count my blessings. I am fantastically lucky to have a partner and friends around me who are able to stop me in my tracks and make me notice that I am on the path to disaster. I’ll be honest; I was annoyed when my partner sent his text; I felt that he was trying to rob me of all the fun I would have running around town meeting my friends. But I made a conscious decision to accept that he was right, and to try to slow down, and the more I slowed now, the more I noticed how edgy I had become. Without being consciously aware of it I was already hypersensitive to noise and colour, and my body was becoming exhausted trying to carry on running on so little sleep. And I so I had to admit that the crowds and the fun and the travelling would simply have fed the monster. 

So I put my meds up over the weekend, and I’ve pared back my social schedule to almost nothing. I switched from repeatedly listening to a fast-paced playlist to relaxation music, spent time in quiet, darkened rooms rather than on packed tube trains. I think it’s working. Hopefully, at least for now, I have stepped off the path to crisis and emergency medical intervention. And the lesson is that probably I won’t notice the tipping point next time it comes, either. I’ll have to keep on trusting and keep on listening.

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