Switching the big brain off…

Despite what Steve says about my brains and mind (or lack of), part of being bipolar means that you are sometimes overwhelmed by thoughts of whatever variety. My ex, Dale, was about the only one who got how that can be. He used to say ‘if only you could switch that big brain off’ – and I wish I could. It’s a lot like a computer when it gets too pre-occupied and it’s too full – it just freezes. And that happens to me. Sometimes, I need a hibernation like my laptop – and sometimes I wish I could just switch off.

Sometimes bipolar thoughts are great: your mind is swimming. Your mouth and hands work super-fast to create whatever. Nothing seems impossible when you’re hypomanic. The universe is wonderful and an inspiring place. Thoughts come quickly and easily. Keep that going, multiply by ten and you physically can’t keep up with your mind. That’s where frustration sets in and thoughts go from A to R in a flash of lightning, never mind B or all the letters in between.

Other times, you are overwhelmed by a tsunami of sad thoughts that come thick and fast. In fact, this is what I call my bipolar when it controls me rather than the other way around. Tsunami life. Sometimes, you surf it for a little while, getting the biggest kick of your life, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break. Sometimes, the sea is static… like being in the horse latitudes, dead sea, waiting for a trade wind, knowing something will happen and dreading what it is. Sometimes, you are overwhelmed and drowning – and being at the mercy of a big brain swimming with thoughts, drowning in them, unable to get air. And that’s how it feels. The Stevie Smith poem that ends ‘not waving but drowning’ is exactly how this feels.

And you don’t know when it will end or whether you will come up for air.

I used to deal with this by exercise. Lots of manic people exercise excessively. They can be stick thin, almost living on nervous energy. I used to run 100k a week. Sometimes, I would get in from work at about 6ish, go to the gym for 3 or 4 hours, scrub up and then come home. Sometimes, when it was really bad, I would get back when the gym shut at 10 and still be filled with energy. I would go to bed about midnight, knowing I had to be up at 6 and if I couldn’t sleep, I used to run. The loneliness of the long-distance runner. I used to have a track along well-lit streets that I would run – although in all honesty, having such energy means hypomania or mania and then you’ll take any risk. It doesn’t seem stupid to go running at midnight through dark city streets.

And I’d get back after about an hour, hot and sweating.

A couple of times, this wasn’t enough and I still couldn’t switch my big brain off.

But this physical exercise does one thing: it gets you ahead of the mental racing. Physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion.

I’m not a fan of cognitive-behavioural therapy where severe depression or mania set in. My friend Si says it’s like trying to learn how to hold the tide back with your hands. He’s right. You feel like Canute sitting telling the sea to stop and knowing it never will. But exercise leads to endorphins. This does two things. It can alleviate depression – nature’s own morphine – but it can worsen mania. Runners call it ‘the zone’ – where you’re so in the moment that your mind switches off and synchronises with your body – it’s all one. I loved the zone. But the zone probably worsened any hypomania. Endorphins are just as addictive as a drug.

Unfortunately, when you have stress fractures in your feet and your physio advises you against running and you still run and you worsen your injuries, then you end up not being able to run.

And then you get depressed. And depression leads you to need medication – or to seek it – because you can kind of live with a degree of hypomania – which is a lovely, blissful feeling of connectedness and synchronicity – but you cannot kind of live with depression because it will not go away so easily and it hurts.

But medication and lack of exercise means the weight piles on. And thus the cycle is worse. Skinny me is manic me. Fat me is depressed me. It’s that simple. Sometimes it’s medicated me and unable-to-exercise-me.

So, working the land has been a struggle. And it’s sometimes physically painful. Sometimes, my legs hurt. I do this old lady shuffle which Steve finds hilarious. Imagine an elderly Chinese woman who has just had her bound feet unbound. You might think that an exaggeration, and it is – a bit. But my feet bones have been broken and it’s still painful.

I wrote a letter to my depression once; part of it read:

Outside and inside, there’s nothing I can do to myself to arouse any kind of sensation. I run on blistered feet, shins inflamed with over-use, only a few miles from stress fractures. I run with sore sides, aching hamstrings and achilles’ tendons that creak and feel like fabric that just might give at any moment. I push weights that put the men in the gym to shame. I pound ten rounds out of the punch-bag and then resort to an over-zealous abs programme designed for marines and inflicted on me by one of the men I actually pay to hurt me. You – you get to do that for free. And what I put my body through, you put my mind and soul through. An hour of judo combat or a ten mile run along the edge of the Pennines is nothing to an evening with you, where you put me through my emotional paces and set me on edge so I don’t know right from wrong any more.”

But the physical exercise is my mind’s only off-button. I find Tai-chi helpful too (but not yoga – too much still going on in my head!) because Tai-chi means you have to keep an eye on all your limbs and your posture and you literally can’t do it ‘unconsciously’ without thought until you’re very good – by which time, the process is calming and soothing anyway. So my blog has been a little empty recently – and much of this is to do with a (as I hope!) healthy level of physical exhaustion.

Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to my first quiet day in the wonderful hammock Deb sent me – letting my feet and ankles and knees and hip flexors and back have a rest. Tuesday, I’m going to lose myself in a book – my other way of switching the big brain off – and I’m going to let my legs have a well-earned day off. I am not going to weed, to prune, to clip hedges, to wash pots, to make ‘muse-bouches, to go to the supermarket, to work, to scrub floors, to hang the washing out, to walk the dogs, to do the laundry, to sweep floors, to clean windows or wipe down the cooker. I am going to sit in the hammock and I am going to indulge myself in a little escapism. I am going to thank the Lord for my feet having got me this far and still holding me up (mostly!) and I’m going to give them a break and find another way to reign the tsunami back in.

And nobody – but nobody! – better disturb me!

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