Abigail Shaw lives with bipolar disorder. It affects every aspect of her life, including what adventure looks and feels like. Here she writes about a recent trip to the Yorkshire Dales.
It’s coming up to the 72nd consecutive hour I’ve spent in bed when my mum rings and insists on bundling me away to the Yorkshire Dales for the weekend. 72 hours in bed is not even close to my record.
I live with bipolar disorder, which on paper is described as a mental illness that causes severe mood swings. In actuality it is far, far more extensive. It is intrinsically bound to my thoughts, my actions, my personality, my movements, my speech, maybe why I smoke, maybe how I die. So that I’m never sure where it ends, and I begin. It plays havoc with almost every aspect of my life.
This time it’s friendships. My relationships with my housemates have completely disintegrated in the last six months, along with my mental health and personal hygiene; I have been relegated to my room. I’m in that same place again. The dark place. My dad, who suffers from depression, calls it the black dog. We joke that this is why we got our cocker spaniel, Betty: to symbolise our similar struggles.
During the time in which I haven’t been sleeping, I have been manically searching for new flats at 4am and applying for jobs I’m nowhere near qualified for in America. When I sober up from the episode and realise that I’ll never be able to work in America, because a ten-hour flight is too long for my parents to ‘reach me in time’ if I had another breakdown, I’m in bed for another eight hours.
My room is pitiful, like the bottom of a bird cage - an unintentional homage to Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’.
I hear laughter downstairs. Soon they might leave again for another excursion - funky golf or extreme frisbee or Ben Nevis or something similar that I can’t do - and I’ll try and manage to scrape myself up for a shower.
'“Hello sweetie,” Mum says sympathetically as I haul myself and my stuff into her car. She squeezes my hand. “You look like you could use a break.”'
As my mum shows me around the caravan park, I decide I want to see the sunrise one morning we are here. She has taken me to a forested summit – only a small hill, but higher than the park.
“Come on!” my mum cajoles, the dog doing excited circles round her legs.
“One second,” I mumble. I am checking to see if we are facing east.
At home, whether plagued by intrusive thoughts or simply too manic to sleep, I have been awake for a lot of sunrises. There is a Chinese concept called ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ that theorises that people who don’t have much control over their life prefer to operate at night, where there is diminished responsibility and they can feel like they are regaining that control.
I do not feel like I have much control over my life.
When I stick my head out my bedroom window I can see above the rooftops. It’s north facing, so I look to the right. Some days it’s still so dark when it happens, a thin orange slither spreading across the horizon like a fire. There is a moment when the sun finally slips through, blinding, everything burning. Then it’s over and the heat dissipates slowly through the sky into morning. Some days it’s cloudy and the sky turns from black, to grey, to light grey – and I don’t see anything.
But when I do see it, it feels like possibility. I am safe and warm in a home, with a new day spread out in front of me. I am desperate for its tastes.
After a two and a half hour drive my mum is itching for a walk. Betty is practically frothing at the mouth at the mere discussion. We got here early, so there is a whole day to occupy. There is no logical reason not to walk.
However, being in the safe arms of my mother has allowed me to drop the mask of semi-sanity I have been wearing for the past two months around my housemates. I am exhausted.
“Can we go somewhere I know?” I ask.
When I was young, we would visit my grandparents’ caravan – also in the Dales - and I have fond memories of the low-effort walks they used to take me on.
“We can do the Grassington walk? It’s not long - three-hour round trip,” she beams, my most understanding fan. “Can you remember it?”
I can’t. My memory has been worsening since my bipolar diagnosis. Even the most important stuff slips away sometimes. I imagine myself - the same person who forgets dates and doctor’s appointments, who can’t recall a conversation as soon as it finishes - trekking in the Andes, mountaineering in the Himalayas…
“I’m sure I will when we get there.”
'My memory has been worsening since my bipolar diagnosis. Even the most important stuff slips away sometimes. I imagine myself - the same person who forgets dates and doctor’s appointments, who can’t recall a conversation as soon as it finishes - trekking in the Andes, mountaineering in the Himalayas …'
I do and I don’t. For a while I regret the trip entirely. The thick, muggy heat; the spitting sky, just enough for discomfort; seagulls diving mercilessly on the banked nest of moorhens; more discarded spinal columns than I care to count.
The brutality of rural life. Things could be worse, I think.
But finally, I come round, inhaling the musty smell of petrichor – like an old book. We pass senescent oaks and the ruins of a cathedral. It’s another world, far from the troubles of home. I look out and across the boundless countryside, so barely touched by man’s increasingly domineering hand when compared to the city.
“Can you hear the orcs coming?” my mum asks into my ear.
“Listen,” she says, “the orcs.”
Confused, I listen closely.
The slow rumble of drums descending over hills, the heavy beat of horses’ hooves mulching the ground. The orcs are coming.
My dad is sniffing the air and declaring man flesh – acting out the most intense Lord of the Rings scenes to his terrified and delighted daughters. The sound of the drums comes from water rushing through an underground pipe, giving it a low, steady, metallic thrum.
As this recollection kicks in all the anxious irritation melts away. I know that pipe, I know that sound. There are no unpredictable surprises here.
I am a child again. Eight years old and my only worry that a film could come to life – that at any moment I would be thrust into the traumatising position of Frodo Baggins, the very world on my shoulders.
Maybe things were simpler back then, maybe it is just the position I am in now that makes me believe that things were ever simple.
Blindly finding my mum’s hand, I squeeze. Knowingly, she squeezes mine back.
At twenty-four I am still so juvenile. I cannot hold down a job, I cannot travel far, I cannot regulate emotion, I go to pieces at the slightest hint of stress. In all likelihood I will have multiple relapses in my life that could ruin anything good I might have in place.
My parents’ support is my lifeline, and it also makes me feel ill. The idea of having to rely on them, endlessly, is nightmarish and infuriatingly real. I crave a life where I can support myself, support them as they age, but my future looks small and murky. I am entering my mid-twenties.
Yet my inability to undertake adrenalin-filled adventure does not mean that I cannot slake that thirst. These trips to places from my past may seem tiny adventures, or contained adventures – but, for me, a foray into the new, exciting, or expansive can mean something unpredictable, my mood changing on a whim. My adventure is tailored to my illness and is not so much about seeking new experiences but perfecting the small ones I am able to have. I take comfort in the familiar.
When we get back, we watch Gladiator, and my mum knows all the words. I sleep hard that night, after days and days of turbulence.
'Yet my inability to undertake adrenalin-filled adventure does not mean that I cannot slake that thirst. These trips to places from my past may seem tiny adventures, or contained adventures – but, for me, a foray into the new, exciting, or expansive can mean something unpredictable, my mood changing on a whim.'
My psychiatrist once said to me: “You can’t regulate your energy levels. You use them all up, and then you crash.”
Some people use energy by doing strenuous activity or stimulating mental exercise. I use energy differently. I use energy thinking, worrying, travelling, talking, in social situations, at dinner, doing the weekly shop. And I use it fast. Although I may not be experiencing physical taxation, everything I do comes with sustained mental taxation. Anyone who knows mental illness will agree: our minds never quiet.
Yesterday’s adventure was exhausting.
It is no surprise I have missed the sunrise when I wake up pickled under my sheets in the boiling tin-can caravan. The sunlight bearing down through the curtains, I am immediately filled with a sense of shame.
There’s only one chance left now, you idiot, I think.
And here they are, all the feelings I thought I had chased away by waxing lyrical about orcs and trying to touch a cow.
You’re so lazy, it would have been so clear today.
You’re ruining Mum’s day. You’re a millstone around her neck.
Not only do these thoughts clog my head, but sleep is pulling me back under the stifling covers. My eyelids are heavy. I am falling, I am falling.
I wake up at 9pm and immediately try to go back to sleep. That’s what allows me these long stints in bed. Waking up, sensing immediate failure, and simply going back into the depths of sleep. It is a symptom of the depressive aspects of bipolar, of course, but it is also a way to put the world on hold for a while.
Today, I cannot return. I try for an hour and then get up. I am twenty-four, in mismatched pyjamas with sleep in my eyes, in a caravan in the Yorkshire Dales; and I crawl onto the sofa with my mum and lay my head on her lap.
“Hello sweetie, how are you feeling?” she says and begins to stroke my hair.
“Not good,” I manage.
I am still awake when she goes to bed. Keeping a good sleep schedule is crucial in the regulation of bipolar, and the twenty-two-hour nap I have just indulged in is already punishing me. I look outside into the night, so far away from any man-made light that it is just hazy darkness and the moon. This does not feel like ‘revenge bedroom procrastination’; I do not feel in control of this night. It feels wasted, like the husk of the day before it.
The clock goes twelve.
'That’s what allows me these long stints in bed. Waking up, sensing immediate failure, and simply going back into the depths of sleep. It is a symptom of the depressive aspects of bipolar, of course, but it is also a way to put the world on hold for a while.'
Then 1am, 2am, 3am. I watch countless home renovations and Today’s Top Tech. I know the sunrise is coming soon but there is no signal to check for when exactly. Outside the sky betrays nothing, only that it is somewhat lighter than the sky an hour before it.
I know if I stay awake then I will be awake for the whole day, night and possibly the following day – it varies. It remains a mystery to me how my body and mind can power me forward with such manic force despite the obvious sputtering of my energy reserves.
Perhaps I’m too apathetic for a sunrise. It’s not unlike me to wallow in the self-pity of my diagnosis, how inequitable it is that I’m here suffering with others sleeping soundly in their beds.
I think of the word ‘adventure’. An unusual and exciting or daring experience.
Maybe it isn’t fair that my mind is far too alive to grant me sleep at 4am. Maybe it isn’t fair that I slept the whole second day of my trip away because I was depressed. Maybe it isn’t fair that I can never go trekking in the Andes or the Himalayas or the Appalachians. Maybe it isn’t fair that my only realistic dream of adventure is seeing a simple sunrise. But I am here, I am awake, I can do it.
I saddle up the dog.
There’s a bench at the top of the hill. I’m not sure what direction it faces but I sit on it anyway. I’m here and despite the heatwave yesterday, this morning is cold.
Betty ardently looks at me, doing that pitter-patter dance dogs do when excited.
She could walk for miles upon miles, I think.
There is a pang of pain. Am I a burden even on my dog? Do I prevent her, and the other people in my life from doing what they want to do? Are my experiences, and my hypomanic sunrise escapades even comparable to the adventure of others? Do I hold them back?
I look to the sky for answers, for a manifestation from a god I don’t believe in, for a sunrise.
The sky turns from black, to grey, to light grey, to a lighter grey, to a sheet of cloud cover, to white. I check my phone. 5.01am. The sun has risen, and I didn’t see anything.
I laugh, maybe because of life’s pantomime or maybe because of my lack of sleep, but when I stand up Betty zips further up the path then stops. I go towards her, and she moves forward again and stops. She turns to look back at me, wagging her idiot tongue
That’s the moment I realise she’s waiting for me; she wants me to go with her, to come along. And when I leave, she will come home with me too. And she will go on longer walks with more active people another time. But she is just happy to be there, on a journey with me.
I have learned not to rely on promises of the ‘unusual, exciting, or daring’. For me to chase those things, when they are beyond my ability to handle, can only lead to disappointment. Instead, I focus on the journey (no matter what it gives or takes) and the people I am there with. Some days I find excitement, sometimes I find other things. Some days I miss the sunrise.
With a step towards her, Betty takes off, sniffing. Her lead tugs my arm. Another adventure begins.