Spring, death and the beginnings of madness

Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and the rain, bring the bees and flowers

Vaughan Williams, Whither Must I Wander

I lie here beneath my green woollen blanket, facing the bare trees that sway in the backdrop of a grey and gloomy January sky. The living room is silent but for the humming of the fridge in the adjoining kitchen, a slight mess of coffee cups and wine glasses stained red.

Despite the young green shoots of bulbs among the cyclamen in my balcony pots, Spring feels a long way away. Winter has brought a sadness and stillness within me, a stagnant pond frozen over that I know I must break through and rise above. On days like this, though, the ice feels impenetrable.

This time five years ago (five years, I can hardly believe it!) I was travelling to Scotland via the East Coast Mainline. I felt a desperate urge to escape my surroundings of cigarette smoke, uncertainty and the impending death of my father at the mercy of carcinoma of the kidney. At this point the cancer had spread to his liver and bones and I was awaiting the Come Now Call, his death rattle. The flood of emotions that had long overshadowed the complexities of our turbulent relationship became overwhelming and so I fled to a small town in the Cairngorms National Park, renowned for its beauty. I was to receive free accommodation in exchange for help with horses and odd jobs in a small holding run by an apparently wealthy woman who was, I would soon discover, rather frugal in her hospitality.

At the time I was painfully thin. I wasn’t eating much, nor was I sleeping. The time spent in Scotland was hard work and I soon became muscular but verging on skeletal from weeks of yanking hay from bales to feed the horses each morning, lugging the huge bags over my shoulder and carrying them to the stables. Some days I worked for 10 hours straight, with often little more than a baked potato for dinner in the evening. And yet, these hard days were still preferable to the ones I spent hundreds of miles away in my bedroom, ruminating over the life I had lived up until that point.

On my return, depression hit hard. I could barely leave my bed. BBC Radio 4 became my comfort, the Shipping Forecast a lullaby to which I would drift off to sleep for an hour or so before waking again, often in a pool of sweat.

I made an appointment with my GP who prescribed me an antidepressant, which I took in desperation – anything to lift me out of the black hole into which I had fallen. A couple of weeks into my treatment, something changed in me. I felt a switch change, not from dark to light but from dark to buzzing, erratic flickering and fluorescent energy. Suddenly I could not keep still.

The pressure to keep talking was, at times, unbearable and my behaviour became frenetic. I would run and run and run but no amount of exertion would tire my limbs or slow my mind. The world spun round and my thoughts were dizzying as they circled my brain, flitting from one radical idea to the next. I would stay awake for stints of 48 hours straight, chain-smoking and walking from one side of the house to the other and back again, until surely I must have walked for miles.

As Winter turned to Spring, my mood was beginning to verge on elation. One morning in May, I stepped into the garden to dry my wet hair in the sun, my heightened senses absorbing the smells of fresh flowers, the sounds of the chirruping birds and the sights of butterflies in search of mates. It was a beautiful, perfect day. Then I got The Call.

‘I just thought you should know’, said my brother, ‘Dad passed away this morning.’ His voice cracked and in the background I could hear my mother’s howls which would leave an indelible stain on my memory forever.

I’m not sure what happened then, except the moment I hung up the phone I put my head to the grass and sobbed. Great relentless sobs from the pit of my stomach. The sights and sounds I had savoured faded into insignificance and a curtain was drawn across the stage that showcased my elation. The remains of the day are a blur but for the sobbing that never seemed to cease. I was inconsolable.

In my shock and grief, I forgot all about antidepressants and eating and bathing.

Though I had not believed in His existence since my youth of hymns and Sunday school, God began to talk to me, first in a whisper and later, in loud, threatening tones. My father spoke to me, too. Sometimes his presence was invisible, but other times I would see him sitting at the end of my bed, seemingly looking straight through me with his eyes, ice blue. It would be the first of many psychoses to come.

Shortly after, I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office of a psychiatric hospital. I remember little, except for two words. ‘Textbook Bipolar’.

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