By Dick Redbourn
AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK
Key Themes: mania, manic episodes, autobiography, hopsitalisation, recovery
Mania without depression is a relatively rare problem, this detailed account of his experiences describes how Dick has managed to come to terms with his illness. Dick hopes his long experience might offer one or two ideas to anyone suffering from occasional or regular manic episodes.
About the Author
Dick Redbourn was born during the height of the Battle of Britain in Brighton, Sussex in 1941. Having attended primary and grammar schools in the town, he moved to Crowborough in 1970 and has lived there ever since. Dick is married with two children and has recently acquired two boisterous grandsons. A physics graduate, Dick qualified as an air conditioning engineer and has worked for various manufacturers in that field from 1967 to the present day. He is a sports enthusiast generally, but the game of cricket has been the love of his life and he's written two humorous books about his cricketing experiences. Writing is something he greatly enjoys and finds relaxing, which has been of much assistance during the 25 years he has struggled with mania.
The rapid build-up to my first breakdown was during January ’79, a period of which I remember little. Carol had noticed my behaviour becoming stranger by the day; I seemed troubled and much preoccupied with my own thoughts. Difficulty with sleeping led to a visit to my GP, who prescribed sleeping pills and tranquillisers, to little effect.
In the week before my admission to hospital, I was waking in the early morning, in tears, with an intense head pain. The best, in fact the only, description of this I can offer, is that it felt like an iron band clamped tightly round my forehead. I would clutch hands to my head to try and relieve the tension and initially, I thought it might be a physical problem. Certainly we were both bewildered as to what was happening.
With experience, I’ve since learnt to recognise the features of a manic episode, and I now believe I was in the middle of a major one at that time. One symptom I can still remember - a powerful one - I now call the ‘staring effect’, and I shall describe it in detail later. At the time of my breakdown I believed everyone on television was addressing their remarks to me personally; even the news bulletins had been tailor-made for my viewing! This delusion lasted for some time and was the cause of great concern to Carol and our friends.
As I moved to the climax of the manic episode (or episodes?), the delusions became stronger, and totally took over my mind. I’ve since found that there’s usually one substantive theme in each episode. But during this breakdown there seemed to be at least three concurrent delusions, each driving me ‘over the top’.
Firstly, I developed a ‘theory’ about black holes and the end of the universe. Then I wrote a political text giving advice to the Labour government which, being the ‘winter of discontent’, might actually have had some value! But above all, I was completely obsessed with time, carefully recording the date and time of all sorts of trivial events, covering sheets of paper in a meaningless jumble of figures.
After a home visit by my GP and a psychiatrist, it was agreed I should go to Hellingly Mental Hospital on a voluntary basis, to allow my behaviour to be properly monitored. I must assume I was put under heavy sedation, which forced my mind to relax and get some natural sleep.*8 Nevertheless I can clearly remember, even now, my head being so hot that I used to wander around the ward, trying to find the best place to cool it down.
After a few days I got back to near normal as far as the extreme tension was concerned. I then spent a week in hospital doing next to nothing, a period of staggering boredom when I was unable to do anything, my mind totally exhausted.
There’s usually humour to be found in even the direst circumstances. ‘Hysterical laughter’ is hype much bandied about in plugs for books, plays and even mildly amusing sitcoms. But in my case I can think of few incidents of real uncontrollable, hysterical laughter, and then only during a manic cycle.
An unforgettable hysterical episode took place near the end of my stay in Hellingly. It was a Saturday evening, well past our official bedtime, and, unable to sleep with my head feeling red hot, I got up to stroll around to try to cool it down.
The ward had a central area with two wide corridors leading off from opposite sides, each with locked emergency doors at the end. One side of each corridor, fully glazed, faced across the grounds, which were covered with snow at the time. The temperature outside was below freezing and because of the large glass area, the corridor was the coolest place I could find.
I stood at the end of one corridor for some minutes, but still felt the need for further cooling. I managed to lift up one sash window about six inches, but wooden stops preventing further opening, presumably to stop suicide attempts.
With head turned flat I managed to squeeze it through the gap and for ten minutes enjoyed the wonderful relief from the heat, as the freezing outside air cooled my head right down. Then, realising it was going numb, I reluctantly wriggled it back inside.
As my head quickly warmed up it was comfortable for a few seconds as equilibrium was reached, but the temperature continued to climb into an area of intense distress. My head felt so hot that I went into a state of panic, thinking it was actually, physically on fire.
I looked around, desperate for help. Through the fog of fright and blinding tension, I noticed a fire alarm breakglass right opposite me. I lurched frantically across the corridor, elbow pointing in front of me, and smashed the glass, to my immense relief.
The shock of this violent action, with the immediate ringing of alarm bells throughout the hospital complex, seemed to bring me back to relative sanity. I stood bemused, awaiting the staff response to what, at two o'clock in the morning, they knew had to be a real emergency.
Within a minute there were running footsteps and a kerfuffle on the stairs outside the emergency door. A key was thrust into the lock but it wouldn't open and swearwords bounced around as they struggled fought, even to get in. Eventually they got it open and six people, overcoats over nightwear, raced down the corridor into the main area.
Awaiting my own rescue, there was plenty of action as patients were wrapped in blankets and led to safety. The bedridden were wheeled out and then, after several minutes’ disciplined teamwork, everything went quiet.
I stood there calmly, until it dawned on me that the person who'd set off the alarm was the only one they'd missed out of some 300 patients! The sheer irony of this hit me and I dissolved into unstoppable, hysterical laughter. For minutes it went on, tears ran down my face and I was obliged to double up to relieve aching stomach muscles — I could feel the bruising for days afterwards — as the laughter went on and on.
On sober reflection, this story is not that funny and only seemed so because of my state of mind. But, as well as the therapeutic value, it taught me an invaluable lesson: physically cooling the head can give welcome temporary relief from stress, but it’s not a permanent solution. And over-cooling, like shaking a bottle of fizz, is clearly not to be recommended. As the saying goes, ‘what goes up, must come down’; or more specifically, ‘what goes down fast, comes up fast’.
After leaving hospital, I was off work for two months, mainly resting and reading at home. Carol gave me odd jobs to do around the house, which she said I carried out like a robot.
Any bounce or sparkle I possessed had evaporated and I was quiet and subdued, apparently still in a state of shock. My brain operated incredibly slowly, as if mired in treacle, taking seconds to register the simplest comment. I found it exhausting to converse for more than a few minutes, and for some weeks couldn’t face the prospect of meeting people socially.
My confidence dipped and I felt slightly self-conscious when talking to strangers —- did they know about this episode, and if so, what did they think? But mostly, the limited capacity of my mind was occupied with mundane tasks and I had little time to ponder the future.
Day to day I could sense my brain toughening and speeding up, bringing my personality back with it. A real test of my recovery was meeting a group of old cricketing pals in the hectic atmosphere of a crowded pub. These were friends with whom I’d so much enjoyed trading insults and quick-fire repartee over the years.
On the occasion I felt nervous and shy, like the embarrassment of joining a swish party, knowingly having egg on the face. By accident or design, my pals did the right thing; they greeted me as if I’d come back from a long holiday, speaking quietly and slowly. As they filled me in with the gossip, I could feel my mind strengthening and quickening, confidence growing.
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