mental health

My Bipolar Brain Keeps Turning Thoughts Into Memories

It makes keeping track of time almost impossible.

by Patrick Marlborough
07 May 2018, 2:03am

Illustrations by Ashley Goodall

My brain has always raced. It has always churned out buckshot blasts of imaginings and ideas and half-truths at a rate beyond my control. Hence the meds. I was diagnosed with bipolar as a young adult and so I live with that, amongst other things. I have always been a little hypomanic and as such I have always been a little hyper-imaginative. I am only just understanding how this misshapes my memories, and bends my perception of self and time.

Somedays I feel like Wile E. Coyote chasing the uncatchable Roadrunner. I’m on ACME rocket-skates hurtling towards a tunnel that’s painted onto a brick wall. And suddenly, hypomanic excitement turns to depression when it smacks against the cement of realty.

But like Wile E. Coyote, my trouble isn’t running off the cliff—it’s looking down.

The problem with a brain that only rests when it has overheated and crashed is that my sense of time is truncated. The problem with a brain that is constantly inventing scenarios, vignettes, and characters is that the imagined tangles constantly with the real. And as such, my sense of self via memory becomes illusory and untrustworthy.

It’s hard to keep track of who I am. There are just too many selves to keep track of. I do not mean split personalities so much as I mean split narratives. Wrangling these narratives isn’t easy, ordering them in a way that can be parsed by an outsider is almost impossible. When I was young and somehow dumber than I am now, I tried to illustrate this “sensation” for a date. I drew a straight line with connected lines branching from it in a linear and “logical” way and explained that that’s how “normal” thought worked (I imagined). I then drew several straight lines that were unconnected but adjacent, that didn’t so much branch as they did leapfrog. “This is how my thinking works,” I said.

She didn’t like it.

And that’s fair. It’s a weird and contradictory notion to try and explain. Especially to a friend or partner. How do you tell someone you experience concurrent and conflating “truths”? That your mind prevents you from ever being truly “present”? Some pen lines on a cocktail napkin are cold comfort.

For me, this problem has been particularly bad since December. I honestly couldn’t tell you what I’ve been doing between then and now. I see shapes of my actions, but they’re coupled with fabulation: attending a family wedding (happened) where my date was a cam girl (didn’t), a friend using a float tank (happened) but almost drowning (didn’t), my dog getting out and barking at a yuppie (happened) who casts him as ‘Young Moose’ in a prequel-series about Frasier’s dad (didn’t, yet).

We all imagine and we all bullshit but when you do it at a rate that is beyond your control (sans medication) your memories (and thus reality) comes to resemble a string of abstract scenes with your head floating over them, not unlike the truth shattering finale of last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return.

I recognise in Agent Cooper that coalescence of malformed time and experience: the stillness of being in a great rush while stuck in limbo.

Medication can slow or alter the course of this kind of thinking of course but it isn’t a cure-all. It has consequences. For me being doped up cuts the rapid patter malarkey off at the knees. But as a writer and comedian, malarkey is literally my bread and butter. Hypomanic imaginings may be troublesome but it is all I’m programmed to do and all I take joy in, to lose it entirely as I did on meds is in its own way a distant kind of suicide.

So what do you do? How can you ground yourself in reality when you are uncertain what that is? How do you slow yourself down?

Akira Kurosawa

I binge. I try to turn my manic-obsessive symptoms towards consumption. Getting lost in something seems to be the best way to slow the thoughts, temper the bullshit, and tether the stories. In the past this was self-destructive (drink, sex, Warhammer) but overtime I’ve learned to redirect the hunger that comes with rapid fire thinking towards constructive ends. Books, films, music—I use these like dropped candy to trace where I’ve been in the thick woods of my mind. So although I can’t recall much of what has transpired this year I can tell you that I have spent the last two months watching the complete filmography of Akira Kurosawa. Which, by some luck, largely deals with the interplay between time, truth, and memory.

There’s a moment in his masterpiece Ikiru (1952) aka “To Live” where Takeshi Shimura’s character Watanabe reflects on a life as rushed as it was static: “what have I been doing there? I can’t remember no matter how I try. All I remember is just being busy. And even then, I was bored.”

Watanabe doesn’t notice the three decades lost to his job as a bureaucrat until he is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given six months to live. Yanked out of his delusion, his time and memory are given new worth. He remarks on the setting sun: “Oh how lovely, I haven’t seen a sunset in 30 years.”

Busyness and boredom. My mind spews one to placate the other. My memories appear in the gap between these two extremes, defined by one or the other. All I remember is just being busy and even then, I was bored. I have missed a lot of sunsets.

The ultimate lesson of “Ikiru” is that a man is what he does, not what he imagines himself to be doing; a difficult truism for me to confront.

I often wonder what will disrupt my hypomanic thought cycles (hopefully not stomach cancer.) I am currently cocooned in manic constructs and collapsed memories. Time stands still around me while ricocheting within me. The coyote is looking down.

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