Writing a good memoir of mental illness must be like navigating rough seas. It is easy to have your boat buffeted by the storms of trite melodrama, glamourising of sickness (or accusation of), boring the reader with the wasteland of depression or a scaring them off by a display of wounds still bleeding. But with her latest book Tristimania, Jay Griffiths sails as if on a smooth lake. She at once conveys the raw truth of her experiences of mental illness and synthesises it into a network of literary and cultural associations to form an effortless whole.
The book is subtitled A Diary of Manic Depression, evidently added by the publisher to make plain the subject of the book; the term “tristimania” is a now obscure 18th century term for manic depression. Referring to the book as a diary is probably to fit it into the market for confessional non-fiction writing. The book does have a large element of this, but anyone expecting it to be a journal written in an acute hypomanic episode will be misled. As Griffiths would no doubt point out, the word “diary” derives from the Latin diarium, translating as daily allowance. Tristimania has few dates and the this retrospective charting of a rough chronology of a recent year of hypomania is frequently interspersed with exploration of the figure of the manic-depressive in culture. She draws upon myths of Mercury, the trickster and the shaman and explores etymology and Shakespeare. The book shows a mind agile and eager to make sense of herself in the world, but this does give the narrative a sense of disjointedness..There is not a clear tug of narrative through much of it; it meanders and I found myself flicking through the book to see where exactly this was going and little would have been lost by excising some discussion of Mercury and trickster. But such nebulous writing is rather like acute mental illness itself. A spell of illness is a break from the narrative flow of life as planned, in its place are days that all run into one another, which is why sculpted mental illness narratives so often ring false. The book is complicated and knotty, it is not a matey autobiography of a comedian or a celebrity self-help memoir, but much more can be learnt from this than something more easily digestible.
Griffiths has mixed-state manic-depression, an under-discussed condition where mood cycling is rapid and rather than the summit of mania, there is hypomania in the foothills. She acknowledges her hypomania and depression is not as dramatic and destructive as it can be for some. A more pedestrian telling of her experience would be rather dull, she spends the year hunkered down at home with friends and her wonderful doctor, no gambling, promiscuity or drug use. Eventually the medication starts to work and whilst she is still rallying she sets out solo to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is not a story of a miraculous recovery; she is incredibly fortunate to have a good doctor that leads her out of her acute spell of madness as well as meds that work and supportive friends, as well as of course the written word.
She takes a romantic, humanistic approach to mental illness. She doesn’t dwell on her brain misfiring and neurotransmitter imbalance, instead talks of the psyche, myth and etymology, digging down into the hidden histories of the words in our mouths. She is a writer enraptured with words, their meaning and importance. She is most luminous on metaphor: “’Meta-phor’, in its etymology, means a carrying-across of attributes from one thing to another. […] If a person uses a metaphor, they are carrying themselves over, towards the listener, but in madness this need becomes infinitely more intense. In a manic-depressive episode, metaphors are heavy with meaning, and the metaphors one chooses must carry an almost unbearable weight. This, I think, is why people are so stubborn about repeating the precise metaphors which tell their truth.” She places her doctor’s following of her metaphors as key to her recovery. The book is profoundly literary, though naturally my library has shelved it in the “Shelf Help” section, as this is rapidly becoming the NHS mental health services. But worthy of the librarians’ decision, this literarity is tied to a belief in the healing power of words, texts and stories.
The retrospective layering of scholarship and intertextual references is making plain what all recollections of a personal spell of madness are, a reconstruction. The prose is not from the eye of the storm, she makes it clear she would have not been able to, but at a few years’ distance. What struck me within the first fifty pages was the poeticism of the prose, and surely Griffiths writes “What does it want, this madness? Language. In my case, specifically, poems.” She yearns for and writes poems during her months of hypomania, and on the Camino de Santiagio de Compostela reads and gives out poems to fellow pilgrims from an anthology compiled by friends. After the prose testimony, where we leave Griffiths “small but alive”, there are a series of luminous, acute poems written during hypomania. The poetry and prose deal with the same events, such as the night thoughts of suicide were scuppered by the cat bringing in a dead treecreeper from the snow, but with different aspects of authorial mood, form and temporal relation. It is an interesting exploration of the two forms, but the unexepected appearance of the poems could lead the prose to feel superfluous, especially to the reader bored by Griffiths banging on about Mercury and The Winter’s Tale.
What is so often left out of the “miracle recovery” mental illness narratives is how even illnesses that can manifest so acutely as Griffiths’ does cannot be comparentmentalised from the self. As she writes: “To me, the experience of having manic depression can never be separated from my sense of who I am. It runs through me like wine through water: everything is coloured (or tainted) by it.” She certainly doesn’t glamourise her hypomania, it makes her dependent and physically weak, but also takes a rather culturally relative stance on the nature of illness and society. In the right environment, the manic-depressive aspects of her personality that are always there can be an asset; in the past they were for the court jester, the shaman and to an extent the modern artist. As she writes “it seems to me that we, the bipolar-mad of today, take the role of the unemployed court jester, crying for our demeaned status as living ruins when, in the remains of magic, mystery and majesty, we are reduced to pathology. If we do not have a role worthy of our wodness [an Old English term, referring to a frenzied madness] , then we will be ill, for illness is the only category which our culture allows us in this age of literalism […]”. The task of society is not to ameliorate the dysfunctioning mind, but to make viable ways for these people to apply themselves to what they do best, art or magic or both, for the sake of the wellness of all in society. Those with the skill, vision, bravery and honest of Griffiths must tell their stories and reveal their minds in order for us to inch day by day closer to such as world.