Tales of ordinary madness

James Sherwood was happy and sane. Then mental illness nearly cost him everything
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Indy Lifestyle Online
May I present exhibit one: a pair of pounds 100, tortoiseshell, designer sunglasses found in my junk drawer at home yesterday. I was adamant I'd never seen them before, let alone bought them myself. My partner then informed me I had indeed bought the glasses in Paris last year. What's more, they had flown off my face while on a big wheel in the Tuileries Gardens at midnight and I'd replaced them with a pounds 100 Gucci pair the next day. For most of us, this would be a magic memory to tell the grandchildren. For me, it is a complete blank. "You were at your craziest then," my partner added.

My "craziness" took place a year ago, when, for a whole month, I lived the equivalent of a 24-hour cocaine high. I would meet friends for lavish lunches, then return to the office with a pounds 400, ivory, shantung suit, ten CDs and a dozen shirts. After work, I would start in one of the smarter Soho bars and end in the most louche dive, being thrown out with the rubbish. My energy levels were inexhaustible, with alcohol tolerance to match. But I was not a lottery winner, I was a PA and junior reporter and I'd just got my first big break on a national newspaper. My bank had kindly given me four credit cards and I proceeded to drain each as if it were a lavish expense account.

The cracks began to show in Paris. I had taken my partner over for a party and promised to be back by Tuesday morning at 10am. Instead, I woke in a nightclub on the Champs Elysees at 7am Tuesday morning. By now I was being violently sick on a regular basis, crying in meetings and downing a bottle of vodka after - and often during - work. I returned home at 4am one morning to find a note from my partner. He had left because he couldn't cope with my behaviour.

The company doctor advised me to go home to Derbyshire for the week and rest. The alarm bells should have rung when I was denied Valium and asked whether I was hearing voices. Though it was obvious to everyone around me that I was cracking up, to me, it was still a game and I was still winning. I joked with the doctor and told her my problem was nothing a good night's sleep and half a Vali would not cure. I still relished the destructiveness of it all: what I now call "the Piaf complex".

The next three months are a blank. I had already disowned my parents for trying to rain on my parade. I spent a week with them at my most unbalanced. During that time, I drank a bottle of brandy at a funeral and passed out, decided to visit my old school and wreak havoc and ran away and hid at my grandmother's house. I refused to get medical help and my parents considered having me sectioned. Eventually, I saw a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with severe hypomania. Hypomania is manic depression without the depression. Its characteristics are inflated energy levels, grandiose manners and compulsive drinking and spending. At its most extreme, it can make the sufferer believe they are royalty. I just thought Eva Peron was a soul sister and acted accordingly.

The following months were dismal. The strict regime of tranquillisers and side- effect drugs - along with the abdication of control - made this the most miserable time in my life. I was humiliatingly reliant on my parents. The tablets drained me of personality. I had no conversation or concentration. The monotony was mind-numbing. My life comprised sleeping, smoking and pacing. The transfer from tranquillisers to lithium was daunting. Lithium, my doctor said, was the main reason asylums were out of business. I thought it was a frontal lobotomy in capsule form and it made me feel violently ill. As I "recovered", I began to dread my return to London. I hated my "new" self. What others saw as a recovery, I saw as a submission to a life half lived.

Hypomania can take years to conquer. Most hypomanics emerge bankrupt, without a job, without a lover and ostracised by friends and family. I was relatively lucky. I returned to my partner and was still technically employed. I have now rebuilt what I had before hypomania struck, with the help of my bank manager and my family. I don't know why it happened and I feel it would be destructive to resort to therapy to find a reason.

Since my recovery, I have been advised against telling employers about it or "coming out". Naturally, my parents are now 200 per cent more anxious whenever they call and my partner dreads a recurrence, as do I. My doctor assured me that, if I "avoid the excesses of youth", the chances of recurrence are slim. Friends, particularly those not very close or sensitive, are still occasionally wary as if, like Serial Mom, I will take a hatchet to them if they say the wrong thing or I have a glass of wine. Other people's prejudices and preconceptions don't matter to me now because hypomania has become an accepted part of my past. I simply have to safeguard against it affecting my future.

WHAT IS HYPOMANIA?

Pure hypomania is around ten times less common than manic depression. Symptoms may include increased energy and activity, over-spending, feelings of well-being and both physical and mental efficiency. Sufferers may also be excessively talkative, sociable, often over-familiar, and arrogant behaviour and lack of concentration often lead to social rejection or disruption of work. Treatment involves neuroleptic tranquillisers to reduce activity in the nervous system, followed by lithium to reinforce the treatment. Eighty per cent of sufferers will never have a relapse, though some may remain on medication for several years.

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