I was meaning to write something about darkness and the health implications of street lights, but I’ve been swept away by Jay Griffiths’ 2016 memoir Tristimania: a diary of manic depression . Having previously read Griffiths’ Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, I had meant to track down more of her writing, but had forgotten. It was a joyous surprise to find Tristimania on the Dunedin Public Library’s Book Bus.
An award-winning non-fiction writer, Griffiths recounts a harrowing year of illness with a prolonged episode of mixed-state hypomania (for which Griffiths prefers to use ‘manic depression’ or the older term ‘tristimania’).
Pip Pip – which I bought for a dollar at the Hospice Shop because the title resembles my daughter’s name – was profound, and therefore I anticipated the wonders of Tristimania … but even so, I was transported by Griffiths’ story. Her language is a meteor shower across skies luminescent with words. Griffiths is an alchemist who uses words to create shimmering life, curtains of words and worlds she moves through and which leave a trail of galaxies in her wake.
As a way of understanding and communicating illness, Griffiths argues that metaphor is crucial:
When a person is ill, a metaphor is not a decoration, not a trivial curlicue of Eng. Lit., not a doily on the conversational table; rather, it is a desperate attempt to send out an SOS, to give the listener their coordinates, because they are losing themselves.”
Lost in her own mind, her doctor and his ability to follow Griffith’s metaphor was key to her feeling understood:
I had to be meticulously precise in giving the latitude of my madness, the longitude of my scraps of insight. I was lost and urgently needed to be found, to be located by someone who could…send their souls out to find mine.”
Her doctor stayed with her metaphors, using them with “almost unfaltering precision, and I felt safer for it.” The effect of his recognition made her feel located, “as if I could hold his hand and follow the way he knew and I’d forgotten, back to safety.” Griffiths argues that mixing the metaphor, by contrast, leaves a person in crisis feeling “more lost, more isolated and more endangered.”
Metaphor was also useful for the mysticism of her manic state, a sane and beautiful response to an overload of reality. Metaphor was an escape to the divine, to art, to poetry: “a yearning not to climb an actual mountain but rather the mountain’s reflection in still lakes.”
But mania was anything but still. The interconnectedness of the world was an assault:
I felt as if I were walking in crystal forests with stained-glass skies and crassness was as violent as swinging concrete arms; words like dumb-bells; cranes for eyes.”
Even good-natured attempts of people trying to make contact “seemed like a terrible cacophony of raw trumpets baying, with violins used as percussion for gross toasts, a piano lid a drinks table, clarinets stuck, reeds down into the ground, used as flagpoles for Ingerland bunting, and flutes stolen as sticks to crack heads open.”
Take a breath.
Then the crash. After the wild swinging highs and lows of mixed-state hypomania, came the lowest low. Griffiths writes that “[i]f my mind had been over-connected and dendritic when I was hypomanic, now it was disconnected from everything.” She turned to poets to illustrate the dark – Les Murray, for instance, who labelled the intensity of depression as “shredded mental kelp marinaded in pure pain.”
Poetry was the compass of her long night –
how to be understood by a text is a matter of healing.”
Poetry, in shaping words, “threads words like beads on a line to lead you up from the underworld.” And she turned to poetry to explain the role of her doctor, who, through his ability to listen, spoke “across the gulf of madness where my psyche was, wherever it was.” Her doctor’s kindness was the purest ingredient in the medication he offered.
Tristimania is terrifying and bewildering and maddening and precise and wild. It pleads for human touch in medicine, care for the soul and the vital importance of writing and art in our world.
And although Griffiths had never written poetry, poetry was all she could write in her worst moments; it was a navigational tool, a diary, a plea for direction:
I’m steering by the poets now
I’m steering by their song.
It’s due back in the library in three weeks. If I can find where I put it…..
Heather Bauchop is a writer and researcher who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.