Here’s what I imagined when I looked forward to our family holiday in Spain. Long, leisurely meals (accompanied perhaps by a bottle of cava) shared with my Spanish in-laws, my stepdaughters and their friend. I envisioned playing silly games with my kids in the pool, then reading on a pool-side sun lounger; I’d squeezed 9 books into my bag (nope, I’m not a Kindle person). I’d also brought countless bottles of sun-cream, because my skin just does not tan; in fact, having had precancerous lesions removed with liquid nitrogen, I’m supposed to slather myself in SPF50 even in the UK. Nevertheless, I pictured myself relaxing on the beach under the shade of umbrella and sun hat, feeling the hot sand between my toes, listening to the waves breaking. I saw us driving to the nearest city for a dose of history and culture, exploring its back streets in search of a shaded terrace on which to eat lunch.
I clung on to this picture, even though I was having problems with my mood prior to departure. In the preceding weeks I’d had an elated high that kept creeping upwards and upwards until my partner, Tom, intervened, fearful that I would end up unmanageably manic abroad. So we agreed to up my antipsychotics and cancel the ridiculous number of social engagements I’d somehow arranged in the week before departure, stop listening to all the up tempo music. The level of my elation definitely decreased as a result of these efforts, but as our date of travel neared I began to feel nervous, anxious, and jittery instead. The day we left, I almost had a panic attack when it came to getting in the car. I very nearly just said no, I can’t do it, I can’t go, but M reminded me that last time we went away (in March) I was horrendously anxious then too, but I ended up having the time of my life. The same was bound to be true this time, right?
The travelling itself was problematic. Tom loves to drive in Europe, so we don’t usually fly unless we’re going somewhere long haul. A trip to Spain therefore involves about three days of driving, staying in hotels along the way. When we booked the trip many months ago we had it in our minds that by August 2012 my condition would surely be improved, that I would be bound to be better adjusted to the meds and better able to cope with changes to routine. In fact, I am still sleeping 10-12 hours a day and rely heavily on a routine of bed and waking times to try to manage myself. Getting up at 5am to get the earliest Eurotunnel crossing was just the first of several days of having my sleep and medication patterns disrupted, and I think it took its toll.
By the time we arrived at the villa, I was a bundle of nerves. What if our in-laws couldn’t find the house? What if Tom’s daughters missed the plane? By the time everyone was assembled it was Spanish dinner time – very late by my standards – and the service at the busy restaurant we chose was very slow. I had to wait quite a while to get bread and water to take my meds, which increased my anxiety. My headstrong 12 year old had been refusing the drinks I had been offering all day and was clearly dehydrated, complaining of feeling nauseous and having a headache, but again the service made it difficult to address this. By the end of the meal I was feeling very twitchy, desperate to get back to the villa. The walk downhill to the town had seemed pleasant enough; after sunset, however, the darkness in the unlit streets was near total and there were no pavements. I became more and more fretful and agitated, worrying that my children would get run over or break an ankle on an invisible obstacle. When we got in, I gave my daughter plenty of fluids and some paracetamol before putting her to bed. It was a long time before I could get to sleep, because I kept worrying that she was seriously ill, that I had neglected her by not staying up and watching her, worried that she might die in the night. I knew she just had a case of mild dehydration; I felt it was something much serious. Time after time I found myself rising from the bed, off to check that she was alive. Every time I had to talk myself down, remind myself that she would be fine, that what she most needed now was rest – as did I.
The first full day at the villa, I swam a few lengths of the pool and messed around in the water with my kids, before retiring to a sun lounger on the upstairs balcony with my daughter and the first of my holiday books. It was hot, even in the shade, and the air smelled of fig tree and pine needles. I looked up through my sunglasses at the faultless blue of the sky. The cicadas had fallen suddenly silent, and all I could hear were chirping birds and the soft sound of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. And it came to me at this moment that now would be a good time to die. It would be a good time to die because everything was perfect, and so everything from this point in would be a descent back into being tossed about like a piece of flotsam by my bipolar mood shifts. At that moment, wanting to die seemed entirely reasonable, to be based in pure logic, and not a facet of illness of any sort; I had been bipolar for 26 years (26 fucking years!) and I simply couldn’t do it anymore.
It was perhaps an hour before I actually felt my mood plummet. I went into the house, shut myself in my bedroom and cried for a further hour or so before M found me. I had been trying to weep as quietly as I could all that time; my room was separated from my daughter on the balcony by open French doors covered with shutters to keep the sun out.
That’s how the real crisis began.
It’s now nearing the end of our two villa weeks. I haven’t been to the beach (although there’s one a ten minute walk away). We haven’t been into Alicante or Valencia. It took me eight days to read that first book, despite it being excellent. I have spent very little time in the pool or at family meals. Instead, I have hidden in my bedroom for days on end. As my agitation grew and swelled, I felt less and less myself, less human, and was unwilling to let people other than Tom see me. I sobbed; I howled. I pulled the sheets over my head and curled into a ball, pretending I didn’t exist. The room began to seem like a prison cell, despite the fact that I knew my incarceration was of my own making. I became almost phobic about the idea of bumping into another member of party. I ate my meals on the balcony, listening to everyone else talking and laughing as they ate together poolside, hating them for enjoying themselves, hating myself for hating them. I resented my poor stepdaughers for having such a care-free life of friends, travel (this was their third trip away of the summer) and tanning, because at their age I’d been under the “care” of a psychiatrist, prescribed antipsychotics. Hearing them play a simple game of volleyball in the pool I felt bitter about my blighted childhood, my blighted adolescence.
I tried to read my book, but my mind was hopping all over the place. I felt incredibly trapped. The villa was lovely, but the climate was too hot for me to walk anywhere much or otherwise exercise unless I got up very early – and the earliest I could surface on increased quetiapine was about 11am. I felt constrained by the need to avoid dehydration (quetiapine increases the risk of heatstroke, while being low on fluids risks lithium toxicity) as well as the need to avoid the sun around midday. The people in the local shops said we had arrived at an unusually humid time; indeed, it was so humid that getting out of an air-conditioned car caused our sunglasses to steam up, and the shortest of walks left me depleted of fluids. I spent a great deal of that time in my room thinking about how I could escape. I used my iPhone to look up flights back to London, but this just seemed to embroil me in more loops of guilty and anguish. M would have to stay to the end with his relatives and to bring the car back via the pre-booked return hotels and tunnel crossing. What would be done with the children? Would they be content to stay in Spain without their mum, with a group of step-relatives? Could I cope with having them at home with me in this state and without Tom to reassure them and undertake practical tasks? Would Tom even permit me to be at home without supervision?
Because there was another way out, another means of escape I kept dwelling upon. I thought again and again all the ways I could harm myself with the contents of the carrier bag of sedative and/or potentially poisonous meds I had brought with me. I fantasised about locking myself in the en suite bathroom and swallowing tablets of lithium, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, painkillers; I had brought at least four weeks’ supply of all of them in case of loss or theft. I thought I would probably take the children’s travel sickness pills first, to help me keep my overdose down. I also thought long and hard about the nail scissors, and about crushing my plastic razor with the heel of my shoe to get at the blade. Some tiny portion of sense prevailed, however; some vestige of “wise mind” thought about how it would be for my children to have to witness that, how dire it would be to end up in a Spanish medical ward, let alone a foreign psych ward. So I grabbed at that vestige, and I told Tom what I was thinking, and he took my carrier bag away. I am not a believer in prayer, in asking things for myself of a higher power; if there is a God, I don’t buy the idea that he would intervene in my petty affairs. Yet I found myself praying to be gifted with a heart attack, a stroke, some sudden means of ending my life so that I did not have to take responsibility for doing it myself.
I did come out of my room sometimes. Being around my slim, bronzed, sporty twenty-something relatives made me feel even more inhibited about my body. I am the heaviest I have ever been. I haven’t exercised in months and I get breathless easily. My white, slack, puffy body looks like mounds of rising bread dough. My solution to this has been to begin to binge eat. Genuine binges, where I wait until I think the kitchen is empty, and to sneak in, heart pounding, and steal some of the food (usually chocolate) meant to be shared by everyone. I find myself cramming it down, barely chewing, hardly tasting it, just getting it into me, feeling the weight of it in my stomach and the start of the sugar rush. My psychologist used to say overeating is a type of self harm. She’s right, of course. It’s a very passive-aggressive form; I crave this sweetness, tell myself I deserve to feel good for a moment, but there is little enjoyment, just an increase in my self-hatred and a further increase in my weight.
I’ve also been out on little, mundane trips with Tom. When my agitation levels rose and even diazepam wasn’t taking the edge off, I needed to move my body, burn some of it off. So the two of us walked to the recycling point (10 people drinking bottled water and fizzy drinks creates a lot of recyclables) or to the supermarket as a way of getting me out. I wandered round the air conditioned aisles of Mercadona or Mas y Mas, looking at products both unfamiliar and familiar, taking time to choose between brands of potato chips, wasting time, essentially, because all I could think to do was to kill as much time as possible until another hour was done, and then another meal was done and then another day and I would be closer to being able to leave. I’ve spent a lot of time tweeting in the past week (it really has been a lifeline to be able to communicate with friends) and playing casual games, just to squander more of my time, so much so that my right thumb joint is sore and swollen due to overuse. Every so often I have taken myself off to have a bath, adding in some of the essential oils I brought and desperately trying to wind down a little, to allow the diazepam to work, to be able to dress myself and perhaps sit at the dinner table this time.
My relatives have done their best. My in-laws have been magnificent, taking over the cooking and cleaning because I was clearly unable to participate in household tasks, taking the twenty-somethings out to the beach so I could have some space. It has been harder with my stepdaughters and their friend. There were a few days when, having seen me at my worst, they found it hard to make eye contact. I don’t blame them. I was unpredictable, emotionally dangerous.
To say I am bitterly disappointed in the way things have turned out doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s hard not to dwell on how expensive all this has been, and how little we have done that we couldn’t have done at home. I’ve barely spent any time with children, so my daughter’s been reading messaging her friends on her BlackBerry all day and my son’s been on his computer. They’ve been nowhere much; our stocks of sun cream are almost untouched. And then there is Tom, who has paid for almost everything (because when we booked, we had no idea I’d still be sick, no idea that our in-laws would lose their business, victims of the parlous state of the Spanish economy). I feel sick with guilt that he has been trying to juggle everyone else’s needs, looking out for my children, fielding questions about my bipolar (how long will she be like this? Why aren’t the drugs working?), all whilst and managing to be ceaselessly loving, caring and protective of me to keep me alive.
Until we can go home again.