In Tristimania (Hamish Hamilton, 2016/Penguin 2017) Jay Griffiths recounts a year-long episode of manic depression. The narrative proceeds quickly, condensing a year’s time into a slim paperback and focusing on instances of particular violence, tempered with flashes of unexpected light and beauty: the fear and isolation in the quiet of night, but also the poetry, the stars.
This book resonated with me deeply. I’ve never been manic but I’ve been depressed, and based on the way Griffiths talks about depression, I trust the accuracy of her descriptions of mania implicitly. Tristimania gives a strong sense in which mental illness is an iceberg of which we only see a small part: an intricate interaction of chemical imbalances that cannot be truly conveyed by an instrument as blunt as the human body.
An aspect of Tristimania—the condition itself as much as the book—that struck a chord in me early on was the way Griffiths describes the complex scaffold of coping mechanisms, workarounds she employs in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy during an episode: anchor yourself with rules, take pleasure in simple things. Stockpile instances of wellness in preparation for an unstable future. All this is done from inside the clutches of an intensely disruptive force, endogenous but uncontrollable. It is this sense of a desperate, clawing agency that elevates Tristimania above misery memoir.
I was struck throughout the book by the depth of Griffiths’ knowledge, and her ability to find significance in what must have been for her a period of unimaginable suffering. And just as mania is all about the interconnectedness of things, people, ideas, Griffiths’ middle chapter touches blithely on language, literature, etymology, mythology, jumping from topic to topic as if to say, ‘come on, keep up!’ as the reader stumbles along behind.
The lessons in etymology I especially appreciated: Griffiths extols language itself, the crisscrossing branches of Indo-European, the manifold deeper senses of words like ‘mad’, ‘art’, ‘truth’ that one can only appreciate fully if one knows their histories. At times I laughed out loud at the beauty of these connections.
Tristimania tells of a time of great vulnerability and, just as it was necessary for Griffiths to reveal her mind and soul completely to her doctor, it is this stripped-bare quality that gives her writing its power. One gets the sense that in order to heal Griffiths was first forced to break herself down completely. By the end of the book she has shown us that even in the face of death—manifested most shockingly in the suicide statistics for sufferers of manic depression—it is still possible to heal.
Tristimania was published by Penguin Books in February 2017.