Downs [and Ups], but no Acrosses: Bipolar Disorder and Crosswords

For me, a love of words significantly predated the onset of bipolar type II. As a young kid I made up words (“gertine” for “plum”) and used existing words to define other things (“teenager” for “hoodie”). A single tissue was a “kleeneck,” and the “best Q word” was “cucumber.” I had a font period where I liked writing words out in different, sometimes elaborate styles. Exposition has always been fun for me; in college I was told by one of my English professors that she would encourage me to major in the department but wanted to see as many women in science as possible. Well, I leaked right out of that leaky academic pipeline, but I keep a blog at least.

I was about 23 when bipolar disorder symptoms started to reveal themselves and, over time, culminate in a five-day hospitalization when I was 26 (at McLean, no less; two-and-a-half stars on Yelp!) due to major depression. It took until this past October–about 5 years– for me to be correctly diagnosed as, and medicated for, bipolar type II.

This summer I suffered a trauma that triggered some of the most intense symptoms I’ve ever experienced. I spent some time in the truly evil “mixed state.” Here, this explains everything:

It’s just like that. Actually it’s more like your brain is feverishly treading in detritis-clogged water, and the rotting leaves it kicks up are some of the most horrible thoughts you can imagine about yourself, your future, your loved ones, beheadings, you name it. Your manic mind chews tirelessly on the depressive thoughts and it is incredibly difficult to erase the screechily-applied chalk cluttering your mental slate in order to make room for basically anything else.

Here is where crosswords come in. There is Order in the Grid, and Other Things must be ruminated on to make Progress. That is a somewhat primal way of thinking about it, but there is a kind of reptilian-brained hypnotic quality to a crossword. For me, a blank grid can act as an anxiolytic.

So in some pretty dark times I would drag myself out to the back porch and sit outdoors, compelled to focus on something else, something initially neutral, for a while. Eyes darting from clues to grid, I would look for a foothold and feel a modest surge of endorphins that helped to neutralize the bile-churning adrenaline when the first sure answer was dredged up out of all that frothy murk. While medication and therapy have ultimately set me back on a steady course, crosswords absolutely played a huge supporting role along the way.

This past week I received a “Pleasant Events List” in my weekly DBT group, which consists of a 225-item checklist of pleasant things one can do to increase the positive emotions in one’s life. As all 225-item checklists do, this one has some doozies, like “recycling old items,” “having a political discussion” and “watching boxing/wrestling.” But Pleasant Event #151 is “doing crossword puzzles” and I can attest to the fact that there is something to that.

I feel an acute sense of gratitude for the constructors, both indie and syndie, that provide these positive outlets for a brain that is best described by comedian Maria Bamford as “going off like an untethered jackhammer.” I mentioned my feelings from a bus stop in Springfield on Twitter around Thanksgiving:

140 characters isn’t really enough though, and I realized I created a place to express my thanks and share my thoughts. Thanks for listening and, of course, for all those puzzles.

And since Erik Agard gave me such a nice shout-out when I created this blog, I have to mention what a great mentor he is to me as I move forward with puzzle construction. Good mentors can be hard to find (coughgradschoolcough), so I feel like I lucked out with EA. I always look forward to his thoughtful (and funny) clue-by-clue critiques. Thanks, Erik!

Downs [and Ups], but no Acrosses: Bipolar Disorder and Crosswords

4 thoughts on “Downs [and Ups], but no Acrosses: Bipolar Disorder and Crosswords

  1. I love this, and I totally get it. I think a lot of people (falsely) think that only Big and Important Things can help during serious bad times. But those are often the very things that relate to (or cause) the bad times! You’re right — it’s usually the simple pleasures in life that make the difference: a silly TV show, a routine that gets you out of the house, a puzzle… They help us hold on while the big things get better.

    PS: I’m glad things are improving and I’m so glad your puzzles are out in the world for others to enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cosign. It’s difficult to ruminate on everything you’ve said or done wrong or might say or do wrong or that might go wrong anyway despite having said and done everything right when you’re puzzling. It’s either soothing busywork during the easy parts, or really engaging during the trickier wordplay. Cruciverbalists are majorly helpful, too.


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