There’s often a feeling of surreality to mania, like the world has been turned up too high.
Many people are aware of bipolar disorder. Most know it’s a mental illness that swings the brain between depression and mania. Most understand depression to be debilitating, a condition that combines sadness, despair, exhaustion, and lack of motivation. But most people don’t understand mania (which is experienced primarily by people with bipolar I) or hypomania (which those with bipolar II tend to encounter more than full-blown mania) — at least not fully.
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar II, I didn’t understand it either. I thought it was the upside of my condition, the days (or parts of days) when I would be suddenly filled with energy and ideas. I thought the only trouble it could get me into was jitteriness, sleeplessness, or taking on too much at once.
I was wrong.
Mania (or hypomania — for this article, I'll use “mania” to encompass both) is energy and motivation. It does result in shaky hands and later nights and a fuller plate than usual... But it’s a multifaceted beast, one that’s probably more detrimental than depression — or, at least, that’s what I believe.
You see, mania also can mean impulsivity. Sometimes it’s the fun kind, like deciding to go on a last-minute road trip or eschewing pajamas and the sofa for a pretty dress and a nightclub.
Sometimes it’s the not-so-beneficial kind, like spending money you don’t have on e-books, when you already have stacks of books waiting to be read.
Sometimes it’s the downright shitty kind: quickly deciding to flirt with your ex-boyfriend, or leave your marriage, or drive an hour in the middle of the night to have sex.
These are all things that have happened to me.
But mania doesn’t stop there. With it comes distraction, which can sometimes bleed straight into the inability to focus. There’s a reason that adult ADHD and bipolar can often go hand in hand.
It can be difficult or impossible to complete a task without doing several other things at the same time. It’s probably why I check my phone obsessively when I’m waitressing, despite constantly being told not to. It’s probably why I check Twitter every 10 minutes when I’m writing. It’s probably why I can’t have a phone conversation or watch TV without something to occupy my hands.
I don’t know whether I have adult ADHD or not — that’s an investigation for a psychiatrist and a story for another essay — but I do know I hate repetitive tasks and the boredom that they inspire in me.
Mania can be mean and make you mean, too. Irritability is common when you’re making decisions at the drop of a hat, when you’re caught between several conflicting wants, when you’re overtired and shaky and feeling like you’ve overburdened yourself.
So you lash out at people, pick fights with your husband, let yourself be goaded into losing your temper at work.
It’s one of the hardest parts of mania, but it’s not the hardest. That would be the accompanying recklessness.
Recklessness nudged me into moving two states away without proper financial support or even a plan. It nearly allowed me to go home with a stranger I met in a bar. It helps me speak before thinking (or without thinking), causing irrevocable damage with the things I say. Being reckless means living without consequences, but they always catch up — and when they do, the blow can be staggering.
The worst part is that the symptoms of mania don’t queue up nicely, one by one, each taking a turn. They collude with each other and work together to create a perfect mental storm. Impulsivity and recklessness can drain a bank account. Negative mental feedback loops and jittery nerves can leave you bedridden and shaking. Irritability and sleeplessness can end a job.
None of these things have happened to me (yet — knock on wood), but they could. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Mania can be a subtle but destructive force, mainly because it’s so removed from depression. When you’re depressed, you know it. Everything aches. The world feels oppressive. Your self-worth is nonexistent. Sleep becomes a place to hide. It’s easy to spot, though hard to combat.
But mania feels real — always. It’s hard for me to spot, because it doesn’t seem troublesome. When I’m manic, I feel alive. I could be taking on a massive amount of writing assignments, or screaming at the top of my lungs, or sleeping with near-strangers, or multitasking to the point of accomplishing nothing, but I always feel a high.
It’s not unlike my memories of cocaine, or what I imagine speed to be like.
Like those drugs, though, there’s always the inevitable overdose or crash. I remember the last time I did coke — too much coke. I was in my bathroom, shaking, having thrown up what I could in a desperate attempt to get the drug out of my body. I felt scummy, sub-human, worthless.
For me, managing mania isn’t a battle — it’s a process.
That’s what comes after mania is through with you: You realize the dream you’ve been living in was actually a nightmare, and you helped create it. Nothing exists in a vacuum. There is a reaction to your every action.
I’ve gotten better at recognizing it when it’s happening, like some people can master the art of lucid dreaming. There’s often a feeling of surreality to mania, like the world has been turned up too high. It feels almost dreamlike, like nothing bad could ever happen — which is exactly when I remind myself to be careful.
Because mania and hypomania do not control me unless I let them. I’ve made a lot of decisions in a manic state and spent a lot of time blaming my mental illness for those decisions instead of taking on the responsibility of managing the chronic condition that it is.
Drugs alone won’t do it, and neither will therapy. I have to be mindful, have to observe myself and take the proper precautions; otherwise, my life could implode.
For me, managing either kind of mania isn’t a battle — it’s a process. If I feel it coming, I use the energy to get things done, but I keep the detrimental features in my peripheral vision like naughty children, always aware that if left unsupervised, something could end up broken.
That’s what mania is, at least to me. It’s a toddler that will never become an adult, but that can be nurtured, taught manners, and potty-trained. I have to be the parent in my own mind, constantly teaching my mania to behave. Like parenting, it can be exhausting (or so I’ve heard).
But the flip side is the reward of a stable life; and that, to me, is worth everything.