I have not met my goals in terms of maintaining this blog and for that I apologize. Perhaps I lack the mental drive to create and hold to a tight schedule. Perhaps it’s the day-to-day distractions imposed on me by a lovely yet meddling family seemingly in constant need of my attention. Whatever the case, I’m most certain you can come back at me with more than double my complaints and yet not feel so stressed. Such is life. I can no more change my mood disorder than I can my height or who my parents are. In short, it’s useless to make a comparison between you and me, so let’s not.
Regardless of your current state of mental health, there is one facet of bipolar disorder that seems to fascinate us all and that is: mania. Mania meaning the upside to manic-depression (or bipolar disorder). Even in the company of others with bipolar disorder, it is entertaining to exchange stories of full-blown mania for no two are alike and they almost never fail to have some sort of hallucinatory and/or mystical element making them almost magic in our minds. At the same time, our stories are often restricted to being told to the mental health providers and others with our diagnosis. But, I firmly believe that the more commonplace our manic stories become, the less the stigma preventing us from discussing it will prevail. Here is part one of the self-analysis of my mania.
Mania, a self-analysis: Part 1
Mania: Friend or Foe?
You have heard it said that mania is a seductive illness; that it enhances the brain and it’s ideal for evoking the creative spirit. Its powers reach far beyond the artificial “high’s” induced by illegal substances. Mania is an irresistible temptation and, though many artists crave it, few experience it. If you are of the privileged few who’ve been touched by mania, your creative masterpieces will make you immortal!
But I tell you, as someone who has experienced the powerful grip of mania, I know first-hand that it is just as dark and deadly as its alter-ego, depression. The difference between the two lies in mania’s deception. A manic person will feel an intense rush of euphoria and, convinced she’s invincible, will think nothing of putting herself in harm’s way. What she doesn’t realize is that it’s all in her mind. In reality, she is still as vulnerable to pain and death as everyone else.
In addition to the deception, mania has an inconvenient expiration date marked by a morbid depression. If after the extreme moods fade you still crave a manic high, you’ll be wise to note there is no guaranteed method for inducing it. Believe me, I tried to induce many a manic episode in my younger days, but my efforts were in vain. Mania comes and goes in its own time. In fact, in may only come once in a lifetime. But once is enough to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The first manic episode I experienced is so clearly documented there’s no question I was in the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Like many bipolar patients when they have their first breakdown, I was young, about to turn twenty-three. In my case, I had the added novelty of being in France at the time. I’d been in Montpellier for roughly six months but had also spent the three months prior to that traveling around France and her neighboring countries.
Having been a compulsive writer since my early adolescence , I have the luxury of being able to return to my manic episode nearly a decade later via journals, day-planners, notes, letters, and even the emails my parents were kind enough to save for me. These writings from my youth keep my memories fresh and allow me to go back and re-evaluate that time in my life from a new, better informed, perspective.
Throughout my many journals, I have referred to the place of written expression as my “friends.” After all, my journals have never judged me. They have absorbed my thoughts in moments when my world felt cold and empty. In my most agonizing loneliness when companionship felt unattainable, my journal stayed by my side.
The Key Ingredient to Mania
There is no cure for bipolar disorder. Our best hope is to learn to manage it and, as any mental health worker will tell you, it is important keep your stress level low. Unfortunately, stress is rarely planned and students studying abroad are exposed to stress from the day they set foot on foreign soil. Just the basic challenge of acquiring a new language and adapting to a new culture can be extremely overwhelming.
I had already been traveling in and around France for three months before I arrived in Montpellier. Though I hadn’t mastered the language yet, I was confident enough in speaking French to want to speak it as much as possible. But first I had to suffer through a month-long introduction to French university life tailored to the Americans. It felt like a “mini-America.” To me, it was like taking twenty steps backward from my goal of becoming fluent in French.
Although I was forced to take classes and go on excursions with Americans, I managed to build an invisible wall between them and me. I refused to fraternize with these “stupid Americans” who would rather speak English than French. I opted instead to isolate myself from them, breaking from the crowds and turning the excursions into solo adventures.
From day one in Montpellier, my stress level began to rise. For starters, without any form of social structure to support me, I learned my grandmother had died and mourned without a shoulder to cry on. Meanwhile, I’d been using running as a coping mechanism. I even began training for what would have been my second marathon, until an unanticipated knee injury forced me to give it up. On top of that, my wallet was lost (probably stolen) and, being too prideful to ask for money, I postponed asking my parents for help until my cupboards were almost empty and going to bed hungry became a nightly occurrence.
Amidst the disparity and depravity, there was little comfort in the outside world. I lived in a tiny, studio apartment, starving for human companionship. Hardly a day passed when tears were not shed.
Thankfully the hardships of my first semester in Montpellier didn’t last forever. By the time Christmas rolled around, I had enough money again to travel and no longer worried about how I was going to pay for food. Reuniting with old friends in Strasbourg as well as my distant cousins in Belfast and an American friend in London, revived my joie de vivre. I didn’t want another semester of sadness, so I vowed to make my last semester the best semester ever!
However, there was just one more hurdle for me to clear: final exams. Why the French had them after the break instead of before was beyond me, but I was going to give my all regardless.
These exams may have seemed ordinary to most people, but for me, passing them would mean several things. First, I was kind of on academic probation before arriving in France and reluctantly sent by my home university more or less on the honors system. Also, my parents had clearly stated they would not visit me in France unless I passed the first semester and I very much wanted them to come so I could show off what I’d learned. The academic pressure from the home front was excruciating!
To complicate matters even more, under the French academic system , all my grades that semester were determined solely by how well I did on my final. Everything was riding on my final exams! On top of that, I knew I wasn’t good at taking exams, but I couldn’t fail this time. So, I dove into my studies with a single-minded determination unlike anything I’d experienced before.
In speaking with psychiatrists, psychologists, and fellow bipolar patients, I’m often confronted with a sense of awe at how well I remember the details leading up to my first hospitalization. I attribute my above average memory in this case to my multitudes of writing. But I also have to take into account how deeply I was persuaded that I’d had a religious experience. It took a very long time for me to be convinced I might have been through anything else.
Going solely by my writings, there are three key sources where it is possible to find, unequivocally, my progression toward full-blown mania. These three sources include: my “Mozart” journal, my emails, and the writings from my first hospitalization.
Symptoms of Mania
Before I continue, here are the symptoms of a manic episode as found on the website for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
- A long period of feeling “high,” or an overly happy or outgoing mood Extremely irritable mood, agitation, feeling “jumpy” or “wired”
- Talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another, having racing thoughts
- Being easily distracted
- Increasing goal-directed activities such as taking on new projects
- Being restless
- Sleeping little
- Having unrealistic belief in one’s abilities
- Behaving impulsively and taking part in a lot of pleasurable, high-risk behaviors such as such as spending sprees, impulsive sex, and impulsive business investments.