“I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forever more.”
—Edna St. Vincent Millay 1912
Many of us with bipolar disorder have exhibited behaviours that thoroughly shame us once we are well. This can be especially true looking back on mania, when our conduct is often outside the realm of what is considered normal, appropriate, or polite. Mania has never been a principled state.
When manic, I’ve had cold-blooded rages with killer words that could pierce hearts. At times, it has been very difficult to distance myself from my improprieties, especially after the high period has morphed into one of stability, exposing the consequences of my actions. I decided long ago my past will forever be a part of me, but I don’t have to be defined by it. In other words, my identity is not wrapped up in my bipolar disorder: I am a mother, partner, sister, friend, social worker and mental health blogger before anything else.
I never thought I would need an exorcist in my lifetime. But looking back at my first full-blown manic episode, it’s as if I was possessed by something completely unlike my usual self. Stephen King had snuck into my house, when I wasn’t looking, and had taken up residence in my brain. And I welcomed him with the zeal of a young child at Christmas.
I came late to bipolar disorder, at age 35, via a circuitous route. My mental health journey started out with a diagnosis of post-partum depression. As the depression persisted for three years, this shifted to a diagnosis of unipolar depression, before finally settling down to a diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder following a manic episode.
In the early years, I didn’t want to alert my psychiatrist when feeling so grand. But as I grew to know and understand mania, I learned it’s much easier to prevent a manic episode by being hypervigilant about hypomania.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see I experienced pronounced hypomania each summer during those three years of depression; exposure to strong sunlight presumably being the trigger. I didn’t know this wondrous feeling was part of a problematic illness requiring treatment. Anyway, weren’t most people a bit ebullient during the summer months after feasting on the bright light?
The sense of wellbeing was exquisite. I felt great. Really, really great. As in, winning hugely at poker or having sex for the first time great.
I had found where my heart beats.
I came to realize over the years that I didn’t always recognize the early stages of hypomania, which was unfortunate. I indulged in all sorts of atypical behaviours for weeks—while basking in the greatness of life—and was not alarmed in the least. I now see I should take the first stirrings of hypomania as a warning sign of possible mania to come and call my psychiatrist immediately. I eventually matured and saw there is great danger in letting myself give in completely to the elevated moods when they beckon me to play. In the early years, I didn’t want to alert my psychiatrist when feeling so grand. But as I grew to know and understand mania, I learned it’s much easier to prevent a manic episode by being hypervigilant about hypomania—and taking preventative action during those early days—than it is to reverse mania once it’s in full swing.
But there were other reasons, on a more visceral level, for wanting to sidestep mania: the antipsychotics prescribed for acute mania barricaded my mind and caused enormous weight gain, until I felt like a stranger in my own body.
I came to appreciate I could drive my mood upwards into full-blown mania by drinking excessively, smoking dope until my face was numb, picking up sex in bars, spending more money than I should, or ignoring my body’s subtle cues for sleep. Sleep is paramount at this juncture but, unfortunately, I have seen it as a boring pastime because I’ve wanted to chase the stars at 3:00 a.m. If I ignored the subtle cues for sleep, over the course of several weeks, I found it next to impossible to sleep, when I eventually decided I wanted to, because I’d set in motion a round of sleeplessness and a rising mood I could not easily turn back.
My partner and I had been in a relationship for 15 years when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was accustomed to me having a mental illness, from my three years with depression, but nothing prepared him for the “black manias” and this stranger—that he did not know, or even like—who was masquerading as his partner.
I was no longer wearing my everyday mask but was stripped bare, exposing a new persona who was evil—and, unlike my partner—I was in love with her. At the time, I didn’t know my mania always would result in self-destruction and pain to loved ones. Endangerment isn’t necessarily something momentous, destroying everything in its path like a tsunami. It can be something insidious, like a garage filled with carbon monoxide: mania spreading throughout the mind like a poisonous gas.
I’m an introvert by nature. Suddenly, I was a superlative conversationalist. My general shyness evaporated, my vocabulary increased, I could debate any topic and I had a newfound confidence in my intellect. It seemed as though my IQ had increased by many points.
I gradually started to feel euphoric. I can honestly say that before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had never experienced euphoria in my life. I don’t think the average person does. The closest I came to being euphoric was on my wedding day, and on the birthdates of my two children, when I would have described myself as being ridiculously happy. Now that I’ve experienced unbridled euphoria, I see that ridiculously happy is quite a few bus stops away.
The feeling of omniscience, and later pure ecstasy, were so damn seductive I didn’t want to admit that my life wasn’t that fabulous.
At first, the ever-increasing mania revolved around me in a very positive way as if I were dancing by myself to a tune only I could hear. I felt omniscient; and connected to all those who had ever lived. I breathed in life itself with every breath I took. I slept in the clouds with Eros as my lover. I had a brain as clear as a cloudless night, and an aroused body without being touched. I saw no negatives—even though there were plenty in plain view. It would be weeks before the situation turned ugly.
The feeling of omniscience, and later pure ecstasy, were so damn seductive I didn’t want to admit that my life wasn’t that fabulous. And since I was still a novice when it came to the pitfalls of bipolar disorder, I wasn’t yet aware of mania’s strong undertow.
I was sleeping less and less and doing more and more, especially on a creative level, overriding the need to eat. I painstakingly painted my large master bedroom overnight, by dabbing paint all over with a sponge not much bigger than a lemon. After nights like these, with less than two hours’ sleep, I would report for work at the regular hour, brighter than the morning sun. It didn’t occur to me that I was very sick. Why should it? I felt vibrant.
In the early stages I was able to stay on task completing one project before I embarked onto the next. But, before long, I had ten projects on the go, finishing nothing.
I got nothing done at work either. All I did was yak and laugh on the phone with clients, neglecting my report writing and mandatory home visits—for weeks. It would be a while before I started talking inappropriately and was reported by colleagues and clients alike. I had put my job in great jeopardy.
I had no inkling that my life would turn nasty so hurriedly, and it somehow accelerated. Before I knew it, I couldn’t curtail my thoughts, my behaviours, my sexuality or my volcanic rage. By then it became impossible to stuff my runaway mind back into my skull.
Dangerous, deranged, deadly.
My partner and I had slowly pushed our relationship down a hill after 15 years together but were experiencing a renaissance during my initial two weeks of mania. Hypersexuality has the power to resurrect even the most moribund of unions. And because of our newfound closeness, my partner confessed he’d had an affair—just as I was entering the most menacing and nonnegotiable period of my life. It’s safe to say I spontaneously combusted upon hearing this most unwelcome news.
I became terrorizing overnight with a cry so ferocious it made a lion’s roar seem tame. And my aggression soon escalated to physical violence, while I savoured the look of shock and fear on my partner’s face.
I felt omnipotent.
Most people would have been fuming at an errant partner’s long-standing affair, but my rage was disproportionate to the cause. I vividly recall having an out-of-body experience, looking down at myself, wild with feral hair, with him cowering before me. At one point, I overheard my partner speaking to someone in hushed tones, at our GP’s out-of-hours service, saying he didn’t think he would last the night.
I felt invincible.
How we weathered that two-week pre-hospitalization is beyond me.
I managed to hide my mania from my children only fighting with my partner once they had gone to bed. The big question, I cannot answer, is why I never raised my hand or voice toward my children because I was percolating with rage. Maybe there is no stronger force on this planet than a parent’s love.
My relationship with my partner limped along for several months after my hospitalization, but wasn’t resilient enough to withstand that level of brutality or the infidelity. There is always a tendency to want to forget our indiscretions—by slithering away quietly afterwards—but I have always fought this impulse. After the high period, I tried to be accountable and revisited the scene one last time to apologize. It was the least I could do. Even though my apologies were almost never accepted, I took great comfort in having done so, and was able to forgive myself when no one else would.
These days I can exhale. I aspire to live a regret-free life by working in partnership with my bipolar disorder and practicing self-acceptance, which has greatly reduced my level of suffering. I am no longer worn-out by the simple act of living but embrace my new life.
My downfall during that first manic episode was that I knew next to nothing about mania. Education is the key to living well with any type of mental illness and can lessen the burden. Understanding bipolar disorder has elevated my coping strategies, produced insight, and offered me a life of peace.
Not all people with bipolar disorder fall victim to extreme rages. But there are many, like me, who do. I knew I never wanted to experience furies like that again. So, as an inpatient, I took an anger management course. Since I was in hospital for two months, I took it twice for good measure, even taking notes. I never wanted to be held hostage by the anger again when it started to course through my veins. When it felt as though I was on an express elevator to hell for a private party with the Devil.
I needed to learn to recognize my early warning signs and triggers before the situation became nightmarish. Over time, I learned to slow, and calm myself down, by using tried and tested techniques endorsed by professionals. I also learned to write down a plan of action during times of wellness, and embraced CBT as a known and effective treatment for anger.
Once I was better equipped with these tools, my two subsequent full-blown manias were less severe, and without rage or violence (even though they still both required lengthy hospitalizations). I am living proof that is possible to get a handle on this level of rage.
My prognosis looks good.
These days I can exhale. I aspire to live a regret-free life by working in partnership with my bipolar disorder and practicing self-acceptance, which has greatly reduced my level of suffering. I am no longer worn-out by the simple act of living but embrace my new life, which is an ordinary one; grounded in routine and simplicity. I used to think a conventional life was boring. Now, I find solace and safety in the calm of ordinary.
There can be a great life after mayhem. Nietzsche wrote, “Out of chaos comes a dancing star.”
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