Bipolar disorder is widely misunderstood, but mania is far more confusing than depression. Most people know what depression is because they’ve been “blue.”
But for most people, mania is something they’ve only heard about. That information, usually conveyed via the media, is often inaccurate because mania is far more complex than it might seem. And contrary to what the mass media portrays, manic people are not prone to becoming mass killers. Fewer than 5 percent of mentally ill individuals are violent.
This is what I know: Bipolar disorder is an episodic illness, like asthma, meaning it comes whenever it feels like rearing its miserable head. But there are triggers that can bring on mania overnight. And when it hits, it hits hard and fast. Severe stress is a big trigger for me, which is why I try to avoid stress.
Mania is marked by periods of racing thoughts, great excitement and overactivity. My brain activity speeds up; it’s like taking an overdose of “NoDoz,” the over-the-counter medication designed to keep people awake. My head aches. I can’t concentrate, and I’m irritable and extremely agitated. My emotions are supercharged, and I snap at people in situations when I ordinarily would be more patient. I knock things over, break things and lose my balance. I trip because my brain is sending my legs signals to move faster than they can. I can’t write. My thoughts are scattered. I can’t focus. I can’t function. I’m miserable. This is why bipolar disorder is considered a severe illness. Many people take drugs and drink alcohol to try to deal with it.
I’ve learned how to mostly fend off mania, either avoiding significant stress or reducing stress through activities such as evening walks. Still, I encounter manic episodes every year or so. And I’m writing about mania now because, indeed, I’ve been manic this past week.
The other night when I went to bed, when I would usually put my glasses on my nightstand, they ended up next to me on the mattress. I woke in the morning to find a pair of broken glasses. So I’ve got to spend $400 for a new pair, and spend more energy on repairing my life.
And the week just kept getting worse. I am usually cautious about having liquids near my laptop, but this week, being inattentive, I spilled water on my computer. I frantically tore my shirt off to try to dab up the water before it did damage, but that didn’t work and I had pay $800 for repair. I was going to buy a new computer, but that was $1,000. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I lost a really important letter.
When I’m manic, other people are often the ones who notice it first, and it’s usually because they can’t understand what I’m saying. My brain is going so fast, my mouth can’t keep up.
I’ve been dealing with speech problems most of my life. When I was a teenager, my father chided me for speaking too fast. He’d stop me in mid-sentence, tell me he couldn’t understand what I saying, and make me repeat what I had said. It was the cause of a lot of friction between us. I cried a lot. He was trying to be helpful, not demeaning, but I was humiliated.
Mania does not make me feel great or high, like some people think. It makes me feel miserable. My treatment calls for heavy sedatives that make me sleep for long periods and slow down my brain. I have no other choice. I have to cancel everything for a week or two — including birthday parties, job interviews and long-planned vacations for which I’ve had to forfeit my nonrefundable airline fare, to let my head rest. I lie around my house either sleeping or watching old movies.
If I’m feeling a manic episode coming on, I try to check out for a few days of my life and swallow my sedatives. But stressful situations can still get the better of me, and I have to cancel activities and let life pass by.
They say bipolar disorder can go into remission. I know there are good years and bad years, good months and bad months. It’s never easy. There are no simple answers. There’s never that clean, smooth, happy American ending, like in the movies.
But I am blessed to have those around me who love me and care, those who do understand. Most of the time my life runs on course. And my mother, whom I live with, has a mania radar. She can detect when things are getting too revved up.
If you know people who are bipolar, I hope these insights help.
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