When I initially told my friends about my bipolar II diagnosis, they most often expressed surprise. Which makes sense, because, one; bipolar II often presents in a more subtle way than bipolar I, and, two; because I had lived so many years as a master of disguise. Whether I was stuck in the morass of endless depression, or I was tipping into my brief periods of hypomania, I did all I could to moderate my behavior, to pass for OK.
That disguise marked most of my adult life, but as I have written before, the last several years – after the correct diagnosis and stabilized by an effective medication protocol – have been marked by periods of relative stability. Which is not to say that I don’t still experience depression, or experience mild mania – it’s just that it’s manageable and tempered.
When I explain to people my experience with mental health issues, I’m often asked what my hypomanic states felt like, so I thought I would try to describe them.
Mania doesn’t hit me out of the blue; rather, it’s a barely perceptible ramping-up of what I think of as internal electricity. Initially, my mind feels like it’s working more efficiently – thoughts move with energy, ideas come faster. At this stage, it’s mildly pleasant. I feel, for lack of a better word, “up”.
As that internal electricity eventually externalizes, I begin to notice that my runs become suddenly easier – I can go farther, and faster, for no discernible reason. I find that I’m OK with much less sleep, and even if I wake up tired after 4-5 hours, that dissipates almost immediately. My vision feels altered; the edges of things seem clearer, colors feel heightened, the contrast of light and shadow more marked. I lose my appetite and forget to eat meals, especially when I become fixated on tasks.
Which all sounds relatively benign. But it rarely stops there; my mental energy progresses to a state in which I become obsessed with those tasks, and with the projects and writing and studying. That focus is not singular, however, and I find myself compulsively working on several things at once. I’ll turn my attention to one thing for hours, and then suddenly I’ll become distracted by something else, which becomes my soul focus for several hours more. In some ways I get a lot done during my manic episodes, but nothing seems to get completed, because of my unstable attention.
I also find myself highly irritable, and the annoyances that I’m usually able to tolerate become almost insurmountably uncomfortable.
And finally, I find myself in a state of mild physical distress. Everything feels uncomfortable – sitting, standing, lying down. I’m fidgety, and if I find myself in this state during, say, a cross-country flight, it feels almost unbearable. Sleeping becomes even more difficult than usual, as my entire body feels constantly restless. Touch becomes sensitive, and I’m acutely aware of any vaguely annoying sensation – wearing slightly snug shoes feels like foot-binding, bumping into anything feels distressing, wearing a scarf or turtleneck feels like I’m being choked.
“Up”, at that point, sucked.
In the past, for many years, these symptoms came in quick succession, over the course of a few day, and then lasted a few days more. I rarely remained in these hypomanic states for more than a week, and they would eventually give way to the deep dive of depression, which was my base state.
Over the last few years, more and more celebrities and public figures have spoken publicly about their own mental health issues, and it’s been tremendously encouraging to have these issues enter our national discourse. While there may be more awareness, however, there’s still a noticeable gap in information and understanding: Depression is always caused by external stressors. Being bipolar is the same as being schizophrenic. Addiction is a lack of willpower. Eating disorders only affect women. And on and on.
And so I’ve been doing what I can to narrow that gap, with the hope that my personal transparency can add to the wider conversation and lead to societal comprehension.
While I haven’t experienced a full hypomanic state in years, I’ve noticed a milder version of all of these symptoms, a subtle “up”, in the last few days. It’s more likely to manifest now as a slight but noticeable increase in energy, heightened sensation, occasional short-temperedness, a vaguely obsessive quality in the way I work. These feelings are familiar, and not as confusing and distressing and out of control as they felt in those beforetimes. But they are still there, a part of me, a part of my present and my future. And the more I understand and accept these parts of myself, the more I’m able to navigate this world with compassion and ease.