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.
10 thoughts on “Up”
We missed you at last Friday’s MN Orchestra event.
I had a Great Aunt who was bipolar and must have been Type I in that her manifestations were extreme and often public. She would be well over 100 years old today. A colleague must have been like your Type II because his extremes were hardly noticeable and he was well managed. He had other medical issues and died of one of them, not from his bipolar condition. And then, there is a present day former colleague (she’s still working age, I’m not) and she is a gem. She’s a health care professional for school children. Many decades ago she was struggling with her issues and I knew barely enough about bipolar to try to give her supervisors some reasons to be stop being intolerant. Today, things are very much under control and she is a top-notch provider. I hadn’t seen her in several years so when I ran into her recently I was amazed at how her maturity has blossomed. She’s a beautiful young woman today, happy with a grown family and still eager to be a working stiff. She thanked me profusely for my support way back when (I thought she should have forgotten about that after all these years) and we went on our ways. Those are my most direct contacts with bipolar people, although I have known others and still do. Each of them was able to handle themselves effectively and be productive members of society, and I have appreciated all of them immensely, including their impacts on my life with their wisdom, honesty, and helpful contributions. You are no different from those I knew/know and loved and are perhaps even more productive in some ways than they. It’s a privilege to know about you and to watch your career and accomplishments no matter where it takes you.
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How wonderful that you were supportive of your colleague! It’s so important to approach each other with compassion.
“Compelling.” That’s the 1 word that comes to mind after reading your narrative. Press on! As I’ve said before the clock only ticks forward. Sharing your story is a true act of self sacrifice! May peace fill your heart!
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Sarah, since the inception of your Coronavirus Diary, your life story has captured the attention of many readers who have shared similar stories or have known friends who have. One of the stories that resonated with me is your story of the passing of your dad. I have friends and relatives who have experienced the grief and guilt associated with that horrible event.
You have candidly shared things that most people don’t talk about. You are comfortable discussing mental health issues, a topic hidden in the shadows of most people. It is pervasive in every culture around the globe, and we see the results on the nightly news each day.
Thank you for your honesty, and confidence in yourself. You are an amazing person whom I really admire. I hope someday to meet you in person at one of your concerts or travels. You have inspired so many including me. May you reach your goals in life and find peace in your soul, surrounded by friends, family, and Pinkerton…
Many thanks Wayne!
Thank you Sarah for your post.
I’m always fascinated by your honesty, your humility and your drive throughout the events. It is all at your honour. I try to catch up with your posts. You’ll pardon me if sometimes I don’t always answer the same day.
When you will come in Montréal, there is a place called ‘The Douglas/Le Douglas’. It is a well known psychiatric hospital. They have plenty of free videos. I am aware you’ve read a lot of articles.
Nevertheless, the reason why I am mentioning this place is for the Architecture and the view on the majestic St Lawrence river. Have a look on Google maps. It is gorgeous. There is a bike path who goes from the old Montréal up to at least Lachine. You can do bicycle (you can rent the city Bixi bike), jogging and even walking with Pink and Paul. You can take the bus or even the subway to get there. I am working in Verdun borough where it is located and I feel privileged to see all this. There is a bird sanctuary in LaSalle and it is free. There are some people who are doing some surf over there. Yes, yes. The current is really strong at some places. It has nothing to do with Hawaii or Australia.
Light is more luminous with people like you in this world.
We’ll see the end of this pandemic pretty soon. The herd immunity will knock out the virus eventually. The show must go on…with La Maestra on board.
Never stop believing in you because I do. A lot of people do. By the way the street banner in Philadelphia even bears your first name. This is a sign. It is also indicating 300 followers (with a kind of arrow). The city made a mistake. Someone forgot to add more zero.
Merci, Sylvain, pour votre mots.
Also, I looked up surfing on the St Lawrence, it looks very cold(!)
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Indeed. Too cold for a frenchy froggie. Lol! The ‘surfers’ that I’ve seen were wearing a kind of ‘wet suit (not sure if it is the proper term)’. It was in july. The St Lawrence still remains cold at this time of the year even with those gears. I remember two surfers (one woman and one man) told me it was a practice for competition in California and New Zealand. They said it was cold but with the suits it was much better. Me, Channara and Myckael (he was +- 6) were having a picnic near the 43 street and LaSalle boulevard. We we’re bicycling with a children trailer. We were eating close to the St Laurence but at a safe distance to not drown. Channara doesn’t know how to swim. The current is quite strong around that area. I think you can see it on Google maps when you choose satellite maps.
[…] final nail of the coffin was a correct diagnosis of bipolar (I write more about my experience here ), and the resulting awareness and medication began to mitigate the worst of my symptoms. Slowly, […]