Over time, I’ve learned some of what triggers my hypomanic (and, more recently, full-blown manic) episodes. I always seem to swing upward in the fall when the daylight starts to change, which is not something I can control, though I do try to modulate it with enforced darkness at night and a sunlamp the rest of the time. There are other factors that I can somewhat control: getting enough sleep and food is important, and being active, but not too active.
The problem is that managing my mood swings starts to feel like a full-time job and leaves me with not much time and energy for anything else. First of all, what does “too active” really mean? Last night I went to a political meetup for the presidential candidate I favor, and afterward I went to play Magic: The Gathering at someone else’s house. I really enjoyed both, and when I got home, I felt buoyant energy coursing through me, so that I found it impossible to sleep until about 1 AM, despite taking my sleeping meds several hours earlier. Then I had to get up early to go to a psychiatry appointment, so I ended up getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep.
Doesn’t sound like that big a deal, does it? A couple of positive social situations and a couple of missed hours of sleep? But it is a big deal, because all day, even though I’ve been physically exhausted, I’ve felt more and more manic. I can’t fully express how frustrating it is that the simple act of enjoying myself and interacting with others for a few hours, or staying up late one night, can cause me to ascend into a manic state. This state may only turn out to be a couple of weeks of giddiness and productivity, but then again, it might elevate into psychosis and put me in very real danger, as well as tax the patience of the people who have to deal with me daily.
Now, thanks to my mood, I’m in a strange state of waking without being fully present, and even though it’s past my bedtime, I’m incapable of rest. When I try to lie down and sleep, thoughts swarm so thickly through my mind, like a plague of locusts, that I cannot stand it and must get up to distract myself– by writing this post, as it turns out. I feel simultaneously irritable and expansive. I want to see and feel and do everything at once, and yet I loathe everything. Even though it’s an hour past my bedtime, I’ve opted to drink some coffee and stay awake, because the jittery energy with which caffeine endows me is preferable to being so exhausted yet agitated at the same time.
I deeply resent the fact that there are such potentially serious repercussions to this decision. I feel like getting out of the apartment to participate in things I seriously care about and enjoy is beyond my healthy capacity. Too much stress and stimulation. I start to question whether I can ever have a full, satisfying life, if such minor changes to my routine can cause such a disturbance in my mood.
From there, I start to devolve into self-blame and self-loathing. I feel that I should be able to do these things, partly because they make me happy, but also because others are able to do them so easily. I want to contribute to society. I want to have fun. I want to be happy. But my illness repeatedly robs me of achieving these simple goals. I can’t seem to stay happy without getting too happy. I have always in my mind the facts that I must not become psychotically manic and that a part of me still hungers for the terrible beauty that mania brings, as well as a heartwrenching resignation to the alternative of being at least moderately depressed all the time.
My euthymia (“normal” mood) is fleeting and fragile. In the sixteen years since I first became clinically depressed, it never seems to have lasted more than a month, or perhaps six weeks. That has happened few enough times that I can remember each discretely and count them on one hand. Add to that a couple of weeks of (hypo)mania each year, and color in the remainder with the cold, black thrall of major depression.
So to me, my (hypo)manic breaks have always been just that: a vacation from what feels like the mundane reality of exhaustion, physical pain, tunnel vision, panic attacks, vomiting, uncontrollable crying, nearly unbearable sadness, hallucinations, fixations on death, drinking binges, and the overall feeling that a thick woolen blanket is wrapped around me, keeping me from feeling or desiring a single thing except to disappear. I’ve grown accustomed to looking forward to the weeks when I write 200 pages or crochet five projects or exercise 3 hours per day.
Since my psychotic break, I can’t have that pleasurable anticipation anymore. Every time I feel happy or have a positive thought, I have to check in with myself: Am I talking too fast for others to understand me? Am I fixating on something, especially something goal-oriented? Am I leaping around the apartment laughing uproariously? Does everything burn too much brighter; feel too ecstatic? It is exhausting, and it deprives me of much of the non-mood-induced enjoyment I might otherwise experience.
In addition to my policing of myself, I must also deal with the worries of my family and best friend. They often perceive my mania before I’m willing to admit it even to myself, and from my point of view, they hound me to sleep and eat and relax until I can’t bear the sound of their voices. I want so desperately to scream at them to leave me the hell alone and stop babysitting me, but most of the time I remain aware that what they are saying contains truth, and that I really ought to listen.
It’s not easy to admit that you can’t trust what your own brain is telling you, and that you must rely on others to tell you what is going on in your innermost self. If I’m honest, sometimes I do things like stay up late just to show myself that I’m an adult who can do what I please. Not a very adult reasoning, and I’m not unaware of the irony in that. But I’ve always been the rebellious one, asking too many questions and trying when I can to circumvent authority. Sometimes I really want to do things that are bad for me, and sometimes it’s because I know they’re bad. I know for sure that this is an aspect of why I continually smoke tobacco despite repeated attempts to quit.
I can’t help wondering what kind of future I can have in store if the simplest additions of socializing and contributing to society push me into unhealthiness. I feel acutely what Stephen Fry claims in The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, that only 20% of bipolar people are ever able to function at the level they would without the disorder. (Although I am skeptical about that definition; who knows, after all, who or what we would be without our illness?)
I wonder whether the extent of my life’s accomplishments lies in part-time parenting, writing blog posts, and crocheting stuffed animals. And that prospect feels hollow and despairing. I wonder, too, what I would do should, heavens forbid, anything happen to my son. The only reaction I can begin to imagine is to kill myself, because without him, I really have nothing to live for.
I need more from life. I need to be able to fill my cup without it overflowing, and as of now, I evidently have not discovered how to strike that balance. I know that for the foreseeable future I must continue to treat monitoring and regulating my mood swings as my primary goal in life, however disheartening and painful that may be. I must accept that there is and will be no unqualified happiness for me. All of my sunshine will carry lengthy shadows.
I’d like to finish by sharing some lyrics from a song I wrote some years ago after a thoroughly unpleasant one-night stand, which I feel captures my problems aptly:
I read the apes stood tall and walked away from the trees
With heads held higher and a sudden desire for fig leaves and apple juice
Well, I was sculpted in an ice hotel,
Far from heaven and I’ve been through hell,
And the breath of life still melts me to my knees.
Like Icarus, I always seem to fly too close to the sun. There is a burst of glory culminating in a disastrous melting of everything that upholds me. I either burn hot and fast, or I lay cold and dry as ash. There is rarely any in-between. My vigilance must not rest.