Photo: Nicole Massari Vintage Everything: Sara Rich

I am bursting with joy and have a zest for life. I am charismatic and engaging. I feel like sunshine walking around. I have great ambitions and I’m passionately pursuing them. I’m conquering my fears. My to-do list is almost complete.  

I am hypomanic. 

When the terms bipolar or manic are mentioned, our minds often race to an image of someone who acts like they are on hallucinogenic drugs, doing things that are reckless and don’t make any sense.  What I’ve described is mania with psychotic features. While this may happen to some people on occasion, many of us who suffer from bipolar disorder are fortunate enough to not ever reach that point. We might go for days or weeks in a manic state, feeling like we’re God and can do no wrong, resisting any attempts to be convinced otherwise. Food and sleep are not necessary to sustain our highly productive efforts. We engage in a variety of risk taking behaviors, such as drinking to excess, spending exorbitant amounts of money we don’t have, being… promiscuous, or making major life choices without gathering opinions or even all of the facts. These risks come with consequences. When we inevitably crash into a depressive state, we suffer the physical consequences of pushing our bodies too hard for too long, and we are forced to face the reality of the turmoil that was left in our wake. This often feels like an insurmountable task because we’re ashamed of ourselves, and those affected don’t care what our mental state was when it happened. It hurts just the same.

It’s hard to balance taking responsibility for your actions and acknowledging that you are doing your very best, practicing self-love and compassion. 

Somewhere in between those uninhibited manic days and the seemingly endless days of feeling as though you are collapsing into the black hole of depression in your chest – we find Normal – the level most of us hope to operate at. There are emotional ups and downs, but they are appropriately proportional to the events in our lives and there is still an underlying sense of stability. 

What it feels like sometimes…

What I’ve set out to explain now is hypomania. The sweet spot. Better than normal, less than manic. I often come back to a George Addair quote, “everything you’ve always wanted is on the other side of fear.”  Hypomania is the other side of fear. Whatever thoughts normally creep up and tell me I’m not good enough get swept up leave only what feels like the best version of myself. I believe in myself. I can do anything. I have unlimited potential.

The other evening I was driving down the road, on my way home from the store after an uneventful day. As I stopped at a red light I suddenly became so full of this strange sensation, one that seemed to originate in my heart and burst out in every direction.  I’d felt it once before and identified it as love (not the romantic kind). This time it felt more like fire. Passion. I felt hopeful, excited for the future even without a clear vision of what it might hold. It was momentary, but it was euphoric.  Who wouldn’t want to feel like that all the time?

In psychology, behaviors considered abnormal are those that are disturbing, distressing, or maladaptive. Hypomania is a mood state that is considered abnormal, but for me it does not meet the above criteria. I’ve read several books that make a case for the positive side of mania and hypomania. Touched With Fire, by Kay Jamison, explores the impact of bipolar disorder on the works of some of our cultures’ greatest authors and artists. There is an entire school of thought around the idea that this ‘touch of fire’ is necessary to transcend our rigid attachment to normalcy and create something unique and profound. Dr. Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity takes a similar stance on the gifts mood disorders like bipolar can bring. He discusses the biological advantages of being able to sustain such a level of intensity for long periods of time without need for rest or fuel. This elevated state can be used to your advantage. The key is to avoid triggers that push you too far; to find your niche and work within an environment that makes your condition manageable. 

The trouble with hypomania is that it is not sustainable. If you’re blissfully unaware of the state you’re in and just go with it, subconsciously feeding into it, you’re likely to elevate to mania – the pitfalls of which I’ve already shared. One delineation between mania and hypomania is still possessing the ability to identify when you’re in an elevated state and take measures to counteract or control it – things like maintaining a routine, getting enough sleep, eating well, telling yourself to slow down or take a break, and simply questioning your judgement. But the very act of questioning stifles the freedom and creativity that come with the hypomanic state.  As someone who values creative expression and uses it to make a living, I have a hard time putting a damper on it. The final potential outcome is being one of the lucky ones who will live happily, hypomanically for some length of time before swinging back down into a depressive state and continue along on their kiddie-land rollercoaster.

I can look back now on periods in my life when I unknowingly experienced hypomania. My former coworkers probably could too. I had some VERY productive weeks when I’d create a month-long thematic unit from scratch and offer to teach it to the entire grade every day instead of just my own class. I loved doing it and was proud of my accomplishments. Those are some of my favorite memories of teaching because of the passion I worked with at the time. Thinking back on the sheer amount of work I did is exhausting now, but at the time didn’t feel like it. I was fully immersed in what I was doing and my focus was only on the outcome. A gift of the mood disorder that benefited hundreds of children. Sadly, I struggle to call it that because I hate to admit that any of my great accomplishments in life were a result of “mental illness.” (I hate that term) I’m afraid that it takes away from the validity and impact. It feels like putting an asterisk next to my name in the record books. *Yes, but…

So what does this all mean for you neurotypical people out there? (If there really is such a thing)

  1. My mood may be up or down and that will effect my behaviors, but I am still me. My heart and my good intentions remain the same.
  2. If you notice me consistently talking faster/louder/more passionately than normal, it’s probably safe to say that I’m hypomanic or manic.
  3. If you question my judgement/decision making and I engage in a conversation about it, or ignore you at the time but come back to it later – I’m hypomanic. Encourage me to take care of myself – sleep 8 hours a night, eat 3 square meals, and do some yoga. Then keep an eye on me.
  4. If you question my judgement/decision making and I completely dismiss you or argue that you’re trying to control me, I’m probably manic. You should put on your kid gloves and ease me into a safe situation. Limiting my internet access and getting me to see my doctor are probably the most important steps. Just prepare for me to resent you until I’m in a better place and can thank you for your help.
  5. When I come back down, I’m going to feel ashamed. I’ll be embarrassed about how I conducted myself when my self-esteem was elevated and I believed I could do anything. I’ll feel guilty for the things I did that hurt others. I won’t trust my own judgement and will let others make decisions for me. I will allow others to hurt me because I feel guilty and I feel that I deserve it. – Please remember this and don’t take advantage of it. Instead…

Forgive me.

Encourage me to keep going.

Remind me of the good that has been and will always be inside of me.

Assure me that you know I’m doing my best.

Love Me

Just treat me like I hope you would anyone else.

My diagnosis indicates there is something wrong with me – that I am abnormal. But who’s to say what normal is, when we’re all completely unique individuals? Indeed, I have patterns of thought and behavior that can negatively impact my life and relationships, but don’t we all? Some are just more extreme than others.

The diagnosis doesn’t change anything. It just helps to identify the existing patterns and then choose the most effective methods for changing them, thus improving quality of life.

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