Last week saw the first post of this series: What Does It Feel Like To Be Bipolar? Part One: Depression …I had some lovely feedback from fellow bipolar bears on a Facebook group that it did a good job of articulating how they feel when depressed. I’ll be interested to hear whether this post also resonates and/or what the differences are for others.
It’s important to mention that I have Bipolar Disorder Type II. This means that when I go ‘high’ I go into a state that’s known as hypomania rather than full mania. Hypomania translates literally to ‘little mania’, it bears many of the same characteristics but unlike full mania does not disrupt functioning so I am still able to work and go about my life when hypomanic. It also lacks the elements of psychosis that can be found in full mania such as delusions, hallucinations or distorted beliefs such as having been ‘chosen’ for a special mission or other grandiose and delusional thoughts.
If you’d like to know more about the difference between Bipolar Type I (full mania) and Bipolar Type II (hypomania) then a good place to start is the Wikipedia article on bipolar disorder.
So here goes….as always this is my personal experience of hypomania which may differ from others so if you’re supporting someone with bipolar ask them what it feels like for them.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850
Oh hypomania, how do I love thee? Let me count the (many) ways…
I open with Browning’s well known sonnet as I have a complex relationship with my hypomania. It’s like an unfortunate love affair. The kind of intense and ecstatic love affair that your friends (able to view it objectively) counsel you can only end in tears. It’s the equivalent of passionate, mysterious and exciting trysts with a married man. It IS going to end in tears, and they’re going to be yours. But you don’t want to stop. When the tears come, you promise yourself you’ll never go back to that man again; but when the tears end you look back at it with a bittersweet intensity and you’ll succumb to it again against your better judgement.
For those that don’t have bipolar, imagine for a moment that a new drug comes onto the market that can make people feel what I’m about to describe….sometimes I like to imagine that I’ve found a way of distilling my hypomania into a capsule and how much money I would make. Once people had tried it, they’d definitely come back for more.
In the early stages of hypomania I start to feel increasingly happy. I saunter around with a smile on my face. I remember things that have made me laugh and snigger to myself. I think how lucky I am, what a wonderful life I have and what great opportunities lie in front of me. I feel so very grateful for everything I have and really pity those I can see around me with scowls or frowns – can’t they see how lucky they are too?
I’m lucky to be alive. I’m lucky to have a working, healthy body and to be born in this time and in this country where I live in peace, freedom and relative comfort. How can anyone not be happy here?
You get the picture. I’m happy.
As the hypomania ramps up, so does the happiness. It notches up a level beyond most people’s experience and I feel euphoric.
Walking home at night I contemplate how everything in the world is exactly as it should be in this moment. In fact, I don’t just contemplate it. I feel it. I feel connected to the universe and that the universe is connected to me. I feel charged with energy and yet, at the same time, a sense of calm because everything is perfect. This place is perfect and beautiful. This moment is perfect and beautiful. I am perfect and beautiful.
I sigh deeply and contentedly. I put in my earphones and play high energy songs. I have a little dance as I walk along the road. Amazing.
Now…I’m not 100% sure that people who don’t have bipolar ever feel euphoric? Note to self to ask friends. If they do I assume it will be short lived and brought on by some hugely positive once-in-a-lifetime event – winning the lottery, the birth of your much wanted first child, walking down the aisle to your real, true love.
The scenario I described was me, walking down the road from the train station at night. This perfect and beautiful moment was about 10.10pm on a relatively boring Wednesday. The perfect and beautiful place was a non-descript road between a smelly recycling depot and a truck stop!
Creativity, Projects & Other ‘Great’ Ideas
I should write a book! I should start my own business even though I have no assets! I should sign up to the London Marathon even though I don’t run! I should get chickens! I should get geckos! I should get a pet ferret! I’ll walk it on a lead! I should re-model my bedroom! I should replace all of my furniture in the lounge! I should win some online competitions, I’ll enter 750 in two days! I should move house, this week! I should change jobs, right now! I should start an MBA which takes 15 hours a week even though I’ve only just recovered from severe depression and work 60 hours! I’m going to take up [insert random hobby here]! I’ll buy everything I could ever need for that hobby right now before I even know what I’m doing or if I’ll like it! I should abseil off a building for charity even though I’m scared of heights! And even though I hated it I should now skydive!
These are just some of the things I’ve done while hypomanic. Any y’know….some of them are pretty ill advised but in fairness, some of them end up sticking and making my life all the better for it.
The other thing about these ideas is I must do them NOW. I can’t wait at all. I will do whatever it takes to make my new idea a reality IMMEDIATELY.
The cupboard under my stairs is littered with the discarded remains of a million hobbies started in hypomania and abandoned soon after. I’m in two minds about how I feel about it…it’s costly and I often wish I would see things through but it makes my life interesting and varied and I love that.
There are things I’ve had to back out of when I’ve later become depressed and not willing or able to keep up commitments I made when hypomanic (my MBA, I withdrew after one month as the commitment on top of my long working hours was too much, the chickens found a new home with my parents when cleaning them out became too much to cope with during a depressive episode). Others have been abandoned once my hypomania passes (I have so many book ‘manuscripts’ and business cases that are little more than a random scattering of bullet pointed thoughts or a couple of sentences).
Productivity & Lack of Need for Sleep
When stable I’m quite a productive person. When I’m hypomanic I am a god damn Superwoman.
I am brimming with energy. I have so much of it that sleep only comes for a few hours. As I’m lying in bed my legs are jigging up and down with the excess energy. The extra hours I gain during the night when others are sleeping seem all the better to carry on with my projects, master plans and ticking things off my many checklists. I chuckle to myself thinking of all the things I can get done while these other fools get their beauty sleep.
On a hypomanic work day I’ll get up, run 5k, complete an hour’s work on the commute to the office, work for 14 hours straight churning out work like a thing possessed and then leave the office – not tired, with bags under my eyes like the overworked City boys I sit with on the tube – but buzzing with adrenaline. I have so much adrenaline I can feel it running through my veins and I’m on the brink of heart palpitations. On the train home, I can’t switch off so I work more.
You can see why people with bipolar can be high performers.
Even when I go to bed my mind is racing at an unbelievable speed. If I have a challenge that I’m facing it will race through every option open to me – how those options might play out, and further options of how others will react. I will process through these, sometimes hundreds of possible scenarios in racing thoughts until I reach a path I’m happy with.
My capacity for work is endless. It knows no limits. My brain is running at twice its usual speed and I am making connections in a split second that would take some thought in a stable mood. My memory is as sharp as a tack. I can see things very clearly and I’m not just one, but two steps ahead, of the game. My intellect is focused like a laser. I can immediately see the correct course of action in any situation.
It’s hard for me to say how much of this is, in fact, true and how much is a distorted sense of reality. I feel like a m*therf*cking shining star of performance…which leads me nicely on to grandiose thoughts….
High Self Esteem & Grandiose Thoughts
When I’m depressed my self-esteem drops to the floor. I feel worthless. What a relief it is then when my anti-depressants kick in and send me high….and I go from worthless to superstar in sixty seconds.
I feel more intelligent, more clued up and that I have more potential than anyone else I know. Everyone else seems to be thinking and moving in slow motion compared to me. They seem dull next to my sparkle. I realise this is not endearing but that’s how it is.
“Am I hypomanic or just fucking brilliant?”
On top of this I feel beautiful and sexy. I’m single. When I’m depressed I felt I wasn’t good enough to find a partner, why would anyone find me attractive? Hypomanic I imagine that men must simply be intimidated by me, how could they not?
Of course, this feels great for me. I try not to let people know what I’m thinking as I’m aware that it’s not socially acceptable but I imagine aspects of it slip out now and then which must be either irritating or laughable to my friends, but if so they’ve been kind enough not to mention it.
When hypomanic I’m a social butterfly. I’m the person that convinces the whole office to go out for drinks. I’m the one attending all the events. The person that has all of the funny stories at the pub that all start with ‘I was really drunk last night and….’. I have a diary packed full of drinks, parties and dates.
When I’m out I’ve been told I have a certain look in my eye that says ‘I’m on a mission’. I’ll line up drinks, buy myself multiple bottles of champagne. Make friends with lots of strangers. Dance for hours. When the party stops at 2am on a school night, I’ll be the one still on the dance floor being stroppy that it’s time to go home.
If I can’t find someone who wants to go out it makes me very irritable – what is wrong with these people? Can’t they see that you only live once? We’re young (actually in our thirties but who’s counting?!), we should be out partying!
If this ploy doesn’t work then I have my usual fall back plan. I put in my earphones, turn up music to full blast and dance around my living room in the dark while necking wine out of the bottle. I’ll quite happily do this until 1 or 2am. For reference, should you ever wonder, cats do not enjoy being danced with.
There’s every possibility my Mum could read this post at some point so even writing the word ‘sex’ is making me cringe. As such I will go into no details, but lets just say it increases and I’ll leave you to research further as you see fit.
So….lets be honest. So far this sounds like the most brilliant illness EVER. You feel connected to the universe in euphoria, you have lots of creativity and ideas and the energy to start ten of them at once. Your productivity and mental capacity are unparalleled and you think, no, you KNOW you are the best thing to have come along in some time. You are a social hub, the life and soul of the party…and lets be honest there ain’t no party like a bipolar party!
It’s all fun and games….until it’s not.
I’m £25k in debt even though I earn good money. I’ve broken my foot, split my chin open and needed a number of stitches, detached my tendon in my finger and had a number of severe concussions where I’m probably lucky not to have suffered a more severe head injury all from excessive drinking. I’ve taken numerous unlicensed taxis home from London to Surrey (not advisable!). I’ve almost lost friends. I’ve wandered the streets of London and Manchester at 3am so drunk I probably wouldn’t know my own name countless times. I’ve had two unplanned pregnancies and subsequent abortions because of my limited ability to consider consequences and the ‘live for the moment’ attitude of my hypomania.
There are some considerable downsides to hypomania…
Loss of Self Control & Inhibitions / Risk Taking
Hypomania makes you extremely impulsive and is often characterised by a distinct lowering of inhibitions and increased risk taking. I will make snap decisions to make purchases that cost thousands of pounds with no consideration of whether I can afford them. My biggest purchase so far cost £8.5k but I’ve had a number of other purchases in the £1-5k range.
I simply do not, can not, consider the consequences when I’m like this. It would not occur to me to check my bank account. I’ve had situations where I’ve spent a great deal of money one day only to have my card declined when trying to buy milk the next day. Cue extremely hasty re-financing of debt to make it to the end of the month. The spending feels compulsive; I feel completely out of control.
It’s the same with drinking. I no longer drink for this very reason but previously I would have no limits with drinking when hypomanic. I could not consider the consequences – I would drink until I was thrown out without knowing how I would get home from London which led to some fairly expensive and some fairly awkward solutions.
Everything becomes a very extreme version of a ‘live for today’ mentality.
I’ve touched on these already. They can be great, allowing you to process information and thoughts at incredible speed. However when your hypomania ramps up another notch they become irritating at best and a strange waste of sleep at worst. It’s exhausting to have thoughts coming so fast….and at some point they start to collide into each other as they speed up. Imagine trying to run high speed trains down a one way track where each train that starts off is 20mph faster than the last. Eventually they just start to run into each other.
At it’s worst I’ve had some experiences of racing thoughts that are simply irrational and illogical. One that springs to mind is spending two hours thinking at 180mph about street names. I can’t remember the details but I thought I’d found some kind of hidden connection in street names. It felt extremely profound at the time. Clearly, in hindsight it was nonsensical silent ravings!
It’s easy for the euphoria of hypomania to turn to irritability. Everyone else seems slow, dull, boring, stupid and negative in comparison to you. If they don’t want to stay out with you until 3am they must have some kind of issue. If they think you’ve had enough to drink you wonder what their problem is. Anyone who questions whether spending vast amounts of money on your latest idea is a good idea is just short-sighted and sticking their nose in where it’s not wanted. Who are they to question you? Don’t they know that your intellect and ability to process information is vastly superior to theirs?
I also find that at the end of hypomania there is always one night that starts as the usual hypomanic drinking and good spirits and then twists into the beginning of a crash and paranoia, extreme irritability and my superiority complex kick in while I’m drunk leaving me possibly THE most obnoxious drunk person ever. I have come very close to losing friendships on these nights.
The Inevitable Crash
While taking medication to prevent or calm down your hypomania isn’t always appealing in itself it’s made much more so by the understanding that after a high comes the inevitable low.
“What goes up, must come down”
Giving in to hypomania through non-compliance with medication is playing with fire. Are those few days or a couple of weeks of hypomania really worth the months of severe depression that follow?
It’s a poor pay off – a couple of weeks of euphoria and productivity do not balance with several months of severe depression and limited ability to function or live your day-to-day life.
Anyway….that is my experience of hypomania. How about yours?
Did I leave anything out?
Is there anything you particularly identify with or something that makes you think ‘that’s different to me’?
Main image source: natashatracy.com