What does mania feel like? Every bipolar person’s experience of mania will be different, given individual personalities, but perhaps the process of what governs it may not be so varied. To me, mania is a tornado. It is an illusion. It is misguided energy. It is imagination at its best—and worst. And it is visceral. Let me explain all five aspects.
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First, as a doctor illustrated to me with a compelling metaphor, bipolar people get sucked into tornadoes when stressed, excited or conflicted in any way. While others might collapse with too many deadlines or commitments, bipolar people get caught up in a tornado that takes them higher and higher, disconnected from solid ground. Ultimately, the tornado rises so high that one ends up hallucinating. This is mania. The second way I look at mania is that it is an illusion. It draws on my deepest susceptibilities—ambition, insecurities, fears, ego—to convince me that this is who I am. This is a better me. It is maya at its most convincing and it gives me permission to do things I wouldn’t normally do, to act on impulse or suspend judgement. Studies show that bipolar people have a propensity to veer towards excess, whether alcohol, drugs or outbursts on social media. “Patients with bipolar I and II disorder have an extremely high rate of co-occurring substance use disorders”, with bipolar I patients having a “40% lifetime prevalence of alcohol and other drug use disorders” says a paper titled The Prevalence and Significance of Substance Use Disorders in Bipolar Type I and II Disorder.
There is less academic research on the link between bipolarity and social media but plenty of anecdotal evidence. Shreevatsa Nevatia, a journalist and the bipolar protagonist of one of my favourite mental health memoirs, How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia, devotes an entire chapter to his escapades on Facebook during his highs and lows. My preferred sin is writing. I often come across scraps of paper lying around the house, tucked away at the top of a filing cabinet or at the back of a bathroom drawer, and I cringe. I don’t need to read the intense handwritten scribbles, with words veering in all directions, connected with circles and lines, to glean my state of mind when I wrote it. Remember the scene in the 2001 film, A Beautiful Mind, when Alicia Nash walks into her paranoid schizophrenic husband’s office to witness a hurricane of confusion? Random newspaper clippings are papered all over the room’s wall, lacking coherence or structure. She is horrified to see the extent of his madness. That’s how I feel when I confront myself with the evidence of my own insanity. This is mania.
Third, sudden spurts in intellectual and emotional energy. When I go back and look at the few bits of remaining evidence from my manic episodes—most of my writing I destroy as soon as I recover—what strikes me is just how energized I was during those moments. So much passion, so much intensity and so much creativity animate my voice and my outlook. The urgency of these energies can be frightening to family members. As my mind races, the slower pace of actual family life becomes frustrating. Sometimes though, when I feel sluggish and heavy on a ‘regular’ day, I envy my manic firepower. The question is—is mania the right expression of these energies? And the answer, of course, is no. That is one of the reasons why this book is so important to me—because it is a socially acceptable expression of these energies.
Fourth, mania’s other weapon is imagination, which creates a dream-like reality that is exciting, entertaining and just plain fun. As one of my doctors told me, ‘When you’re manic, you look for excitement in places where you know it can be found.’ Imagination makes you feel alive, like nothing else. I love these lines from Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Memoir of Love and Madness, by journalist Michael Greenberg, about his daughter, Sally Greenberg, the fifteen-year-old bipolar protagonist of the book. “Everything fell into place,” Sally says. “I don’t know how to describe it. My mind was going incredibly fast. But time slowed. I could see underneath the surface of things. I could see inside people. It was like I had been sleepwalking until then, waiting for this to happen.” But imagination can also have frightening, damaging consequences, such as hallucinations and delusions. It is a destructive seduction of one’s emotions at its most lethal because it convinces a manic person that their emotions are legitimate and their actions are sound. When there is an orchestral universe inside my head, it is hard not to pay full attention to its grandeur. This is mania.
Finally, mania is visceral. Bipolar disorder is generally regarded as a mental, emotional and behavioural health issue. In my experience, its effect on the body adds an additional layer of complexity. I judge the intensity of any emotion commonly associated with mania or hypomania—whether anger, aggression or excitement—through my body. If I am experiencing any emotion that may lead to a manic episode, my body is the first to warn me. My breath is shorter and shallower, my back is tightened, my hand less steady, my brain is foggy, my sleep is disturbed and, most of all, my gut is exploding. It is on fire, a visceral feeling in a way like nothing else. This is primaeval, and because it is my very own body that is combustible, it is hard not to be seduced by these emotions, to deny that this is truly me, that these emotions are real, they are meaningful and that I must act on them. Why do emotions scatter themselves all over the body? My intuitive conclusion is that this is the result of heart, head and hand not being aligned with each other; it is an expression of inner conflict. When the heart and head disagree, the hand has no choice but to get in the way and the body reacts. This, then, is mania.
Excerpted with permission from Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health, Aparna Piramal Raje, Ebury Press.