What It’s Like To Be Manic

When I am manic, I can’t sleep.

That’s a pretty typical sign of mania. You feel too buzzed and bubbled over with thoughts and ideas to let your body fall asleep. When I’m manic, it means I haven’t slept in days, and it’s not that I’m not tired, because I am — very tired — but my eyes won’t close, my brain won’t relax, my body won’t turn off.

I’ll close my eyes and my mind is whirring, wheels going, wood burning. I think: I have to write this essay or read this book or clean my drawers out or oh god, what if I wrote a musical? What if I started a Tumblr with pictures of dolphins in sunglasses? Why don’t I have an article up on McSweeney’s? I could do that! Why don’t I have a new show at the comedy theater? I could make that happen! I should do it right now. At 1 a.m. on a Tuesday. I should go to grad school for biology! I should apply to be a Fulbright scholar! I should move to Beijing! Let me Google all those things.

Then it’s three hours later and I’ve learned a few phrases in Mandarin and looked up good science graduate programs and bought a book on eBay about musical writing and none of this is actually useful. I’ve just made myself crazy with expectations and self-imposed “musts.”

When I am manic, I am also a flirt. I see everyone as a potential sexual partner. I wrap my self-worth in whether or not I can get someone to flirt back. I put all my (literal) eggs into getting someone’s (anyone’s) attention. When I am manic, I want to be wanted.

In college, I was put on medication for this condition that made me have a hysterical, tearful panic attack on an airplane. That is also part of being manic. There’s the downside. The swing back. The pendulum coming back around to immense sadness and lack of hope. I’ve laid under my covers for four days in the dark, until my mom sent my ex to come drag me out of bed. I’ve hidden out in my brother’s suburban house for a week, a weird ghost in pajamas lurking his hallways, unresponsive. I’m PRODUCTIVE and then I am numb.

In an interview with the AV Club, comedian and author Chris Gethard talked about the bizarre benefits of his bouts with mania and depression, which was increasingly bad for him from the age of 18 to 23. Gethard accurately, in my opinion, describes mania as “the best” and addicting. When you’re manic, you fail to see the downside you should know is coming.

“You know how to talk to everyone, you do all these risky things,” Gethard told Jesse Thorn. “Mania is fun. I won’t lie, it’s fun. But it’s usually followed by a soul-crushing depression… I look back and think, ‘Man, I was completely unhinged.’ It seems funny and fun, but I was just not in control.”

When I am manic, I work a lot. I get a lot done. In between crazy flights of fancy, I actually accomplish some of the things I’d been putting off. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s like a super power. A really dangerous, out of control super power. Like Cyclops before he got the headband sunglasses that keep his laser eyes in check.

Another comedian Stephen Fry, has also talked about mania in his 2006 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. All of the bipolar people interviewed for the doc, even those who’ve suffered a great deal, said that if they could choose to not be manic-depressive, they would not.

At first, I found that bewildering. People with mania are sick. We are sick. We can be treated with medication and therapy. (I go to therapy, but I don’t take meds.) I thought about Fry’s question as it pertains to myself. If I could chose not to be manic, would I? I’d lose the depression and the feeling I often have that I can’t trust myself, that uncertainty of whether this is actually a good idea or whether I’m just high on my own chemicals, the unflinching confidence that gets me into trouble.

I’d also lose the drive, the productivity, the motivation, the work. When I’m manic, I accomplish a lot in very little time. Like Gethard said, the thing no one wants you to know is that mania is fun. It’s great. It’s how a lot of us function. It’s how a lot of us succeed. But it’s also a mental health condition. It worries my parents. It cut chunks out of my ex-boyfriend’s life and priorities. It hurts me — through bad decision-making, through agonizing over not being able to trust my own brain, through sleep deprivation, through lack of appetite/hunger pains, and through panic attacks that physically sit like a painful weight on my chest.

Maybe the question in Fry’s movie bothered me because my secret is, even with all that, I’d stay manic. Because deep down I wonder: what am I without it? TC Mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • http://twitter.com/geegraphy Glerren Bangalan (@geegraphy)

    “Maybe the question in Fry’s movie bothered me because my secret is, even with all that, I’d stay manic. Because deep down I wonder: what am I without it?”

    The whole piece hit a nail in the head. I will print this out and keep it with me, so I can read this whenever I need to. Great piece, Gaby!

    • Anon

      That line really resonated with me too. I’ve struggled with a lot of different mental health issues since my teens (depression, anorexia, addiction, the list goes on…) And it’s as though they’ve become so ingrained in me by this point that I sort of define myself by them. I don’t know if I’d want to give them all up given the choice – and that does frighten me. I know not everyone is a fan of Elizabeth Wurtzel but I’ve always felt like her take on this whole issue was right on the mark, so I’m going to quote it anyway and hope no one’s vehemently anti-Wurtzel!

      “That’s the problem with reality, that’s the fallacy of therapy: It assumes that you will have a series of revelations, or even just one little one, and that these various truths will come to you and will change your life completely. It assumes that insight alone is a transformative force. But the truth is, it doesn’t work that way. In real life, every day you might come to some new conclusion about yourself and about the reasoning behind your behavior, and you can tell yourself that this knowledge will make all the difference. But in all likelihood, you’re going to keep on doing the same old things. You’ll still be the same person. You’ll still cling to your destructive, debilitating habits because you emotional tie to them is so strong that the stupid things you do are really the only things you’ve got that keep you centered and connected. They are the only things about you that make you.”

      I think this is from Prozac Nation, before she’d embarked on her forays into prescription drug abuse and cocaine addiction so don’t think those were the destructive habits she was referring to. And of course, manic episodes of bipolar disorder are obviously not ‘habits’ – they’re just part of the disease. Whether you they are destructive and debilitating is obviously a contentious issue. But I think her point about our emotional ties to our disorders has a lot of truth. They are so intense, they make us feel so intensely – whether high or low – that it just is almost impossible from separating yourself from your disease. Wondering how much of you there is without it, or who you’d be without it.

      Sorry for blathering.

  • http://diminiko.wordpress.com diminiko

    You…you’ve just described me there, going onto the big 20 in less than a month and this is how I’ve acted for years. Just going through the depression stage, whilst also planning my next 20+ ventures into things that will mostly just pass the planning stage. (sigh) Let the mania commence.

  • http://menarcheintheuk.tumblr.com Liz (@cheezliz)

    Great article. I see one of my friends go though manic episodes a lot (“I’m going to write a book on working at Hooters as a feminist! I should learn Spanish! I’ll start a porn blog! I’m changing my major!”) I’m a psych student looking into clinical psych graduate programs and I LOVE your articles on mental health and all your other articles as well. If you’re ever in Delaware, we should watch some Doctor Who.

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      Thanks! That’s nice to hear coming from a professional considering I’m not an expert so I worry about writing about mental health when my only qualifications are like…living with mental illness.

      • http://menarcheintheuk.tumblr.com Liz (@cheezliz)

        I’m no expert (yet! one day!) but I think your personal experiences are very helpful for people based on the reactions I’m reading. People don’t often see well written accounts of mental illness. Sharing your experience is valuable not only for those struggling with the same problems, but for people without mental illness that want (need) to understand what it’s like. I wouldn’t worry about your qualifications – you’re questioning but pragmatic and therefore unlikely to hurt anyone, and you’re not dispensing specific advice. Despite not being able to trust your brain all the time, there is no one better equipped to describe what it’s like but the person going through it. I could take an entire class on mania and never be able to write a piece like this.

  • Gabe

    Wow. Doesn’t the dramatically increased rates of suicide among manic depressives worry any of you?

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      Every day, dude.

      • Gabe

        I am facinated. I have struggled with anxiety, panic and currently diagnosed with major depression. I have gone to the ends of the earth and back trying to find something that would make me “normal” I have read a lot about Bi-Polar and Manic Depressives not taking there meds because of the “highs”. That must be some high to risk suicide. But ultimately, its your decision. Thank you for such an insightful, honest look into a life that many just read about. I admire your forthrightness. Best of luck to you.

  • Sophie

    Great article. I would recommend “Madness: A Bipolar Life” by Marya Hornbacher to anyone; It’s a fascinating memoir about a woman who has lived through decades of manic-depression. Really beautiful and haunting writing.

  • Katie

    Best thing I’ve read in a long time.

  • xli

    My friend, who has bipolar, was my sober sitter for when I took MDMA. She said that the effects of the drug on me were exactly like her when she was manic. Interesting, no?

  • Anon

    Manic sounds exactly like me – on Ritalin. And yeah, for all those reasons I love it – the boundless enthusiasm and energy where everything seems exciting and interesting and, my God, you open tab after tab, start composing 5 different emails and have a few Word documents open as well…I understand it’s different, one high being chemically induced, and the other being symptomatic of bipolar depression, but I could relate a lot. Similarly, it makes the lows very difficult to endure, because there is so much juxtaposition between the two. There is nothing worse than that emptiness where nothing seems interesting or engaging, you just feel so numb. I have clinical depression and my most serious depressive episodes in the past were very much like this. It wasn’t sadness, so much as this horrible emptiness where everything around me became dull and grey and therefore offered no form of escape. I simply wasn’t able to engage in it. I know I’m going on a bit but I couldn’t help myself from quoting this whole section, it was just so perfect:

    ” “Mania is fun. I won’t lie, it’s fun. But it’s usually followed by a soul-crushing depression… I look back and think, ‘Man, I was completely unhinged.’ It seems funny and fun, but I was just not in control.”

    When I am manic, I work a lot. I get a lot done. In between crazy flights of fancy, I actually accomplish some of the things I’d been putting off. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s like a super power. A really dangerous, out of control super power. ”

    And that’s so very true. When you’re manic, you feel like you’re in control, like you have it all together and are able to achieve anything. Focus on anything. But you can barely figure out what to concentrate on, everything seems great – as you say, it’s flitting “between crazy flights of fancy”, from one to the next. Yeah, I accomplish stuff. But even them I’m not in control. I’m out of whack. I’m too excited and intensely focused to sleep or eat or do anything else.

    And then the inevitable low. I’ve never felt so close to going crazy – really teetering on the edge – as I have when the mania ends and I’m back down again.

  • Stripes

    I wanted to thank you for writing this. I really admire your other work, and it’s inspiring to know that you and all of these other amazing people (also HUGE Chris Gethard fan) go through the same stuff I do. I’ve long suspected I’m a little bit bipolar (if that’s possible) and severely ADHD but my family refuses to help me get a therapist or even a doctor’s appointment. I’ve been so embarrassed about my mood swings, irritability, “weirdness”, depression, and mania, and I guess it’s just nice to know ya’ll go through it too, and it’s still possible to accomplish amazing things!

    • Gabe

      I’ve long suspected I’m a little bit bipolar (if that’s possible)

      I feel exactly the same way. Does bipolar or manic depression (are they different?) vary in its symptoms and severity of highs and lows? My highs are no where near as high as I have read from most people that are bipolar or have manic depressive disorder, but they are there. I will lay there at night and think that I will do this tomorrow and do that tomorrow, very much Illusions of grandeur, but tomorrow comes and nothing happens. My lows however are every bit as low as the lows I have read about. The med issue is a whole other story. I was given a benzodiazepene for panic disorder 24 years ago. Try to come off of it, that will NEVER happen again. Like someone said earlier, that is who I am. Even after months of being “clean” I didn’t have a clue who the person looking back at me in the mirror was. It does become who you are.

  • http://gravatar.com/troyale troyale

    This is so eye-opening. Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps people like me better understand a loved one who has bipolar disorder.

  • Carolyn

    One of the women Stephen Fry interviewed in “the Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” said she would choose to make it go away, but her bipolar was so bad she couldn’t leave her house most days, was practically unable to shop for groceries at times and became very paranoid.
    One of the men he interviewed said that he wouldn’t get rid of it if he could, even though it had ruined his career. He said that “If you have walked with angels, all the pain and suffering is worth while.”

  • http://twitter.com/Gilthwixt Patrick M (@Gilthwixt)

    A while back, I tried taking meds in an attempt to keep the swings in control. What I found was that rather than feeling both extremes, I felt absolutely nothing. It was utterly numbing. Some people think being “just a chill kinda guy” is a great thing, but when you’re so cold and indifferent to everything that your creativity essentially dies, that’s when you learn what misery really is. I stopped taking my meds, and while the highs and lows get pretty extreme I’ve come to appreciate them for shaping me and the way I view the world.

    • Gabe

      Would love to know what those meds were. Feeling absolutely nothing and being numb sounds like nirvana to me.

      • 26yearold

        I used to think so too, Gabe. Then after being so numb for so long and not feeling anything, good or bad, got really old (and kind of scary). I realized that I would even rather feel the horrible lows than feel absolutely nothing at all. It made me feel more alive, instead of stuck in an apathetic limbo.

  • q

    Interesting. how you described what you feel naturally is how I’ve felt any time I’ve taken nonprescribed ADD or ADHD drugs. I don’t focus, i get manic, and I hate / love it.

  • perpetuallyimpressed

    Gaby Dunn, y u so good??! Seriously…it’s ridiculous. I think you could write about water buffalo and I would be intrigued. Awesome job!

  • http://bloosh bloosh

    Isn’t that more… hypomania?

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      It is.

      • joycenancy

        Yeah, I think it’s kind of important to make this distinction. Hypomania can be great – you’re productive, everything feels awesome, you’re on fire, nothing can stop you, yay yay yay. But real mania can turn on you without warning. It has a very real potential to push you into a very scary place where you’re really out of control, and you might be productive, but you might just be so high that you can’t slow down enough to actually do anything. And often the darkness of depression gets fueled — a lot of bipolar people commit suicide while serverely manic because they finally have the energy. Being on meds, I have cried endlessly talking about how much I miss hypomania now that my mood is more “stabilized,” but I don’t miss feeling totally out of control. I guess you have to weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself what you can handle.

  • http://gravatar.com/juliannakv J Says

    I am bipolar II and I would get rid of it. While I do like my (hypo)manic phases sometimes, I could really benefit from not being supremely depressed for six months out of the year. It would be nice to be able to leave my bed / brush my teeth when I’m very depressed. And while I am definitely sexually liberated (blah blah blah), it would be nice to not fuck strangers while I have a significant other.

    I’ve been taking lithium for about 4 months now and I can honestly say that it’s saved my life. Yes, I would give up being bipolar.

    • Confused

      Thank you! While I feel that it is up to the individual, PERSONALLY I cannot imagine putting yourself through the lows that you described. I have been there. You didn’t exaggerate at all. I could not brush my teeth, shower, get out of bed for months. It was the worst thing I have ever been through and I don’t think I could ever do it again. The very worse part was that I had my 17 year old daughter living with me. I could not make her lunch or take her and pick her up from school, but the most tragic part for me is that she had to see me that way. I am not bi-polar or manic depressive, because I don’t have the “highs” that everyone seems to describe as fantastic, nor do I think that I would want them. Sounds very scary to be that unstable, to not know who you are going to be from day to day.

  • darren

    I identify heavily with this, just like half the people in the comment section it seems!

    I do feel like i’m partly defined by a bundle of impulses and moods that I have little control over.
    I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the destructive ones but I don’t think I could bring myself to do away with them if a hypothetical genie offered to wish them away.

    Even with the darker moods hit, even though I have been talking about and occasionally trying to kill myself since before I hit double digit age.

    Not just because i’m unsure of who I would be without, but because in a way I enjoy seeing the world with both boundless bulletproof optimism and bitter cynism.
    I almost feel like i’m leading more than one life at once, and cutting the moodswings out would be giving that feeling up too.

  • Eric Sun

    Wow, thank you for this, Gaby. I never knew all this time that you were bipolar like me, and are keeping off meds like me as well (I’m planning on getting acupuncture soon because western medicine’s side effects freak me out). Knowing a successful fellow Emerson alum who is undergoing BP makes me want to stop making excuses for myself after my diagnoses several months ago. Are there certain activities you do that keep your moods in check?

    • http://gabydunnthoughtcatalog.wordpress.com Gaby Dunn

      Recently I started running. Do you do that?

      • Eric Sun

        From time to time, that definitely helps. I’m also supposed to meditate to this podcast everyday, but even typing that feels weird.

      • Kait

        I’m Bipolar, and I’ve found that running helps a lot as far as keeping me stable. Meditating every night has helped, too.

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