When asked about it, Carrie Fisher explained bipolar to a young boy at a panel as “a kind of virus of the brain. It makes you go very fast or very sad. Or both! Those are fun days. So judgement isn’t one of my big good things. … I’m just like everybody else, only louder and faster, and sleeps more.”
This is the best explanation I can think of, because it touches upon both the depression and mania that characterize the illness.
But here’s the thing about mania: unless you’re truly self-aware, you don’t notice it.
Being bipolar, I’ve experienced mild mania (not to the point of psychosis); hypomania (you feel impulsive, yet [generally] don’t act on it); and crushing, paralyzing depression. I’ve also had mixed episodes, in which you feel the effects of both depression and mania, like Carrie explains.
People know more about the depressive side of mental illnesses — the awareness of mental illnesses continues to grow, and depression and anxiety are at the forefront. It’s not surprising — the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million adults in the US, and depression affects almost 16 million.
Bipolar disorder — originally called manic-depressive disorder — is not as common. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that it affects almost 6 million adults in the US. It tends to develop in the late teens to early twenties, and there are two types: bipolar I, and bipolar II. People with bipolar I tend to experience full-blown mania — more on what that’s like later — whereas people with bipolar II tend to experience hypomania, and more often experience the lows of the disorder.
I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar I when I was 20 (I experience swings more than four times in a year). It did not come as a surprise – I had been experiencing mood swings several times within a month, and the nearest available appointment with my psychiatrist was three months out. (Thus, I swung back and forth between mania/hypomania and depression more than 10 times before I was seen.)
While I’ve reached mania — I overspend, talk loudly, and experience hypersexuality, mainly — I tend to hang back and reach hypomania when the medication is working. The depression is what comes to my mind most with my bipolar. In fact, it was hard to believe I actually reached mania — I didn’t believe I was invincible, I didn’t experience psychosis, I was in touch with reality — until the past weekend.
When I first imagined mania, I imagined somebody who was ecstatic — the yin to the yang of depression. Once I experienced it, however, I realized my perception was slightly off.
It started creeping up on me before I could notice it.
I was sleeping less, I was working on tasks I’d previously neglected, I felt happier than usual. I started projects, lyrics, cleaning my room; I had never felt more productive. When I did notice it, it was a night I couldn’t sleep at all. I was having hot flashes, racing thoughts despite taking my anti-anxiety medication, and I was hyperaware of everything around me. Cooped up in the car on my way to Anaheim for a music convention, I managed to keep calm, and I looked forward to sleeping off my mixed feelings.
But I couldn’t sleep. Again. This was my first experience of peaking mania.
Three songs raced through my head at the same time. I was hot. I imagined drawing, something I don’t do. I was cold. I created images in my head that weren’t connected to anything I’d seen or experienced. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, realizing that even though it was 5 in the morning, I could run a marathon. I was nauseous. I felt terrified. When I did drift off, I had nightmares; I was only able to come out of them by calling out for my mother to wake me up. Part of this was my own fault — I had forgotten to take my bipolar medication and downed a double dose of anti-anxieties and Tylenol PM instead.
Despite the onslaught of sleeping pills, when I finally woke up to my alarm a few hours later, I didn’t feel an ounce of tiredness. I was ready to go, ready to see people, ready to have fun! As I put my makeup on and ran my mouth a mile a minute, my mother, Siri, gently put her hand on my arm. “I say this out of love: talk slower, talk quieter, and let other people get a word in.”
I am normally not an outgoing person. My social anxiety is off the charts, I think small talk is the worst, and I’m nervous whenever I’m put in a situation I don’t have full control over. Yet there I was, talking to strangers, making jokes at all the right moments, talking fast and exerting energy I didn’t know I had.
I felt on top of the world, with an elevated sense of confidence. I ate up attention like it was the only thing keeping me alive. I was all about myself, convinced I was the best thing ever, impulsive in all of my choices throughout the day.
In photos, my smile almost splits my face, and there’s a certain look in my eye — I’m crazed and overstimulated. Everything was moving so fast, and I was trying my hardest to keep up while simultaneously trying to avoid the inevitable crash and burn until I was back at the hotel.
By the end of the day, I was running on fumes. I was tired. I was cycling at the worst possible time, when I would have to face yet another group of people I didn’t know. The world stopped moving rapidly, and as it slowed its spinning, I started to slow down as well. When Siri came back to the hotel room, she found me sitting in the bath tub, having completely forgotten to plug the drain, letting the hot water pour down on my feet and not even questioning why the water never rose higher than my ankles. I slogged through the parties with minor shmoozing, and when it came time to take my medication, I passed out almost immediately.
The next day, I awoke feeling sane. I pressed Siri for details about the day before — for whatever reason, I could only vaguely remember the fast talking, the hyperawareness of stimulants, the calls for attention. It felt like a dream, something I could only imagine in my sleep — not something I could experience in real life.
Mania is wonderful, crazy, and, at times, terrifying.
The mania ate away at my sense of self, leaving only the very best and very impulsive parts of me – a dangerous combination when you are convinced you can do anything you want to at that very moment in time.
I spoke to my psychiatrist about the situation, and she upped my meds. It always feels like a step backward — the medication should be helping, yet there I go again, needing to up my medication for the third time in six months.
But the fact of the matter is that bipolar is a constant roller coaster ride, a constant adjustment of meds, a constant cycle, a constant in my life. My mood swings do not indicate failure — they indicate that my brain needs a little extra help, because I’m only human. I don’t believe in the term “normal” — everybody has their own definition for it. Bipolar is my normal. And even though mania can be fun and bring out an idealized version of myself, there’s nothing better than feeling sane.
To end this, I’ll quote Carrie Fisher again, for she always seems to say it best:
“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m surviving it, but bring it on.”
Well put, Carrie. Well put.