In An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison walks the reader through her journey to accepting her bipolar diagnosis and lifelong treatment which would extinguish the manic moods that brought their own thrills, comfort, and pleasures to her life. As a bipolar sufferer myself, I can personally relate to Jamison’s struggle to “give up” the highs of mania, even with the knowledge that the lows of suicidal depression would soon follow. Before my last big psychiatric crisis, which was my wake up call to the danger of hypomanic states, I was addicted to the chemical high my brain created without the help of stimulants. I was productive, creative, outgoing, witty. I had much more energy and needed much less sleep. Society even rewarded me for my behavior when hypomanic. I maintain a 4.0 GPA. I received awards and accolades. I was a devoted friend, generous with my time and resources. I was a social light — people wanted to talk to me, collaborate with me, date me, party with me.
But the good only lasted so long. With my night and day mixed up with insomnia, I would forget to take my meds. As I ascended higher and higher, I would feel so good that I often convinced myself that I was healed and no longer needed treatment. My body became so wired I was accident prone — bumping into things, falling over, walking into walls, cutting my fingers with the kitchen knife. Plus, my body was desensitized to pain so I often did not know I had injured myself until I saw a bruise or blood. I would start to experience a flight of ideas coming in faster than I could get them out. I experience hypergraphia with the overwhelming desire to express myself on the page. I drew images that came to mind, wrote down every single idea thinking they were all brilliant. I wrote and sent letters to people, painting landscapes on the envelopes. To compensate for the speed of my thoughts, I would speak faster. I could not control what was urgently wanting to come out. I couldn’t help, but speak over people or interrupt them. I would speak louder, laugh boisterously and more often. Everything was funny to me, even the dark and morbid. My social life would get out of control. All of a sudden the people who were my true friends faded into the distance and I would be surrounded by a host of new faces that only encouraged my behavior, unable to know that I was not acting like myself.
Eventually, the mania would become full blown. I would completely lose control of my thoughts, words, and actions. Psychosis would start to bleed into my experience making it difficult to discern between reality and illusion. Unfortunately, forced hospitalization was often the only intervention to stop psychotic mania in its tracks. I’d get drugged up on sedatives to the point of numbness. The pills felt like a wrecking ball tied around my neck and depression plunged me into an ocean of despair. You might be wondering, if hypomania would set a chain of events that ended in such tragedy and the risk of suicide, why hold on to that state?
The early stages of hypomania are hard to discern. I feel like I’m the best version of myself and many people would agree that I am. I feel no anxiety, no shame. I am comfortable in my skin, confident and content in who I am. I feel connected to every living being around me. Sounds are sharper. Colors are brighter. I emit this exuberance that serendipitously attracts magical experiences to me. I hear my ancestors and spirit guides. I can discern the voice of God. I speak to strangers about the most intimate they’ve experienced but never shared with me prior. I just pick up on things. Sense things. Smell things. Know things. It’s an otherworldly experience, a divine madness — one that somehow makes sense of our small world and the entire cosmos. I am in love with life. I do not fear death. I feel one with the moon and the stars, the soil and seas. The rewards are hard to give up, even in light of the risks. Jamison puts it:
Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
“Long since that extended voyage of my mind and soul, Saturn and its icy rings took on an elegiac beauty and I don’t see Saturn’s image now without feeling an acute sadness at is being so far away from me, so unobtainable in so many ways. The intensity, glory, and absolute assuredness of my mind’s flight made it very difficult for me to believe, once I was better, that the illness was one I should willingly give up.”
But in giving up the moon and the stars, or Saturn’s rings in Jamison’s case, stability has given me something sweeter. It’s given me a groundedness to exist in this reality that I share with the people I love. It’s allowed me to pursue my intellectual curiosities and artistic passions as a budding scholar. It’s helped me be a good mother and partner. I do miss my celestial experiences, the energy, the creativity, euphoria. But I am learning how to draw from my past highs and bring the goodness from them into my more stable existence. Like most spiritual and creative endeavors, success is not instant, it’s an intentional and daily practice. And I’m learning to be okay with that.
Photo credit: Collage Art by Nadia Naomi Mbonde
Image Description: Nadia’s celestial body surfs Saturn’s rings against a black spacey sky lit by a half moon.