Thanks to all the external triggers, like all the things happening in our country right now, and all the internal triggers, like moving to a new state/phase of life after 22 years in the old one, my bipolar and rapid cycling have been pretty amped up. So I thought I’d republish a couple of pieces I wrote a few years ago that describe, for me at least, what it’s like to live with this condition.
Originally published 2/19/2013
Yesterday I was talking to my Partner-In-Crime, Lynne, and we had what seemed like the millionth session of working on my Bipolar, rapid mood-cycling stuff. If you’ve never experienced this yourself, I’ll just give you a quick description of what it feels like for me.
If you remember those spring and bar scales you had to stand on at the doctors’ office, then imagine that they represent our emotional range. Now, on those scales you can only move the bar so far in either direction before you hit the edges; this is how I picture a healthy emotional range. It goes from unpleasant emotions up to good-feeling emotions, but it has some governors on either end.
But on my emotional scale there aren’t any edges; there’s nothing to stop me from tipping over into emotional extremes, and then just falling off the scale altogether. Over, and over, and over, and over, and OVER. I might be able to pull myself back up onto some kind of middle ground, but when this stuff is really triggered I just slip right back down the other side into what feels like a bed of emotional nails.
I’m grateful that I don’t have the most severe form of Bipolar, but oh my gosh, what I have is so SO hard to manage, and I am one of the fortunate ones. I have good meds and incredible support, so I’m not alone; but then again, I am alone, because when it all comes down it is just me and my mind.
Generally speaking, I love my mind. I love to think. I love information. I love to take classes and learn something new. But when my Bipolar stuff is activated it’s as if my mind is betraying me, because the tricky thing about this illness is that Bipolar Mind lies. And if Bipolar Mind is the bully, then All-Or-Nothing Thinking, Grandiose Thinking, and You Are “Special” Thinking are its enforcer thugs.
When this whole process begins, I generally fall to the manic side first. At first I just feel happy, and excited about all the projects I’ve got going on. But if my mania has been triggered-as a response to some intense stressor, perhaps, like a family member in the middle of a crisis, or as a bad reaction to some medicine, or by eating too much sugar-gradually what was the feeling of happiness starts intensifying, and revving up, and gathering steam until it feels as though there is a buzz saw shearing through the middle of me, and it’s stuck in the “on” position.
It took me a long, l-o-n-g time to recognize that even though my mind was labeling that whole emotional experience as “happiness”, it was telling me something that wasn’t true. What is true is that there comes a point when the relaxed, aligned happy feelings end, and the grasping, driving, insatiable energy of mania takes over. But now I’m pretty good at noticing the difference, because now I know that happiness doesn’t hurt.
I also know that if I can take even one, tiny breath when I’m deluged by these feelings, I can get a bit of separation from the experience and start noticing and naming what is happening. I’ve learned that my mind is lying to me when it tells me that these overwhelming, all-consuming feelings are true. Instead I’ve learned to say to myself, “Oh, there’s that buzz saw again. Oh, yeah, I’m feeling insatiable, and my breathing is really shallow. Oh, and over there I’m feeling tempted to binge.” (And it’s not just bingeing with food; it can be eating, buying books, thinking, housecleaning, whatever. It’s anything I feel compelled to do, that I think might soothe all the chaos I’m feeling inside but actually doesn’t-for more than a second or two, anyway.)
Also, as I mentioned before, there are signs that I’m starting to get manic in the thought patterns that start to show up for me. The most obvious of these is that I go into obsessive syllable counting, and am physically and mentally unable to stop rearranging words into patterns of eights (they don’t call this obsessive and compulsive for nothing).
But that’s not the only thought pattern that comes out to play when I get manic. For example, if I ever do manage to break free from my compulsive counting for a second or two, then I immediately start to “All-or-Nothing” everything. So if one day I’m stuck in my writing, then my mind starts to yell “I will NEVER be able to write another blog post, EVER AGAIN!”, no matter how much evidence I have to the contrary, such as almost eleven years of blog archives. (Again with all the lying.)
I also see a lot of Grandiose Thinking at times like this, which Lynne defined for me as, “thinking I can do something that is greater than the possibility of my life.” This can be especially tricky, because Bingeing can sneak in the back door here and, for example, hook me into buying a bunch of info products because I’m convinced that I can just tweak a few things, super-monetize my blog and then Become An Internet Billionaire In Only 30 Days!
But the trickiest part of this whole thing for me is when Grandiose Thinking morphs into what I call “Special” Thinking. This is the thought pattern that seduces me the most. Because “Special” Thinking whispers to me that I am different, that I’m something more than just a mere mortal, unlike everyone else. And I confess-that’s a lie that I sometimes wish were true. If we’re talking the Seven Deadly Sins, then mine is and always has been Pride.
But “Special” Thinking doesn’t just tell me that I am somehow more than I actually am; it tricks me into believing that the same is true of my life. Because colors are more vivid, smells are headier, my thoughts are faster, connections pop into place, and creative ideas spark every which way I turn, until I eventually find myself thinking things like, “I can’t slow down for anything as pedestrian as eating; I have too much Important Work to do.” Right.
This, this is the addictive part of mania, this rush, this high. This is what makes people stop taking their meds. This is what you remember once you’ve crashed and burned, the lie that tells you that it was all worth it, no matter how trashed you feel when you plummet back down to earth. These are the feelings you crave. This is the memory against which you compare the non-manic periods of your life, the reason you listen to that hypnotic voice that whispers, “Nothing else will ever feel as good as this did.” This is what tempts you to return, even if you have to amp yourself up on your own, anything, just to get another hit of that intellectual or emotional high.
But of course, that place is completely unsustainable. What goes up most definitely falls back down, and the higher the high, the greater the cost to your mind, emotions, nervous system, and body.
To be continued…