What is bipolar mania, and what does it feel like?

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Manic episodes can be intense both for the experiencer and those in the vicinity, and lead to a commensurate crash after the fact. Perhaps, understanding what happens inside the manic mind will make us less prone to labelling such individuals as 'crazy'.

Mania is a state of mind that temporarily can make one feel invincible, energised and euphoric. On top of the world. | Max Pixel

“She’s crazy.”

“He has lost his mind.”

“She behaves like such a lunatic.”

“He’s a total maniac.”

 

We’ve all, at one point or another, used these words to describe people be it friends, family, neighbours, strangers, or celebrities. Sometimes endearingly and sometimes flippantly, but often, at a subconscious level, we mean it literally. We don’t understand why that person behaves in a manner that is so unlike their usual self, why they do things that defy human understanding, that go against all social norms.

I’ve been guilty of passing such judgements too. Until I had my first bipolar manic episode.

Earlier, I saw my life in two parts — before the diagnosis of my bipolar disorder, and after.

Things have changed.

Now, it is before my manic episode, and after.

Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve become used to being described by my friends and family as ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ and ‘insane’. I would just laugh it off. Some of my actions did seem crazy even to me so they obviously were justified in their choice of words.

Over the years, it became apparent to me that I wasn’t exactly normal. Like all big things, it started with the little things. There was the time I shaved my head for no reason at all. I wasn’t donating my hair to cancer survivors or a certain God who resides on the Seven Hills. I wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement. I just wanted to feel the very literal lightness of a head sans hair.

Apart from the one friend who accompanied me to the barber (and the barber himself), nobody understood why I’d removed those ‘beautiful curls’. A friend asked me if I was intentionally trying to make myself ugly? Another stopped talking to me. (I later learnt that he had a crush on me and didn’t want to hang out with me anymore because bald girls aren’t attractive. He pings me occasionally but I don’t reply because shallow guys aren’t attractive.)

I shaved it again, after a couple of years. Bald had become the in thing by then, so I was receiving compliments this time.

Then there was the time I saw The Squirrel. Nothing extraordinary about spotting squirrels right? Except, there was no squirrel. It was on my 26th birthday. I was getting ready to leave for work. The flat I was living in then had Netlon on all windows, even the ones in the kitchen (exhaust area included). The door was almost always closed. So there was no way a squirrel could have got in.

But there it was, big and brown, looking at me with a steady gaze for more than a few moments. And poof!

My psychiatrist changed my medication that day. I looked up the prescription online; it was for schizophrenia.

Two years later, IT happened.

The winter of 2015.

The winter of my mania.

The winter my marriage fell apart.

The winter I aborted my baby.

The winter I turned into a monster.

The details of those days are too painful to recount. I have locked them up in a chest, shrouded it with an invisibility cloak and pushed it to the deepest corner of my heart. There are times though, when the cloak lifts off and the chest opens by itself. When those days unfold themselves again, I look at that monster and wonder if that really was me.

But even through those Kafkaesque days of my metamorphosis, I had angels by my side. Angels who held my hand and stood by me even, who loved me — demon or not.

In those moments of mania though, I felt invincible. I didn’t care for reason. I could do anything I wanted to and woe be to he who tried to stop me. There were brief spurts of sanity. For the most part though, I was insane.

So what exactly is bipolar mania? Let me try to explain it using its symptoms.

One, reckless spending. In those periods of high, money holds no meaning for us. Shopping sprees and reckless purchases of things mostly useless, piling up massive credit card bills, and gambling away your savings are sure signs that all’s not well. There have been times I’ve lent large amounts of money to people I barely know, which have oftentimes turned into bad debts. I am not much of a shopper but in those periods, I swipe my debit card down to the last rupee, buying clothes without even trying them on. This is the only reason I always say no to the kind ladies and gentlemen on the phone offering me free credit cards.

Two, indiscriminate sex. This was one of the many reasons my marriage fell apart. Nobody gets how I can be so reckless in matters such as these. Even I don’t understand it. There are many mornings I’ve woken up wishing I could travel back in time and change things. Only my mother understands, and for that I will forever be grateful to be born her daughter.

Three, the feeling of high. The abundance of energy. The increased activity levels, racing thoughts, Feeling jumpy, decreased need for sleep, talking too fast, talking too much, talking about too many different things, getting irritable and snappy, feeling anxious, hearing voices, seeing things, doing too many things at the same time, doing things you wouldn’t normally do, exaggerated optimism, heightened self-importance, loss of appetite, weight loss, poor concentration, aggression, excessive sociability, getting dominating and demanding, detachment from reality, feeling on top of the world — until it all comes crashing down.

The jury is still out on the exact causes of bipolar disorder. There do exist noticeable physical changes in our brains — neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances. Genetics play a big role too. If your parent or sibling has bipolar disorder, the chances are high you might have it too. Stress and substance-abuse can trigger serious episodes.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t just affect your mood. It has been linked to anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and high blood pressure. As for the mood, if things go downhill you face a high risk of psychosis that will require hospitalisation.

It’s worse off for us ladies. Those of us who are pregnant or have recently given birth are seven times more likely than other women to be admitted to the hospital for our bipolar disorder and are twice as likely to have a recurrence of symptoms.

Some of the drugs prescribed to us, such as valproic acid and carbamazepine, are harmful to babies and cause birth defects. My doctor told me that if I got pregnant while I am on valproic acid (which I am), the baby might be born with a heavily deformed spinal cord.

Valproic acid is also known to cause polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It affects our ovaries and leads to obesity, excess body hair, and irregular menstrual cycles.

Lithium, another popularly prescribed drug, often leads to low levels of thyroid hormone, which can affect symptoms of bipolar disorder and require thyroid hormone medication.

Life isn’t fair. Not to you. Nor to me.

So, I try to make the best out of what I have. My friends often joke around that I don’t need alcohol or weed to get high. I took it as a compliment thinking it implied I am happy by nature, until one friend told me they didn’t mean it as a compliment; it was a joke about how cuckoo I was. I did feel bad initially. I don’t anymore. I am not like you. I don’t need copious amounts of whisky and pot to get high.

Things aren’t perfect. They never will be. I will continue riding my waves of high and crawling into caves of misery. But for the most part, I am happy — the natural way. With no assistance whatsoever.

 

 

(Do read Shilpa's earlier pieces, which explore suicidal ideation, and the bipolar depression, from this series on bipolar disorder and mental health)

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