Updated: Sep 26, 2018
There, I said it.
At the beginning of the school year, I found myself in the middle of a manic episode. I knew something was wrong because I felt like I was stuck behind a car going 30 MPH in a 75 MPH zone. I was frustrated and anxious and I needed everyone to get out of my way. But I didn’t have the language to explain what was happening.
Here’s the thing: when I get depressed, I just say “I’m struggling with depression right now.” When I get anxious, I say “I’m feeling really anxious” or “I’m having a panic attack.” When I’m manic, I try to get people to figure it out. I say things like “My brain is on fire,” or just refer to myself as the crazy girl over and over again.
There’s a lot of shame and stigma present in mania. No one really knows what it’s like to be manic, and so they use their imaginations and the worst stories that they’ve heard to make assumptions. Everyone experiences mania differently, but the narratives that you’ve heard about the dangerous manic person are mostly untrue.
I want to name one place where this narrative is often reinforced: conversations about guns. When you talk about keeping guns out of the hands of people with “dangerous” or “severe” mental illness, you’re talking about me. You’re saying that because of my diagnosis – because of my mania – I’m more likely to be dangerous. But people with severe mental illness (bipolar and schizophrenia) are 12 times more likely to be the victims of violence, and only 3 to 4 percent of people with depression, bipolar and schizophrenia will commit a violent act. Here’s the thing – 96 percent of us aren’t violent. But people experiencing mania are portrayed as violent in the news, in the things you post on your timeline, and in movies and television.
So, when I’m manic, I try not to say anything. I don’t want people to be afraid of me, and I know that’s the narrative that they’ve been fed. But it’s also the narrative that I’ve been fed – to be afraid of my brain.
I was on Twitter this week when I saw this tweet. I realized that I haven’t been able to call mania by its name. I dread being manic, and when it happens, I’m so overwhelmed and embarrassed that I can’t say anything.
Here are some things that I experience when I’m manic: agitation, fragmented thoughts, creativity and productivity, anxiety, and restlessness.
I get super agitated because mania makes me feel like I’m moving faster than everyone else, and also that I’m smarter than everyone else. I constantly feel like everyone just needs to catch up to what I’m thinking or doing or get out of my way. It’s like someone with a really inflated ego. Since I think I know better than everyone else, my thoughts are normally three steps ahead. The problem is that means I’ve done some processing in my brain that I think others should know about, but I never communicate those thoughts. Which means everyone around me doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
Anxiety is the most brutal. I know when I’m manic. I know I don’t have a filter and that my empathy levels are really low. Have I been talking for too long? Does this idea sound right? Did I just offend her? It’s hard for me to even pick up on what other people are feeling – my normal intuition disappears. Anxiety about mania is what isolates us – I’m too scared to be around people, so I sit in my house as much as I can.
When I’m manic, my whole body needs to be moving at all times. Not moving causes me physical pain. If you were to drink three energy drinks and then need to sit still, that’s how this feels. I’m normally a bouncy person, but mania makes me lose control over my body. Every once in a while, when I’m trying to stay still, someone will ask me what’s wrong and it’s just that I’m concentrating really hard on not moving.
All of these things happen at the same time. The potential for me to do social damage is higher than usual, and I might do things I regret (think buying a Kate Spade bag), but I’m not dangerous.
Lots of people ask what to do when their friends are manic. Here’s the thing: being a friend doesn’t change whether I’m manic, depressed, or stable. Spend time with your friends. Ask how they’re doing. Go to dinner with them. Don’t let them make impulsive decisions. If they seem like they might harm themselves, make sure they get help. Don’t let us isolate ourselves because our brain chemistry isn’t working properly.