Mad musings: “What’s it like to be hypomanic?”

At first glance the term hypomania seems like an oxymoron, i.e., a little bit of a lot, but in my world, the hypomanic mood state is a real one. In it, the “victim” experiences what psychiatrists and psychologists like to refer to as a reduced (hypo-) form of an extreme state (mania). But their jargon tends to gloss the truly significant differences between the two. In mania, the victim has no or very little control over his/her thoughts, emotions and reactions. Their innate sexuality and/or moral convictions give way to hyper-sexuality and/or hyper-religiosity, and this is just for starters. They have a propensity, unless they are Scottish, to spend and/or give away large sums of money; one might even say ‘with abandon.’ They are compulsive and impulsive to a fault, and as their lives converge on the shambolic, their lives become indistinguishable from chaos, and this to the extent that their speech, and even their thoughts, grow increasingly incoherent, incoherent but yet not disorganized as in schizophrenia, but I may be splitting hairs here.

“Yes,” you say, “That’s all well and good, but what does mania feel like?” Well, for one thing, while it may feel pretty grand at the outset, by the time it reaches full-blown status, it feels pretty damned dreadful, like the difference between ‘warm’ and ‘fucking, scalding hot,’ or the difference between feeling animated and energetic, and feeling totally taken over by frenzy. Make no mistake, the manic state is damned dangerous and likely to wreak great destruction in the lives of its victims and their families — “tornado in a trailer park” I like to think of it as. And that’s why psychiatrists are so quick to pounce on the hypomanic state, because they see it as nothing more than a “wide spot” in a very narrow road that leads straight to hell — mania. And for the most part, their view is the correct one, although I know a few manic depressives who are living their entire lives (so far) in a hypomanic state. They lead happy, energetic, creative and productive lives, but do so only for as long as they can elude the frenzy of which hypomania is so often the harbinger. “All their sanity and wit they will have vanished, I promise, it’s just a matter of time,” and they rip off all their clothes and run naked down the middle of the street singing (if they’re lucky) or screaming (if not).

But what of hypomania; that’s what I really want to talk about. “What’s it like?” I’m sometimes asked. “You feel like you’re in love,” I say to them then. But with whom? You’re in love with someone you have yet to meet but hope to meet soon, very soon, and the expectations exude from every aspect of your being leaving you thoroughly intoxicated with anticipation and enthusiasm. And it feels like you’ve been set free. It’s as if God has just whispered in your ear that you cannot die. And in your very soul you know that there is nothing beyond your capabilities. “Nothing,” you repeat to yourself as your head fills with plans and projects, one piled upon another. Needless to say, hypomania is addicting, addicting as hell — as addicting as meth, I’m told by the few bipolar tweakers (crack heads) who cross my path — in that, like meth, having experienced it once is enough, more than enough, to leave you longing for its return ever after.

I had been actively manic-depressive for the better part of 6 decades, before someone noticed — my family doctor — and sent me to a psychiatrist, so, in some sense then, that qualifies me, or should, as an expert, of sorts, at least among the laity, on what it’s actually like to be hypomanic. (The aforementioned laity, it seems, is very uninterested in what it’s like to be depressed.) So, over the years since my diagnosis, I have been asked many times what it’s like, and have tried many, many times to explain and describe the experience. I’ve not been successful according to my family and normy-friends. The claim is, they say, that it’s not possible to make them understand, sort of in analogy to the impossibility of making the deaf understand what it’s like to hear one’s friends laugh, say, or what it’s like to hear Beethoven’s 9th for the first time . Still I persist. My latest stab at it: when mania takes you that all-pervasive feeling of emptiness that is always there will vanish, the weight of it lifted from your shoulders leaving you light as the air we breathe. And life will suddenly have meaning, a meaning which had always eluded you in the past, but what that meaning is is not clear, but that there is a meaning is a given.

I’m thinking now, back to a time before doctors were permanent personae in the drama of my life, and while my affliction was present even then, for I seemed to be affected by everything in the universe. I didn’t think constantly about it. For that to happen, it had to have been given a name, and this required the active participation of doctors — doctors have names for everything, and I suppose I should be reassured by that, but I am not.

And now that they have put a name to it, I find myself thinking about it all the time; it has assumed a role in my life, one commensurate with its effect — it’s in my every waking, idle thought. “But surely you are more than it,” others are fond of reminding me, and while I agree with that in principle, the truth of the matter is that much of the time it holds sway. It’s as if my soul came equipped with an ear trumpet tuned to detect every sound in the universe, down to the last audible tick, click and creek. How can I not think constantly about my madness when its cacophony, furious at times, if not altogether ardent, constantly reminds me of its presence like the shrills of one tormented by love — supremely seductive and yet somehow tainted? And of its attendant hypomania, what of it? The longing that used to fill my heart to overflowing has in time given way to melancholy, and I am often overcome with sorrow at the loss of my beloved hypomania, now denied to me forever by modern medicine. It’s in moments of reflection such as these that the tears are quick to come.

I keep a mood chart, and as I look back over this chart which extends backwards in time clear to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, I see how each day’s entry begins with “Okay.” Occasionally there’ll be a “Not Okay.” I’m such a simple soul, I dutifully keep my mood chart every day, rain or shine. I keep hoping one day my entry will start with “Wow!” or “Holy shit” or, may it please God, best of all, “I’m back!”. What do you think? It’s manic depression at its poignant best, no? “I’m back!” will be the first words out of my mouth when once my beloved hypomania returns. I ache for it. God forbid I ever come down with cancer, but if I do, swear to God, I’m coming off my fucking meds. If I have to die, let me die a free man and not all doped up on meds. Let me die the way God made me and intended me to be — crazy!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated wilmer bruce watson’s story.