Textbook Definition: Alternating moods of abnormal highs (mania) and lows (depression). Frequently called bipolar disease (or disorder) because of the swings between these opposing poles in mood. A type of depressive disease. Not nearly as prevalent as other forms of depressive disorders. Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual. Mania often affects thinking, judgment, and social behavior in ways that cause serious problems and embarrassment.
I am bipolar (aka, manic depressive). Manic depression is an incurable progressive sickness deriving from a chemical imbalance in the brain. The disorder has a large genetic component. It is never the result of any form of substance abuse, although it often fosters abuse in undiagnosed sufferers who, desperate for relief from their roller-coaster emotions, try to self-medicate. Those afflicted with the disorder bounce wildly between crazed flights of self-important exuberance and violent crashes down into despair. Highs and lows can last hours, days, weeks or months. Suicide is common. As one ages, the highs become higher and the lows exponentially lower. During advanced manias, the sufferer engages in escalating episodes of reckless, self-destructive behavior. The heroin-like rush of living on the edge becomes an addiction. Families, careers and whole lives are ruined.
At the peak of mania, bipolars are often of a mind that the world exists — and sometimes must be adapted forcibly — to serve their ambitions and convenience. When I am thus elevated, I know that nothing and no-one outranks any material or social need I might have. My wants — including my wants of unconditional acquiescence and validation — are to be met at any cost. I am loudly and sometimes violently contrary. Rages come as naturally as breath. Virtually all actions are ill-considered and frequently vengeful. Later, after mania subsides, I acknowledge these wrongs in myself and beat myself up over them, but I am too despondent to put them right. The energy is not there. Nor the courage.
During my last great mania before my diagnosis and the start of my treatment, I dashed upon the rocks much of what I held dear.
We must fall before we can rise. As the Buddhists say: All is learning. And every day I thank God for the medications which, for a number of years now, have allowed me to live a normal life.
Shortly after I began a regular regime of mood stabilizers, a colleague told me he hoped my doctors would not make me so “well” that I would no longer be able to create. It is his opinion that at least some short manic flights — bursts of inspiration — are necessary for all innovation; and he is right. “The question is not yet settled,” wrote the dismal, often-deranged Poe, “whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence — whether much that is glorious — whether all that is profound — does not spring from disease of thought — from moods of mind exalted.”
My colleague need not have feared. There is no magic bullet. There is no “cure,” per se, only stabilizing treatment. The flotation devices which are my meds make treacherous waters more safe to navigate, but the waters remain treacherous. Remove those flotation devices, and all bets are off.
My mind still exalts — just not to the dangerous heights it once did. My medications accomplish a lot, but do not completely stop the gyration of my emotions and outlook. Ironically, were my symptoms to vanish completely, I’m sure I would feel their loss. Looking back, I realize I cherish many of the manic moments I’ve experienced — at least the ones that did not come near killing or otherwise destroying me. I’d not repeat them; and I’d certainly not willingly enter into a bargain where I once again had to experience crippling depressions, but I do not regret them. I’m grateful to have known those mountaintops, just as I am grateful to now scale shorter summits, for as long as God allows.
But the manic depressive never takes a victory lap. The beast, though beaten back, does not leave and does not die. Nor does he sleep. He lies in wait, always within striking distance, always ready to claim what is his. He’s only a few pills away.