Cleaning A Beautiful Mess
On the bittersweetness of manic-depressive life
It was 2008 and a most beautiful spring evening. Penn State’s University Park bloom had taken full effect. Classes were well underway, likely just past midterms. I was out for a walk. I had not slept in nearly a week.
I walked past a public art display of window panes suspended from metal posts. Windows hanging in thin air. I saw my reflection and immediately realized several profound truths, none of which I can remember. I took the most beautiful picture I had ever seen. I began crying hard.
It took a few months to get to that point.
At first it was a subtle increase in social stamina. I became more confident. I talked to more people. I became more interested and felt much more interesting. I felt old habits of shyness quickly fading away.
I found myself immersed in the psychology of Maslow and Carl Rogers. I would later tell a counselor that I was attempting to tip Maslow’s pyramid of needs on its side, bypassing the terribly boring base physical needs — sleeping, eating — and heading straight to self-actualization. I felt like the life of the party no matter where I happened to be. Maybe I was.
It can be difficult to explain the depth or intensity of a manic episode if one is unfamiliar. If so imagine a strong weather pattern as seen from a mountain top. The most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen. Clouds flowing at speed. Now like a time-lapse video recording. The fastest wind you have felt. The rain pouring now. The changes coming too fast to track. A dreadful combination of unpredictability and haste. And the most potent desire for more of it.
The truth of a manic episode is that it rarely stays in this sort of exalted, revelatory state. It can slip between delusion and depression, sometimes quite rapidly. This is exhausting. But the irony of manic exhaustion is how much more apparent it can be to others than to the self. Delusion is funny like that. It strips even the most self-aware of their sight. And it becomes totally exhausting to others.
I did not finish that semester. The summer was spent at home. I slept a lot. I took a small job. I formed a tiny routine.
It took a long time to really get myself back. And that part is not very interesting, but it is necessary. Go to a therapist. Take the medicine if that’s your thing. What I can pass on is that you have to want it. You really have to want to get better.
In the brilliant documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry interviews a number of people who have been dealt this illness, this so-called dis-ease. In the process, he asks all of them whether they would trade all these experiences — all the great insights, risks, pain and extremities — for a “neurotypical” life.
Only a small handful in the film would have wished it away. I found myself aligned with the majority. If I were given the ability to return my experiences in exchange for pure emotional stability, I would not. It is much too valuable to know emotional extremes which bring with them gifts of empathy. But it also became apparent in time what an impact the siren song of madness had on loved ones. A costly negative mental externality, so to speak.
We talk about failing fast and elegantly. There is not much elegance in this type of intrapersonal breaking. But the hidden upside to falling at such a profound level is if you are given the chance to entirely rebuild. It may require reforming trust in relationships or creating new patterns of work and play. And hopefully without being too idealistic — this is a long haul we’re talking about—it is in the recovery, the next act, where there is beauty and meaning.