[For Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, I thought I’d write about something less obviously damaging to those who don’t have to deal with it.]
Like many people with mood disorders, I have marked periods of ups and downs. While it’s true that at the outset, the ups are fun and the downs are terrible, things aren’t so black and white in reality. My own extreme moods tend to last for days or weeks, but some people, such as my aunt who has bipolar disorder, can spend months in such a state – when she is “high” she needs to be hospitalised and have her medication adjusted, not just to level her mood, but to cushion her as much as possible for when the inevitable rebound low comes. I’m lucky that my own periods of extreme mood are far shorter and with longer periods of relative stability in between, but my hypomania (as opposed to the full-blown mania suffered by my aunt) still leaves a trail of destruction – money spent, hours thrown into projects I will never complete (or even understand) afterwards, and the inevitable mental fallout… let me give you a typical example, which happened last month:
One day in the middle of April, I received two pieces of good news about my disability activism. I quickly made a happy Facebook post, and enjoyed telling a few friends specific details. Hours later, I was still bouncing with excitement. My mind was making up endless scenarios that could come from this news, leaving me unable to concentrate on anything. I definitely didn’t feel like sleeping, so I didn’t. I stayed up and wrote more. I read Wikipedia before going to sleep for a few hours around 9am the next day. That afternoon I got up, and went on the internet, but I didn’t feel productive and excited any more, I felt uncomfortable and jittery, like I’d had too much coffee. I opened tab after tab “to read later”, because I couldn’t concentrate. I talked a lot, to myself. The phone calls I was supposed to make were never done, because I felt too anxious to talk on the phone, too anxious even to read all the tabs I kept opening. After staying up all night because I was too scared to sleep when it was dark outside, I took some melatonin in the late morning. Later that 3rd day, I got up and dressed and went across London to see a friend. I felt much calmer due to the groggy after-effects of the melatonin, but when our conversation touched on certain things, I became overexcited and then angry at myself for being so. Five days after it started, the hypomania fully tapered off and I was on a fairly even keel again, but left feeling disorientated as if I’d been away for weeks and was panicked about what I had left un-done in those few days. The heightened anxiety took a bit longer to abate.
Last month’s hypomanic episode only left me with extra calls on my to-do list, a week of emails in my inbox, and 24 open Wikipedia tabs to read, but there have been much worse repercussions – like a relationship I knew I shouldn’t have entered into. When I lived in France as part of my degree course a few years ago, I got a bit depressed in the last months as I was quite lonely. I started talking to a guy online in London, and the prospect of meeting him made me really excited to be home again. TOO excited. If I had not been so high, I might have considered it a very bad idea to get into a relationship with someone with a serious eating disorder (and in serious denial about it) as well as grandiose ideas about creativity to match my own at the time. But I was high, so at first we were MAGICAL! We made joint art projects, took photographs on London rooftops at 6am, made up songs and sang them in comedy clubs…I felt like together we could change the world (to be honest, that should have been a warning sign). It was a rough ride as I slowly tumbled back to earth, and the thread of anxiety running through our whole relationship started to entangle me, leading to self-harm, self-hatred and self-doubt. Even though that lengthy hypomanic phase introduced me to one thing I still enjoy (comedy performance), it also brought me to the end of my overdraft and left me with the fallout from having been encouraged to diet and to reduce my medications by someone I had idolised. The subsequent depressive episode was the worst I’ve ever experienced, although it was about 5 months until it appeared. Whether its severity related to the long high or not I don’t know, but it felt like I’d fallen miles into the ground after being high above the world for so long.
I often find it hard to tell whether my mood is changing to the extreme. Like last month, a hypomanic episode might start out as excitement, then before I know it it’s taken over and all I can do is ride it out. Hypomania isn’t just “being too happy”, other emotions are heightened – anxiety, annoyance, and impatience are the ones I find also get turned up. Although I’m still working out how to spot warning signs, I am aware of one definite trigger for my own highs, and that is music. I love music – doesn’t everyone? It’s been a huge part of my life ever since someone shoved a tiny violin into my hands when I was 4 years old. These days I tend to listen more than I play, but I’ve learnt to be careful what I listen to. Too much of a favourite band, or a particular album, might set me off and I’ll spend the whole night listening to music, maybe ranking different versions of songs, or analysing scores and lyrics for comparison, as if searching to prove a scientific theory. One night I made several friends listen to “Maria” from West Side Story then Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture to prove to them that Bernstein had used a motif from the earlier piece as inspiration for one cadence within the later song’s chorus. Even if you don’t know music terminology you’ll recognise that that is obsessive behaviour, and that’s something that I often fail to spot in myself until I am too high to come down again – usually I don’t realise I’m in a hypomanic phase until I’m tired and anxious and unable to calm myself (plus stopping to think “Wait, am I high?” before embarking on a project can be somewhat creatively stifling). However, with the help of my partner, who has learnt to spot the warning signs, and friends who have had to learn not to encourage my music-based ramblings, I am slowly becoming better both at managing hypomania, and at nurturing my creativity in a safer manner.