[Written 20th October 2014, updated along the way, most recently 28th July 2015 ]
There’s a question that I’ve been trying to answer ever since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experienced the first obvious manic episode: how can I know when an episode of mania is coming on?
I have been working on answering this question for a while. Hence the start date for writing. It’s taken time, experience, reflection and I’m still not there yet. Here’s what I’ve got so far.
It’s not like people imagine. There’s no flash from the sky that strikes you down in the middle of your ordinary day changing you in an instant from deeply depressed to wildly happy.
There’s no sudden chemical reaction that causes an immediate switch from happy Harry to sad Sally. You won’t be mid conversation with me and I’ll sudden lash out with anger or anything dramatic like that. I promise. I also won’t suddenly slump into deep depression.
It’s much more subtle than that.
I have bipolar disorder type 2, or manic depression. As opposed to bipolar disorder type 1, or classic bipolar, which involves intense highs followed by agonizing lows.
In the six months or so before my diagnosis of bipolar, I would exist mostly in varying depths of depression with the odd dilly dally into sub-mania, or half strength, quarter strength mania. So sub-manic that I didn’t even know it was happening for the first few episodes! It was like a partial lessening of my depression, not very distinguishable from my usual depression. It certainly wasn’t the full mania thing; I didn’t get the happy, carefree, superhero mood to balance my sorrows. I actually noticed a worsening of my depression when the lighter mood ended rather than noticing a lightening of my depression. I felt that I was having cyclical worsening of my depression, whereas the mental health nurse in ED saw a recurring very weak mania.
Moods don’t change 50 times a day. I should know. When I was first provisionally (meaning this-is-what-we-think-it-is-but-we’ll-wait-to-see-before-we-commit-to-the-title) diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was in a phase called rapid cycling. As it kind of suggests, rapid cycling is where your mood cycles/changes rapidly! Pretty self explanatory.
What this meant for me literally was about once a week over three or four weeks I would descend into the big black pit from where I could see no possible exit other than stopping living in it. That’s what being suicidal is all about; utter hopelessness. It’s awful and very hard to bear.
But then I’d be a bit better again, and think, oh that wasn’t so bad. If it happens again I’ll definitely tell someone, but I’m okay now so it’s all good. Except that each time I went in it was worse! And worse, and worse until I was done with it! Luckily I had an appointment with my GP on the day I was done with it so that instead of being done, I went to hospital and you know the recovery story after that. Or if you don’t, it’s time to hit the archives!
So rapid cycling. Once a week, not once a day, 10 times a day or anything fantastical. That’s rapid cycling.
For the “regular” patient with bipolar 1…weird statement, I’m sure every one is different and there’s nothing regular about it!…mood changes might be more likely to occur every few months or even once or less per year. Maybe every few years once a person is medicated. But when they come, they can be a serious force to be reckoned with!
So my original question: how do you know when it’s coming?
I’m still not completely sure.
I’ve found that needing less sleep or unusually restless sleep, waking many times in the night and waking for good in the early morning hours is a sign of mania, which doesn’t rest, and wants to be on the move the whole time.
I usually have a couple of days of being more irritated/frustrated/annoyed about small things than usual. Ask my poor husband! I stub my toe and scream in full on rage at the pain and the stupidness of myself to do such a dumb, painful thing. I mess something up and totally lose it, raging at myself for my incompetence. I just can’t tolerate anything less than perfection in myself. I take a wrong turn in the car, get lost, run late and just burn up the road in furious outrage at my incapability to do anything right. I fumble my keys, my phone slips out of my fingers, 1 drop one of the 10 things I’m balancing in my arms while I walk blind down the stairs and write myself off as a useless, worthless human being! When actually I’m a regular human being possessed of a mood that makes me think I can do a lot more than I a) can or b) should.
At this point, the best way to end things and to not keep on getting worse and worse, is to go to bed and sleep. For however long it takes to wear off the mania.
It’s truly a strange disorder. In essence, this is what depression is, being upset and down on yourself, but this time instead of getting melancholy about being useless, I get mad, really mad! Not at you, don’t worry. The majority is forcefully muttering stupid, idiot, fool, dummy at myself under my breathe. The rest is taken out on my poor hubby, who tends to have a bad habit of laughing when I’m this mood and massively exaggerating the events of the day. Of course the more he laughs, the closer I get to bashing him with the rolling pin! Once the mood passes we laugh about it together, but at the time he makes me furious!!! Livid!!!
Then there is getting teary about silly things more than usual, although that can come with the depression cycle too. I’m naturally an easy crier, which goes against my attempt to be cool, calm and collected! I think I can see now that when these PMS-ish symptoms start, it’s time to take a breath and check what’s really going on. I say PMS-ish cause that’s how it kind of feels, although I maintain that I don’t get (much!) PMS…my husband prefers to not answer so who can tell?!?
Add some annoying heart palpitations which make me nervous about being anxious again and you have a pretty complete picture.
I suppose the more important question is, how do I know when I’m a bit manic? Easy! I have had some pretty perfect examples!
One day a while back, I woke up spontaneously at 5am without an alarm, feeling fully rested and completely ready to hit the floor running and get things moving! This from a famously unlover of mornings!
I had motivation, organisation, energy to boot and I’m full on into my job list!!! Check check check check check..what’s next???
All this despite being exhausted for the previous 4 days, not getting out of bed until 5pm one day a few days back and having a 4 hour “nap” two days before missing half of a family birthday! Whatever comes my way, today I’m all over it!
Before 8am I’d been for two laps around the park; most days I wouldn’t even be awake yet! And I never walk! I catch the bus/train/tram/friends car/taxi before I walk, except when Chester’s making an effort to get me out of the house and we do a slow stroll around the park…today I was striding! I was considering jogging! Today I’m on fire!
But I have to keep a careful check that I don’t get too cray-cray, too outgoing and chatty, too effervescent and bubble off the reservation! I don’t want to wander into the real manic territory of getting all spendy with the money I’m not earning, getting over confident with betting/gambling (not really a worry is my theory since I never do that anyway…), being over-enthusiastic/ambitious to the point of being a bit delusional or putting myself in dangerous situations that I think I can handle or just physically burning myself out being bouncy and happy and carefree and all over it!
The other classic manic thing is getting a bit over-affectionate…Chester won’t complain, as long as I keep it within the house!
And one perk: I’m so active, and busy PLUS I don’t get hungry as much and don’t wear out at all! So mania. Love it! Love it more when it stays more than a day or two but it’s usually pretty short lived. Love it the most when it isn’t followed by a big black lump of depression but that can be a common switch. In general, I’d prefer if I didn’t get depressed at all or manic at all. I love the energy of mania but it can also make me irritable, restless and impulsive and I start to get claustrophobic and nervous about all my typical old scary movie type phobias. And there’s nothing much I love about depression. So after an episode of sub-mania it’s back to the psychiatrist for a review and a new opinion of what to do next. I’m guessing there’s a lithium or valproate dose increase in the works…and that’s okay with me! Whatever it takes to get back to a comfortable holding pattern of “normal” moods. The aim is always for the lows to not be as low, and the highs not as high. Middle ground; that’s what we’re chasing. Here’s to it!
So, fortunately/unfortunately this has been the story of my bipolar. Fortunately I don’t get the massive mania with delusions, super hero thoughts and even hallucinations. Unfortunately my mood swings tend to be often, like weeks and months and they do throw me off balance each time. Despite what I’ve tried to learn about my mind and my body from my experience so far, and the fact that I know mood swings will come in spite of my meds, they still creep up and catch me unawares. And so far they do unfortunately seem to be getting bigger and more intense each time…but I won’t borrow trouble before it comes.
The last question is how can other people tell that I’m manic? My husband has some answers for that list! I may be a bit short with you, or seem a bit edgy and I will be less patient than usual. I’ll be more sociable than usual but it’ll be a bit fragile if things go wrong. I try to keep it together for everyone else but sometimes some sharp answers slip through my filter; I apologise in advance!