elucidating the bipolar experience

by tobymarx

The following paragraphs are from An Unquiet Mind1 by clinical psychologist Kay Jamison, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the foremost experts on bipolar disorder, who is herself bipolar. Writing as both clinician and subject, Dr. Jamison vividly describes what it’s like to be manic-depressive.

There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere this changes. The fast ideas are too fast, and there are far too many, overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friend’s faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against…. you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and emerged totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.

It goes on and on, and finally there are only other’s recollections of your behavior…. your bizarre, frantic, aimless behaviors….. for mania has at least some grace in partially obliterating memories. What then after the medications, psychiatrist, despair, depression, and overdose? All those incredible feelings to sort through. Who is being too polite to say what? Who knows what? What did I do? Why? And most hauntingly, when will it happen again? Then, too, are the bitter reminders….. medicine to take, resent, forget, take, resent, and forget, but always to take. Credit cards revoked, bounced checks to cover, explanations due at work, apologies to make, intermittent memories (what did I do?), friendships gone ordained, a ruined marriage. And always, when will it happen again? Which of my feelings are real? Which of the me’s is me? The wild impulsive chaotic, energetic, and crazy one? Or the shy, withdrawn, disparate, suicidal, doomed, and tired one? Probably a bit of both, hopefully much that is neither. Virginia Woolf, in her dives and climbs, said it all, “How far do our feelings take their colour from the dive underground? I meant, what is the reality of any feeling?

The highs are indeed stellar; if only I could forever remain on that plane of experience and awareness! Inevitably comes the fall from grace, when psychosis shatters the mirror of my Self into myriad fragments and darkness descends on the landscape of my mind.

1 Jamison, Kay Redfield. 2005. An Unquiet Mind. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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