When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I was struggling at work. I had been dealing with debilitating depression for nearly a year, and it was difficult to even get out of bed and go to work, much less do a good job while I was there. Then I finally had a good stretch over summer break, but it didn’t last long. When my doctor determined I had Bipolar Disorder rather than just Depression, I was a bit confused. Then I learned that my good stretch had actually been mania, technically hypomania. I felt I needed to tell some of the folks at work about my diagnosis, and they were confused, as well. They said I didn’t act like someone who had Bipolar Disorder. Even friends tried to tell me the label didn’t fit because they had never seen me manic. Skeptical myself at first, I have since learned enough about Bipolar Disorder and the mania that accompanies it to feel comfortable with the diagnosis, but these events taught me that many people don’t really understand what mania is all about.
One of the most significant effects of my depression was fatigue, so once the exhaustion started to lift, I noticed right away. I didn’t need an afternoon nap, I started staying up later, and I began to get up earlier. Within a few days, I was waking after about four hours of sleep, restless to get up and get things done. At the time, I felt that this was a natural reaction to feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. I was anxious to perform the little tasks I hadn’t been able to, partly because I was worried the depression would return. The decreased need for sleep is one of the signs of mania or hypomania.
And there were a lot of these projects! I started on one and then shifted to another, hurrying to try to get them all done as soon as possible. I added some things to my mental list and started a few of them. Only later, when my doctor asked how many projects actually got finished, did I realize that none of them did, which is very unlike me. Although I can multi-task, I prefer to complete whatever task is most pressing and then move on to the next. The kind of distractibility I experienced was also indicative of mania or hypomania, particularly since it was out of my normal context.
I also couldn’t seem to keep my mouth shut. Trust me, I was hilarious. I am normally a pretty reserved person, but I felt so good that I couldn’t help joking at all times, even with people I barely knew. I found out later that people at one place were all asking my husband, “What’s with her?” While the depression had made me more inhibited, this change was beyond my normal self, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. Again, I just thought I felt like my old self again. I’m sure many of those people thought I was drunk or on drugs. Such loss of social inhibitions also points to mania or hypomania.
Probably the most disturbing symptom for me was the racing thoughts. I couldn’t hold on to an idea for any reasonable length of time. In the time it took me to take the six steps to the cupboard from the table, I would have forgotten what I was after. The primary reason I had trouble going to sleep at night was because I couldn’t shut my mind off. I saw it like a ticker-tape scrolling at high speed through my head. This is one of the primary symptoms of mania or hypomania.
The nail in the coffin was when I found some old credit cards and decided I was going to buy myself some stuff on the internet. I ordered some clothes, and I also picked out some gadgets that I ran across, although later I didn’t know what they were for. We were very short on money at the time, and buying such items would have not only been irresponsible but totally out of character for me. If my parents sent me birthday money, I would usually spend it on my kids. But I remember sitting at the keyboard thinking, “I deserve this. I don’t care if we can’t afford it; I want it.” Luckily, most of the credit cards were no good, and we were able to cancel other products, but I could have put us into terrible debt. This is a common activity for those who are experiencing mania or hypomania.
My hypomanic experience was short-lived, followed by a crash that took me deeper into depression than I had ever been. Luckily, I was already under care, so I was able to begin treatment before another episode. People need to understand that “manic” doesn’t necessarily mean “bouncing off the walls.” Different people experience different symptoms, and the symptoms they experience may not be visible. I’m sure my friends and family meant well by telling me I could not have Bipolar Disorder because I had never been manic, but they couldn’t see what was going on in my head. Some of them didn’t know me as well as they thought.
The people at work to whom I disclosed my Bipolar Disorder treated me differently after that, as if they were frightened of what I might do, probably waiting for the time when I would turn into that crazy person most people seem to think of when they hear the term “mania” or “Bipolar Disorder.” Hopefully, through education, people will have more understanding of these terms and the people who deal with the labels.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Bipolar Disorder.” Nimh.nih.gov.
Wikipedia. “Bipolar Disorder.” Wikipedia.org.