When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was shocked when the doctor told me that my elevated moods, which felt great in the moment, were actually symptoms of my illness.
I had a hard time accepting that the feelings of invincibility, the lack of impulse control, and the euphoria I had felt in the past weren’t examples of me being well, but actually of me being sick.
To me, periods of bipolar mania seemed like good memories. They represented times when I felt strong and there wasn’t a suicidal thought anywhere. It was an escape from the horrors of depression -- and people loved “happy Gabe.” It never occurred to me that the reason I considered them to be good memories is because mania lies. During manic episodes, I wasn’t thinking straight. I didn’t realize that mania took away my ability to read a room. Empathy, insight, and reason are all suspended during manic episodes.
Through therapy and frank discussions with the people in my life, I realized I wasn’t remembering mania quite accurately. Yes, being manic did feel good, but it came at a cost. I hurt my friends and family, quit jobs, and frivolously spent thousands of dollars. I also engaged in risky behaviors that could have hurt others or myself (or worse).
The aftermath of my manic episodes was like that of a hurricane. Nearly all of the things I regret in life were the result of mania, from the way I treated my first wife to the realization that I was out of control. Mania isn’t “living on the edge.” It’s somehow surviving a fall off the edge and then creating a revisionist history of the experience so that you remember it being fun.
When I first started my journey toward recovery, I didn’t want to avoid mania. I didn’t think it was something I needed to cope with at all. I ignored warning signs, if I even recognized them at all. These were precarious times because if I refused to see mania for what it was, I would continue to put myself in harm’s way.
Once I understood how dangerous mania was and accepted it as a symptom of bipolar disorder and not a reward, I was able to work with my psychiatrist and therapist to prevent mania, rather than simply pick up the pieces later.
All of my experience has led me to one truth: Managing mania should be handled exactly as you would depression. Work as hard as you can to avoid it altogether. And when you notice the symptoms, seek out support (doctors, therapists, trusted loved ones) immediately.
Mania is a dangerous symptom that must be controlled to live well in spite of bipolar disorder. It can be done, but the first step is recognizing that mania isn’t fun. It’s unpredictable and dangerous.