I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999 after I had my first manic episode. It was fairly mild compared to what came later, but it was a genuine episode nonetheless.
I don’t remember much of my first episode. At the time, I was a senior in high school and writing something for a journalism competition, as I was an editor of my school’s newspaper. I believe that another one of the editors noticed something strange about my writing. It seems that even back then I let out a flood of incomprehensible words during mania. (See below for my post on manic emails.) Needless to say, I never made it to the competition.
The little I do remember comes in bits and pieces. I remember buying a bunch of roses and placing a rose on each doorstep that I felt drawn to. I remember that I believed I was having a spiritual experience. Everything felt different, and I felt that I understood the secrets of the universe and life itself. This could have been influenced by the book I had been reading at the time, something about new age revelations. A friend had loaned it to me.
I remember going to get my nails done and being extremely chatty in Spanish, though it had been years since I’d spoken it. Spanish was my first language, but growing up bilingual in the States, I eventually just made English my primary language. I understand Spanish perfectly but for some reason don’t speak it regularly unless I’m back in Puerto Rico, where I was born. To anyone hearing me talk with my parents, it sounds like a conversation between R2-D2 and C3PO; they speak to me in Spanish and I speak to them in English.
Anyway, I remember that I paid attention to my hair in a new way and experimented with new hairstyles. That doesn’t sound so weird, but it was something different for me as I used to have difficulty styling my hair. I also wore tighter jeans than I normally did.
The last thing I remember about my first manic episode is that some of my very concerned friends came to my house to tell my parents about my strange behavior.
I myself had no idea what was going on. I mentioned in another post that manic people tend to think they are perfectly sane while manic even though it is clear to everyone else that something is wrong. I thought it was a great thing happening to me, to finally have a mood other than mild or severe depression. Although I seemed to be happy-go-lucky and always did very well in school, I was usually rather down as a rule. So, during the episode, I felt only that I had finally found happiness.
I was obviously wrong. Mania is far from happiness, but that is a story for another post.
My second manic episode happened in college at the end of my first quarter. For this episode I remember more details. It was significantly worse than my first episode.
As with most manic episodes, things started changing gradually. I became more social and often had people in my room and sort of “held court.” I was apparently very entertaining at first.
Then I began breaking some rules and societal norms. I started smoking cloves in my dorm room, totally violating my roommate’s air and the terms of dorm life. The fact that I was smoking was very strange to begin with, as I had only experimented with that a couple times in my life up to that point. Interestingly, ever since then I have picked up smoking exclusively during my manic episodes. While sane, I never smoke.
I started playing music really loudly with the windows of my dorm room open. Like the bipolar psychiatrist and writer Kay Jamison, while manic I am deeply affected by music and need to experience it in an extreme way. I believe that at one point, I would even sit outside of the dorm hall and listen to the music from my room several stories up. Like the manic journalism writing in high school, this is what eventually got the attention of the school authorities, and what ultimately led to my first hospitalization for mania. (Yes, I have been to the “loony bin.” I will discuss that in another post.)
I even went to class in my pajama pants and top at least once. I don’t remember how people reacted.
There was also another case of me feeling like I understood something profound in life. My school had a memorial site near my dorm building for a Vietnam protester who had burned himself to death in a demonstration against the war. I sat in that spot and felt… I don’t remember what I felt, but it sure was “deep.”
I guess I might as well go all the way and describe how I got “taken away.” (Gulp, sigh.) I had really loud music on in my room and some security guards came to tell me to turn it down. I know I obeyed their order, but I guess they noticed something odd about my behavior in general. Somehow, someone called my parents. By the time they showed up, someone had already called an ambulance to “take me away.”
It was humiliating. When I learned what they were doing, I took my medicine, and one of them was very sedating, so I started to fall asleep. When I came to, there were EMTs holding me down and preparing to move me to a stretcher.
Obviously I struggled at that point, but there was no way to stop what was happening. They strapped me into the stretcher and wheeled me out of the dorm suite, through a small crowd of onlookers. The worst part was that in order to fit the stretcher into the elevator, they had to set it upright so that I was “standing” up. Even worse, the dorm had an open plan with outdoor hallways, so everyone who cared to look was treated to quite the “freak show.”
Well, those were my first two manic episodes.
I didn’t have another episode until 2008.
To be clear, from 1999 until 2008, I had absolutely no manic episodes. I didn’t have a whiff of mania about me. Depression and anxiety, sure, but my “high achiever” lifestyle encouraged both of those tendencies in me.
So, I got a Bachelor’s with summa cum laude honors from a good university and a Master’s from Harvard, and I began a PhD at Brown, and the whole time, I was completely free of mania.
That all changed in 2008 when the manic cycle started up again. More on that later.
So, that’s that. This has been an introduction to my manic episodes. I hope it has fleshed out a little more of what it is like to be manic.