Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
When Kanye West called his bipolar disorder his "superpower," I could empathise. Sure, there are times when my bipolar disorder is crippling and makes me feel like a prisoner trapped inside my own brain. But once I hit a manic phase, it's euphoric: I am more productive than ever, feel like I can take on the world, and since I often struggle under a cloud of depression, it finally feels like happiness and relief.
Alternating between periods of depression ("lows") and mania ("highs"), bipolar disorder is a class of brain disorders that includes bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder, which is defined by numerous periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms that don't meet the diagnostic criteria for hypomanic and depressive episodes, and other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders. Since I was diagnosed with bipolar II a few years ago, I've come to understand that my manic phases aren't the same as someone with bipolar I. In bipolar I, manic episodes last at least a week with severe mood elevation or irritability, Pierre Azzam, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, told POPSUGAR in a previous interview. Mania in both types also impacts behaviour, sleep, and thinking, and can impair your ability to work, while the mania in bipolar I may also be severe enough to require hospitalisation.
My mania comes in the form of hypomania, which is a less severe version of mania with shorter durations, what differentiates bipolar II from bipolar I. Compared to the mania in bipolar I, hypomania doesn't last as long of a time period (about four days) and isn't destructive enough to interfere with daily life or work, or require hospitalisation, explained Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
My hypomanic episodes usually last a couple of days and most of the time, I don't even realise I'm being manic — I just think I'm having a good day. I have a lot more energy: suddenly, I'm more motivated to do my work and to take on additional tasks. As someone who works in a creative field, this feels like a creative breakthrough; new ideas for articles, books, and projects come fast and furious. I concoct businesses I know would flourish and envision elaborate scenarios for when all my professional dreams come true.
When I'm manic and working, it feels like being on a stimulant: the words pour out of me, and I can type away on my laptop for hours. As an introvert, I find that I'm more chatty than normal and even though I'm naturally a fast talker, my speech is more rapid. I also need little sleep. I can stay up until the early hours in the morning and wake up at my normal time, ready to take on the day. During one particular manic episode triggered by the wrong medication (before I was officially diagnosed as having bipolar II), I stayed up until three in the morning on a weeknight working on DIY projects for the apartment that suddenly seemed urgent.
To be completely honest, hypomania isn't that bad when I experience it; aside from the irritability that is common with manic symptoms, I am usually creative and productive and can function on little sleep. So what are the downsides? I tend to get so excited about a particular creative idea or thought that it's hard for me to focus on the assignments I should be working on. Also, the lack of sleep tends to catch up with me after a couple days.
Perhaps the worst part is, I know that when the mania dissipates, a depressive episode will hit. And sure enough, usually a couple days later, it knocks me down like a bowling pin: I'm unmotivated, lethargic, and stuck in a negative self-talk spiral. Or my anxiety goes through the roof and I'm plagued with intrusive thoughts that make me feel out of control and crazy.
Fortunately, my manic and depressive episodes are pretty few and far between since I take a regimented cocktail of medication and stick to preventative lifestyle habits. As someone who has been living with a mental illness for half her life, I also know what my triggers are: if I drink too much one night, the next day I'm bound to feel anxious and depressed. Although my mania is much less predictable, I can typically feel an episode coming on and try to channel that energy into doing something productive: working out, cleaning, or finally etching away at my side projects.
I'm lucky that my mania isn't the type that's dangerous and self-destructive, but it can be a serious episode for some people, and it's not one-size-fits-all. "It's very important to note that while the term is bipolar disorder with separate manic and depressive episodes, this disorder is quite complex and has many layers to it," explained Dr. Noulas. "It's possible to have a mixed episode where one might experience both manic and depressive symptoms within a week . . . the cycle of the mood fluctuating between mania, depression, or mixed can also be complex." She added that it's important to seek professional psychiatric care if you experience shifts in mood, and to seek out a psychiatrist or psychologist who specialises in mood disorders. Treatment is also "quite successful," Dr. Noulas said, and typically includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
No, my mania isn't what's dramatised in movies: I'm not running naked through the streets, or having unprotected sex with multiple partners, or spending thousands of dollars I don't have. But it is a significant enough of a mood change that it impacts my daily life. Luckily, with the right treatment, I'm able to keep my moods under control and live a happy, productive life — without feeling like I'm on a stimulant or drowning in a sea of depression.
If you feel like you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264), and the American Psychological Association have resources available.