I once had an overwhelming urge to draw. I don’t draw. I’m not good at drawing, but I wanted to fucking DRAW. I drew pictures all day, every day for a week. Anything I could see, I drew: people, water bottles, bananas, real thought-provoking stuff. I filled two notebooks in a week and remember thinking to myself, “This is how Picasso must have felt.”
Another time I didn’t sleep for three days and spent the nights applying for jobs I wasn’t qualified for. In between University Professor and Museum Curator, I impulse-bought things I didn’t need. Aroma diffusers. Every book Amazon recommends. If buying a ton of random stuff at 3:01 a.m. sounds normal to you, great, but it’s not usually my thing. I’m — how can I put this? — really fucking cheap.
Earlier this year, I wrote 10,000 words in one day. I’m not a fast writer usually. I continued to write and rewrite. After four days, I had written a book, and not just any book: I’d written the greatest book of all time.
Now, this may come as a shock, but I’m not Picasso. I never got that job as
a Lead Animator at Pixar. And I’m not some prodigious writer. So how did I write the Great American Novel in less than a week? The answer is I didn’t. I was in a manic state. When I came to, I looked back at my “work” and saw that it was a mess that lacked in both quality and quantity. It was devastating. It was a humiliating fall from grace, like waking up after a one-night stand only to see there was no one there to begin with.
As a mentally ill person, I constantly feel like a lazy, unproductive, non-member of society. But when I’m hypomanic, I’m the main contributor to society. I’m essential, like Oprah, or memes, or Oprah memes. And for someone who’s depressed most of the time, mania is intoxicating. It makes you feel invincible, like you have the confidence of a white man who writes “I get shit done” in his LinkedIn bio, except you’re actually doing shit. It’s the best of both worlds. For one, brief, shining moment, you feel useful — then it’s gone, and you have nothing to show for it.
The aftermath of a manic episode is sobering. I don’t know how it works with other people, but I fall into a deep depression, followed by a review of all the “work” I produced. Only when I look back at the fruits of my productivity do I realize I’m not Frida Kahlo reincarnate… I just drew a bunch of hand turkeys.
We’ve been conditioned to see mania as an awesome bonus that accompanies mental illness, rather than a dangerous byproduct. It’s like watching a person with the flu froth at the mouth and thinking, “That’ll help with decongesting.” But there is nothing useful about mania. It doesn’t make you productive; it doesn’t make you a creative genius; it just makes you think you are. And no matter how many sexy-insane characters Aubrey Plaza plays, there’s nothing cool about it.
Hollywood would beg to disagree. To them, mental illness is prime Oscar bait. Producers love to make mania this dramatic, intriguing asset that’s disguised as a flaw. They show us Carrie Mathison using mania to solve terrorism in Homeland, or Monica being a supermom in Shameless. But we don’t see the traumatic days that ensue — the overwhelming depression and debilitating exhaustion. That doesn’t make for good TV, of course.
The angst-ridden teenage Amanda thought mental illness was super edgy and enigmatic. There was something refreshing about how artists like Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain wore their pain on the outside. It made them seem authentic. Although at the time I didn’t understand this “authenticity” was just a flattering filter applied to a very ugly disorder.
I thought the “tortured artist” thing was very cool. I was seduced by the idea that depression and mania unlocked some sort of mystical creative power. With great art comes great mental illness!
Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I 100 percent believed in this shit. To me, when it came to the creative community, you didn’t have to be crazy to make things… but it helped. How else could you create so much incredible work at such an alarming rate if you weren’t tormented in some way?
At this point, I still didn’t recognize my mania as a mental illness. My friends didn’t recognize it either. They may have just seen me as “excitable.” I saw this temporary, whimsical state wherein your mind whisked you away for a few days to create beautiful music and poetry. It wasn’t attached to a larger mental health issue, to psychological trauma, depression, or psychosis. Mania was sweet. Mental illness was scary. The two were not one and the same, I thought — that is, until I experienced it myself.
I first started recognizing my manic episodes about five years ago, and the worst thing about them was how good they made me feel. Back then, when I was manic, I felt prolific and alive. I had spent so much of my life feeling depressed, pointless, and suicidal, but then, BOOM! Mania took over, and suddenly I wanted to LIVE and DO THINGS.
When I’m manic, I become obsessed with one goal. I don’t eat or sleep, and I sweat a lot. I’m filled with an unhealthy amount of confidence. I suffer from terrifying delusions of grandeur. (Not like the ones I have in real life where I’m friends with Beyoncé — ones where I think I am Beyoncé, or at least the Beyoncé of the literary world, which I assume would also be Beyoncé). I talk faster and louder than usual. I’m irritable and prone to flying into a rage at any moment. On the inside, I feel like Mozart in the movie Amadeus screaming at Salieri, “Do you have it? Do you have it?!” On the outside, I look like a flustered Sean Spicer screaming, “Why won’t you love me?!” at a mini-fridge.
Some may think it’s like being on drugs, and they’d be right, but they’re not fun drugs. It’s like being on a cocktail of meth and jet fuel for five days straight. The comedown is horrific, and it takes about a week to get back to “normal.” All you have to show for it are pages of gibberish and poor personal hygiene.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I have purposefully summoned my mania, similar to how Nancy invokes Manon in The Craft, only fewer candles. It’s irresponsible and stupid on so many levels. When I don’t take my meds, I don’t just experience mania, I go through a whole rollercoaster of shit. It’s not like my mind can just churn out one, clean manic episode. So, if I want that hypomania, I have to be willing to further damage my mental health.
Nowadays, I don’t do it to tap into my “creative genius” (which is absolutely not a thing) but to feel productive and useful. I know nothing will come of it, but sometimes living a lie feels so much better than owning a truth. Some people take drugs to feel something; I don’t take drugs to feel anything.
My hypomania has never put me in dangerous situations. It’s relatively mild compared to mania-mania. It makes me more reckless with my finances, relationships, and personal hygiene. The real danger with a hypomanic episode is what comes after it’s over — the depression, the feelings of hopelessness, and the suicidal ideation. It’s the foolishness you feel thinking you’d outsmarted your own mind only to find it was just another trap. The manic episode itself feels like you’re outrunning the Road Runner. The aftermath is like seeing there’s nothing under your feet and you’re holding an anvil.
Everyone experiences mania and hypomania differently, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever felt good after a manic episode. What I do know is mania does not help you do your best work or be your best self. It doesn’t even help you do good work or be your good self. I can safely say all of my best work has come from a non-manic state. My productivity and focus come from taking my medication, getting good sleep, and being fortunate enough to see a therapist.
These days I’m more depressed than manic, and this may sound strange, but I’m pleased with that. I’m content. There’s no expectation with depression. You’re already at your lowest ebb, but at least it’s real. Mania, on the other hand, is just lies. The confidence, the grandeur, the productivity is all just smoke and mirrors.
The tortured artist persona is another lie — a shell company in Panama, No More Tears shampoo, true love on “The Bachelor.” Take me, for example: I’m a writer who happens to have a mental illness and I’m not sitting at an antique bureau surrounded by piles of manuscripts with a cigarette in one hand and a quill in the other. I’m in bed, crouched over my laptop like a freelance Gollum, eating Cheerios straight from the box. (I assume most writers write like this. IF NOT, THEN I APOLOGIZE. PLEASE CONTINUE WITH YOUR PERFECT LIFE.)
Living with a mental illness is hard enough without having people judge/fear/pity you. Most of us aren’t like the characters you see on TV. Most of us are just like you — only our minds are trying to kill us. We’re not always crying or wildly unpredictable. More often than not we look, act, and sound just like every other human being. We can be silly, and fun, and dull. You just haven’t seen that side of us before.
Whether it’s making mania look sexy or creative or threatening, when we glamorize these afflictions we belittle them. By not showing the after-effects or day-to-day, we dilute the reality. All that’s left is a slice of drama, and mental illness isn’t just drama. It’s scary, and tiring, and boring, and ugly, and normal, just like the rest of life. We’re not extraordinary because we have a mental illness; we’re extraordinary because we fight it every single day.
I’m not good at being mentally ill. I’ve had years of experience and still don’t know what I’m doing. I still wrestle with my feelings towards mania. All I
can do is continue to take care of myself as best I can. Mania may make me feel alive for a second, but if it’s a choice between being a real, depressed Gollum or a fake, pompous Mozart, then you’ll have to excuse me — I have a box of Cheerios to attend to.