Wednesday, October 21, 2009
On Saturday, I received an email from a friend:
"Two people have emailed me to see if you are alright. How would I know? Hypomania is rocket fuel for your work."
My blog was no busier than usual that past week, save for an animated comment thread. Okay, let's make that a really really animated comment thread. My immediate reaction was a defensive one. There they go again, I thought. Pathologize my behavior. Attribute every action of mine to my illness. Most of you have been on the receiving end of this - show the slightest sign of life, dare to crack a joke and actually look happy, and it must be hypomania. Bipolars are as bad as the general population - worse, far worse - in this regard.
I once emailed a friend with news that I had won a major international award, and, without offering her congratulations or even acknowledging my achievement, she replied that it sounded like I was hypomanic and I needed to be careful.
What the ... ?
Then I had to laugh. All the week before, I had been down for the count with flu symptoms. I had been sleeping 16 hours a day. I would emerge from the blankets only to walk about with the feeling of the inside of my head wrapped inside these very same blankets. I had no energy, I felt like someone three times my age, and my mood was in a slow glide south.
Trust me, had they been auditioning for a remake of Night of the Living Dead, I would have received a call-back for the lead zombie role. Yet, somehow, I had managed to crawl to the computer and crank out my standard quota of blog pieces (two involving the intricacies of diagnostic psychiatry), plus fire off a long round of zinger comments.
What gives? Yesterday, while out on a country walk (with a clear head!), I got thinking about my friend's email. It's easy, of course, to get a totally wrong impression when there is no face-to-face contact. But I could recollect no shortage of real life Twilight Zone experiences dating from way back.
For instance, in my college dorm room 40 years ago - again in a flu-induced zombie state - I responded to someone with a lame comment and the whole room cracked up. I got off a repeat rimshot-worthy one-liner, then another one. I was death warmed-over, but to the people in the room I was Don Rickles.
Twelve or thirteen years later - same state of zombie-hood - I was the steady hand who calmed down a room of anxious individuals. I could go on and on. Sometimes it's the flu. Sometimes it's depression. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, my head is not attached to the rest of my body. There are no guarantees. Often, when I feel out of it, I am really truly, totally utterly, out of it.
On the reverse side of the coin, when I am feeling on my game - that is when I need to watch myself. Frequently, I find myself looking at a sea of perplexed faces. And heaven help if I know I'm off my game and my anxiety takes over. You know those Southwest Airline ads: "Need to get away?"
Anyway, here I was, taking my walk, gazing out into the mountains, when it suddenly hit me in a flash:
My zombie state is the equivalent of other people's normal!
If I could only be a zombie, I could lead a normal life. Here's how it works:
Like a lot of you, I experience racing thoughts. Think of my brain as the UN General Assembly with an angry Khrushchev on every seat yelling wildly and banging his shoe on the table. But the flu or a depression or some kind of brain fog shuts down all those Khrushchevs in my head. There are no distractions. I can focus on the task at hand. I appear sharp and to the point. Of all the crazy things, I give the impression that I'm operating on rocket fuel.
All those Khrushchevs are the equivalent of too much stuff coming in - too much thought, too much emotion, too much sensory input. Since I happen to work in a field that places a high premium on creativity and intuition, I tend to regard this as a good thing. I need those Khrushchevs. They work for me, provided I can show them who's boss.
But too much of a good thing for me has a way of manifesting as bipolar or anxiety or panic or just plain weirdness. This is the downside of Khrushchev. Every once in a while, things get out of hand. For others, these Khrushchevs may show up as ADD, schizophrenia, some forms of depression, or just simply strange or inappropriate behavior.
These days, I am fairly confident in matching the right Khrushchev to the right occasion, so that what comes out of my mouth doesn't embarrass me. Far from it. These days, I actually get invited to places. Back in the old days, I could be counted on to pick the wrong Khrushchev, generally a strange weird specimen that had people backing slowly toward the exits.
What has changed over the years is that I have slowly learned to read subtle social cues and modify my behavior accordingly. I suspect this is true for most of you. These days, I feel fairly confident walking out the door. Back in the old days, I didn't risk it. I stayed indoors and isolated, which, of course, made me fair game for crushing depressions.
It's a strange world when showing up as a zombie shrouded in a protective depression is the state most likely to create the best impression for me. But when I'm feeling good, I often lack insight to know that I'm feeling too good for my own good. That's why I need to watch myself, and - more important - watch others.
"Knowing thyself" is central to "Knowledge is Necessity." Only through long introspection do we find answers and learn to ask the right questions. Consider this blog piece a long and involved question to all of you. I'm very interested in your answers. Please fire away by going to the comments below ...