Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
– Emily Dickinson
May is mental health awareness month. Emily Dickinson did a swell job of making people aware, and hit the nail right on the head with this poem. Madness is nothing to be afraid of – in fact, it opens the mind to a whole new realm of possibility. Even in Dickinson’s time – the mid-nineteenth century – society was scared of it, and continues to see it as an illness today – a battle to be won or lost. As a mentally ill person, I hope to contribute a voice that changes the way we talk about it. So, here’s what #mentalillnessfeelslike for me.
“I’d say you have mixed bipolar disorder, type II.” – my psychiatrist in January of 2014.
Cue shock, denial, tears, rage, fear. What is that? How do you know I have it? Why is this happening to me?
Madness can be triggered by a traumatic event – for me, that came in the death of one of my few close friends, stacked on top of myriad dysfunctional family situations, a trying adolescence, ignorance of self-care, and a subsequent dropping out of college.
Labels suck. Especially when someone else slaps one on you. Even worse when it’s someone with a lot of degrees and knowledge of exactly what he’s talking about. So it’s practically inescapable.
I boxed out my rage, cried a lot, and decided to try medication. Pills only made me feel worse so, after about six months of free-falling into depression, I bottomed out and decided to try. To dig my way out and get to know this illness, this label that had been thrust upon me so rudely.
I decided to notice, evaluate, make every effort to understand what my manic depression was, how it manifested, and how to live with it successfully – how to navigate it. In getting to know this manic depression, I chose to accept that I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. Instead of choosing to numb it, though, or turn it off somehow, I decided to learn about it. To practice living with it, finding ways to remain a functioning, productive, positive member of society.
In understanding it, I’ve come up with different terms for what it is and how it works. I had many preconceived notions about it before I was diagnosed, and I’ve realized that most other people do as well. Lately I’ve taken to explaining it to my saner friends, and have found that I’m able to elucidate it for them.
On the etymology: Bipolar and manic depression are technically the same thing – bipolar is what they started calling it in the 80s, a fitting representation of our modern culture’s attachment to binaries. I prefer manic depression; I think it shows the spectrum more clearly. It’s more fluid than bipolar would imply.
I see my mind as a vast ocean. I am on a boat, navigating the waves. In some spots the water roars, carrying my vessel skyward and then crashing it down, capsizing the whole operation and dunking me deep underwater. I’ve learned to carefully steer clear of those contumelious whirlpools.
I’ve collected the necessary navigation tools and skills, and now my boat rocks gently on the sea as I admire the views afforded by my position on the open water.
But what is this sea made of? What do mania and depression feel like?
Depression is slow. Daily actions feel like walking in thick mud, your feet sinking in deeper at every step. If you’re not careful, you’ll get stuck, thigh high in stinky sludge. Weights in your heart and soul pull you deeper with a thousand times the force of gravity. And that’s when you think about diving all the way in, drowning yourself in the darkness. Because the effort it takes to get out might be more than you’re capable of. And you feel so desperately disgusting that you’ve come to believe you deserve this.
But, if you remain aware of it, understand where you’re walking or sailing, get the lay of the land, you can step strategically, even take advantage of this sluggish state, listening as if your body is telling you to take a break, slow down, rest. Notice that you’re seeing the world as two-dimensional, in sepia tones or grayscale. Your self-image is cloudy. Words don’t come to your tongue, and daily tasks feel…difficult. What does it take to speed it up? Correct the course, step out of the mud – there’s green grass right next to you.
Breathe. Find little things to be grateful for. Read “How to Conquer Depression.” Call a friend. Remind yourself that you deserve a delightful life. Do the things your body will thank you for. A lack of harmony between mind and body can often lead me into depression. But awareness of this makes leveling out – sailing into clearer waters – suddenly possible.
Clearer waters are smooth, enjoyable, level – what most might call normal. These clear spells often swing up into mania. Mania is a drug that I’ve learned to enjoy responsibly. Too much will only make things worse for me and make the subsequent depression darker and deeper. But a little bit. Now and then. A feeling of confidence. The belief that I can do anything. Clarity. Focus. Bright colors. Quick thoughts, synapses firing at light speed. Light shines brighter, words come quicker, my enthusiasm is unbridled and I’m in love with any person, place, or thing I encounter. And they’re in love with me. Creativity is boundless, as is my energy. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It’s easy to get carried away.
Once again, awareness makes smooth sailing possible. Being kind to myself on both sides of the spectrum allows my baseline to be healthy. I see this as a blessing – if I hadn’t been thrust into this ocean, it might have taken me a lifetime to learn self-love and to sort through all the events and relationships of my life, redeeming them and allow the neuroplasticity of my brain to work for instead of against me. I harness mania like horsepower to propel me through the slow afternoons into marvelous evenings. Mixed manic depression means I encounter these moods often – they cycle rapidly. But awareness means moods don’t sneak up on me much. I’ve come to know the boat I’m sailing on real well.
Sailing is hobby of mine. I didn’t have much of a choice in taking it up, but I’ve actually come to love it. And the satisfaction of navigating around eddies and whirlpools and waves – well, it makes me a tiny bit manic. But it’s nothing I can’t handle, and it’s what I’ve been given. I don’t see this as a curse to be broken or a battle to be won. It’s simply the mind I have. And ignoring that or trying to change it would feel transgressive, like throwing away a beautiful gift. I wouldn’t stay out of the sea because I’m afraid of sharks. I’ve built a strong boat, and sometimes the waters get rough, but it’s all alright. And, as Dickinson wrote, madness makes divine sense.