Those who have known me over the course of my life may be surprised at this account. To them, I may be nothing more than a severely shy, introverted young man who stood on the sidelines, rather than actively participate. Following high school, I was described by a former classmate as “the kid who no one really knew.” I was hellbent on getting past my limitations, once I had my sea legs underneath me.
People who remember me as a child or a teenager know a very different person. Everything changed when I hit 21 or 22. Mania, as has been reinforced multiple times in this account, reorganized my entire personality. For a few months at a time, I knew something of what it is like to be extroverted, feeding constantly on stimulation. It was exhilarating. I believed I’d managed to perfect myself. I believed I was all-powerful, almost Godlike.
Because we live in a world where being outgoing and not especially introspective is heavily valued, I’m not surprised at the initial responses I received from others. I was hyperactive and fearless, viewed as a person worth following and emulating. It is a little scary to contemplate how immediate suggestion and instant decisiveness dramatically affects others in our immediate environment.
If I was bold enough to push through boundaries, even though this might have been bullheaded, many people followed my lead. Those with whom I formed intimate relationships were especially susceptible to the insistent energy. For a while, I gave off an air of being almost superhuman. After reaching this apex, I believed I was at the height of my influence and creative output.
Whether I intended to do it or not, drama and heavy gossip followed me wherever I went. One older girlfriend constantly talked up my supposed prowess in bed among mutual friends. A lunchtime outing to a restaurant proved that women are not necessarily less potty-mouthed, descriptive, and kiss-and-tell than men. I found the attention overwhelming, when in my fantasies I saw myself very differently. Being the topic of constant conversation was a lot less fun than I ever thought it would be.
And yet, though I would never wish to experience another manic episode, I remember the authority I seemed to wield with others. It’s fun pursuing and being pursued, to a degree. It felt freeing when I was longer being held in check by crippling anxiety and social unsteadiness. If only these periods of brain chemical confidence would remain at a manageable state, before all the virtues became distorted, sanity steadily giving way to irrationality and incoherence.
Once, while in the hospital, I was given an IQ test. Because I had no fear of failure, I managed to complete and master whole sections that had earlier been impossible. When scored, my result would have easily provided me the ability to pursue MENSA membership; It was even higher than I ever expected. This outcome makes me wonder how much of our failings are a result not of ignorance, but rather of self-doubt and of being generally unsure of ourselves.
Should I be pleased with myself or appalled? The end result wasn’t healthy, I’ll concede, but I got to be the person I’d always wanted for a time. Or, at least that’s how I viewed it. I’d had the courage to stare down my opposition and flex my muscles. I successfully courted those who I wanted, though our relationship usually self-destructed before long. Like eating cotton-candy, each of these pairings were short lived and over much too soon.
The hospital always gave me ample time to figure out where everything went wrong. I realized that I’d always built a rich fantasy life around myself. Within it, I could live my dreams at least on some plane, never believing I’d ever have the opportunity to give life to them. Wonder of wonders, those secret ambitions became real, for a while. Better to have had an experience or two than to lamely speculate about what could have been.
Mania is more physically damaging to the brain than depression. Each episode upped the ante, increasing the effect a little bit more and a little bit more. The next one, should it ever happen, fills me with fear. I know that I’ve had at least four manic periods and several hypomanic (near-manic) episodes prior to the current day
Psychiatrists misunderstood my illness for years. An antidepressant, though it successfully treated my depression, eventually threw me into mania. I now take a hefty daily dose of Lithium, which is an effective mood stabilizer for me. Its effect as an anti-manic has been very successful. Though there are side effects, I can tolerate than more easily than the alternative.
It would be tempting to see my manic-depressive life only as a series of interesting anecdotes. I’m not completely sure what to make of it, truthfully. Person after person has floated through, though some stuck around longer than others. I’ve pulled out a few lessons here and there. For a while, I thought that stability was a pipe dream and that I’d be lucky to live to be 25. Now, at 32, I’m amazed I’ve made it this long.
Describing how I felt back then to those without mental illness is challenging. The manic experience is probably better understood by the chemically addicted, not the sober. The way it transforms daily routine into a fast-motion blur, or even prevents memory from being stored, is difficult to transcribe. Asking any patient with a chronic illness to discuss the most debilitating times will probably provoke annoyance.
I just flat out don’t remember several hospitalizations. Electroshock therapy is designed to wipe out troublesome memories, usually of a short-term variety. Many of those recollections will never return. But what I did not expect was how many of my long-term memories would disappear as a result. Much of my childhood disappeared, then has slowly come back to me, but not all of it.
After electroshock, the weirdest side effect was that I could finally safely and completely entertain homosexual desire. How strange that many men were given the identical course of treatment to supposedly wipe away their feelings of same-sex attraction. Much about my bisexuality is a mystery to me and may always be.
Prior to the age of 17, I could never even dare to go there. The cultural homophobia into which I was born was a strong deterrent and even now I feel its effects. After sleeping with a man, I’ve always felt dirty and ashamed, as though I have fulfilled an obligation or transaction, not necessarily taken part for my own sake. I’m sure the sexual abuse in childhood is layered over my more prominent fear of homosexuality.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, mania is much like being on a drug. What the shock treatments didn’t manage to rearrange, drug use scrambled even further. For years, my memories are scattered and sporadic. I remember a few of the stronger ones here and there, the most prominent, but I don’t recall everything. It used to enrage me that induced amnesia had deprived me of much of my past, but I’ve reached a sort of peace with it.
I’m sure that a detailed story here or there will eventually trickle out, told by someone from my past. I may or may not be able to remember it. I can’t account for what I don’t remember. My reliance on marijuana jumbled things up even more. Pot always made me confused, but I think that’s part of the experience for everyone. Now, I wonder if I’ve done my already fragile brain even more damage.
Every life has its baggage and its skeletons in the closet. As Quakers say, I intend only to speak to my own condition. Though I have bared my soul, I have no retributive agenda to advance, nor chip on my shoulder. We all have sensitive spots here and there, but my primary intention is to share the story of someone who has gone nineteen rounds with mental illness. And won.
I know that much of my life story is not uplifting, but it doesn’t end a tragedy. I could have ended up dead on numerous occasions, but God saw fit to keep me alive. Today, I understand that I was needed to do his work, though the pacing and the scheduling were his, and not mine. In my participation within my Meeting and in writings that reach Friends across the country, I am fulfilling a greater purpose.