I often think people misconceptualize bipolar disorder. They hear it and think of a person who is kind and gentle, and then, out of the blue, they turn into The Hulk; almost a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde scenario.

While it’s true during a manic episode some may become angry, I don’t think that is the typical response. Instead, I think it is much more common for one to become elated, euphoric, almost in a constant high state. Those in a state of mania take on a sense of grandiosity, feeling they are invincible. Often they spend money at an alarming pace, sleep less, and make seemingly novel connections to completely unrelated items in life.

That’s the textbook response for manic episodes. As I write this, I’m coming off several weeks of mania, which can offer a much more intimate glimpse of what it means to be manic.

It’s hard to pin down exactly when my manic episodes start, but a good sign is my sleep schedule. I start going to bed later and later. First 12:30 am, then 1:15 am, 2:00 am, 5:00 am, 7;00 am, and finally, by the time I’m in full-blown mania, I’m not sleeping at night at all.

The next sign is I start to think I can pick up old projects that I never finished and accomplish them. I never do restart them though. I move to a new idea too quickly. I may start that idea, or maybe I jump to another one. The ideas could be anything from learning some new web framework to creating a font (as of this writing I still haven’t finished that project) or maybe it’s something deeper. One of the biggest struggles my bipolar has caused is a severe inability to decide on a career path.

Next comes the racing thoughts. My mind starts to race and it becomes very hard to put together any serious, coherent thought. This has affected my ability to complete homework, take exams, or sit still for long. I’ve gotten pretty efficient at writing my professors and explaining what is going on — something I wish I didn’t have to do. I often wonder if my racing thoughts are similar to what those with ADHD experience. If it is, I feel bad for them. I know that, at some point for me the racing thoughts will fade. I can’t imagine living like that all the time.

During my manic phases I often will get up to get a drink and by the time I get to the kitchen I forget why I’m there. Or worse, I’ll get sidetracked before even going to the kitchen and go there without my glass. In the past, I’ve actually gone from my room to the kitchen three times just to get a drink, simply because my mind was racing so fast that I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight enough, long enough to complete such a meaningless task.

I love to read. When I was younger my head was always buried in a book. In the fourth grade, I chose to do a book report on a Wishbone book. I checked out the book from the library, along with the VHS (the precursor to DVDs) tape. When I got in the car, my mom saw both the book and tape and asked about them. I told her it was for a book report. Her response was something like, “oh great, you’ve already figured out that trick.” (Admittedly, I totally used that method in high school.) But at that stage, I had no idea what she was talking about, I just loved Wishbone.

By the time I reached high school, I had moved from fiction to legal case studies and legislation. And finally, by my undergraduate years, my reading consisted of (and still does) academic journals, technical white papers, 1000-page textbooks, and that is what I read for fun. But when I’m manic I can’t get through a simple news article. I can’t take three weeks off from my reading and expect to stay ahead, or at least on par in my classes.

I confess, road rage scares me. Too often I see stories on the news of needless violence because of it. Because of this, I’m a fairly safe and conservative driver. That all changes when I’m manic. I drive faster, get irritated, curse people who drive slowly, question the intelligence of the engineers who programmed the traffic lights, and generally wonder why people don’t understand that every road I drive on was built specifically for my needs. This manic mentality is not good.

In my recent bouts of mania I’ve found myself drawing, sketching, painting. I’m not an artist; the science part of my brain usually outweighs the creative side. I also clean, which falls somewhere on the spectrum from, “My room is now clean and tidy, clothes washed, dried, folded, and put away” to “I’ve gone through every box I own, reorganized, shuffled them around, ordered my closet by color and style and completed a head count of my socks.” Some may call this productive, others neurotic. Regardless, they are definitely obsessive-compulsive tendencies (luckily it doesn’t interfere with my daily activities yet, thankfully no OCD).

So far everything I’ve described severely lowers my productivity. However, there is usually a window, sometimes many days, sometimes a few hours, occasionally completely absent, where all previously said things intertwine at the perfect level and I become a person so productive you might wonder what drugs I was on. It’s breathtaking, inspiring, and all around freaking awesome. If I could live in that manic state at all times, I’d change the world in unimaginable ways. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. It’s usually clockwork. I’m manic for a time and then, as if I’ve fallen off a cliff, I become so depressed that hospitalization usually comes up in my inner monologue, but I’ll save that for another post.

Mania can be a magical, fantastical, inspirational world, but more often it is a place I dread as much as my depression. It’s not often that my sleep schedule, ability to focus, and my slightly obsessive cleaning come into perfect alignment to make a Robert capable of anything. No, it’s far more likely you’ll find me severely impaired as a result of my inability to support a consistent sleep schedule, irrational anger at other drivers, hopelessly attempting to read, and obsessively cleaning.

I was once asked if I enjoy the times when I’m manic, and my response was no, I do not enjoy it. Not only do I have to deal with all the issues I’ve written about, but there is a foreboding shadow of the darkness to come, and no matter what I do, I cannot escape that shadow because, as I’ve come to learn, that shadow is my own.

Man with mania and depression photo available from Shutterstock