Mania Is Not a Superpower
Art by Ashley Goodall
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Mania Is Not a Superpower

It’s tempting to believe the manic periods of bipolar can be somehow made productive. In my experience, they can’t.
10 May 2017, 2:00am

This article is part of That Feeling When—a partnership between VICE Australia and youth mental health initiative headspace.

Every one of us experiences a range of emotions and feelings in daily life. How you feel is affected by the things going on around you – your friends or family, stressful events, or sometimes by nothing at all. Ups and downs or changes in mood are normal and generally don't cause too many problems – but for some, these feelings can be more extreme. As discussed below, mania, can be described as an elevated mood, (more than just being 'happy') and it can last for a few days and up to a week. Mania may affect the way someone acts (for example, taking unusual risks, spending money more liberally, or needing less sleep) and can impact relationships and everyday living. Sometimes, these experiences might feel good for a while, but they can also be frightening and have some pretty negative consequences. Some people may be unsure about getting help regarding these experiences, but GPs and mental health professionals can give you helpful information about your mental health and arrange the treatment that is best suited to you. You can also contact your local headspace centre for support and advice.

Vikki Ryall, Head of Clinical Practice at headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.

As someone living with bipolar disorder, there's a sense that somehow I could capitalise on my hyperactive manic periods. Thanks to this, I've caught myself buying $800 on books I didn't need, or watching six straight hours of Antique Roadshow while providing rolling commentary. Needless to say none of that was productive or helpful. The fact is that mania is not a superpower, although it's taken me a long time to accept that.

The line between mania and ambition can be blurry for anyone caught up in the high winds of an upswing. You're in a rabid cycle of self-aggrandisement, and if you slip fully into the maelstrom you'll start thinking of yourself in Dennis Reynolds terms: A Golden God.

It's a difficult pattern to break, as the ego boost offered by a manic uptick is often the sole release from the dissolving acid bath of depressive self loathing. You go from painting yourself as the most unlovable useless person in existence to believing you are somehow partly responsible for the McConaissance. You feel glowing, floating, frenetic—here there and everywhere, capable of anything. You go from Willy Wonka sadly limping on a cane, then suddenly forward summersault into all-singing all-knowing chocolate baron. It's a hard transformation to resist, or want to divert.

When my bipolar was untreated, my ego would rear up like an unassailable colossus. Since I was a kid, I couldn't posit myself or my trajectory in any grounded or realistic terms. I didn't want to write songs, I wanted to be the new Bob Dylan. By age 20. On top of that, I wanted to be the next Joyce, Scorsese, Dave Chappelle. Failure to chase the highs of my self assuredness could only be answered with self destruction.

To be mediocre was to be as good as dead. That in itself produced a solipsistic circle jerk of loathing and reprisals that I'm still struggling to break free from. The mania, running concurrent to my unchecked OCD, would send me down tunnels of auto-didactory that were as harmful as they were "educational." I had what I called "the Jenga system." A pretty basic notion of the interconnectedness of things and ideas: a Jenga tower of knowledge, you can't have the top block without the bottom.

For example, I liked Jean-Luc Godard so I'd learn about his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Consume all I could that could tangentially link all things prior to Godard to make Godard. Where it gets troubling is when you haven't slept for three days because of an inability to trace the roots of a loose bit of 19th century regional French slang that some academic cited in a piece about the rubber factory that made the French army's boot soles out of recycled nitrate film prints from the 1910s. There's really only so much you need to know, there's only so much you can actually retain. I couldn't grasp this idea, I couldn't forgive it. To the point where a lack of knowing would make me suicidal.

It takes a lot of work to unlearn this feeling, not to internalise the slightest short coming as a grand failure. Weird deadlines would stick in my head, like Captain Ahab was nailing gold coins to my mind's masthead. When I was 13 I read some interview with Jack Black in Ultimate Guitar Magazine where he said he wrote the song "Tribute" when he was 23. Absurd as it is, that totem pole stuck in the dirt of my identity for a decade, and when I hit 23 and was notably sans my own "Tribute" equivalent, I remember thinking, "oh god, I am a lesser man than Jack Black."

No shade at Jack Black, but that was a harrowing feeling.

Still, my mania and my sense of self are intrinsically linked, and it is hard to say what fuels my ambition most days—myself or the illness. I think I'm at a stage now where I can feel it taking the reigns, and I can push back. What is most disheartening is trying to function and operate in a system that requires me to commodify my madness or be swallowed by it. My work has been given value by the stamp of my self-identified brand of crazy. We love the tortured artist, when they channel madness into their art and don't let it out in public spaces. Sometimes I let it take me over just so I can keep my head above water, forgetting that it's what took me overboard in the first place.

It never ends, and I can't offer you or myself a way out. But knowing that the mania is there and that there's no guilt in battling with it is a step towards removing its ability to do me harm.

That said, if any of you want to start a Tenacious D cover band, DM me.

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For more info or help with anything in this article please contact your local headspace office, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14