In 2018, I was diagnosed with unipolar mania, a rare form of bipolar disorder where my brain experiences only the positive cycle of the bipolar curve — mania, with little or no depression present on the downswing.
If you’ve followed the Kanye West news stories of late, he’s undergoing a particularly severe and extended episode of mania. I’m very lucky to not only be properly medicated, but I also have a milder form of the condition that doesn’t express itself as… flamboyantly.
When I first thought I might be exhibiting symptoms of mania, I scoured the internet for information about what it felt like and found very little in the way of something that matched my experience. All I could find were generic symptom pages that referred to mania as a “rush of energy” or “racing thoughts”.
I understand why people result to these platitudes: just like a psychedelic trip, mania is extremely difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced it. Still, I’m still going to attempt to get as close as possible, both to provide the exactness that I could never find when I first went looking, as well as give neurotypical readers a peek under the hood to see what it feels like to be inside my head during a hypomanic episode.
My History with Mania
I was 28 when I first noticed the rush.
For a lifetime extrovert, a night spent dancing, talking, and vibing at a Michael Jackson vs. Prince night with a big group of friends in a crowded bar in San Francisco would generally be a recipe for feeling good, but this particular sensation was something else entirely.
As I bid everyone goodnight and left the bar, I noticed the sensation getting stronger — my brain and body were awash in a contented numbness. It was 1 AM and the trains back to my home in Oakland had stopped running, but I wasn’t worried about where I was going to sleep that night, or that I had to wake up at 8 AM to play goaltimate the next day. I was in the moment, and everything just seemed… right.
The next morning, I was convinced someone had spiked my drink with MDMA. I shrugged it off, telling a few friends about the experience, but thinking nothing else of it.
This was my first hypomanic episode. For the next 18 months, by my estimation, I had 2-3 more, so mild that I didn’t associate them with the first “MDMA” episode. I was simply afflicted by a few days of being more stimulated, motivated, and believing in the world and the people in it more than usual.
In 2018, the episodes progressed in both frequency and severity. I started waking up earlier every day, no matter how late I went to bed, I would shoot awake at 5:30 AM, completely rested, unable to go back to sleep.
I began to have small visual hallucinations. Bright lights became too bright and I wore sunglasses more often, and biking at night became difficult because the darkness was all-consuming. When cars passed me in the bike lane, I kept having the sensation that they were about to hit me. I underperformed at ultimate practice as well, making simple mental errors and finding that my body was often disconnected from what my mind wanted it to do.
I occasionally jotted down creative, pithy — though somewhat extreme — thoughts, sometimes publishing them to Facebook:
In the moment, I perceived my own writing as simply creative and inspired, but a couple friends later confided they had raised their eyebrows a bit.
At one point, one of my closest friends, also bipolar, had mentioned he thought I might be somewhere on the spectrum. I always had this in the back of my mind, and when the symptoms got too severe to ignore, I sought psychiatric help. Despite societal myths about taking medication, I took the plunge and started taking lithium, with has aided me greatly in returning to baseline. By the way, I could write a whole different article on the unfair stigmatization of psychiatric medicine, but this is an article about mania, so let’s get on topic!
What Is Mania?
Wikipedia defines mania as an “abnormally elevated arousal, affect, and energy level”, but that only scratches the surface.
To describe the effects to people in short-form, I compare the effects on perception and mood to low-dose “candyflipping”, or taking small amounts of MDMA and LSD at the same time. The difference is while a candyflip might last 12 hours, a “trip” from mania can last 3-4 days or even longer — my longest episode was 24 days — with no way to shut it off! While a trip with a defined endpoint can be fun and instructuive, mania gets tiring and frustrating not feeling like myself for longer than a day or two, especially when trying to navigate real-life responsibilities in which good judgment has to be exercised, and with no advance knowledge of when I’ll return to baseline.
One model I like for explaining mania is that of Dr. Patrick McKeon, which describes the brain as a spinning wheel. For neurotypical people, the wheel is spinning at a standard rate. Thoughts and speech happen at a normal rate. When it lands on a decision point, the brain has time to see both the pros and cons and come to a rational decision.
For people experiencing mania, the wheel speeds up. Thoughts speed up, and speech speeds up to accomodate communication. When it lands on a decision point, the brain no longer has time to weigh pros and cons and just decides to act. People who are manic often make decisions without considering future consequences, which is why many end up starting projects they never intend to finish, volunteering for posts they can never follow up on, and making purchases they never end up using.
Manic Symptoms – A Personal Taxonomy
I’ve been consistently disappointed with how symptoms of mania are reported described in official medical resources. If you look up mania on sites like WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic, or the Mayo clinic, you’ll get something generic like this.
I understand why they do it — everyone’s mania feels different — but in my conversations with other manic people, there are far more specific and identifiable symptoms that are very unique to mania.
Since the beginning of my condition, I’ve kept detailed logs on all my manic episodes. I’ve categorized the symptoms below and tried to provide insight into how they actually feel to someone that’s neurotypical.
Manic “Mood Types”
For me, each day of mania roughly divides into different moods. Each mood has a different subset of symptoms (though there is a lot of overlap as well). I find that each day of an episode is a die roll of whether I will end up in one of the following general moods:
Manic Mood – This is my default “garden variety” manic mood. It involves high energy, jumping to conclusions faster, grandiose ideas, enhanced visual stimuli, and light auditory and visual hallucinations/misinterpretations.
Detached Mood: A focused-trance-like state. Gone are the narcissism and racing thoughts of the manic mood. A calm feeling of depersonalization settles over me. Nothing bugs me; posts on the internet which would otherwise unnerve me just bead off like water off a duck’s back. I experience inner peace with zero worries or brain fatigue. Time seems to dilate, and my brain rarely jumps to anxiety about past transgressions or future responsibilities. I live in the moment, though often it feels like there’s a thick layer of glass between me and reality.
Productive Mood: An insane period of productivity and focus, surpassing anything possible via Modafinil, adderall, etc. I am able to just look at a to-do list and crush tasks in an efficient way all day without anything distracting me.
- I don’t experience all of these every episode, or even every day. In fact, I’d say I only experience 6-10 per day, depending on the severity of the episode. There are some that present almost every time, some most of the time, and some that have only happened a few times. But all of these I’ve experienced at least once.
- Symptoms are are almost non-existent upon waking and gradually become more severe as the day goes on, peaking at nighttime.
- I’m lucky enough to have developed enough rational thinking and control over my brain that I’m able to kill almost all of the below symptoms at the thought level before I allow them to be physically or verbally expressed. However, this requires a tiring amount of self-control — I’m constantly examining each thought, trying to determine “Is this a manic thought or not?” and then deciding whether to express or discard it. Having to do this every second of every day for weeks on end makes manic episodes a frustrating and maddening experience for me.
- As an episode is tailing off, I frequently experience a rewiring of neurons/thought patterns that lead to insights which one might associate with psychedelic trips. On two occasions, this has caused me to rethink large parts of my life, and ultimately led to me changing my goals and core parts of my identity for the better.
- I’ve always been a good writer, but during an episode, I feel the urge to express myself in a more flamboyant written manner. My writing becomes more poetic and I’m able to rhyme and connect thoughts more creatively. Language becomes a toy, whereas at baseline it might be a tool.
- I become compulsively honest to the point of outright shamelessness. For example, intimate details of my sex life might suddenly seem like a completely run-of-the-mill conversation topic to have with a complete stranger.
- Increased frequency of — and impulse to announce — “Eureka moments”. Suddenly having a realization that connects different concepts I’ve been thinking about, and then having an urge to communicate/tweet that very thing.
- I become even more charming, witty, and charismatic than I usually am. I’m generally flirty, but mania makes me shameless and unabashed.
- I feel the urge to compliment strangers. For example: telling a customer service representative on the phone that she has a lovely voice, or telling a flight attendant that I like her phone case. At baseline, I might just notice these things, but mania amplifies them and gives me the urge to voice them.
Ambitions, Drive, and Goals
- I develop ambitious dreams and plans associated with a specific subject. For example, while at baseline, I might watch a trailer of the movie Interstellar, enjoy it, and click away to something else. While manic, on the other hand, one viewing of the trailer led me to doing research on reddit to see if was still playing in theaters in IMAX, which led me to booking a plane ticket to Seattle, making an event out of it, and encouraging all my local friends to join me.
- New stimuli feel more urgent and pressing than usual. I might generally ignore most notifications I get on my phone, whereas while manic I feel like I have to stop what I’m doing and respond right away.
- My sex drive drops precipitously, basically to zero. The thought of it doesn’t even cross my mind — it seems like a foreign concept.
Increased Confidence in Self/Environment
- My confidence and personal skill assessment become inflated. Depending on the severity of my mania, this ranges from feeling like I’m slightly more competent at any task all the way to having a godlike delusion of being among the best in the world at any activity I engage in.
- I become confident that “things will just work out” in my future environment. For example, I might be looking for some obscure spice and walk into Trader Joe’s, my brain imagining them having whole racks full of specialty spices, even though in my right mind I know full well that they only have a limited spice selection.
- I’m generally very careful and measured when I make decisions, for example, doing a lot of research before buying a piece of clothing. While manic, most of that judgment goes out the window due to my confidence that “everything is going to be fine”, and I often end up with a lot of clothing purchases that I later have to return because they weren’t the right fit.
Perception of Environment
- Those who have done psychedelics have probably felt something like this before: the world seems filled with deeper meaning and interconnectedness. My first psychiatrist described it as everything feeling “shiny”. Everything seems to have an imperceptible “glow” of energy behind it. Situations of emotion or meaning I observe in my environment, like two people embracing on a date, or someone walking down the street and crying, stir my heart in a way I couldn’t have imagined while at baseline.
- I’m generally a person that hates awkward silences and is constantly looking to smooth them over, probably because I’m constantly thinking “what is this other person feeling right now?”. While manic, I lose connection with the feelings of others and am really only concerned with my own. This makes me much more comfortable with situations that I previously would have felt as awkward or tension-filled.
- I perceive time much more slowly. I can be in a bar laughing, having fun, and talking with people, and it seems like I’ve been there for hours, but I look at the clock and it’s only been 90 minutes.
- Food tastes incredible, perhaps 20-80% better than normal depending on the strength of the episode. This is undoubtedly my favorite symptom, and some of my favorite meals have been while manic — it makes Indian food taste even more incredible.
- My sensation of hunger is greatly reduced, almost to zero. I normally get hungry 3-4 times a day, but while manic I can go a whole day without thinking of eating. When I do sit down to eat, though, I still have the ravenous appetite of someone who hasn’t eaten for a day.
- I become irritated at comments and posts on the internet from people I deem as “not getting it”. Because mania gives me a sense of interconnectedness, I feel like I understand greater planes of reality than these people, and often respond to their comments trying to enlighten them.
- I have rash, exaggerated reactions to “injustice” or “being slighted”: I’ve told acquaintances and strangers to “fuck off” in relatively minor disagreements, and I tae kwon do flying double side kicked a guy who was graffiting a public building in New York City after he wouldn’t stop when I told him to.
- My already strong-feeling of justice intensifies. I aim to “cleanse the world of injustice”. I latch on to situations of injustice and write about them in order to educate others.
- Exciting visuals (e.g. delightfully-plated food, photos of cool-looking clothing, colorful flowers) seem much more exciting and pleasurable than they normally would be, similar to a low-level psychedelic trip.
- I notice new stimuli (like trees, bits of buildings, signs) that I haven’t been aware of before when walking or biking familiar routes. I believe this is the mania carving out new patterns of perception in my brain.
- I’m more sensitive to extreme light and dark. At night, things seem darker than normal and I’m more prone to turn on lights, and during the day, things seem too bright and I’m more likely to put my shades down in my room or wear sunglasses when outside.
- Blurred vision that makes it hard to focus on phone or computer screens, especially towards nighttime.
- Short-term memory issues: I have a hard time recalling people’s names, or facts that I would know otherwise. On the contrary, with facts or names that I shouldn’t have any business being able to remember, my confident manic brain tells me that I should have no trouble.
- Memories created during a manic episode are not easily accessible after the episode completes. For example, it took me over three years to write this article because the only times I’ve been able to accurately recall what mania feels like is when I’m manic. Entire episodes feel like a blur.
- My tolerance for muscular fatigue increases. I can push myself in the gym harder without getting very tired.
- Loss of coordination: I overpour drinks, knock over things on tables, and bump into people/objects in public.
- I find it difficult to focus on things in my peripheral vision. When I’m looking at something on one monitor, I can’t focus on a video on my other monitor.
- Having edited a magazine for years, I’m generally a careful writer, but while manic I miss typos/mistakes when proofreading my own writing, often having to re-read three or four times before I finally spot it.
- I focus intensely on what I’m concentrating on at the moment, but have trouble with things at the edges of my attention span. For example, If I’m taking a shower, I can’t focus on the content of a podcast, something I’d have no trouble with normally. Similarly, if I’m focusing on a podcast, I won’t be able to read at the same time. It’s either/or.
- Narcissistic delusions: I’m more prone to mistaking random things people say for my name, e.g. I think people are addressing me when really they’re just saying that might sound something vaguely similar to “Liam”. Similarly, I think people are waving to me on the street, when they’re actually waving to someone else.
- I experience hallucinations of familiarity at the edges of my vision. For example, if I see someone walking down the street out of the corner of my eye, my brain might go, “hey, that’s [name of someone I know!]” even though a second later I realize the person really doesn’t look like them at all.
- I misinterpret/misread what some sentences say at first glance, mistaking either the exact written words or their meanings for something else. For example, I might read a supermarket sign initially as “Good Potatoes” when it says “Gold Potatoes”.
- I become much more emotional when watching movies or video content. On two separate occasions, I watched The Illusionist and Crazy Rich Asians and cried tears of joy and inspiration throughout both. In a baseline state, I don’t think either of these movies are that appealing.
Vocal / Auditory
- Increased sensitivity to loud sounds. The toilet seat being slammed reaches the very top of my hearing spectrum and sounds louder than usual, almost painful. Cars driving by me while I’m on my bike seem much closer than the usually do.
- Increased sensitivity to surrounding conversations. I have to put on headphones to drown out conversations that people are having at the airport that feel annoying to me.
- Auditory multi-tracking. This is probably the hardest symptom to explain, and it’s also the trippiest: my voice, as well as other people’s voices, music, and environmental sounds appear to be coming in as isolated individual audio tracks, and somehow I can hear all of them simultaneously very clearly, instead them running together in an audio mix.
- I take unusual/new empathetic positions. I find myself writing treatises defending points of view that I wouldn’t have otherwise normally held.
- I frequently misinterpret what other people are saying in written dialogue and respond/argue with them without taking time to read the core issue behind their words.
I am very lucky to have experienced few episodes since my diagnosis. Taking lithium regularly, as well as maintaining a healthy, low-stress lifestyle allows me to remain at baseline with few interruptions.
My hope is that this article will serve as a resource for both neurotypical people, but also people who may have experienced mania but not known it (like me before I was diagnosed).
If you think you’ve been experiencing mania but aren’t sure, or if you do have bipolar disorder and would like to discuss anything in this article with me personally, feel free to get in touch — I’d love to make more connections on this topic.