In the years since I got clean, I know that my mental health has improved. I’ve been (relatively) stable on a moderate dose of the same medicine for two years or more, with small seasonal adjustments. My physical health, especially in the past year and a half, has taken a huge leap forward. I am close to pain free on some days, and the bad days don’t compare to the way they used to be.
There are still symptoms to deal with, but I find myself experiencing odd sensations and behaviors sometimes. Random feelings of well-being. Ability to do a load of laundry while it really is just one load. Desire to tidy the kitchen. Ingestion of fiber supplements, vitamins and other suspicious substances. Strange longings for fresh air, the outdoors in general and physical activity. Being aware that, in one day, I’ve done several things that would have put me in bed for the rest of the day if I’d attempted even one of them in the past.
Like many who have a form of bipolar disorder, however, I have learned to view feeling good with a trace of suspicion. Especially if the good feeling has resulted in a period of unusual (for me) productivity. Hypomania, one symptom of bipolar II, can manifest itself in this way. It can be subtle and not at all like the out-of-control stuff people associate with bipolar disorder.
Still, if that gets stuff done, what’s so bad about it? Well, historically, it doesn’t tend to stop there. Soon the happy time is over and I have severe anxiety, racing thoughts, and sleeplessness. I’m too scattered to focus on anything, too exhausted to be creative any more, and too anxious to get some sleep. I’m playing on my iPad at 4 am with two poems, five blog posts in the making, details of the American Civil War, an angry speech to my husband, every appointment for the rest of the month, presentations for a hypothetical future career and at least one post-apocalyptic fantasy running through my head at the same time.
If I’m lucky, I endure a few days and settle down. If I’m not, things can get dangerous for me, especially with the deep depression that might follow. So, I don’t want that. If I spot the trend early enough, there are things I can do to try grounding my energy. But how do I distinguish the early symptoms from the feeling of just having a good day?
I know now–as I did not know years ago–that some of my overeating and other depression-inducing behaviors got triggered by hypomania. Not all, because I am an addict, but I can look back at certain cycles and see that I was making a clumsy attempt at self-regulation without realizing it. Using extra food to sap my energy and restore the status quo; sabotaging myself in some other way to promote fatigue or guilt that would drain me; using sedating drugs to compensate for the excess energy flow.
You know where I’m going with this. Everything I used to employ for that kind of self-regulation is off the table, so to speak. So how do I regulate? I have a relationship with a psychiatrist, of course; one who knows about my addiction and understands why I’d rather tough it out through an anxious phase than accept tranquilizers or sleeping pills. He helps me manage my non-addictive bipolar meds, and I can always call to discuss an adjustment if need be.
But, on a day-to-day basis, it’s up to me. I need to learn to observe, classify and deal with the energies that crackle through my body and mind. Is it good, healthful energy coming as a natural consequence of health and creativity? Is it true inspiration, or passion about a cause, or some other kind of energy that is directing me to do something? Or is it ramping up to a hypomanic state? When is it safe to embrace a highly energetic state and let myself enjoy it?
Diagnosing myself can be tricky! I’m hardly an objective observer, after all. But I’ve developed a few tips for myself when things are going well and I get nervous. I ask myself about my eating–have I had more urges or more desire for nibbling? I ask myself about sleep–am I lying awake longer than normal? What’s my thought-train-per-minute count? I ask myself about my attention span during the day–am I being unusually good at multitasking, as can happen early on? Or am losing the ability to focus on one task at all? Comparing myself to others doesn’t help, because what is normal productivity for another could still be a lot for me. I have to compare me to me, based mostly on data from me.
Never doubt that I know how lucky I am. That being said, indulge my wistful complaint for a moment: How much does it suck that, when I play the radio and dance around the kitchen while cooking, it could be a bad sign instead of a joyful testament to the healing recovery can bring? I’d like to be able to be grateful for feeling good without having to analyze it all of the time. I’d like my God to send me some good moods neatly labeled with ribbons that say SAFE. Or maybe stamp expiration dates on them like on milk: okay for this long, then it’s getting dodgy.
I’d also like a pony.