Mania: The Side Effect of Genius

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The first psychiatrist I had ever met listened to me prattle on for about 15 minutes before she interrupted me, scowling:

“You have bipolar disorder, type 1.”

And there, that was it. I was 21 years old. I didn’t even question her as blurry memories of months of chaos filled my mind. I already knew my own diagnosis. But I hadn’t bothered to absorb it, or think about it, until she stated it, in terms that sliced the air like one of my pocket knives.

I was there after my boyfriend and I called an emergency psychiatric line after months of extreme daily mood swings which caused me to empty my wallet on flowers and cookies, shoplift, force a .45 handgun against my throat, slice bloody lines into my arms, claim I was the Messiah, and more.

Of course, I also had no doubt that I was a genius. “The smartest girl in the world,” I thought. I had made every effort to read each classic of Western literature since I was about thirteen years old. I had written hundreds of pages in my journals and dozens of poems modeled after Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot — and, thus, I thought I was brilliant.

Madness was just a side effect of genius-dom. If madness was the side effect, then the drug was my brain. I had leaned on my cerebral cortex like a pair of crutches throughout my teenage years. I had lived in the front of my brain, swinging from the left to the right, analyzing and creating all at the same time, searching and pushing my neurons around until they finally crumbled under the pressure.

And so I thought for many years that bipolar disorder was my fault, a result of all that overthinking, from shoving the rocks around what I called “the dark cave in my mind.”

After my diagnosis and my early medications, I built a wall up in that cave. I pushed the brilliant girl into the attic. I — brick by brick — covered up my wild intellect. This meant no more reading Nietzsche and Sartre, no more literary explorations, no more writing until 2 a.m., no more seeking immortality through art.

Instead, I tried to pound myself into normalcy.

But, for some reason, I could never get the moon to stop talking to me. I may have turned my cheek to its glare, but the moon still rambled on about my “potential” and my gifts. It was my secret. The thoughts I believed I had buried still bubbled up, often striking me sideways as I walked down a street, while I fingered the texture of a blouse while shopping, during the most ordinary of events.

The bipolar and the brilliance has never left me, despite my greatest efforts. Despite occasionally being medicated into oblivion. Despite the dozens of (draft) suicide notes. Despite being left by the men I loved when the mood swings became too much.

I am writing this today nearly twenty years since my diagnosis. I have succeeded in many things. I have written a book, which — although unpublished — remains my greatest accomplishment. I have learned to hunt and fish and to be a true Alaskan outdoorswoman. I am married to a man who loves me through the bipolar cycles. I have a small family. I have had a successful career in public relations.

Bipolar has altered my life in so many ways but I remain strong (most of the time). I have met the cycles head-on. I have not let bipolar win, although at so many times, it has crushed and pushed me into the ground. I have crawled on the floor, I have sung at the top of my voice, I have tasted flight.

My intellectual preparation never really prepared me for life, but it did prepare me for writing. I am still afraid of that wild girl who still lives in the cave. Someday, I know I will truly visit her again, or let her out and try to control her, to direct her into something meaningful again and somehow not let her wildness overtake me.

“Think of a caged animal in a zoo,” my psychiatrist says. “Are they depressed? Yes. But think of wild animals — their very wildness allows them to live to the fullest.”

I have visited my own internal wilderness. Through writing, like this, right now, I have some control in that wilderness. I am, brick-by-brick, opening a hole into that cave. I do not deny it, I do not hide it. The girl is there, and the soft sunlight allows her to breathe, slowly, calmly, as I write again, and let the writing bring her out.

August 10, 2017 at 04:37PM

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