My Personal Journey: Running Through Bipolar- Part Two

Recently I have felt compelled to share about being Bipolar; particularly how having the disorder affects my identity as a runner. In the first article I wrote I focused mainly on the depressive side. In this one I want to talk about mania.

In reading back through my journals I found the following excerpt to be very telling of my manic switches, especially since it was written several years prior to my diagnosis:

It happens overnight. I am depressed, I am fighting, I have no energy, no spark, the thoughts are dark then one day it is different. The sun is shining, I’m running more, I feel grateful to be alive and feel like writing. I have ideas, positive ones. The anxiety is more manageable when I run. I turn my thoughts to whatever road race I have on the calendar and become absorbed with music and runners’ high.  As the summer progresses, my mood intensifies. I obsess, but in a good way. I go to bed at night with piles of books on marathon training and my running logs so I can study them. I read other books as well. I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau and soak up every word. I am high up. I don’t sleep very much; maybe a couple of hours but no matter because I’m still energized.

Many a Saturday morning I’ve risen after three hours of sleep and ran twenty miles, feeling good the whole time. Returning home I still cannot rest, and my mind buzzes the rest of the day about my long run and my training.

This has been a seasonal pattern for many years, the depression in the winter, the uplifted mood in the spring and even more so in the summer. I guess it’s a fair enough trade.

I’ve been fortunate in some ways for the timing of some of my lesser manias; there does in fact seem to be a “good” type. I put quotation marks around the word good because in the real world no mania at all is good. Mild episodes (known as hypomania) are for many people euphoric and irresistibly enticing. The problem is that small manias can lead to bigger ones and the higher one goes up the harder one usually falls.

In what was to be the longest manic episode I’ve ever had, I fell in to that lovely infatuation period where one gets their first pair of real, recommended running shoes from a specialty running store, subscribes to Runner’s World, starts considering food as fuel and begins to keep a training log. I estimate I read twenty five or thirty books in one summer, all related to running and training. I read, ate, slept (when I could) and breathed in running. My first three marathons were run in the “good” kind of manic state.

Although sometimes it makes my stomach wrench, in these articles I’m trying to include as many of the nitty- gritty details as possible. Stumbling across any piece of literature on my illness (after I was diagnosed and began to research) was cathartic for me. The light would go on above my head every time I saw something I related to and had always thought I was alone in. It takes the average bipolar person twenty years to be correctly diagnosed. This is because most of us only seek medical help when we are depressed and end up being treated for unipolar depression.

Why would one think of visiting the doc because of running a kick-ass marathon due to an impossibly sky high energy level, or having written a twenty page short story in two days or purchased nine pairs of shoes (read: four inch heels) online in two hours? While those things may be odd or out of character they don’t send most of us running for help.

The beginning of mania is characterized by euphoria, excessive energy, rapid thinking and speech patterns, flights of ideas (sometimes really excellent ones) increased energy (in my case translating to faster running with less effort) creativity, higher productivity and very little need for sleep.

You might ask what’s wrong with any of that. It sounds quite lovely as a matter of fact and I’m here to tell you that it is. Senses are heightened; and the desire to connect with others is much more intense. It’s more or less a perfect world.

Of course there’s a downside. True mania to me is akin to circuitry in my brain humming, crackling and lit up like a Christmas tree. At first it’s beautiful but then it burns too bright and begins to short circuit all over the place. Sometimes the wires burn completely out. I’ve caught myself standing in the kitchen as if just coming to and needing to ask myself: Who am I? Where am I? And what am I supposed to be doing? The ability to communicate breaks down. The ability to focus and concentrate disintegrates as rapidly as it escalated before. Confusion abounds. One often begins to feel mortified when the realization sets in of the fiscal damage done, or damages to friendships or consequences of the bad decisions that were made. Friends have a difficult time understanding such erratic behavior and often become alienated at that point.

A terrible fact is that commonly mania is followed by depression. As I have mentioned before, my particular flavor of this disorder happens to be of the rapid cycling variety. All too often, instead of having periods of “stability” in between mood episodes, I swing from one to the next.

I promised myself to keep these articles a little more brief in the hopes that more people will read them and find something they relate to, whether it’s for themselves or a loved one. In the next one I’d like to talk about the support I’ve experienced from friends and family.

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