Mania is a word heard often in our fast-paced, cyber-pumped, fad-crazed popular culture. Where new information is a mouse-click away, ideas are generated and published to the world in a matter of seconds, the new and exciting can be personal or shared and validated by the collective. From humanity springs a well of energy, varied individually, that is channeled into work, projects, sports, or social, familial or community activities that are practical, healthy and actively entertaining. We all have our own interesting hobbies, ways to express fun and connect with others – past times are the essence of physical and mental well-being.

The passionate, the enthusiastic, the active and motivated are encouraged and congratulated as “go-getters.” With the abundance of informative and entertaining stimuli out there, multi-tasking has become an art form. Distractions are abundant. Performance is expected, at high or low degrees, but at a constant. The life force of our globalized modern world can be overwhelming, in addition to the internal, sporatic, emotional tides of mood in individual mental life.

We could call this collective energy a life force we each possess. But as we age, this life force is disciplined, divided and channeled into “appropriate” and “inappropriate” as sanctioned by cultural norms. There is bull-fighting, extreme sports like BMX, surfing, skydiving, kiteboarding and bungee jumping. There is a party culture designed to rock the senses all night long, raves, night clubs, music festivals, and light shows coupled with mind-blowing drugs. People exert their bodies in triathlons, marathons and extreme mountaineering. Religions all over the world practice traditions of joyous worship in religious festivals, sacred rituals, possession, fasting, silence, isolation and suffering. Are these people considered insane?

School is the battleground for learning “good” and “bad” behavior. In the first exposure to structured group activities and goal oriented thinking, children learn how they can have a positive or negative effect on those around them. School requires the formation of an entirely new set of coping mechanisms, where children must learn how to assert themselves while submitting to the power hierarchy.

Small children are taught the difference and separation between play time and work time and through praise and punishment they are socialized to adapt the social skills and utilize them to adjust to the demands of their environment.

Without a doubt, cooperation is a remarkable human gift and fundamental to the fabric of society. Selflessness, compassion, and the ability to work peacefully together, however, are ongoing triumphs and challenges and often squashed instead of fostered through discipline and rigid structure. Look at the American prison system, the university systems, hospital and insurance industries – all these designs struggle to balance liberation and organization.

The initial exposure to schedules, rules, authority, sitting still and quietly, listening to teachers, following directions, forming lines and accumulating points to mark scholastic achievement is difficult for most of us. Everyone has a memory of “getting into trouble” in their school days, when he or she felt the weight of power pushed against the drive of free will. Systematic punishment and reward conditions us to subdue manic energy, while permitting socially sanctioned, gendered expressive outlets. This draws questions of the healthy extent of social learning and the direction we are headed: what is “civilized” and what is “wild” behavior? How do we agree on these constructs?

Some do not fall in line so well, some remain drawing outside the lines and march to their own drum. Perhaps overwhelmed by the life force, perhaps neurologically wired to function actively higher than average, and clinically diagnosed as mania, the ragingly excitable human phenomenon is deplorably paired with severe depression.

Categorized as a mood disorder by the DSM-IV, Bipolar Disorder includes two types. Bipolar 1 is characterized as “one or more Manic or Mixed episodes, usually accompanied by Major Depressive Episodes.” Bipolar II, often considered the less severe of the two, is describes as “one or more major depressive episodes accompanied by at least one or more hypomanic episode.”

Mania is euphoria, grandiousity, and intellectual expansion without apparent limits. But mania is also recklessness, frenzied and even dangerous. In his memoir Electroboy, self proclaimed professional patient Andy Behrman describes the experience:

Bipolar disorder is about buying a dozen bottles of Heinz ketchup and all eight bottles of Windex in stock at the Food Emporium on Broadway at 4:00 a.m., flying from Zurich to the Bahamas and back to Zurich in three days to balance the hot and cold weather (my sweet and sour theory of bipolar disorder), carrying $20,000 in $100 bills in your shoes into the country on your way back from Tokyo, and picking out the person sitting six seats away at the bar to have sex with only because he or she happens to be sitting there. It’s about blips and burps of madness, moments of absolute delusion, bliss, and irrational and dangerous choices made in order to heighten pleasure and excitement and to ensure a sense of control. The symptoms of bipolar disorder come in different strengths and sizes. Most days I need to be as manic as possible to come as close as I can to destruction, to get a real good high — a $25,000 shopping spree, a four-day drug binge, or a trip around the world.
— Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania

Perhaps mania is beyond the pursuit of happiness, chasing our wildest dreams, it is the pursuit of ecstasy. Free of rationale, it is a state of eluding hard-driven adherence to the logic of action equals reaction, and beyond even the human constants like sleep and meals. Behrman describes spending sprees and decisions based on, what some would say, a flippant whim. But he is steered by a different compass, a balance achieved not by the checkbook but by intuitional, sensory drives – an emotional temperature not shared by anyone else. He refers to the push to self-destruct, to defy boundaries and the limits of excitement to “ensure the sense of control.” Mental illness is often defined and dismissed as behavior that is “out of control,” but in reality, it may be a state of weighing power. Control is elusive, often more apparent when absent, creating more of an overwhelming presence in absence. Individualism associates control with power, but power is also joy, it is excitement, elation, appreciation, creativity, strength, ingenuity and agency. Maybe mania is a drive of the spirit to be monumental, to be epic, to live and breathe all the possibilities of the world.

On the popular blog Breaking Bipolar, Juliet writes of her mania:

Manic episodes for me start out like a powerful rush of ecstasy. One experiences certain bravado and elevated esteem. I feel creative, intuitive, and giddy. I’ve functioned on a level of working 12-hour plus days with little or no sleep for long periods of time because I have “projects” in my mind. Sleep eventually ceases for the most part. I become much more chatty then usual and will converse with just about anyone. The need to be heard is exhausting. I’ve become so intoxicated on occasions that I have “blacked out” and had no memory of my actions. I do remember one episode when I was manic that I drank to excess and played a piano at my place of business (hotel) until 5AM in the morning. The funny thing is, I don’t play the piano. I ran the risk of disturbing sleeping guests and being fired. I have spent thousands of dollars on trips, cars, clothes, etc., etc.”

Living the life purely of the human will is a compelling experience. Juliet is overwhelmed with projects that she ceases the need to sleep. Alcohol provides the release in that it blurs the line of responsibility and she blacks out her own actions. Clinicians speak of such grandiosity as self-explanatorily self-deprecating and it is a symptom in many personality disorders in the DSM. Most commonly associated with “narcissistic personality disorder,” why is this grand feeling of flying high seen as dangerous?

Juliet continues:

My energy is monumental. I’m a seductress with an alluring grin. My discretion is reckless at best. I can’t even keep up with all the ideas floating around in my head. This level can continue for a good period of time…then things change.

No doubt living the life purely of the human will is powerful. The energy is electrifying and expansive, yet cannot last forever. The slide from mania can be sudden or gradual, but the racing mind becomes fragmented.

The active bipolar writer and mental illness advocate Natasha Tracy describes the prison of the manic mind,

The hypomanic mind isn’t like a single life happening all at once, it’s like every life happening all at once in a tiny, tinny, echoing room. Hypomania is like having ball-bearings bouncing around inside my skull faster and harder and fast and hard and faster and harder. Hitting each other, making divots on the inside of my skull, becoming interior decorators. Fragmented, distracted thoughts. Sentence fragments. Problem grammar.  No capital letters. No punctuation.

No matter the height of euphoria, the individual is never isolated and the mental fragments are coupled with social repercussions. But where is the line between euphoria and danger? Is it the irrationality of mania that people have such an adverse reaction to? Why do the social consequences characterize a mental illness? Mania induces public fear because of its potential effect on this individual’s life. But in all rationality, one cannot characterize the whole by the sum of its parts.

Mental illness is publically discussed as typified by risk and chaos, under the umbrella phrase “danger to self or others.” Public perception sees madness as the entirety of the individual and they are instantly seen as uncontrolled, helpless, anxious, reckless or ludicrous. Society’s fear is confirmed by the mentally ill perpetrator whose dangerous antics could always have been prevented, had someone noticed and sounded the alarm. The sensation-seeking media fuels our cultural obsession with safety, but there are clear differences between harming oneself and harming others. Physical violence or self-inflicted harm is clearly destructive and obviously discouraged by society at large. Once again we see mental pain or harm is lumped into the same social and legal category yet handled very differently by our culture. Some “mental illnesses” are too private to talk about, to be handled in the home or with a private therapist (i.e. schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, anorexia or bulimia) while others are publically acknowledged, given space for discussion and treatment applauded (i.e. alcoholism, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder).

Popular literature takes a warning tone, however, cautioning against the potential untold insecurity of bipolar to finances, relationships and health.

According to David J Miklowitz, Ph.D. in The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide:

“A manic episode can wreak havoc with a person’s life. It can drain finances, ruin marriages and long-term relationships, destroy a person’s physical health, produce legal problems, and lead to loss of employment. It can lead to loss of life. The fall-out can be long-lasting: William Coryell and his colleagues at the University of Iowa Medical Center (1993) found that the social and job-related effects of a manic episode are observable for after five years after the episode has resolved itself.”

How can one lead a happy, healthy lifestyle with a diagnosis that they may potentially (and permanently) ruin their own life? Miklowitz is describing the fall out of the clash between the individual and societal wills, but how did manic euphoria induce such negativity?

The prominant writer and contenderof bipolar stigma regarding hypersexuality, Carlton Davis describes the duality of the mental state.

Safety and risk define the two poles. Safety defines what is revealed in everyday life. The bipolar person appears normal. He or she can operate like other people: hold down a job, have a place to live, even carry on what appears to be a normal relationship. Risk, however, is the big attraction. The bipolar person is lured to that risk, which can be fulfilled easily in the night time. To be outside the boundaries of society is trilling, and that trill is often sexual. Isn’t this what we often find out about rapists and the pedophiliac? They have ordinary lives laced with times of extreme behavior. Perhaps that is why so many sexual abusers are labeled bipolar.

In my own case the sexual adventures, which I have recounted in vivid detail in my book, “Bipolar Bare“, were associated both with both mania and depression. A depressed rage would come over me, where I sought out high risk behavior in bathhouses. I wished to kill myself through contracting AIDS. I would go into periods where I thought my life worthless, and vile. The more I sought out sex in gay bathhouses the worse I felt about myself, but I hid this behind a façade of normality. I acted and dressed like a professional during the day, and at night during those times of extreme depression I would go out looking for sex. I didn’t do this when I was not depressed. I acted like a heterosexual male dating women and loving their company. But I could never get into a meaningful relationship because I had this secret life which occurred during my depressions. I was addicted to marijuana at this time. Stoned it was easy to overcome my inhibitions about homosexuality so that as my cyclical depressions arose I could operate on my hidden fantasies. Gay sex was the behavior I loved and hated at the same time.

Davis’ story incorporates the reality of mania in daily adult life in the United States. He blended normal, socially sanctioned existence with the wild pursuits of pleasure, risk, passion and danger. Mania is commonly associated with sexual deviance, as mania is expressed emotionally, physically, mentally, sexually, or spiritually.

We are all capable of approaching the wild highs of mania. Each of us have experienced a taste of subtler forms of such euphoria. Without a doubt, mania comes with a price. But in order to move beyond social stigma, anxiety, loneliness and cynicism we must make an effort to extend paradigms of the appropriate mental and emotional life to realize the full breadth and range of humanity.