The Pathology of Happiness

Previously published on my Tumblr page,

As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I am well aware of the highs and lows that are associated with it. I have been so low and depressed that I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed all day, yet often found myself unable to sleep. I have been so “high” that I thought it was a good idea to spend rent money from my dad on a camera and later drive all the way to another state to see my friends (I used my credit card to pay for everything).

Bipolar disorder has been described as a “disease of feelings.” The problem with this is, that we cannot escape feelings- experiencing them is an essential part of the human experience. Depression is rarely soul-crushing immediately. It starts with a persistent inability to enjoy the things you are doing, and then magnifies as you slowly begin to leave off doing those things. In the same way, mania doesn’t start off with you being 100% impulsive or delusional. It begins with hypomania- and one of the symptoms of hypomania is “unusually elevated mood”. All of the sudden the world around looks a few shades brighter, you experience increased energy and focus and you feel like you can accomplish almost anything.

Managing my mood disorder means being highly aware of my feelings and whether or not they’re getting out of hand, and watching out for mania is one of the main things I practice.

Unfortunately, this sometimes results in being suspicious if out of the blue I wake up and I’m feeling better about things than usual. It means wondering if my excitement and enthusiasm when I’m talking about something new could be described as “pressured speech” or if my extra energy could lead to irritation or an angry outburst. It means wondering if when I splurged on that one thing I was moving into the impulsivity that is characteristic of mania.

In other words, I begin to study and look for the “pathology of happiness”- all of the negative things that can be associated with what just feels like “being happy.” Just like I don’t want to get “too sad” I don’t want to become “too happy”; I don’t want to become manic. This is because the mania is what leads to the poor decisions, the destructive behavior, and ultimately the hospitalizations (in my case). A sense of grandiosity is capable of persisting that can lead to a complete loss of touch from reality.

I do wonder sometimes, though, if my fear of mania is putting a damper on my ability to express happiness and joy. I’ve been hospital-free for almost five years, but I still look back on that dark time in my life and seek to make sure never to return. Even when I know I’m doing all of the right things- getting sleep at night, taking my medication daily, and sticking to a routine- I still feel afraid that my emotions are going to get “out of control.” If I feel under the weather, immediately my mind goes to the worst possible outcome, of me eventually being unable to get out of bed and go to work and therefore getting evicted. Or if I’m happy and having a good time, I wonder if I’m becoming “too excited” and may launch into regrettable behavior.

It is possible that my concerns are being exacerbated because this is traditionally the time of the year that I’ve been hospitalized, but I know that these concerns are always a low-grade hum in my mind at all times. I am always thinking at some lower level of consciousness, “don’t let your feelings get out of hand.”

The good part of this story is that I am not without support. I have my best friend, who, if I did start to launch into something that was abnormal, would notice immediately. I am still under the observation of case workers, even though it’s been years since I’ve had an episode. This was because the frequency and severity of my episodes- the last of which was a schizophrenic one that got my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective (bipolar type). Also, my last hospital stay was three months, which is a pretty long time.

I’m very grateful and happy that I’ve been episode-free for so long. I think I have relaxed from the level of worry I was at early into my recovery, so it’s possible that this low-level vigilance is something that I’ll have to experience for the rest of my life. I feel like I will never be in a position where I will feel fully comfortable, or fully confident that I will never again experience the devastating effects of mental illness. In my case, I don’t believe I will ever be “cured”. Instead, it will be something that I always manage and live with.


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