2 Things Learned about Bipolar


Of the things I’ve learned about cyclothymia in the last three months, two stand out:

  1. Mania, by definition, is bad.
  2. One way mania can feed the depression is through over-committing.




The first statement probably sounds either obvious or wrong. It may be obvious in the way that mania, as part of manic-depressive bipolar is part of the symptom of the disease.

Or, if you’ve experienced mania, you sometimes enjoy the mania. Obviously when it goes completely off the rails it is harmful. But there is that point of extreme creativity and productivity and having just a little bit of mania is a bit beneficial.

Except it isn’t good.

Obviously, full manic periods can be disruptive and require hospitalization. But even hypo-manic episodes can be dangerous to one’s health.




And even hypomanic bursts of creativity have a mechanism of feeding the depression that follows it.

The creativity and optimism of up periods of hypo-mania fuel creativity and optimism. Having creative ideas and optimism about their potential leads to wanting to act on those ideas.

That sounds good. And it can have a good outcome when it fuels productive output. But the definition of both bipolar and cyclothymia include the cycle, the shift from mania to non-mania. I’ve mentioned this before (e.g. footnote 4 here).

Let me digress briefly to explain something about how I believe personal motivation and expectations works. I’m borrowing directly from a task system called “GTD” [1] but let’s not get bogged down in the specifics of that right now.

A fundamental piece of how our minds work is that we plan to do things or want to do things and we set up an expectation that we will do these things. In GTD terms, we make  a commitment. It can be an unspoken commitment to ourselves.

“I’ll get fit one day.”
“I’ll learn Spanish.”
“I’ll take that course.”

These commitments, when unrealized, can create unspecified anxiety in our lives.  That feeling of “I’m not succeeding” or even as far as mini-crises of having not lived up to… something.

You probably see where I’m going with this. While experiencing a burst of creativity and optimism, one might start a lot of new projects and efforts. And one might finish some. But the unfinished ones become an internal commitment.

The unfinished commitments are expectations that, as one gets down and doesn’t have creativity, optimism, or energy, sit on a mental shelf mocking and reminding one of being a failure. Which makes the situation worse.

I’ve seen this pattern personally. And I try to be very careful about making commitments when feeling upbeat. I know where this trail leads and, while I can get things done by harnessing the mania like riding a shooting-start-of-energy, I know that this shooting star dissipates and any unfinished idea is a ticking time bomb that can explode, spreading shrapnel of loathing and self doubt over a wide area.[2]

I’ve also seen this before (e.g. second footnote here) but hadn’t yet been able to clearly understand this process.






[1] GTD, or “Getting Things Done” by David Allen is an approach to task & time-management that begins with some fundamental assumptions about how the brain works (like the one I mention) and then suggests a system for grappling with real-world tasks given the realities about how our brain is. Worth the read, even if you just interact with the core beliefs about the human mind and how humans are wired.

[2] Yes, I see how I have too many metaphors in this description. Also, it is possible that the time-bomb of unfinished ideas can, like a bomb, be defused. And that is a skillset worth developing as well. But if you avoid creating the bomb in the first place, you don’t have to defuse it. Ideally, you can be skilled at both ends of the bomb problem.

Aside: as I looked up references to things I had already talked about, I got to see some of the hoped-for value of writing this down: otherwise I forget the things I learn about this disease. For example, I have a short list of things that I do to help stay even in Evening Out, and I realized that currently I’m doing very poorly on doing those things. Which means that there are things I can do that will likely help me right now. That’s a great feeling.



2 Things Learned about Bipolar

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