by Michael Abraham
I have been told it is a bad thing. I have been told this by doctors and friends and my parents and lovers. They worry over me, worry over me the way a Catholic worries over her rosary. They insist on the medication and the therapy and anything but this feeling, anything but this feeling you relish so intensely.
O, but to live without it is a waste, a wasteland, and not in the TS Eliot way: not a wasteland overbrimming with meaning, but a wasteland devoid of even the potential for meaning. Hypomania is summer thunder, is getting crushed by the rain. It is having sex with two men in one night, and learning their names, and learning their deepest fears because one is so open that deep fears tumble out. It is falling into Triangle Park, into the puff-puff warm feeling. It is taking ecstasy on the tongue and dancing all the night long. It is spending all your money and calling it good, for a good night out is only the sign of one who hopes. O, it is sex and drugs and money, but it is more than that, so much more than that. It is a deep thrum like a drum struck at the center of the being, an immaculate sound that emanates through the vibration of the whole body. It is an easy slide into Exactly Who He Wants To Be. The world is an oyster, and hypomania is the pearl: it is gorgeous; it is extravagant; it deserves to be worn at the neck as a sign of glamour and appeal. For one who has experienced it, there is nothing quite as quick as the slice of its blade upon the throat. It bleeds one out. It makes from one who is merely body, merely mind, something spectacular: a fountain of bright red conundrum, a spill of the holy stuff onto the ground. There is no living without it once you’ve had it. It is the best drug on the street. It is top-shelf liquor. It leaves nothing in its wake but wanting for it. Staying up to write all night, sweating profusely as you dance your aches out alone in front of the DJ booth, falling into the arms of any boy, falling into your own embrace, embracing yourself as a broken thing full of yearning: it is a true human condition. It is maybe the human condition laid bare. There is no proper way to say it, but to say that all the stars align for a moment, and in that moment, you are immortal; you are the absolute apotheosis of chance and luck. You take the world in your hands, and then you take the succor of the world in your mouth, and then you fill yourself until your greed for all the world has to offer is finally satiated. O, but it is never satiated!—not until the hypomania passes, and you pass with it, into the doldrums, into the never-ending blue of regret and depressive reconstruction of the self. You lose your ground in the hypomania, and then, in the depression, you get your ground back. And your ground is such a burden. To be free of oneself, to be an onslaught, to be a trick in the back pocket of a satyr prancing wild to a Madonna song: it is so very difficult to leave it.
Hypomania must be importantly distinguished from typical mania. Typical mania involves a total loss of self to sickness. One gives away all their money to strangers or acquaintances. One gets naked in the street. One loses jobs and friends and family members. One falls victim to delusions about oneself and the world about one. Typical mania is absolute madness, a complete overturning of the self to a feeling of euphoric certainty that one knows exactly what the Order of the World is, what it all means. Hypomania is not quite like that. Hypo- denotes lesser; it is the lesser mania. Rather than fall victim entirely to hallucinatory and delusional thinking, the hypomanic becomes terribly reckless, full of a sense of their own power though still lucid enough to recognize that that power has no basis in reality. It is a problem for the hypomanic: how is it that I feel so immense, so incredibly present, so eternally lucky, when nothing in my life accords with these feelings? It is impossible, for the hypomanic, to make sense of this discordance, and so they dance. And so they do drugs. And so they fuck. And so they make of themselves a red spectacle of absolute mirth. I have always associated mirth with hypomania. Mirth is a deeper sense of humor than humor itself. It belongs to faeries and to wild people; it is the full-throated chuckle, and it is crimson or maroon in color. Mirth flirts with the abyss, see; mirth is not about finding common-sense enjoyment with others. Mirth is the fling of the hand into the heathen sky at night; it is the ecstatic state that comes sometimes when one sits very still and contemplates the great particulars of life. It is dancing, drunk and impossibly high, to Diana Ross in the street with three homeless men whom one’s just met. Mirth is textured and round. It is impossible exactly to define or to pin down. Instead, one must talk around it. One must gesture at its depth. Typical mania is not mirthful; it is terrifying. But hypomania, that lesser mania, in which one discovers an incomprehensible excess of self to spill around themselves like blood or semen—yes, hypomania is mirthful. It is the stuff of great philosophy, of deep thought, of charismatic abandonment to the saints and the angels and all the holy terrors; it is all the Old Gods assembled in a circle laughing uproariously at their own failure to be worshiped. It is a full-throated chuckle in the dead of night.
Doctors don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I first experienced hypomania at the age of seven years old. For me, bipolarity has always been deeply seasonal. In the winter, I am highly aligned with myself, comfortable, productive, moral, at ease. In the summer, I am a hypomanic mess of a person. Even medicated to the teeth, even with a therapist, even with all the coping skills Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can offer, the summertime comes with its abundance of light and heat, and my mind gets to turning something awful.
I was seven. I was sitting on the grass in our backyard. It was June. I sat in the grass, a mere boy, and I noticed that something twisted in me. Something all of the sudden was not right. The sun was too bright, the air too hot, but, no, it was not these. It was not these that were wrong. The brightness of the sun and the heat of the air were welcome to me. But yet, despite my welcome of the sun and the air, the light of the sun and the heat of the air changed something in me. All of the sudden, nothing seemed quite real around me. Everything was warped, misshapen, as though seen through deep water or in a dream that is not quite a nightmare but frightens all the same. I looked about myself, a little boy of seven, and suddenly the world was not right. Something was deeply wrong, not as it had been before. This was not a problem in the world, I knew, even then, even at that age: it was a problem in me. It was all too fast, too hot. The wind, the buzz of the bugs around my head, the smell of the grass: these overwhelmed me; they took me in, and suddenly I was falling, like Alice, into some terrible hole from which I could not escape.
I never told anyone about this feeling, this off-centeredness, this oddness of sense in which everything became as it was not supposed to be. Instead, I insisted that I loved school and that I hated summer because I missed being in school (this was, after all, true as well). I had no words at seven for what had happened to me while sitting in the grass on that June afternoon.
Over the years, it changed shape. From an insubstantial and strange oddity of perception, it hardened, materialized, into obsession, into wildness. I first noticed this change around seventeen. I began to do madling things in the summer, and this only intensified with time. I got so terribly lost in the throes of it. By nineteen, I was terrified of myself, casting about for anyone to help me. But a kindly therapist told me I was not bipolar, just troubled, and there was nothing to worry about. So, the hypomania persisted. And it grew. And it grew. And it took hold like a root-system. It became so much a part of myself that I did not recognize myself without it, without the drugs and the drinking and the chuckling mad up at the heathen sky at night.
This is a story for another time, but my ex-husband saved me from all that, or from much of it. And yet, it continues. I still feel its acute sting, like a cigarette burn, pleasurable and frightening all at once. I cannot let it go; I cannot leave it. It haunts me like the memory of any pleasure haunts a person. You see, when you are like I am, when you struggle with what I struggle with, the problem is not that you are sick exactly. I mean, you are sick, certainly. But the problem is more profound than that because what you are sick with is a lust for life, for its burnt edge, for its intense euphoria and incredible sense of loss, its quick changes of fortune and its being given over to chance. To be sick in this way, to be sick, not with an ailment that has an easy name and a particular cure, but to be sick with a wretched capacity to hold all of life’s contradictoriness, all of its affective force, all of its insanity and inanity and blistering desire, in one’s hands—to be sick in this way is to want to never get better. I get better all the time of course. I have to, for this is the charge which life has put upon me. It does not do to be a wild satyr of the hills in a college classroom or serving in a bar or in any of the other locales where I work and live. I take my pills, and I go to therapy, and I subdue myself. But every once and a while—perhaps it is the moon or the planets or something else occult and unscientific—every once and a while, I find myself given over wholly to this desirous thing inside me, this utter insatiability and instability that cannot find rest in the daily goings on of the world. And when I find myself this way, I try to have grace for myself; I try not to judge the feeling. I ride the feeling like a wave until it inevitably crashes back to shore. And then I pull myself up by my rags, and I surrender to the Everyday. But to have a break from the Everyday, to be for a few days or weeks a faeling or a god, o, I cannot tell you what a blessing, what a curse. I cannot tell you because it escapes words. Like mirth, it passes into a hearty chuckle and disappears into the long din of night.