A podcast stunned me stupid today. I wasn’t expecting to relate instinctively to a heroin addict describing the high. “Oh my gosh, it was the best feeling. I hated my life so much but that made me feel so good and so confident. It kinda made it feel like I was invincible but nothing really mattered, if that makes any sense.” I’ve never done heroin, but it’s a feeling I know intimately, and I found myself feeling homesick.
Lately, I’ve been nostalgic for hypomania—the high I used to get for free. People pay good money for illicit drugs to get that same feeling. Ironically, I now pay good money for the drugs to make it go away.
Our brains seem to have made some of us addicts before we even have a substance to abuse. It’s probably no accident that bipolar is linked strongly to addiction: it’s so easy to get addicted to the powerful ups. But the ups are fickle, and they never arrive on demand, when you need one most. Drugs, gambling, sex, or another instant hit can fill that void. For a while. Even if you never turn to a traditional addictive substance, the promise of the next high is likely what keeps so many people off mood stabilizing medication. I mean, ahem, I can imagine.
Surrendering my superpowers
Even fictional representations trigger the longing. There’s Carrie Mathison of season 5 of Homeland, when she chooses to go off her meds for work, ostensibly to access a different place in her brain. Preparing her boyfriend, who agrees to support her during the process, she explains what mania is like. She conveys so perfectly the brief glorious clarity of a no-meds state that watching it, I found myself swallowing a lump.
“The meds have saved my life…but something is lost, too. There’s this window, when you’ve got all this crazy energy, but you’re still lucid, you’re still making sense and that’s always when I did my best work.”
Before my diagnosis, that’s what I thought normal was, and how I would have described myself most of the time. Endless energy; connective, creative and fast thinking; expansive; outgoing. I absorbed hypomania as my regular personality; it feels right, any other mind state feels like settling, like failure. I spent years trying to get myself back to that space—those hypomanic highs—but as happens with degenerative mental disorders, the ups actually got farther and farther apart. And I felt more and more like I was failing myself, failing life.
Bipolar and addiction parallels are seemingly endless and similarly heartbreaking. An addict needs more and more of a substance to get to the same place each time, and the high grows shorter and shorter. Tragic, the life destroying results, but tragic, too, is this: the feeling we are chasing will not come again. Instead, the feelings we are left with are desperation and grief and denial.
That Homeland episode is named Super Powers. Of course it is. Like our favorite super heros, some 2% of the population gains use of our best powers only a fraction of the time. The rest of the time, we settle into our Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Diana Prince lives of relative obscurity. Is it any accident that the alter egos of superheroes are buttoned-up, glasses wearing, conformist bores? They glam-down to fit in; it’s a familiar impulse.
Boring is stable and consistent; extraordinary is dynamic and unsustainable. There is utility in normal, comfort even. If normal is slippers and sweats, hypomania is my outgrown Sunday best, hanging in the back of the closet. Along with my cape.
I miss them both terribly.