Writing as therapy
Writing about (hypo)mania
In my memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country, I say: “Bipolar made me feel like a victim of a massive flood, being swept downstream and never knowing when the next rapids or waterfall would hit.” (p.240)
There’s no doubt about it: bipolar can be overwhelming for the person affected and for their family members, friends, and colleagues. It’s a fierce tsunami when you’re swept up in a (hypo)manic episode.
I drew this picture during a family therapy session in 2008
to depict what my hypomania tsunami feels like.
But by writing about my experiences afterward, I was able to look down on that seething flood from a safe distance, as though in a helicopter. It allowed me to gain a new perspective on what I had survived.
I really enjoyed the process of naming, labelling, and giving words to the surreal experiences I’d had in both mania and hypomania. The act of writing gave me permission to take ownership of my experiences; to make sense of them; to integrate them into my personal portfolio of lived experiences; and to wholeheartedly commit to recovering so that I—hopefully—would never have to go through an episode like that again.
(Sadly, things are seldom quite so simple. It took me two full years of high drama and two psychiatric hospitalizations before my moods were eventually stabilized. And even now, over a full decade later, I consciously work at my recovery every single day, by faithfully taking my prescribed meds, and with meditation, exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, and other healthy lifestyle choices.)
My thoughts were racing so fast in (hypo)mania, I found the best way to capture them was to scribble furiously on multiple post-it notes. These later became invaluable aids for when I finally was stable and able to think about writing my memoir.
Here are a few excerpts from Mad Like Me about my obsession with post-its:
The more manic I became, the more post-its I scribbled each day. I even wrote post-its about post-its! For example, I rather smugly noted that in a single day “I wrote 32 post-its excluding this one.” (p.88–9)
Late that night, I had another mental storm and was too restless and agitated to write the post-its myself, so I called [my husband] Rob, who kindly played secretary for a while. (p.98)
[During psychiatric hospitalization:] Two days later, I asked Rob to bring me office supplies: paper clips, pencils, paper, coloured pens, post-its, clipboards. Like an anthropologist studying an exotic tribe, I wanted to make detailed notes about everything I saw. In fact, I felt compelled to do so. These familiar supplies made me feel comforted, secure and oddly competent. Sane, even. (p.148)
Writing about depression
If mania is a tsunami, depression is a dreaded black hole that sucks you helplessly away from your normal life, your family and friends, your responsibilities, your hopes, your very self. I became a disembodied shadow-self; an empty shell. And the abject desperation stretched on endlessly into outer space; no relief in sight.
My energy was so low during depressions, the thought of documenting my feelings in any way was out of the question. I couldn’t focus enough to read—or even watch a movie—so writing was clearly impossible.
But later, when the depression finally unleashed me, I once again turned to writing, both to record and try to make sense of what I had lived through, and to try to heal from the psychic trauma I had suffered:
My first depression lasted six ghastly weeks, and every day I thought I was going to die, I felt so bad. And yes, thoughts of suicide were a constant feature in my muddled, morose mind. To be dead, obliterated, was the finest thing I could imagine. Depression was soul-sapping, brain-draining. It sucked me down into a dark vortex from which escape felt impossible. Limp-limbed and hollow-eyed, I staggered through the day, longing for escape. I craved the ultimate annihilation. Maddeningly often, I would lie there waiting for the release of sleep, only to have endlessly circular thoughts plague me. I would stare, doe-eyed, at the ceiling, longing for relief from the thoughts, fears, ruminations, ceaseless thinking-worrying-fussing. These anxious, repetitive, blacker-than-black ideas almost inevitably left me lying stiffly on my back, imagining I was in my grave. I could feel the hard, cold coffin beneath me, and I saw only blackness around me. It wasn’t scary at all; rather, strangely comforting. At last, oblivion. Nothingness. Peace. But then, soon enough, the phone would ring, or Rob would grind his coffee beans, or the doorbell would chime, and I’d snap back to reality: no freedom, no void, no grave. Oh no; I can’t stand this. (p.37)
So… write it out!
I encourage each of you to write about your experiences, even if it’s only for yourself. It can be a truly therapeutic activity.
But, of course, “writing it out” also provides you with a permanent record of your journey. You may one day choose to share your notes with a loved one, or a yet-to-be-born child or grandchild, or even with the general public if you one day publish a memoir. (Please see the Coaching tab if you might be interested in memoir coaching.)
And if you’d like to read about the experiences of others, I invite you to watch for my upcoming 2021 anthology, whose working title is Tales from Bipolar Country. I have received some amazing, from-the-heart accounts from people living with bipolar, our family members, and the professionals who work with us.