For World Bipolar Day (30 March), we want to raise awareness of bipolar disorder which is often misunderstood. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that mainly affects your mood. If you have bipolar disorder, you’re likely to have times where you experience manic or hypomanic episodes (when feeling high) and depressive episodes (when feeling low), sometimes with psychotic episodes during manic or depressive episodes too.
In this poignant blog, one of our supporters describes what “mania” feels like for the person experiencing it, likening it to an aerosol can.
“One of the symptoms of bipolar, and disorders that fall under the bipolar umbrella, is mania. When I introduce into a conversation that I have previously been diagnosed with a condition that sits in the bipolar category, I am often asked what it is like to be manic. Usually, I will respond with some examples of things I have done when in that manic state, things that are out of the ordinary for me. These days, most people see me in a more stable place (stable is a word I strongly dislike, but I will save that discussion for another day). However, more recently, I have managed to find an analogy that describes my personal experience, of what I was told was mania, and the process of getting there, incredibly well.
Mania is one of the more widely known symptoms of the illness, yet it seems that those without the disorder have little understanding of how it feels. In my experience, people can describe some of the behaviours sometimes seen in mania:
- Elevated mood
- Lack of need for or ability to sleep
- Fast speech
- Risk taking behaviours
Yet, the thing I am always asked is how does it feel. My answer? It is like being an aerosol can, with a blockage in the valve or actuator!
When an aerosol can works, there is a gradual and controlled release of the contents of the can when you push down, opening the valve. For someone experiencing elevated mood, they have a can with a working valve. The heightened emotion or ‘pressure’ inside their can, can gradually be released, meaning the pressure inside the container stays within safe levels. An example could be that they go for a walk, or swim, or to the gym and release some of that energy.
When experiencing mania, or hypomania, the valve to the can is blocked. You are the can. No amount of exercise is going to release that pressure, because it cannot escape out of the valve.
Imagine the can is full, yet somehow, more pressurised substance and gases are being added. It was already at the maximum fill, but for some reason, more is getting squeezed in. There is no space inside the can, and you are powerless to reduce the ever-building pressure. The blockage in the valve means there really is no escape. The more heightened the mania, the higher the pressure inside your own can.
Sometimes, a pin can be inserted into the nozzle or valve. That tiny pin prick has allowed a small amount of pressure to release. It’s a relief, albeit temporary. But, for a period of time, the can has returned to a normal or nearer normal pressure inside. In this analogy, the pin is a rescue medication. As effective as it can be to release the pressure this way, sometimes the pressure inside is so high that it pushes against the blockage making it difficult or nearly impossible for the pin to dislodge it or pierce it.
Having any insight or reflecting on the manic episode later can make you feel powerless. All the time the pressure was building up, it was exciting. But there were also times it was overwhelmingly frustrating. It’s not uncommon to flip between intense elation and intense anger or anxiety. When the pressure is high, I am unpredictable at best. Probably one of the hardest things, is that once the pressure has built up, it hits a point where I no longer see the problem. I don’t realise I am overly energised. The rest of the world are just killjoys or boring. I have no idea that people can’t keep up with me in a conversation anymore. Reality is whatever I feel or believe. Chances are, when the pressure is finally released, I won’t even remember most of this.
From the outside, small amounts of increased pressure in the can may not show. As the pressure builds though, the can begins to contort and expand, changing in shape and appearance. This is the behaviour and symptoms that others see. The fast talking, the increased self-esteem, the impulsivity, the risk taking, the extreme reactions, the constant buzz of energy. Sometimes, the can isn’t even recognisable anymore, the shape has changed so much that it no longer resembles a can. Much like someone in the height of mania may not resemble the person when they are well.
This may not be everyone’s experience of mania; we are all individual and therefore experiences will vary from person to person. For me though, this analogy has helped me give others some insight into how it actually feels to experience the intense pressure of mania or parallel episodes. On reflection, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be on the outside of that can, not knowing if it is about to explode. But despite what people sometimes think, it isn’t much fun being the can either.
Ultimately, for me, the best preventative measure is to always have a plan. If the people who know and care about me have an idea of how it looks when I get unwell and what can be supportive, then the chances of me staying safe are much higher.
In the many years in which I have had struggles with my mental health, I have received many different diagnoses and have had episodes that present very differently. The rollercoaster of ever-changing diagnoses to try and fit me into a specific pathway or box, can also make it difficult. But some time ago I noted that whether or not someone has a diagnosis isn’t that important. Sometimes just having the words to explain your experience can be very empowering. Especially when seeking help.”
At Mary Frances Trust, we support people with bipolar in two ways:
- An Online/Face-to-Face Bipolar Support Group – This group is for people who have been diagnosed as bipolar to come and share experiences, difficulties, ideas and coping strategies and support each other in a friendly environment. It runs on the first Thursday of every month, 7pm-8.30pm. Alternate months face-to-face in Leatherhead and on Zoom.
- SUN (Service User Network) which is a new, easy to access community-based service for adults experiencing difficulties with complex emotions often associated with personality disorder. These emotions can affect how a person feels, copes with life and manages relationships. Attending a SUN peer support group helps people get the support they need and gives them the opportunity to share their experience to help others. For more information about SUN, please visit the SABP website.
Want to blog for us?
Did this inspire you to share your story? If you would like to contribute to this blog series, please email Connie, our Communications Lead, at email@example.com. The blogs can be poems, song or videos – whatever format you feel most comfortable with!