I’ve said before (here and here) that mania, in my experience, can occur during rapid, unplanned expansions in consciousness. Such expansions can happen if the ego takes enough hits to temporarily collapse, or when we do something like quit drinking after years of substance abuse (or both!).
In response, the ego tries to keep up, resulting in delusions, and the pain attempting to be healed during this expansion sometimes expresses itself in rage and violence, especially if our movement/freedom is restricted. We desperately need to discharge this energy somehow, and being locked up in confined spaces is not helpful. The way to navigate life after a manic episode is to train in traversing these variations in consciousness skillfully, rather than allowing them to control you. If these pieces alone were to be understood by mainstream psychiatry, it would be revolutionary for all those suffering from mental illness.
The structure of the ego and the underlying consciousness must be incorporated into our psychological theories, or else we will do nothing but put a Band-Aid on the issue. We will fall prey to the mistaken belief that long-term medication is what’s necessary for these people, when truly, at some point, medication actually blocks the individual from further healing for the simple fact that it blunts emotion. (There are those whose instability is so debilitating and chronic that I understand the need for this, but in the majority of cases—especially for depression and anxiety—long-term meds are ultimately unhelpful.)
Emotions must be fully felt and released (mentally, physically, and energetically) for us to move forward on our paths. This is a process that, as of today, is generally only assisted by shamans, spiritual teachers, yogis, and/or other “alternative practitioners.” These healers can be hugely beneficial, but they’re not the ones we’re turned over to in the midst of extreme crisis. Instead, we’re locked up in hospitals and then shuffled around amongst people who, in all likelihood, have very little understanding of the relationship between consciousness and mental illness. When you’re extremely fragile (as one tends to be fresh out of the mental hospital), nothing feels worse than a blank, “yeah, right” stare from a caseworker when you say you’re not really ill. This needs to change.
One of the most concerning aspects of psychiatry is that the people who have written descriptions of the various psychological maladies have generally not suffered a psychotic break/spiritual emergency for themselves. In psychiatric interviews/assessments, what this amounts to is a game of telephone wherein the patient tries to describe what they are feeling (these experiences are beyond words and thought). The doctor, with his/her intellectual faculties, chops the whole thing up into that which they and their colleagues can digest. Usually, they are also looking for specific illness features, thereby ruling out and/or ignoring the parts that don’t fit.
All they can do is take notes from the outside and compile a list of symptoms they are capable of discerning. Most psychiatrists have no idea how real these experiences are, and I mean that literally: Whatever we perceive is what “makes” our individual realities. What one may call “a hallucination” is just as real as everything you can currently sense. And, just as the Buddha (and many other spiritual teachers have alluded to), dreams are just as “real” as waking life… but now I’m getting off track.
This is not meant as a slight against such professionals; it is simple human nature. The problem arises when the patient’s experience is extremely different than what the practitioner is capable of understanding, and then the practitioner goes on to believe they know what’s best. While hospitalized, I was acutely aware that none of the doctors or nurses had any true knowledge of where I was at or what I was going through. It was infuriating and wrong to have such people in control of my care at a time when I needed something very different.
I’ve set out to explain a bit more about what the experience of mania like is from inside of it. It is my hope that this description might illuminate why a full-blown manic episode can be something far greater than a lapse into illness. Instead, when viewed through the right lens, it can be a catalyst towards growth, healing, and total potential.
The transition from a psychotic break/spiritual emergency to a balanced, higher state of consciousness can occur in two ways: 1. The patient is regarded with proper compassion towards their state of being, and gently guided to understand how a new path in life may be walked. This is not how the mentally ill are treated. As well-meaning as mental health practitioners are, they tend to be overworked, undercompensated, burnt out on empathy, and lacking the fundamental tools to care for their patients in the way they need. 2. After our episodes, we are thrust back into the “real world,” struggling to incorporate wtf just happened to us and left to fend for ourselves by way of research and alternative therapies (none of which are free or even covered by insurance in most cases.) I’m on route 2, because that’s the only route there is outside of the mainstream narrative.
What I’d like to see is all of our psychiatrists and psychologists sitting down at mandatory classes on consciousness so that we—the freshly released and deeply confused—at the very least come away with a modicum of hope for our futures. Instead we’re presented with statistics on what our “conditions” mean, encouraged to take medication we may not want to take, and surrounded by the fresh Hell we unconsciously created while in the throes of mania. This is at least part of why the fall back into depression occurs, and it’s so weird to me that this point tends to go ignored in the medical explanations of bipolar disorder.
If you lost control of your mind and behavior, making a fool of yourself and hurting people you loved, wouldn’t you get depressed? Wouldn’t you feel ashamed and lost? The depression that follows mania has much more to do with these factors than with a change in brain chemicals, or rather, the two accompany one another rather than the “misfiring brain” being the primary cause of suffering. Depression is a perfectly understandable emotion to follow such an episode, especially if the episode is seen as nothing but a sign of long-term illness. Labeling this depression another facet of the disease is straight-up dishonest.
A paradigm shift within psychiatry and psychology is the only way to improve this situation. It must take universal consciousness into account. Currently, we’re stuck at the levels of the brain (physiology and neurotransmitters, the science of which is not fully understood) and the mind (the thinking machine that only constitutes a small part of who we are.) Complete healing can only occur when deeper levels are included, including old energies that are frozen in the body, and particularly that timeless, limitless dimension we all have within us—the one I call “pure consciousness.”
Without further ado, here are the symptoms of bipolar mania as listed in the DSM-V (the handbook of mental disorders):
- Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
- Decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
- More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
- Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
- Distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
- Increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
- Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments
This relatively short list does not even touch what it’s like for the person inside of it. Again, this is because the people who wrote the list are probably pretty underdeveloped spiritually (as our culture is overall), not to mention “illness-oriented.” In the West we do not view wellness and balance as a ladder we can climb to an incredible, all-seeing state. The best we can do is to lack any obvious illness and construct an effective ego. This is such a limited way to experience life. I wish I could share with you how much more amazing we could feel (and how this state would translate to the creation of a beautiful world), but alas, it’s a journey that must be walked by you and you alone.
Here are some of the additional components of mania that I experienced:
- Beauty everywhere: Things are not simply beautiful; they are beauty itself. Every act, from shaking cinnamon into my coffee to seeing two deer playing in a graveyard, was meaningful and glorious. You become attuned to the miraculous nature of life itself.
- Fresh, awake, alive: Think of the most refreshing sleep you’ve ever woken up from in your life. Multiply that by a thousand, and you have a faint idea of how clean and clear we can feel when manic. Life feels deeply fresh and new and fun. Each moment is a joy. Every cup of coffee felt like my first. These elements particularly line up with states of mind that are often discussed in high spiritual states.
- Extreme, near-crippling empathy: Everyone becomes transparent. Their emotions are obvious and clear, and most of them are suffering, even if they’re unaware of/in denial of said suffering.
- Heightened senses: There becomes a strange ability to tune into and become conscious of things you weren’t before. In the hospital, I watched and listened to two doctors talking about me behind the glass enclosure where the staff sit (which, by the way, wtf? It makes you feel like a zoo animal.). They were unaware that I was listening. Smells seemed to hang around a lot longer than usual, music contained riffs and melodies I’d never heard before, and every color became more vibrant.
- Faster metabolism and other bodily processes: My toenails and hair grew faster. I was always hungry. I felt like I could run for miles and miles. It feels almost like the body is receiving some kind of “upgrade.”
- Oscillations of burning and coolness: I’m not going to pretend I understand the way all of the energy involved in this process works, but I know it’s intense, and that it gets expressed in these kinds of sensations. I read, I believe in The Untethered Soul, something about “the yogic burn:” Old, negative energies are burning away as we heal un- and subconscious energies trapped in the body.
- Tingling sensations: Along the same lines as above, I often felt tingles on my skin, particularly when I felt I was conversing with “god.” This “god” was, of course, me trying to cope with other parts of me, yet still the tingling during these times was significant.
- Moving through the Universe: I felt certain that a version of me was going into a black hole. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the widely celebrated memoir on bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind, describes the sensation of traversing out to Saturn.
- An urgent desire to help: This feature is rarely mentioned, but it’s so important. Issues that we can easily shutter away on a day to day basis—poverty, environmental degradation, and abuse of all kinds everywhere—spring forth as deeply troubling. We feel like the only people concerned with these issues. It feels desperate and immediate, like we can’t handle the fact that everyone else is just walking around “fine” while so many people are dying and in pain. It is maddening, and we just want to do something.
- Extreme frustration with the state of the world/the lower levels of consciousness: It all just felt like it was happening too slow. I was ready for everyone to just drop their bullshit—all the stories they tell themselves about why we cannot live peaceably amongst one another and with the rest of nature, every lie they live that keeps them unwittingly enslaved. I wanted everyone to just “get it:” Life is beautiful and we are all each other! It felt like absolutely no one else really understood.
- Complete understanding: You can’t explain it, because it’s beyond words. So you try, and you sound insane. For example, I told the designated mental health practitioner at the hospital that “I knew all the secrets of the Universe.”
These additional features of mania may help us understand that it goes much further than what the DSM-V shows. A manic episode—and/or a collapse of the ego—can be seen as an individual’s attempt towards growth and wholeness, not simply a manifestation of latent, underlying “illness.”
From Yoga & Psychotherapy, The Evolution of Consciousness:
“But an acute psychotic episode may represent an attempt—however misguided—to break free of one’s limitations and come to terms with aspects of himself that were repressed. From the point of view of the growth process, such a person should not be considered “sick” if he is actively reorganizing and evolving. This point has been dramatically made by R.D. Laing who has said: ‘… to be mad is not necessarily to be ill. If the ego is broken up or destroyed… then the person may be exposed to other worlds ‘real’ in different ways from the more familiar territory of dreams, imagination, perception…’”
Of course, many psychotic people are not actively “reorganizing and evolving,” and for them, radically different care should be given. It certainly did not appear that way when I was psychotic, and yet, I have since embraced the process of evolution and continue on the path towards higher consciousness today. There are several factors that can help everyone resume with growth, thereby letting go of depression, neuroses, anxiety, etc, and I encourage deep and honest inquiry into these various paths if you wish to be free of suffering.
Short of having a spiritual awakening, which isn’t something “we” can ever guarantee will happen in this life, accepting that our psychological maladies can be part of a much greater and more beautiful process would be an excellent start.