What Happened During My Manic Episode


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The funny thing is, this isn't really difficult for me to talk about. Sure, part of me is worried that I'll be judged. But I try not to judge other people, so I can't judge others for judging me. I was lucky in the sense that my manic episode was purely positive. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to have another one, because I realize that I was lucky. Manic episodes tend to get worse over time, and I'm lucky that I didn't quit my job, empty my savings account, or do anything dangerous.

No, looking back, the vibe of my manic episode was honestly harmless. I spent hours trying to recruit my smartest friends into academia. I called people up and told them how we were going to lead our generation, shape the future of humanity, really make a difference in the world. I stayed up all night making an hour-long presentation to explain to my bosses how we were going to use the manuscript we were working on to inspire the next generation of researchers. I sent an email about my research questions to the chair of our department, among others, and wrote down "Explore: do I want to run for President?" on my to-do list.

I was so happy. At one point I literally burst into tears because I had true hope and pure love for every single person on this planet. (To be fair, at that point I did ask Josh, "Have I lost it?" So even I knew something was off.)

the come-up

I think I'll probably always remember this moment: the moment my friend Aubrey finished her talk. Everything hanging in the silence before either of us took a breath. In June, the research we had been casually working on got selected for a plenary talk at ASHG, the annual genetics conference that I've been going to for the past four years. During my first conference, I had no idea what the heck was going on. I barely knew a single thing about genetics or what anyone's research meant. I didn't even know how which talks were most relevant to me so that I could attend them. In contrast, to now be contributing to work that thousands of people would listen to was honestly insane.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, the pressure I put on myself wasn't mind-blowing. It's not like I was working anywhere near 60-hour weeks, but I did accomplish more than I thought I was capable of. I worked the full 8 hours without distraction and very occasional nights and weekends. I spent hours debugging code, sometimes with no end in sight. I'd occasionally take work home, but nothing unreasonable.

Despite the fact that I wasn't physically pushing myself, I had major and crippling anxiety about everything that was happening, including nightmares about work that woke me up at night. But I had always dealt with my anxiety and talked myself out of it. Since learning valuable skills in therapy, I've been able to handle my anxiety a lot better. And it paid off. We made great progress on our project, and Aubrey put together an incredibly well-organized presentation and communicated fantastically about our research.

When she finished her talk, I felt a rush of adrenaline. I think that was the start of my manic episode. My thoughts started racing less than 24 hours after, and I started getting less sleep and waking up in the middle of the night to jot down thoughts. For the first day and a half, I was still pretty quiet; testing the waters. I would share a small portion of my thoughts with someone to see what their reaction was. If I got a positive reaction, I would continue talking.

the trip

When I was manic, my brain felt like a computer. My thoughts were whirring so quickly that I couldn't type fast enough, and I type up to 100 words per minute. I was finally analyzing all the data stored in my head, memories and life experiences and all the life experiences of the people I had ever met who'd told me their stories. I wanted to type it all down because I felt like I was making all these important connections, doing machine learning where my brain was the machine, and I needed to record the output. At one point I pointed to my head and proclaimed to my boss, "Free compute! Free storage!" Seriously, mania is a trip.

In total I didn't sleep for 5 days. I shut my eyes for a few hours a night, but my thoughts were still whirring. I was typing nonstop on my laptop and phone. I barely ate — I ate out of necessity, and Josh later said that's how he should have known something was wrong.

I said cheekily to my nurse practitioner, "No, my thoughts are going fast, but don't worry, I can keep up with them."

Luckily, I work for a university with one of the best hospitals in the country. The mental health services I received at the University of Michigan were quite good. I feel lucky that everything happened the way that it did. I don't know if there's an easier way someone could ease into finding out they had bipolar.

the come-down

I don't want to have another manic episode. But I'm happy I had the one I had, because it was an incredible learning experience.

From my manic episode, I learned confidence. One of the symptoms of mania is that you feel like you are very special, the most special person in the world maybe, or even that you have superpowers. I didn't think all that; rather for me, my self-esteem was already starting quite low, so I just finally thought that I was equal to everyone else in my life or around me.

I learned what it felt like to be completely free of depression and anxiety. To be free of imposter syndrome. I wanted to hold on to those feelings so that I might continue feeling that way.

if you know you grow

© if you know you grow 2023.