The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

When Is It Safe to Smile?

The Hidden Perils of Happiness

Last Tuesday, I woke up feeling strange.  I couldn't quite put my finger on it.  Was I sick?  No, I felt surprisingly well.  Was something bad supposed to happen that day?  Not that I could remember.  I brushed my teeth, took a shower, got dressed.  Gradually, I forgot to worry.  In fact, worry was the very last thing on my mind.

I felt -- are you ready for it? -- happy.

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I don't traffic much in happiness, so it's not a familiar feeling to me.  Don't get me wrong:  it's not that I haven't had my share of joy.  Great joy, in fact.  Exuberance, ecstasy, exaltation.  Bipolar disorder has taught me everything there is to know about the extremes of elation.  When I'm manic, there's nothing unusual at all about floating high above the clouds, burning brighter than the sun.  My face shines with an unnatural radiance then, my eyes are laser sharp.  I see beauty everywhere I look -- too much beauty sometimes.  I drink it in until I drown. 

But this wasn't ecstasy.  This was a plain old Tuesday morning.  Colors didn't snap and glow, they were just ordinary colors:  red, green, brown.  My coffee didn't taste like ambrosia, my English muffin was slightly burnt.  But still, I felt a sense of marvelous contentment with my breakfast:  it was perfect, and I was complete.

I didn't know what to do about it, if indeed something had to be done.  The problem was this:  I wasn't sure it was safe.  Was this happiness just a precursor to mania?  If so, I wanted no part of it.  Flying too recklessly close to the sun always gets me in trouble, sooner or later, and I have the singed wings to prove it.

The moment felt so lovely -- but was it just a moment, or the beginning of something more?  Was I about to start cycling from mood to mood?  Was depression poised to swoop down and annihilate me?  In short, was it okay to let down my guard and enjoy my English muffin?

This excruciating self-awareness is one of the prices you have to pay if you want to function with bipolar disorder.  You constantly have to check in with yourself:  what is my emotional temperature now?  Am I running too high or too low?  Is there an objectively verifiable reason for the way that I feel, or is it my chemistry running amok?

Happiness always needs a hook.

I looked around me:  same old bills on the table, still unpaid.  I glanced out the window:  it wasn't a particularly pretty day; in fact, it looked rather nasty, dark gray nimbus clouds threatening rain.  And yet, and yet -- I couldn't help it.  I felt all sunny inside.  I buttered my muffin and savored every bite.  Then I emailed my therapist:  "Feeling awfully happy today."

"Careful," he replied.

I spent the rest of the day trying hard not to whistle. 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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