The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Bipolar Disorder's Nasty Secret

Exposing the Elusive Mixed State

Most people think that bipolar disorder consists strictly of manic and depressive episodes.  That's like saying the rainbow consists only of red and blue.  In fact, there's a whole range of moods on the bipolar spectrum.  The one I seem to be all too familiar with these days is the most difficult one to describe:  the dreaded "mixed state."

It's not quite depression, not quite mania, but a nasty combination of the two.  Trying to explain how a mixed state feels is like trying to snatch hold of a tornado.  It's impossible – the damned thing never stops long enough to be captured.  But I'll try.

Last Wednesday, I woke up knowing that something was wrong.  It was a gorgeous day, the kind Southern California is famous for.  Too gorgeous:  the birds outside my window harped on my nerves, the abundant sunshine made me squint.  The telephone rang and I snapped "What is it?" instead of "Hello?"  I got rid of the caller as quickly as possible and fixed myself a cup of coffee.  But the mug was too hot and it singed my fingers.  Cursing, I threw it in the sink, where it broke into a hundred shards. 

It was my favorite mug, not just because of its cheery yellow flowers but because it was the last remaining evidence of a weekend tryst with a long-lost boyfriend.  There would never be another mug like that, or another man like him, or another love affair worth remembering.  I was too old for such silly souvenirs; my life was as good as over.  I started to cry.  Carelessly, my eyesight blurred by tears, I tried to sweep up the shards in the sink; but they cut me and blood began to flow.  I couldn't do anything right, I thought, so I picked up another piece of the mug and deliberately sliced my naked ring finger.  More blood – another thin red rivulet, merging with the first and coursing down the drain.  How quickly here and forgotten, like me.

All that afternoon, I continued to swirl between emotions, not a single good one in the bunch.  Hopelessness, fear, self-loathing, despair – all the classic notes of depression were there, but they were overlaid with the least desirable aspects of mania.  No euphoria, no elation, none of that sky-high, soaring giddiness that makes a manic mood worthwhile.  Just rage and irritability and a relentless, pulsing energy that seized hold of my body and urged me to move, move, move.  But move where?  Move why?  My mind insisted that there was no destination.

I kept thinking about my old boyfriend, and that last weekend we had spent away, so in love, so eager to be together.  Then, too, it had dawned a beautiful day, but I'd woken up snappish, on edge for no reason.  I didn't know then about the mixed state.  All I really knew for sure was that I was a dangerous, destructive force, and the world would be wise to get out of my way.

My boyfriend tried all the wrong approaches.  First, he tried to nuzzle me, but I was too prickly to be touched.  Then he tried logic:  it was a beautiful day, we were together, there was nothing to be upset about.  Big mistake.  I was still a litigator back then, and I out-argued him with ease.  He got furious, as men frequently will when you best them.  But his anger was no match for me.  I could feel those words gathering in my throat – you know those words that you absolutely have to keep suppressed at all times?  Every relationship has them.  There are certain things you just can't say, certain weaknesses you're just not allowed to exploit, unless you're willing to suffer the consequences.

I didn't care.  I spewed them at him, vile words that I won't even repeat because I wish them to vanish forever.  He was gone before I could taste my tears.

Mixed states are all about shattering things – mugs, relationships, best intentions.  I know that now, and it makes me careful.  When I wake up as I did last Wednesday, squarely in the tornado's path, I don't go out.  I limit my interactions with people, whenever possible.  I call my doctor and increase my meds.  I know that the mixed state is stronger than I am, but that doesn't mean that it owns me, body and soul.  I may cut a finger; I may break some glass.  But I refuse to be swept away.

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

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