The 30 Manias
What do we mean when we use a word like "mania"?
Posted Jan 01, 2019
When people talk about “mania,” are they talking about the same thing?
Two psychiatrists probably are, because they have a shared language and a shared metaphor. They would both instantly reply that mania is a “symptom of the mental disorder of bipolar disorder.” Now, if you persisted and asked them, “What do you mean?”, then they would throw up their hands, as they have no idea what they mean. But in terms of employing a shared metaphor, they are completely and comfortably aligned.
However, is that the only metaphoric use of the word “mania,” to call it a “symptom of the mental disorder of bipolar disorder”? Heavens no. Human beings use the word “mania” to stand for all sorts of states, experiences, and phenomena.
When people use the word “mania” in their idiosyncratic, metaphoric way, they are trying their best to communicate something true and important. In some cases, it may be the same something that psychiatry claims to be speaking about; and in many if not most cases, it may have nothing to do with psychiatry’s view. In fact, it may be flatly antithetical to that view. How confusing! Which is exactly why we are so confused on the matter.
How is the word “mania” actually used? Here are thirty metaphoric usages of the word “mania,” each with a suggestive quote that will help you get the flavor of that particular usage. Please go through these slowly, as the point I am trying to make is an important one. The point is that we are not currently really communicating about what mania “is” when the word itself can reasonably and in good faith be used in so many different ways.
We are not currently talking at all sensibly about mania, not when we have no idea about whether we are talking about this or that metaphor among the many competing metaphors of mania that we regularly employ.
30 Metaphors of Mania
1. Mania as a “symptom of the mental disorder of bipolar disorder”
How this sounds: “I have bipolar disorder, which is why I’m sometimes depressed and sometimes manic.”
2. Mania as a biological event, namely the result of a “chemical imbalance”
How this sounds: “I have a chemical imbalance that makes me mentally ill.”
3. Mania as a feature of original personality
How this sounds: “I’ve been racing around since I was born. In fact, I can remember deciding to walk as soon as possible, because I wanted to run. I hated the idea of crawling. How slow a way to get from here to there! Now they call me manic.”
4. Mania as a “worsening of the disease of melancholia”
How this sounds: “For some reasons, when I get really very depressed, that switches to mania. Somehow my mania is really a worsening of my depression.”
5. Mania as the result of a “racing brain”
How this sounds: “My so-called mania is really just me thinking too many things in quick succession or thinking too hard about just one thing. That’s all it is!”
6. Mania as insatiable appetite
How this sounds: “When I take a bite of something, I can feel myself grow manic in my desire to have another bite and another bite and then I want to stuff the whole thing in my face! For me, appetite, hunger, and mania are all tied together.”
7. Mania as “being driven”
How this sounds: “I’m always driven, to see people, to talk a lot, to drive all around, missing sleep and not bothering to eat. Something is driving me, I don’t know what, and the result is called mania.”
8. Mania as a severe anxiety state
How this sounds: “I have such a fear of public speaking that if I have a presentation coming up, I start to get really manic.”
9. Mania as “negative obsession”
How this sounds: “I obsess about everything, including my obsessive nature, I never give myself a rest, and this mania of obsessiveness completely exhausts me.”
10. Mania as a feature of one’s “coping style”
How this sounds: “I don’t know how to live except by racing around trying to outwit my despair, hide it from myself, or somehow exhaust it. That’s how I cope.”
11. Mania as a response to boredom
How this sounds: “I hate boredom so much that I will throw myself into anything, absolutely anything, rather than be bored. This ‘throwing myself into anything’ may look like mania but it’s just my way of avoiding boredom at all costs.”
12. Mania as a “drive for novelty”
“I can’t cook the same dish twice. So, I’m always searching for new dishes to serve in my restaurant. This incessant searching may look and feel like mania but it’s just that I need novelty and new things much more than the next person does!”
13. Mania as a desperate attempt to ward off depression
How this sounds: “When I feel that deep cloud of sadness coming, the one connected to my sure knowledge that life is a cheat, I make the very conscious decision to plunge into something, anything, to keep that monster at bay.”
14. Mania as a release of sexual tension and/or a release of inhibitions
How this sounds: “I’m pretty much repressed and suppressed all of the time but when I sometimes let myself go I suddenly have this manic energy and all these powerful desires. This need to release tension is the real reason I get manic—the mania is my way to ecstasy.”
15. Mania as the look of intense problem-solving
How this sounds: “I’m a prized researcher at my university because when a problem interests me I never want to stop pursuing it, day or night. The night watchmen all know me. It does feel like mania but a mania that I understand, prize, and can control – most of the time.”
16. Mania as “profligate energy”
How this sounds: “I just have too much energy. One way this plays itself out is that I throw away all my money on expensive champagne and luxury cars. My energy turns into a mania for spending!”
How this sounds: “The patient’s onset of mania occurred when his defense of repression was no longer able to resist the assaults of his repressed instincts.”
18. Mania as a conscious, half-conscious, or unconscious oppositional response to depression or the facts of existence
How this sounds: “Mania is my way of being pissed off. The world wants me to fake calm, act like I’m not demolished inside, and play their game. I’d rather race around ignoring all of them!”
19. Mania as a “super” life force
How this sounds: “When I stay up for twenty hours straight every day in my manic state I feel like Superman!”
20. Mania as passion channeled in a direction
How this sounds: “The sport of racing is a great mania to which I must sacrifice everything without hesitation.”
21. Mania as a way of being in the world
How this sounds: “I think that my mania is a kind of protective shield that I use in the world, to keep people away, to keep ahead of them, and to brush them aside. At home, I can be very peaceful, even catatonic, but in the world, I’m always racing ahead.”
22. Mania as “dangerous euphoria”
How this sounds: “My mania is a dangerous euphoric feeling. It makes me animated and creative, you want it to last, but it can also creep into delusions, which can become as real as anything.”
23. Mania as “stubborn, willful narcissism”
How this sounds: “The things that I want to do are more important than the things that other people want to do. So, I push all of them out of the way, very energetically. They call me manic but I am just strong-willed and on a mission.”
24. Mania as a “feature of the creative personality”
How this sounds: “You need to be manic in order to be really creative, because work done without some mania is always a little boring, dry, and dead. You need the mania in order to breathe life into your work.”
25. Mania as a positive, creative response to inner bedlam and chaos
How this sounds: “The only thing that holds my wild insides together is the mania, which is me rushing along creatively and making art out of all that turmoil and tumult.”
“One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
26. Mania as a response to existential challenge
How this sounds: “When meaning starts to vanish, I get very frightened, and then I start running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It doesn’t matter where or what—I just have to do something to outrun the meaninglessness that I know is right on my heels.”
27. Mania as a kind of “prized good time”
How that sounds: “When I’m manic I think I’m more fun to be around and just a better, more interesting, less sad version of myself. I really prize it. So, I cultivate that mania, especially when I feel the sadness taking over.”
28. Mania as a feature of indwelling style
How this sounds: “I can tell that the way I am with myself encourages a kind of mania. My mind is pressing, pushing, pulsating, both because it’s thinking so many things and also because so much is troubling it. When I go ‘inside,’ I can feel myself racing—and I think I encourage that!”
29. Mania as a kind of “gift”
How this sounds: “I couldn’t have made anything of my life without the mania. It’s a gift of energy and passion and focus and without it I’d never have gotten much of anything done.”
30. Mania as “simply” a grand feeling
How this sounds: “My mania is just a wonderful feeling. There’s no downside at all, except how it upsets and annoys other people.”
There are of course more than just these 30. We haven’t discussed how mania might be related to adverse childhood experiences, to childhood, adolescent or adult trauma, to authoritarian wounding, to substance use and abuse, to intelligence … to many things! These thirty certainly do not comprise the complete list. But they are enough to suggest that we’d better not make believe that we know what we are talking about when we use the word “mania” or that we are only talking about one of those first two, mania as a symptom of a mental disorder and mania as a biological problem.
I am not asking you, “Which one of these is right?” Indeed, they may well all be legitimate, if what we are talking about is simply the way that the word “mania” is actually being used to describe different phenomena. It is possible that we only have the word “mania” to describe very different states and that part of our inability to talk smartly about our emotional wellbeing has to do with the limitations of our vocabulary.
Of course, it would be profoundly valuable to know what we are actually talking about here. To play with the famous Sufi tale of the blind men and the elephant, are these all aspects of the elephant, with one single underlying cause or explanation, or are these in fact very different phenomena which, either accidentally or for some explicable reasons, share a sisterly or cousinly resemblance? Is the “same” mania a chemical imbalance, a gift, a flight from boredom, a sexual explosion, a feature of the creative personality, a defense mechanism against depression, and all the rest? Can one phenomena possibly “be all that”? Or perhaps we are talking about some set number of “manias”—to make a joke of it, “the six manias”—that resemble one another at least somewhat but that arise for very different reasons? We simply do not know.
I am not asking you, “Which one of these is right?” But here is the question I’d like to pose. What comes up for you seeing the word “mania” used in these many different ways? I’d love to see how you respond to this multiplicity. Please comment here or drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. And let me know if the subject of “mania” interests you. I’m curious to see if you think it’s as important as I do!