I have bipolar disorder. It’s as much a part of me as my left-handedness. I’ve accepted my diagnosis, but I still have to work on being mindful of my symptoms, as bipolar disorder can come with a lack of self-awareness.
This is especially true for hypomania (a less severe form of mania). Hypomania can be difficult to detect because in the moment it makes me feel like I’m flying. The difficulty comes when I engage in self-destructive actions with little or no regard for the consequences. However, hypomania is just a stop on the way to full-blown, havoc-wreaking mania. I’ve identified some red flags to watch out for that signal I’m headed towards mania. I’ve found that spotting these clues early on can help me prevent a full-blown manic episode.
Insomnia. I can tell I’m hypomanic when I wake up before the alarm clock with my mind buzzing, full of a flurry of ideas. I throw myself into whatever project I’m working on at the time before I’ve even brushed my teeth or had my morning coffee.
Inability to listen to other people. When I’m hypomanic, I seek out more social interactions, but when I’m with friends, I do most of the talking, and people have a hard time getting a word in.
Spending beyond my means. Whether I’m thrift store shopping or browsing Amazon multiple times a day, when I’m hypomanic I feel a constant, compulsive urge to buy things I don't need.
Unrealistic overconfidence. When I’m hypomanic, I feel like a supermodel. In my mind, everyone finds me irresistible. When I look in the mirror, I see a gorgeous knockout staring back at me, even if I haven’t combed my hair or put on makeup that day.
Not taking care of myself. With my hypomania comes a ramped-up focus on goals, so I’m constantly jumping from one project to another without stopping to take care of myself. Taking a break between tasks to feed myself or shower seems trivial and unnecessary.
Inability to focus. I love movies and books. I can tell I’m hypomanic when I can’t even sit still long enough to finish watching an hour and a half movie, because my mind constantly drifts to the dozen tasks I feel I need to scratch off my to-do list. I also enjoy quiet time escaping into a good book, but one of the biggest telltale signs is when I find myself reading the same sentence over and over again, unable to comprehend it.
Hypersensitivity to stimuli. From a siren in the distance to a wafting scent from someone’s shampoo, when I’m hypomanic, I’m more acutely aware of my surroundings. Colors appear brighter, smells seem more pungent, and even faint noises can be deafening.
Obsessing over things. It’s part of my personality to obsess a bit over subjects I’m interested in, but when I’m hypomanic, my passion is amplified. From researching the best cashew cheese recipe to watching NASA videos, it seems like everything I’m interested in has become my new lifelong goal, and—to the detriment of my valuable time—I feel helpless to curb my enthusiasm.
How I Recognize These Warning Signs
When I notice these indicators, I try to stop, take a breath, and ask myself how I'm feeling. You might notice I said, “try to” there. That’s because sometimes I get lost in the moment, I get hyper-focused and I don’t realize I’m getting manic.
Note: This blog was originally published in January 2019.
I’ve made verbal agreements with the people I’m close to, to tell me when they see these behaviors. My end of the agreement is to listen to them. Just by hearing feedback from someone else, I snap out of my head and step back, realizing I need to slow down and pay more attention to how I feel. It’s taken me years of practice not to get defensive when reminded by a loved one that I may be acting hypomanic. I know what happens with an unchecked hypomanic episode. I’ve ended up in the hospital as a result of ignoring hypomania and letting it develop into mania. Now, if someone close to me points out that I may be getting hypomanic, I thank them for being patient and gentle with me, I re-examine my thoughts, and I reach out to my mental health care team for help if needed.
I consider myself lucky to have a strong support network of people who understand this illness, and what to look for. However, if external feedback is unavailable, I have another indicator I can use with no outside assistance: my journal. I try to write every night, whether it’s just a factual summary of my day, or my thoughts, feelings, ideas, fears or hopes. I make an effort to write when I’m stable (in between episodes) and when I’m hypomanic, manic or depressed. Motivating myself to write when I’m depressed can be hard, but I do my best.
I find journaling is good way for me to track my moods and cycles when others aren’t around to alert me of a mood shift. Writing enables me to look back on my thoughts from the past and learn from them, so I can recognize what a hypomanic me looks like, and notice familiar patterns. Just the simple act of writing itself makes me aware of what’s going through my head in the moment. If I write when I’m hypomanic, I literally see my hurried ideas in front of me on paper, and that’s pretty hard evidence. My journals can tell me when it may be time to visit my health care practitioner for a meds adjustment.
Writing is my creative outlet that forces me to be mindful, and it’s this mindfulness that helps me stay aware of my moods. It’s what keeps me healthy. Everyone is different. No matter what works for you, I encourage you to find one thing that puts you in the moment, makes you aware of your thoughts and moods. With proper awareness and care, you can thrive with bipolar disorder.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a bipolar dad who she lost to suicide. She's finishing a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is darknessandlight.org.