The older I get, the more I value the importance of daily self-reflection as a means to live the most authentic life you could possibly lead. It’s a way to ensure that you’re continuously growing and bettering yourself each day; checking yourself when you feel you’re headed down a wrong path; making sure you are living life, day by day, the way you’d always envisioned it.
For that reason, I am henceforth committing myself to posting on my blog once a day, no matter how busy or tired or stressed with college I may be. Just a couple hundred words is fine. I needn’t churn out a personal masterpiece each time I write. This’ll be the “Daily Life of Bel” segment of my blog, if you will, and I’ll keep it simple. Anything interesting, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, formative, enlightening, or simply worth sharing, I will put forth for you all to mull on.
It’s actually in times of stress and tumult like these (we’re approaching the first round of midterms season) that self-reflection is ever-so important. Caught up in the circus act of juggling classes with work, internships and other extracurriculars, many college students don’t leave sufficient time for self care. And a big part of caring for oneself, I believe, is by practicing regular self reflection. Even huge societal figureheads– business moguls, politicians, professionals– integrate introspection into their busy lives. I read somewhere that Bill Gates routinely sets aside one week away from his work to reflect on his day-to-day performance. What went well? What could he have done better in both his work and personal life? And after this one week grace period, he springs back anew– equipped with greater self awareness to perform at a higher maximum potential.
So, here I am, incorporating the practice of the greats into my own little life.
Today was a good day. I woke up at 6:30am, studied for my Russian quiz, took my Russian quiz in the morning, screwed up the oral portion of the exam but quickly forgave myself, and headed back to my apartment. At home, I did laundry, cooked myself some chicken breast and asparagus (I screamed when the olive oil started jumping up and down on the pan), and took a quick nap to catch up on needed sleep. At 12:30pm, my therapist from NorCal called, and we had a thirty-minute conversation about my hypomania. I really felt supported and cared for when talking to Margery.
While talking with Marg, I learned some things about my mania that I think is worth sharing with you all. To give you some context, allow me to help you better understand what being “manic” feels like. While riding the huge wave of mania– in its early phases– one can feel absolutely euphoric. In her memoir, “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Redfield Jamison, a renown clinical psychologist and recovering patient of manic-depressive disorder, eloquently illustrates the addicting nature of her volatile illness:
“My manias, at least in their early and mild forms, were absolutely intoxicating states that gave rise to great personal pleasure, an incomparable flow of thoughts, and a ceaseless energy that allowed the translation of new ideas into papers and projects. Medications not only cut into these fast-flowing, high-flying times, they also brought with them seemingly intolerable side effects. It took me far too long to realize that lost years and relationships cannot be recovered, that damage done to oneself and others cannot always be put right again, and that freedom from the control imposed by medication loses its meaning when the only alternatives are death and insanity.”
Her words perfectly embody my sentiment towards my own manias. I know that, with every high I experience– the mania– will inevitably come a painful crash– the depression. There you have it. Manic-depressive disorder.
Up until now, I always saw the onset of a manic episode as a POSITIVE thing– a strength, an asset. Mania was motivation. Mania was my key to achieving much in short stretches of time. Mania… it was my superpower.
I’ve always been unusually motivated and driven from a young age. Gymnastics gave me the discipline to see my goals to fruition. It seems I was destined to be a powerhouse, an unstoppable force.
People oftentimes have called me “crazy”, in reference to my hardcore work ethic. I always took that as as compliment. Never did it cross my mind that I may, in fact, actually have a mental disorder driving me into these manic episodes of increased goal-oriented behavior, superhuman motivation and drive, and feelings of being unstoppable– all at the expense of my physical and mental health.
When people see me working my butt off and putting my absolute all into everything I do, they shower me with respect, admiration and praise for my commendable dedication. It’s a simple case of operant conditioning– I do something that wins me a reward (others’ praise), which drives me to do more of that special something. In this case, it’s working hard. Like, insanely hard. I’ve had a long-time history of being a people pleaser and yearning for external validation from others as a way to feel good about myself. In working super super hard at what I do, I am able to get really really close to achieving things that the “average” person cannot. This, in turn, wins me even more praise from my peers and superiors.
But, I digress. Let’s get back to my manias. I can’t pinpoint exactly when my innately driven character morphed into the realm of dangerous, self-harmful behavior… I want to say it was sometime during my peak as a gymnast, in 2011/2012. In their early phases, my mood swings were much more manageable. At the illness’s inception, I never really experienced the depressive lows, just the highs. When I started dancing in 2015, my highs started getting more extreme. I remember, when first starting Latin-American dance, I already had unreal aspirations of becoming the next world champion Latin dancer. As mentioned before, gymnastics gave me the discipline to work towards my lofty goal– I’d wake up every day at 5:00am to practice before school; then, at lunchtime, I’d practice in the school’s dance studio; after school, I’d head straight to practice and train for a few hours before going home and doing homework. Pretty extreme behavior, for a 16-year-old. Driven, indeed. Admirable, even. And I knew all this. I loved my highs. I wore them like a badge for the world to see. Except, at the time, I didn’t know that my increasingly intense highs were signs of a festering illness. The more I played into the mania and reinforced such states as POSITIVE phenomena, the more severe they became. And soon enough, I began to experience mania’s evil twin– depression. I’d work and work and work and push myself over the edge, until I’d inevitably crash and burn.
Here’s an analogy. You are situated at the top of a mountain. Something tips you over the edge, and you begin to fall. Your descent represents the mania. You fall slowly at first, then faster and faster. The ride may be exhilarating. The adrenaline’s rushing and you love the feeling. Eventually, though, your ride will end with a painful crash. That’s the depression. And it hurts like hell. Somehow, though, you find a way to get up, and climb back up the deadly mountain. You get up and brush off the dust. Then it’s up, up, up once more, until… boom. You are back where you started. Maybe perching on the peak of an even higher mountain than before. It’s an unstable and dangerous position to be in. Even the slightest trigger– an upcoming competition, an important project deadline, a big exam– will drive you over the edge again. And soon enough, you will find yourself on the hard concrete once more. Limbs and soul alike, crushed. The magnitude of such ups and downs only get worse over time, until one day, you may never be able to pick yourself back up from the fall. Then it’s all over.
This is what it feels like to live with manic depressive disorder. I know that my “highs” are not really my friends. They are dangerously addictive toxins. My manias, exhilarating and thrilling they may be, are NOT on my side. They will always lead me to depression. They will lead me to insanity. Left untempered, they will lead me along the path of suicide.
So… is a short period’s worth of heightened motivation, productivity and creativity, worth it when you put everything– your relationships, your health, your life– at peril? I must ask myself this, each time I find myself longing for my past manias, and on the brink of throwing away my mitigating medications. Each manic episode I experience is not a step forward, as I’ve hitherto believed– it’s a huge step backwards on my path to recovery.
Whoo. That was one lengthy, draining rant on the nature of mania. Here I was, telling you guys about my day, until I got on the topic of mental health, and BAM!!! The train started chuggin’ away. Apologies, guys, for the frenetic tirade I just powered through. To sum up– speaking to my therapist today helped me gain more insight on my relationship with my illness, and in turn, learn how to better manage it.
I was going to continue talking about the remainder of my day– dance practice, followed by a pretty useless study session for tomorrow’s stats midterm, followed by a professional development night– but it’s 9:44pm now, and I really should get back to studying.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s reflective piece! And I promise it won’t be as lengthy as today’s!