I recently realized that I’d been missing an early warning sign of an oncoming manic episode. It’s not just irritability but intense impatience!
The Red Flags of Impending Bipolar Episodes
When I’m experiencing an episode, it can be pretty obvious. I exhibit the typical “textbook” bipolar symptoms: When I’m depressed, I stop hanging out with friends and family, and I don’t return phone calls. When I’m manic, I go on shopping sprees and party every night. But those are all dramatic red flags. They’re visible because they’re external behaviors. One symptom that’s not as noticeable is my impatience. My lack of patience is probably the earliest (and best) indicator that I’m headed toward mania. But because it’s subtle, I have to recognize it if I want to prevent a catastrophe.
Hero with Bipolar & Shared Symptoms
I recently binge-watched the comedian Maria Bamford’s Netflix show Lady Dynamite. She’s a hilarious actor who lives with bipolar disorder. The show is mostly lighthearted and silly, but it also covers some really important topics with an incredible amount of sensitivity. Bamford has become one of my personal heroes. I was struck by something she joked about in an episode. She said her bipolar disorder prevented her from letting anyone finish a thought. It wasn’t until I heard her say that out loud that I realized I did the same thing. I’m often impatient, and if I’m becoming manic (when I’m hypomanic, which is the precursor to mania) it gets way worse.
“Conversations” during Hypomania & Mania
Having a normal, give-and-take conversation with someone is
almost impossible when I’m hypomanic or manic. My brain races too fast to wait
for anyone to complete their sentences. I feel electricity sparking in my mind
as chemicals in my brain explode like firecrackers. I just can’t bring myself
to sit quietly and listen to people. I feel like a racehorse, straining against
my reins, lurching forward in anticipation of my turn to speak. Every break in
a conversation is an opportunity for me to interject my observations.
Instead of letting a friend tell a story, describe their
feelings, and just simply exercise their right to express themselves, I jump in
and beat them to the punchline. I’ll sum up their thoughts with a short
summary. Sometimes I just interject my own story, relate it to an experience I
had, and dismiss their experience. I’m sure this can all feel really invalidating
for the other person.
If I try really hard, I can sometimes bite my tongue, but it
takes an incredible amount of effort. More often than not, I interrupt
constantly. I’m sure I’m a nightmare to talk to. I do all the talking, and I
mostly just talk at everyone.
I also often have a hyperinflated ego when I’m hypomanic or manic, so I have the misguided notion that I can finish everyone’s sentences for them. I believe I already know what they’re going to say, because I feel omniscient. In my twenties, this escalated into a delusional manic episode in which I believed I was psychic, and I could read other people’s thoughts. That then morphed into hallucinations that I could influence others with my mind. Clearly, at that time, I was in a dangerous and unstable place.
The Struggle to Recognize Impatience as an Episode Precursor
Unless you count this one extreme instance, my impatience is a pretty subtle symptom, especially when compared with the dozens of other obvious signs that I’m having a manic or hypomanic episode. To others, it may just look like I’m a bad conversationalist, a terrible listener, or just a jerk. It’s been difficult for me to instinctively recognize this behavior, because I (like many others who live with bipolar) have a profound lack of insight when I’m in the midst of a hypomanic or manic episode.
But my impatience is an early sign that I shouldn’t ignore. This
is one of the clues that I’m headed down a dangerous road. If I can train
myself to see it, I can potentially
avoid a full-blown manic episode.
Why am I so often impatient? It’s because I frequently feel
irritable when I’m hypomanic or manic. I have a very low frustration tolerance.
It’s no wonder I’m like a bull in the china shop of life when I’m in that state
of mind. I often snap at people around me. It just feels like everyone talks
and thinks too slowly. Everything seems like an obstacle I have to barrel past
or run over in order to move forward.
My impatience comes out in all kinds of other ways too. I break
zippers. I’ve ruined meals that required me to patiently follow a recipe. I’ve
messed up IKEA furniture because I didn’t read the instructions. I have a
scratch on my hand from yanking my arm out of the produce drawer in my fridge.
I got frustrated because it took too long to maneuver some bulky broccoli out
from between a bag of celery and bunch of carrots. I scraped the skin right off
my knuckle. I injured myself, and it never quite healed. I now have a little
scar to remind me that my impatience can be my undoing if I’m not cognizant of
Using Familiar Coping Tools for This Early Warning Sign
Historically, I haven’t recognized this irritability and impatience in myself. But ever since I watched that episode of Lady Dynamite, I’ve been thinking about it. Impatience is something I need to take as a glaringly obvious neon red flag that something is amiss. I practice mindfulness through yoga and meditation in order to calm my mind, but I’ve been turning off that awareness when I return to my regularly scheduled program. I hope to use mindfulness to become aware of my impatient, irritable thoughts even when I’m not in Downward-Facing Dog.
Recovery is a journey. It takes diligent work. Half the battle
for me is just simply paying attention to my thoughts and actions. I’m thankful
to have achieved this new level of self-awareness. I’m going to try to live in
the moment by practicing mindfulness techniques in my daily life. I won’t be
able to get rid of my impatient, irritable thoughts, but I’ll be able to see
them, so I can ask for help.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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