Posted on January 7th, 2019 | by Leslie0
I was diagnosed at age 34. I’d been through all of my schooling (the regular stuff, Grade 13, undergrad and post-grad degrees) and 10 years of teaching on top of that. All that time around educators, being educated, and no one noticed that my quirks added up to a pattern.
I’ve written before about sensory input and my brain. What I want to write about today is mania.
When you’re bipolar, manic phases precipitate huge crashes and are characterized by massive upswings in mood. When you’re ADHD, hyperactive phases get you so focused you forget to eat. When you’re Aspie, you get both in combination but they’re different.
For Aspies hyperactivity is a way of life. I don’t consider it to be a detriment to my health to have hyperactive focus. I learn more, faster, in greater depth, with an awareness of interconnectivity and broadened implications, if I’m left alone to think at my own pace. Being interrupted as I journey from atom to multiverse not only denies me unique understanding and knowledge of a subject, but it impedes the growth of my consciousness.
When I was teaching I was regulated by numbers on a clock, by ferry schedules, by drills, by reports, by curricula, by routines, by inspections, by illnesses, by absences, by weather patterns, by traffic, by visits, by parents, by co-workers, by administration, by surprises, by accidents, by mechanical failures, by community planning, by day of the week, by time of day, by daylight hours, by temperature… A plethora of oppressive, limiting, external regulations.
My internal regulations, however, are excellently suited to me. I designed them. They are consistent and healthy and helpful and allow me to learn, adapt, create and evolve at an alarming (to many observers) rate.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. I didn’t know I was Aspie. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe my mind as it differed from others’ minds. I didn’t have the perspective I have now so I didn’t recognize my “manic phases” for what they truly are.
Imagine understanding as a game of snakes and ladders, but you start in the middle of the board. The snakes are twisty paths to follow and the ladders are straight paths, and neither is better nor worse, just different ways of exploring the board. When you roll the dice or spin the wheel you get to choose how you will examine the issue at hand. You can switch objectives mid-game. You can switch strategies. You can follow patterns.
And not all the snakes are the same colour either. And the ladders are different, too. So what happens when I explore a subject by following the red snakes and ignoring the blue ones? What happens when I only choose to climb step ladders? What happens if I alternate rope ladders and striped snakes, but only every other turn? What if I only travel clockwise? What if I choose to pass up my turn and stay resolutely still?
I want to know how and why before what and when. When I am forced to acclimate to an externally regulated way of processing information I am robbed of the opportunity to understand it. It’s that simple.
Taking the steps to be diagnosed as an adult was important to me because I wanted to better understand my patterns. During the diagnosis process my tendencies were broken down for me into psychological points of data on graphs. The psychologist definitely spun some positively and some negatively, but to me they were all just facets of my jewel.
I scored very low for depression and very high for mania. This was interesting information because I have suffered from bouts of depression. I still do. But what did it mean to suffer from bouts of mania? How is feeling high bad?
The obvious bad is the crash that inevitably follows the high. You soar and run full tilt and have EVERYTHING under control! Except the mania itself. And when it runs out of steam it will leave you there without a safety net and you will plummet.
I thought long and hard about this. I grew up with a mother who experienced manic phases. She could get so much work done in such a short amount of time. She’d set her mind to a task – an insanely difficult, creative, marvelous task – and complete it brilliantly without losing focus. There was something to be gained from mania.
Finally I began to recognize, post-diagnosis, my manic phases for what they were and now I could put a name to them. I paid close attention (like a scientist with clipboard in hand) to exactly how the phases felt when they began. I learned their onset symptoms and took extensive notes on their varying subtleties because each one has its own flavour and texture and will never come again.
Think about that. It will never come again.
This realization is what affected me the most. Every time a manic phase would begin (and these cannot be triggered or manufactured or designed) with its myriad complexities of palette and song and purpose it would tell me why it had come. It always had, I just didn’t listen before.
The next thing to learn was how to coast the wave and not capsize under it. Like learning to surf or dive. Respect the waves, the current, the tide, the wind. Learn yourself. Know yourself. Own what you don’t know and remind yourself often. It’s easy to forget and think, “I’ve got this mania thing understood,” and you’d be wrong.
I was and remain convinced that manic phases are gifts of Genius Arcs. Sacred affliction. Creative madness. They are raw potential phases in which we are fast-tracked, hard, at breakneck speed, toward completion. Imagine taking Felix Felicis in the Tardis. Inherently it is a dangerous ride. But the rewards of harnessing that energy and riding that wave for a time are (for me) worth the risk.
I have a highly trained and focused mind. It has had to be in order to process what I process just being alive in the world. I perceive things most people miss, and that’s just on a normal day. Imagine this mind on mania? I had to attempt to harness it.
So I began to develop tools to help regulate these manic phases. I allowed them to start and I watched but did not interfere with them as they grew in strength. Ever the scientist, maintaining objectivity. Sartre said we could only BE or REFLECT upon being. We could not do both. Buddha disagreed. So did de Beauvoir. So do I. You can be aware of your pain and not hold on to it. You can mark and measure your emotion and still feel it. I could pay attention and stay out of the way.
My first successful tool was Lego. Yes, Lego. Not the random building of Lego, but specific building. I kept the Millennium Falcon built on a shelf. When I felt a manic phase take hold of me and wanted to reestablish control and normalcy I would take it out and sit with it in the middle of the floor. Then I took it apart, arranged every piece by colour and shape and size around me. Then I rebuilt it, following the instructions.
That part is key. I didn’t like the Lego movie when I saw it because the inference was that if you built Lego by following the instructions you were lame and unimaginative. For me, following the instructions is a path back to peace when I am awash in tumult. Screw you, Lego movie, I’ll build how I want.
The process took about 4 hours from beginning to end. It was the right amount of time. The right kind of focus. The right level of engagement. It worked every time.
Soon I discovered I didn’t need the prop anymore. I could establish a similar mental pattern just by thinking about the process of deconstruction and reconstruction. Then I was ready for the next step: harnessing that wave.
Since I had become intimately familiar with my own manic idiosyncrasies as they were, I began to focus instead on methods of manipulating and evolving them. I didn’t just want to be able to calm my mind down at will, I wanted to learn to keep from losing myself to the mania in the first place. Then I wanted to learn to use it to my benefit.
So I got comfortable behind the wheel. I stopped characterizing the ride as negative and disassociated it from panic. Instead I leaned into it and found the groove, that specific pattern of energy each phase gives off, and learned to drive standard.
There was nothing left between my feet and the water. So there was no threat of loss, no threat of support suddenly withdrawn, no threat of dependence suddenly challenged, because there was nothing to lose, no supportive surfboard, and nothing to be dependent upon. Just me and the water, feeling it.
It took years of practice and intense effort to be as good at following the path of the Genius Arc as I am, yet even more years of development lie ahead. Even so, it brings me great joy that I have come this far. Now when the Genius Arcs come I embrace them as an opportunity to reach farther than I normally can.
If you’ve been paying attention to me the past week you’ve been witnessing me at my manic best. Accomplishing a great deal, focused, tireless, driven. To stave off the crash that naturally wants to come (if I were to let the mania have its head), I follow a few rules:
Have just enough sleep to be rested.
Switch up activities.
Follow through by choice not obligation.
See the path forward and hold it in my mind’s eye.
Don’t force it.
Don’t fight it.
Respect my razor vision, hyperfocus, and ruthless resolve as par for the course.
Accept that this phase is unsustainable.
Follow the current of the Arc: when it says wane, I wane.
Use every scrap of gifted energy for good.
Be, Do, and take notes.
Ease up on the gas when the waning begins so I’ll coast to a stop just before the wall. (It’s a tiny wall; I can get up and walk around it.)
Take naps, drink water, graze.
The Arc has a length: take as long as I need to travel it.
Accomplish the impossible because I can.
Treasure it; I will never feel this way again.
I don’t think you need to be Aspie to have this kind of experience. But Aspie mania is not bipolar mania. Aspie hyperfocus is not ADHD hyperfocus. The Genius Arc is its own thing. Sacred madness has been afflicting and elating artists for as long as there have been artists. It is an integral part of my psyche, my process, and my life.
For all the struggle I have faced in the pursuit of understanding how I work, of this accomplishment I am most proud. I would never trade my Genius Arcs no matter the cost to me. What I gain as a result of their presence in my story enlightens my soul.
Fortunately for me, I’ve managed to avoid losing myself to this process. It is a cautionary procedure. Years of unflinching work have gone into the management of my inner landscape, and it’s not fair to say everyone is capable of the same. It takes a massive commitment of resources and intent and manifestation. But it is possible. I offer this look inside my psyche in the hopes it may help you better understand your own.