Mania Makes Me A Better Poet
By Daniel Crocker
I paced up and down the front porch on a rare, cool Missouri night.
“The government wants me to take pills,” I told my wife. She asked why, but I didn’t have an answer. Part of me knew it wasn’t true. Part of me wasn’t convinced. My thoughts shifted rapidly.
“Do you ever wonder about that guy from the Oak Ridge Boys? You know, the one with the big beard?” I had also suddenly become obsessed by William Lee Golden. I was worried about him.
“Do you think he feels trapped? Like, he wishes he could shave off that scraggly damned beard and be free of if.”
I wondered if he’d ever regretted growing that beard, probably sometime in his early twenties, and regretted it.
“He has to think his fans just won’t get the real Oak Ridge Boys experience without it? And what about John Berryman? Did he have the same problem? Is that why he jumped off that bridge?”
This was just a few days before I broke down, went to a clinic, and got help for bipolar 1 disorder. The symptoms had been ramping up for months—compulsive intrusive thoughts and rituals—I’m going to kill myself tomorrow was a favorite of mine, running on a loop in my mind. I was trucking along on little to no sleep or food. My speech was pressured. The mania had started out fun. I was creative. I felt unstoppable. I had the energy to do some work. In the end it always gets scary. It devolves into anxiety, paranoia and the occasional mild delusion. In the end, however, I got a hell of a poem about William Lee Golden out of it.
The truth is, mania makes me a better poet, although it’s taboo to say so. Not among other bipolar people. We’ll readily admit to each other that we love parts of our mania. We usually just don’t tell the sane people in our lives. They look at us shocked, or sad, or worse. Sometimes they look at us with anger. Our loved ones have seen the wake of destruction left behind by mania. I’ve hurt plenty of people myself while manic, including my significant other. I swear by my medications now. They keep me stable, if not fully content. Sometimes something is missing.
Unless you’ve been through it, you just can’t understand how mania feels. It’s like being on speed and booze at the same time—except better. Your mind, at least for a while, is laser-focused. You actually have the desire and energy to want to create—or do whatever it is that you do. Depression, on the other hand, is a creativity killer. It can be hard to get out of bed, much less write a poem. Mania, when it hits just right, calls for hours of steady work.
This is the hypomania stage—which is where mania ends for many bipolar people. For me, however, it goes further than that. I eventually sink into paranoia, anxiety and, yes, on a few occasions, delusions. This is the difference between bipolar 1 and 2. Bipolar 2 experience hypomania. If you’ve had even one delusional mania, you are probably bipolar 1. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, but for the sake of this essay that’s all you really need to know. So, I guess it’s really this little band of, with apologies to astrophysicists, the Goldilocks zone that I love.
Still, we must not admit it. It makes sane people mad if you tell them that mania is fun, or that you miss it so much you might even go off of your medication for a while. Nothing worries my wife more than me going into a mania. When it does happen, she usually notices before I do. It’s the fast-talking, I think. Or it’s the constant work. The first thing she usually says to me, and it’s wise, “Don’t make any major decisions without asking me first.” I don’t want to lump all bipolar people into one group. It’s a very complex disease that treats people differently. Many bipolar folks hate their mania in every stage. I’m just not one of them.
It’s like there’s only one aspect of mania, or mental illness in general, we can talk about and that’s the downside. The chaos left in its wake. The ashes left behind from the fire. As a friend of mine put it, they don’t want us to feel good. They want us to feel normal. But we’re not normal and normal for us feels blank and boring and depressing and flat. We’ve touched a bit of magic that lays beyond that. Some people call it crazy.
I’m here to write about the upside of mania though. Is it worth it? Maybe. I guess that depends on how much you love whatever poetry is for you. Psychiatrists will tell us that this desire to be in touch, be a part of, mania again is just part of the disease. That we need to fight it and do everything we can to remain stable. But sometimes we’ll risk everything just to taste it again. We’ll take a medication vacation. We’ll do things that trigger mania in us on purpose in hopes that it works. Of course, by “we” I don’t mean every bipolar person. I don’t even mean every bipolar creative person. But, I have talked to enough to know, and have had conversations on online support group enough times that I can say with some confidence that it’s a big part of us.
But, here I am doing everything I can to be as normal as I can. I’ve been stable on my medication for over a year now, except for one minor mania, and I also haven’t written a poem worth a real shit. I’ve written some okay to pretty good poems, but the best poems I’ve ever written are all tinged with at least a little mania. (Many of you out there might argue that I’ve never written a good poem either way). I guess, in full disclosure, I should say that I’m in a slight mania right now, and I decided to stop my medications for a few days hoping for it to ramp up just a little more. I’m in a safe place (a writer’s retreat) where I can risk it. That statement alone will probably have this essay dismissed by a large chunk of readers, but I’m not writing this essay for normal people. I’m writing it for people like me.
Sometimes the chaos is worth it. Sometimes I’m in love with chaos. That said, I’m not advocating for anyone to stop taking their medications. It’s not good for you. It’s not healthy. But, I know many of us still do it. It might even be irresponsible for me to write about the good parts of mania. While it’s different for everyone, however, it’s there. I’ve talked to a wide variety of bipolar people while writing this essay, and they mostly agree. Mania is great. Until it’s not.
I take my medication because of the hurt I’ve caused in the past. Because I’ve lost my mind in the past. Because they make me a worse poet, but a better person. Mostly I take them for people I love. Not for me. I like the way my mind works off of them. So sometimes, a little medication vacation is in order. It’s been three days. I felt mania coming on, a slight one, and wanted to see where it goes. It’s 2 AM. I just finished up a poem, smoked my last cigarette of the night, and typed these final lines looking out onto the empty streets of Belle, Missouri. Just me and my old friend. I’ll start taking my medications again tomorrow.
About the Author: Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a novel, and a collection of short stories. His book Like a Fish is available from Sundress Publications, and his e-chap, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood, can be downloaded for free from the Sundress site. His newest poetry collection, Shit House Rat, has been reviewed here on As It Ought To Be. His work has also appeared in New World Writing, The Good Men Project, The Chiron Review, The Kentucky Review and over 100 others. He’s the editor of The Cape Rock, co-editor of Trailer Park Quarterly and the Co-host of the Sanesplaining podcast.