She moved like me. That's what I noticed first. Her eyes and hands darted as she talked — playful, acerbic, digressive.
We talked on past 2 a.m., her speech breathless, crackling with opinion. She took another hit from the joint and passed it back to me on the dorm suite couch, as my brother fell asleep on my knee.
Siblings separated at birth must feel this way when meeting as adults: seeing part of yourself in someone else. This woman I'll call Ella had my mannerisms, giddiness, and fury, so much so that I felt we were related. That we must share common genes.
Our talk went everywhere. From hip-hop to Foucault, Lil Wayne, to prison reform, Ella's ideas branched. Her words were torrential. She loved arguments and picked them for fun, like I do. In a dark room, if lights were tied to her limbs, they'd dance. So did she, around the suite she shared with my brother, and later, on a pole in the taproom of a campus club.
My brother's roommate gave me pause about myself. I found Ella exhilarating, but exhausting — bright but reckless, possessed. I wondered, feared, if this is how people felt about me. Some of Ella's opinions seemed hyperbolic, her actions extreme, like dancing naked on the college green or flicking off cop cars. Still, you could count on her to engage. To react.
She had an opinion, or at least a feeling, about everything. She read voraciously and was fearlessly herself. She was magnetic. I was struck that my brother with his laidback, practical, frat-bro spirit, got along so well with Ella, who was excitable, artsy, and absentminded.
None of us knew it that night I met Ella in Princeton, but within two years she and I would share something else: a stay in a mental hospital, meds, and a diagnosis we'd keep for life.
The mentally ill are refugees. Far from home, hearing your mother tongue is a relief. When bipolar people meet, we find an immigrant intimacy, a solidarity. We share a suffering and a thrill. Ella knows the restless fire that is my home.
We charm people, or we offend them. That's the manic-depressive way. Our personality traits, like exuberance, drive, and openness, attract and alienate at once. Some are inspired by our curiosity, our risk-taking nature. Others are repelled by the energy, the ego, or the debates that can ruin dinner parties. We are intoxicating, and we are insufferable.
So we have a common loneliness: the struggle to get past ourselves. The shame of having to try.
Bipolar people kill themselves 30 times more often than healthy people. I don’t think this is just because of mood swings, but because manic types often wreck their lives. If you treat people badly, they won't want to be near you. We can repel with our inflexible focus, our impatient tempers, or our enthusiasm, that egocentric positivity. Manic euphoria is no less isolating than depression. If you believe that your most charismatic self is a dangerous mirage, it's easy to doubt that love exists. Ours is a special loneliness.
Yet some people — like my brother, who has several bipolar friends, and the women I've dated — don't mind bipolarity. This type of person is drawn to the chattiness, the energy, the intimacy that’s as intuitive to a bipolar person as it is beyond her control. Our uninhibited nature helps some reserved people open up. We stir some mellow types, and they calm us in return.
These people are good for each other, like anglerfish and the bacteria that keep them aglow. The manic half gets things moving, sparks debate, agitates. The calmer, more practical half keeps plans grounded in the real world, outside the Technicolor insides of a bipolar person’s skull.
The story I’m telling
After college, I spent years in the rural countryside of Japan teaching elementary school. Nearly a decade later in New York, a brunch with a friend changed how I saw those days.
The guy, I'll call him Jim, worked the same job in Japan before me, teaching at the same schools. Sempai, I'd call him in Japanese, meaning older brother. The students, teachers, and townspeople told stories about Jim everywhere I went. He was a legend: the rock concert he performed, his recess games, the time he dressed as Harry Potter for Halloween.
Jim was the future me I wanted to become. Before meeting me, he'd lived this monk's life in rural Japan. He'd filled notebooks with practice kanji — row after patient row of characters. He'd kept a daily vocabulary list on an index card in his pocket. Jim and I both liked fiction and music. We had some interest in anime. We both learned Japanese from scratch, among the rice paddies, with help from our students. In the countryside of Okayama, we both fell in love and had our hearts broken by girls who grew up faster than we did.
We were also a bit intense, Jim and I. Capable of fierce loyalty, we could also be detached, steely, and cerebral in a way that chilled our relationships. When we were engaged, we were very engaged. But when we were in our heads, we were on a distant planet, unreachable.
At brunch that morning in New York, Jim kept asking about my master’s thesis. I told him I was writing about lithium, the drug that treats mania. I said lithium is a salt, dug from mines in Bolivia, yet it works more reliably than any mood-stabilizing drug. I told him how manic depression is fascinating: a severe, chronic mood disorder that is episodic, recurrent, but also, uniquely, treatable. People with the mental illness at the highest risk of suicide, when they take lithium, often don’t relapse for years.
Jim, now a screenwriter, kept pushing. "What's the story?" he asked. "What's the narrative?"
"Well," I said, "I've got some mood disorder in my family … "
"So whose story are you using?"
"Let's pay the bill," I said, "I'll tell you while we walk."
Science has begun to look at bipolar through the lens of personality. Twin and family studies show that manic depression is roughly 85 percent heritable. But no single mutation is known to code for the disorder. So recent genetic studies often focus instead on personality traits: talkativeness, openness, impulsivity.
These traits often appear in first-degree relatives of people with bipolar disorder. They’re hints as to why the "risk genes" for the condition run in families, and were not weeded out by natural selection. In moderate doses, traits like drive, high energy, and divergent thinking are useful.
Writers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, like Kurt Vonnegut, had higher rates of mood disorder than the general population, one classic study found. Bebop jazz musicians, most famously Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Charles Mingus, also have high rates of mood disorder, often bipolar. (Parker's song "Relaxin' at the Camarillo" is about his stay at a mental asylum in California. Monk and Mingus were both hospitalized, too.) The book “Touched with Fire” by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison retrospectively diagnosed many artists, poets, writers, and musicians with bipolar disorder. Her new biography, “Robert Lowell: Setting the River On Fire,” describes art and illness in the life of the poet, who was hospitalized for mania many times, and taught poetry at Harvard.
This doesn’t mean that mania brings genius. What mania inspires is chaos: delusional confidence, not insight. The ramble is often prolific, but disorganized. Creative work produced while manic, in my experience, is mostly narcissistic, with distorted self-importance and a careless sense of audience. It’s rarely salvageable from the mess.
What research does suggest is that some of the so-called "positive traits" of bipolar disorder — drive, assertiveness, openness — persist in bipolar people when they are well and on medication. They appear also in relatives who inherit some of the genes fueling manic temperament, but not enough to cause the ragged, swerve-y moods, the sleepless energy, or the giddy restlessness that defines manic depression itself.
"You’re kidding me," Jim said, laughing nervously, as he bought me a coffee that day in New York. When I’d mentioned earlier how many creative people have mood disorders, he'd hinted — with a sideways smirk — that he could tell me plenty about that from his experience. I hadn’t asked what he meant. But as we walked up the nearly 30 blocks to Penn Station from Bond Street, he told me about his rocky past year.
First, there were the hookups with female colleagues. Then the shoes he filled his closet with: dozens of new pairs, expensive sneakers. Then the sports car. And the drinking. And the car crash. And now, the past few months, depression: a flat-line anhedonia that sounded familiar enough to chill my spine. He'd seen a shrink. She wanted him to take meds, said he was bipolar. He'd been rejecting the label. This was also familiar: I'd avoided lithium for two years. I tried to tell him he'd be OK.
Years later, a new TV project brought Jim to New York. He asked me to a baseball game. We watched the Mets, kind of, over hotdogs and beers and constant talk. I knew that at his fifteenth college reunion, Jim had reconnected with a former classmate. Before long, they were dating. He didn't tell her at first that he was buried under depression. She learned soon enough, and he feared she'd leave. I’d written emails to Jim during that period, urging him not to worry. "She understands," I insisted, "They always love us for how we are, not despite."
Jim gave me the news at the game: the ring, the yes. I pictured a honeymoon in Japan. And hoped, in this too, that sempai had given me a glimpse of my future.
The family madness
Seeing yourself in someone else is common enough. If you’re bipolar, this sense can be all the more uncanny, as some traits you see can match you like a fingerprint.
Your personality is largely inherited, like bone structure and height. The strengths and faults it's laced with are often two sides of one coin: ambition bound to anxiety, a sensitivity that comes with insecurity. You, like us, are complex, with hidden vulnerabilities.
What runs in bipolar blood is not a curse but a personality. Families with high rates of mood or psychotic disorder, often, are families of high achieving, creative people. People with pure bipolar disorder often have a higher IQ than the general population. This is not to deny the suffering and suicides still caused by the disorder in people who don't respond to lithium, or those with comorbidities, who fare worse. Nor to minimize the struggle still faced by the lucky, like me, in remission for now. But it is to point out that mental illness, very often, seems to be a byproduct of extreme personality traits that are often positive.
The more of us I meet, the less I feel like a mutant. In the way my friends think, talk, and act, I see myself. They are not bored. Not complacent. They engage. Theirs is a family I'm proud to be part of: curious, driven, chasing hard, caring intensely.
Taylor Beck is a writer based in Brooklyn. Before journalism, he worked in labs studying memory, sleep, dreaming, and aging. Contact him at @taylorbeck216.