Thoughts on Impulsivity

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In a recent Question of the Week, I recounted on something I did that I thought I would never do - I went into an AT&T shop with the intention of replacing my cheapo phone with another cheapo phone and instead came out with an iPhone.

    "Has reason ever totally deserted you?" I asked. Your responses shed some invaluable light on a very vital concern. Impulsivity is a cardinal feature of bipolar, and nearly all of us have paid in full measure for some of our spur-of-the-moment actions. For instance, Sarah Well Do recalls:

    "I woke up one morning and decided to buy a brand new Jeep Wrangler. Why? I dunno. Up until that moment I wasn't even thinking about buying a car, let alone a new one."

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    Sarah financed the Jeep by borrowing against her house. "I hope you enjoy your new phone as much as I enjoyed my Jeep," she concludes. "The story would be funnier if I hadn't eventually lost my house due to additional impulses that buried me in debt. (And wouldn't you know it, NOW I need a new phone!)"

    On the other hand, as InsaneGenius observes: "Your trip to the phone store sounded fun. It is nice to occasionally indulge in spontaneity ... as long as it is within reason."

    Thankfully, my purchase turned out to be a wise one. It's not just a fancy phone I bought. I have what amounts to a hand-held computer with a zillion practical uses. But even if I had goofed, it was a mistake I could live with. An iPhone, after all, is not going to blow a hole in my budget the way a new Jeep Wrangler is.

    So, here it is, the $64,000 question, as 24hbipolar2 frames it: "How can you tell the difference between manic or hypomanic impulsivity and just plain ole bad decision making?"

    My answer would be you probably can't, at least not at the critical moment. We're into a sort of liar's paradox situation here. If we have truly lost our power to reason, then our pretend reason is lying to us, only we lack the insight to appreciate it. Fortunately, Rosebud came forward with some golden advice:

    "By and large, part of my coping and managing skills to avoid impulsive behaviors include "The 3x3 Rule", wait 3 days and ask 3 friends if it's a good idea."

    I recall implementing a version of that rule a few years ago. Out of the blue, I decided it would be a good idea to download 50 versions of "Tiger Rag" into my iTunes (doesn't everyone?). I wound up sleeping on that decision for a year. Similarly, I tend to wait at least a day and consult others before sending off an angry email response. The same with other choices I may later regret.

    I've learned the hard way that my-heat-of-the-moment responses inevitably lead to bad things happening to me.

    John Gartner's provocative book, "The Hypomanic Edge," uses Alexander Hamilton as one of his case studies for both the brilliance and recklessness - reckless brilliance, if you like - that seems to go part and parcel with our illness. Hamilton, as you recall, served under Washington during the Revolution, co-authored the Federalist Papers, and as Washington's innovative Treasury Secretary solved an economic crisis and set a new nation on a course of prosperity.


  • Trouble is, later in his career Hamilton made a fatal impulsive decision - he popped a letter in the mail challenging Aaron Burr to a duel. Had Burr nominated pillows as his weapon of choice, Hamilton may have lived long enough to become President and have his face carved on Mt Rushmore. Unfortunately, Hamilton would up stopping a bullet with a vital organ.

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    I'm not capable of doing anything a fractionth as smart as Hamilton, but, trust me, I have his version of stupid down pat. Why I'm still breathing I'll never know. I can kick myself for all the bad decisions I've made, but in the end, I need to give myself a pat on the back for all the disastrous choices I didn't make.

    It's not always easy living with this illness. But let's at least give ourselves credit for the amazing wisdom we manage to display when confronted with the potential loss of reason. 

Published On: August 29, 2009