Mania, Hypomania, and the Dark Side of Bipolar Disorder

Patient Expert

Continuing in my series on up ...

Not long ago, in two posts on psychosis, I made reference to Jung's personal "Red Book," which was finally published in 2009 after lying in a bank vault for decades. One of my readers, Donna, gave me pause to revisit the topic. As you may recall from last week, Donna brought up the very important but totally neglected issue of the dark side of our manias and hypomanias. As she describes it:

Admittedly, I was far more creative then than at any other time. But it wasn't a beautiful creativity, it was a wild creativity painting huge grotesque masks ...

In a follow-up comment, Donna posted a poem, part of which goes:

Shall I risk becoming mother of yet another this our
God this woman still pounding out the words on a standard
Keyboard ...

Compare with Jung from his Red Book:

The spirit of the depths took my understanding and all knowledge and placed them at the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical. He robbed me of speech ...

And more Jung:

I hear steps on the stairway, the steps creak, he knocks: a strange fear comes over me: there stands the red one, his long shape wholly shrouded in red ...

Make no mistake, our dark side can be extremely frightening, but Jung also saw possibilities. In an article anticipating the publication of The Red Book, Sara Corbett in the NY Times Magazine put it this way:

Freud, who started as Jung's mentor and later became his rival, generally viewed the unconscious mind as a warehouse for repressed desires, which could then be codified and pathologized and treated. Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.

In 1913, following an acrimonious split with Freud, Jung suffered a breakdown in which he expressed fear that he was "doing a schizophrenia." He recalled, "I often had to cling to the table, so as not to fall apart."

In 1914, mere months prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Jung commenced work on his Red Book. Instead of trying tune out the distractions in his head, he set aside odd hours from his busy life to immerse himself in his dark side, faithfully recording his impressions (with illuminating illustrations) over a period of 16 years. As the NY Times describes it:

The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. ("I swallow with desperate effortsit is impossibleonce again and once againI almost faintit is done.") At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful.

Dark stuff, very dark, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Thirty years later, he appended:

To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.

Who wants to admit to anything that even remotely resembles madness? Last week, I revealed that I have never (or will ever) reveal my dark side to a psychiatrist. As Tabby puts it:

I used to not disclose to the med psych pros that be my very "dark" side... so fearful they'd think me crazy and lock me away. Still do... cause sometimes that "dark" side is even too dark for my likening.

As if our dark side is not frightening enough, our manias and hypomanias have a way of turning up the volume. No longer passive spectators to the nightmares inside our heads, we become energized participants in our own personal hells. If we haven't already lost our grip on sanity, we know we are living on borrowed time. Like a lab rat in some horrible experiment gone wrong, we find ourselves frantically scrambling, pressing levers, desperate to find the "off" button.

A quiet brain - who amongst us takes such a precious thing for granted?

But the lesson to be learned from Jung is that in our seeming madness lies the key to recovery. Jung made use of his dark side to embark on a journey of personal and spiritual discovery, and there is much to learn from his example. But I have also encountered a lot of romantic nonsense urging all of us to do the same, as if enlightenment is just around the corner, totally risk-free.

Far from the case. Most of us here have been to madness and back, and - thank you but no thank you - we are not actively seeking return visits. But yes, there is vast healing potential in coming to grips with our dark side. But only when we have both our feet firmly anchored to the ground. Not when contending with the force-nine winds of mania and hypomania.

Dare to make that first step - but watch your step

A page from Jung's Red Book