Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Materiality of Hypomania

Guest Post by Alan S. Montroso

“Imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’” 
Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures, 2


Crip Materiality, Part 1

When M invited me to contribute a guest-post to her blog for the second time, I decided I would challenge myself to overcome my reticence and write about my experiences being bipolar. I assumed I could approach the topic from a safe critical distance and examine the deeply personal with a sterilizing scholasticism.

I’ve started this post at least 8 times; I have pages and pages of notes, critical theory texts scattered around the house, I even have 3 of those sentences that so urgently need to manifest themselves they often spring to mind when one is performing the most quotidian tasks (you know, the sentences that wake you up at 3 in the morning, much to the dismay of your partner who must deal with your suddenly turning on the bedside light and frantically scrambling for pen and paper that you swore you left on the bed-stand just so you can scrawl that all-too-perfect sentence that won’t seem half so genius in the light of morning, the sentences that compel you to leap out of the shower still dripping wet and leaving a trail of water into your office just because you needed to write that baby down before you started skewing the syntax…). 

Yet I continue to find myself paralyzed, unable to progress beyond notes and sexy sentences. The thing is, I can’t be clinical about this, I can’t keep it professional, because it is NOT professional, because it is the total messiness of being manic depressive and there is no way to “come out” as bipolar that is tidy.

Sure, many of my notes and much of my plotting will likely manifest themselves here; as you can glean from the title above, I want to talk about the materiality of my hypomanic episodes. Not because it offers a safe critical distance, but because I am deeply curious about the ways in which my illness both affects and is affected by my environment, and by blogging about some of my experiences I am giving myself the opportunity to reflect on the topic and (hopefully) initiate a conversation. Also, while it is true that, as a bipolar person, I experience a great deal of depression and anxiety, I feel that those moods are far more frequently addressed and better understood than hypomania; therefore I plan to limit this exploration to my experiences with the up-swings of my disorder.

I must also add that, while I do still experience episodes of hypomania and depression, thanks to pharmaceutical intervention and a great deal of therapy, I am quite stable, I have been for years. Sure, there are times when my symptoms are severe enough that they challenge my ability to function at my very best, but I now have ways of coping with and overcoming those disabilities. 

Sadly, I must say this because I cannot have colleagues and future professional contacts assume that my being bipolar will somehow limit my performance as an academic, or think that I am a liability, or needy, or that the unpredictable nature of my bipolar episodes make me fickle, unmanageable and unreliable. I’m likely being overly cautious, but I haven’t had to “come out” since high school, and somehow coping with being a gay teen in Texas in the late 90s and early 2000s felt much safer than coming out bipolar as an adult.

Now, after a preface that might very well be longer than the body of this post (turns out, it isn’t), I commence:



Mental illnesses are, for the most part, invisible. Unlike race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other biologically reductive categories of difference which often include at least one distinctly visible element in their too limiting and too condemning definitions, one cannot identify the mentally ill by the tone of their skin, the curve of an Adam’s apple, a crutch or a wheelchair. Consequently, it is only too easy to limit the conversation about mental illness to the realm and language of phenomenology. Yet, I argue that there is a salient material quality to the experience of bipolar disorder, and to the hypomanic episode in particular, both in the ways the environment contributes to the shifting of moods and the ways that episodes manifest themselves in the things surrounding the hypomanic person.

I ought to offer something of a definition of my illness before I proceed. The DSM IV divides bipolar disorder into two distinct classifications, so creatively dubbed “Bipolar I” and “Bipolar II.” I belong to the second category. What this means is that I oscillate between episodes of depression and hypomania, with (hopefully) long periods of non-disturbed stasis between. The depressions can be crippling, perhaps even more so for a bipolar person since they often proceed from a manic state and, thus, the plunge into the stygian bowels of melancholy (blame the purple prose on my being a Lovecraft fan-boy) is so much deeper; but, as I mentioned above, I feel depression is addressed often enough that, although I am happy to contribute to the discussion at a future time, I am going to limit this blog-post to details about hypomania.

So, what the hell is hypomania, and why the “hypo”? There are a number of criteria for recognizing hypomania, which include elevated mood, hyperactivity, racing thoughts and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities (yes, this does often translate as an especially dynamic and enthusiastic libido). Unlike the full manic episode, which can result in aggression, psychosis and hallucinations, hypomania occasionally goes unnoticed by the individual experiencing it since many of its symptoms are pleasurable and do not always detract from a fully-functioning lifestyle. Hypomania can be marked by an increase in productivity, bursts of creativity, and a general sense of euphoria; for these reasons (I hope), I have actually heard people claim they wish they could experience a manic episode every now and again. And, to be honest, a hypomania is not always a regrettable or unpleasant experience.

Although it is rare, a hypomanic state can develop into a full manic episode if left untreated, or, as in my case, the decreased need for sleep (oh yes, add that as a criterion above) becomes an utter rejection of sleep, engendering a psychotic break (it is likely that the details of my one encounter with psychosis never come to light). And, even with the prefix “hypo” attached, the bipolar upswing can be jarring enough to interrupt the status quo of one’s being and profoundly alter the way one engages the world. Hyperactivity is often accompanied by increased anxiety, the need to get things done (often one specific task at which the hypomanic is convinced he is more proficient than everyone else at performing) becomes compulsion and a neglect of other vital quotidian activities, the racing thoughts erupt as verbal ejaculations of things you never, ever would have said before, and that enthusiastic libido…well…there are consequences to that as well (consequences I do NOT plan to address in this blog post).

But let’s return to that notion of materiality. When I am hypomanic, I am (insert idiom like “larger than life,” or “on top of the world” here). I feel connected, more connected than normal, to my environment and the objects that people it. I expand into the world; I am no longer flows but floods, no longer paths but highways, no longer flights but the goddamned curve of space-time that allows such movements to occur. Or, so I think. After many successful (if not always painless) returns from my journeys to planet grandiosity, I am able to reflect on the ways in which, for those days or weeks, hypomania disrupted my normal flows, created new paths and let me fly into the real, porous, pressing, vibrant, desiring materiality with which I create a trans-corporeal being. Henceforth, I am going to examine just a few of the ways, some subtle, some less so, in which my hypomanic being has affected and been affected by my environment. 


Vestum; or, Sartorial Symptoms 

One of the greatest challenges as a bipolar person is coping with the fact that I approach the world from 3 vastly distinct perspectives; depressed Alan encounters the world at a different pace, under a different light, from an angle almost incomprehensible to the hypomanic me. For this reason, it is common for bipolar folks to develop unique identities for each of the different mood states. I will henceforth refer to these “identities” as “avatars,” since I think the word “identity” is just too connotative for my purposes (FYI, psychiatric literature does, in fact, refer to these discrete bundles of personality traits as identities).

Although I’ve worked with my therapist for years to consolidate these vastly divergent personas into a more coherent being, traces, remnants and shadows of these avatars often make themselves known to me when I swing up or down. And these me’s really are quite different; they enjoy different music, have different taste in cinema, walk with a different gait, enjoy waking at different hours of the day, and I’m pretty sure that, should my depressed and hypomanic avatars meet each other at a bar, the depressed me would be disgusted by the gregariousness of hypomanic me, and the hypomanic me would find the depressed me too dreary and moribund to continue conversation (under what circumstances these two would end up at the same bar, apart from its being the last bar on earth, I can’t really imagine). However, so many of these experiences are internal, phenomenal, and mental; thus, to the casual observer or close friend alike, what must be the most obvious and visually apparent difference between my avatars is their divergent wardrobes.

Clothing is, of course, a deeply potent semiotic system; one’s attire may carry some ritual significance, may help unify a cultural group, announce socio-economic status, etc. For a bipolar person, this visual system helps mark the dramatic shift into a depressed or hypomanic episode; clothing announces the arrival of an avatar. When I am stable and/or depressed, my wardrobe selection is often dominated by the symbolic value of the clothing (does this outfit express my gloominess? Will this outfit pass as ‘high class’ at the restaurant? Does it look like I spent an hour putting together this ensemble, because I want to look like I wasn’t trying at all…) And there is certainly a symbolic element to the selection process when I am hypomanic; the desire to be connected to everything and everyone and the need to do so as swiftly as possible often means putting together costumes that will coerce others to gravitate towards me.

However, what is unique to the sartorial experience of my hypomanic avatar is the fact that the textile, the fabric of the clothing, is the single most important qualification in the selection process. When I am hypomanic, I cannot wear synthetic materials. Polyester, nylon, rayon; my skin recoils from these materials, as though it can only tolerate union with organic matter. If it’s not 100% cotton or linen, I can’t bear to have it touch my flesh (I recognize that there are other organic textiles, such as wool or hemp, but I will not wear wool for ethical reasons, and hemp…well…during a hypomanic episode in my youth, I found myself deeply entrenched in a university hippie culture, doing things I subsequently found so deeply unsettling that the slightest whiff of nag champa or the reverberations of a drum circle and I am instantly revolted and cowed by shame; hence, no hemp). My somatic responses to synthetics include itching, sweating and, occasionally, minor rashes, but I do not have any diagnosed chemical sensitivity and these reactions only occur when I am in a hypomanic state. Although I recognize that most clothing-related dermatitis emerges from allergies to the dyes and resins which are just as likely to be present in organic textiles as inorganic ones, synthetic fibers are less breathable, less porous, and more likely to trap sweat and bacteria; thus it is likely that the impermeable quality of synthetic clothing affects my dermal reaction during hypomania.



As much as my flesh is hypersensitive to inorganic textiles during a hypomanic episode, I have also, in the past, become keenly aware of the presence of other, often invisible, toxins and pollutants that flood our environments. It was during a hypomania that I first developed the desire to consume primarily organic produce; I was sure I could taste the harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides and noted an improvement in my energy and mood when I started eating organic foods (sure, the elevated mood was just as likely a consequence of the hypomania). I became an impassioned (albeit inept) gardener, convinced I simply couldn’t trust the food on grocery store shelves. I also gathered numerous houseplants because I felt stifled by the pollutants in the air of my very old home and trusted Sansevieria trifasciata, Chlorophytum comosum, and aloe to clear the formaldehyde and carbon monoxide I knew was invading my lungs.

Before this becomes too much a piece of eco-criticism, let me contend that it isn’t all about somatic responses to invisible environmental pollutants; often my hypomanic avatar just demands a drastic change of scenery. Our domiciles and the things we keep in them have profound influences on our moods, perhaps more so to the hypomanic who is constantly evaluating the way his environment shapes and marks his personality (I choose the pronoun “his” only because most of my generalizations about bipolar disorder are based on my personal experiences). Over the years I have learned to keep plenty of framed images in my home so I can change out the pictures when the need to redecorate overcomes me. Sometimes I am deeply affected by color; feeling increasingly agitated by the white walls in a rental home, I rushed out and too hurriedly smeared crimson paint all over my living room to create a more warm and womb-like atmosphere. During a recent hypomania, I felt oppressed by the sterile light of compact fluorescent bulbs and replaced most of the lights in my home with those energy-hungry Edison bulbs. Often I develop a sudden interest in a film genre or historical era and embellish my home with associated paraphernalia; other times I find the presence of excessive ornamentation over-stimulating and find comfort in a more Spartan existence.

Occasionally my hypomanic responses to my surroundings are marked by agitation and hostility. This becomes much more difficult to describe, but, often particular environments, familiar ones, suddenly become repugnant to me. I shun favorite restaurants because I suddenly have distaste for a cuisine I typically enjoy; I avoid grocery and drug stores because I notice too many SUVs in the parking lots; I can’t go to a favorite park because the trees are in artificial rows (or, during another hypomania, I avoided a different park because the trees were too oppressively close together). I’ve become intimidated by activities I generally find pleasurable and sought solace in places I’d formerly avoided. Although one benefit to all this tumult and anxiety is that I’ve opened and discovered new trajectories, I have to admit that such seemingly capriciousness and inconstancy has been an immense challenge for my partner with whom I share my life’s adventures.


Vocal Matters and Shameful Speech-Acts 

During a hypomanic state, racing thoughts often erupt as a violent current of speech I am incapable of restricting. Vocalizations might race from my mouth so quickly that the words are unintelligible, or (and much more regrettably), I lose the ability to filter the content and often relate personal details and share private anecdotes that are horribly embarrassing. After some of my more severe and unchecked hypomanic episodes I would work to sever my social relations and try to recede from view to avoid shame. Also, after a hypomania, I find myself with far more friends than I can maintain (the thing is, when you share incredibly personal details, people assume that you feel very close to them, that you are reaching out and establishing a bond of trust, because no one would share that kind of information with a stranger or casual acquaintance, right?) and feel burdened by either the effort requisite to maintain these new friendships or the uncomfortable severing of ties to people with whom I have no desire to perpetuate a relationship.

The voice itself, regardless of whether or not its utterances are meaningful, is a material manifestation of the hypomanic episodes. My voice increases and expands my presence in the world by establishing new flows and charting new cartographic territory. It is an extra-bodily part of my being that does real work by manifesting my presence in the space beyond my corporeal frame. Thus, the verbal effusions that occur during my hypomanic episodes are less important for the signifiers they bear and more valuable as a tool to broaden my being-in the world. I’m reminded of Jeffrey Cohen’s chapter on Margery Kempe in Medieval Identity Machines; JJC argues (and will forgive my incredibly reductive summary) that Kempe’s weeping serves as a means to enter into or disrupt various discourses from which she has been excluded. The rapid-fire verbal ejaculations of my hypomanias function similarly; they flood the various discourses from which I have likely excluded myself in past acts of self-exile during depressive episodes.

The racing thoughts that agitate my speech-acts and vocal presence also manifest themselves in my writing by way of parentheses. Years ago I discovered that I used parentheses far, far more often when I was in a hypomanic state than when I was stabilized or depressed. The thing about racing thoughts is, well, they are RACING and it is often too difficult to filter through them and determine which thoughts might be valid, relevant or important, and which are just superfluous noise. The solution to this is to write EVERYTHING, including those thoughts which, when hypomanic, I am unable to determine whether or not they are worth sharing. Thus, this extra bit of noise, these parasitic thoughts, manifest in my writing as an overabundance of parenthetical commentary. And I am generally comfortable with that, because this surplus, this noise that floods the space between the parentheses, makes a text more capacious and more inclusive.



While my depressed avatar works to disconnect itself from social and material flows during its egocentric melancholia, my hypomanic self feverishly establishes relations with as many objects as possible, attempting to suppress the cogito as it becomes more contiguous with its environment. Because of this increased networking with objects outside my corporeal limits, my hypomanic episodes leave so much material debris (to say nothing of the immaterial consequences, like the financial debt so many bipolar folk find themselves struggling with after grandiosity-fueled spending sprees). Possessions, relationships, skills; red walls, a closet filled with once-worn clothing, a back yard of half-cared –for vegetables; my world is constantly ornamented by the residue of my hypomanic episodes.

Continued on... 
Alan S. Montroso

Alan S. Montroso is an alliteration-appreciating, aspiring academic who presently resides in a noxious and occasionally noisome niche of northeast Ohio. Formerly a Jude the Obscure type, Alan will soon be enrolling in a graduate program somewhere much closer to the Atlantic Ocean where he plans to study critical theory, eco-materialism and medieval literature.


  1. Thanks for the wonderfully personal and interesting blog post. Bipolar disorder II is actually much less common than people think (though I don't have specific epidemiological data off-hand) since even having a single manic episode in one's entire life makes the diagnosis bipolar I.

  2. Thanks to both of you for staging this collaboration.

    Alan, it's difficult to post a response that's something more than an expression of gratitude for your composing this piece, a commendation of your willingness to be vulnerable, and recognition of how smartly you combine the autobiographical, the theoretical, and the philosophical. Disability studies meets ecotheory and the new materialism captures some of what is accomplished (and resonates very well with the other posts on this great blog) -- but doesn't get at the personal stakes well enough.

    So I'll just say that the post has been with me since I read it, giving me much to ruminate over, and I'm grateful for it. Physical disability is easier to speak about than what Rosemarie Garland Thomson calls "cognitive diversity" -- and I like how you get at the materiality of the neurological and the affective.

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