People in mania are known for flights of fancy and the rapid association of ideas. Of all the forms of intelligence that we may possess, it is only the ability to recognize analogies and build associations that suffers when we go on mood stabilizers. I think it can be a mistake for outsiders to believe that this ability leads to wild, random, and unusable linkages in our mind. I find that my ability to write poetry — meaningful poetry — suffered after I started taking lithium; I lost insights. Of course, many other more negative traits like my irritability, grandiosity, and racing thoughts disappeared so I consider it a net gain.
The things we bring back from our adventures in mania land aren’t all rubbish. Poets such as Shelley and Byron depended on their manic states to generate compelling material. Some scientists have conceived startling new concepts. Isaac Newton is a classic example of a maniac whose insights transformed the science of his day and enabled him to revolutionize mathematics with his invention of calculus. The trouble comes when we try to bring our insights back from the fine and private place of our sickness.
William Knowland’s Flatland — which was written to explain the difficulties inherent in Faith — presents a useful allegory for our struggle to explain what we have found. Imagine a two dimensional figure, say a square. Imagine that it is you. Your perceptions are limited to two dimensions, so while you can make out one dimensional figures such as lines and points, you cannot appreciate three dimensional ones. If you were one dimensional, squares would appear as lines to you. Angles and other aspects of the square would invisible.
To the square, cubes just appear to be other squares. But let’s commit a miracle here: let’s have our square turn into a cube. Oh my God! There is this whole other dimension! The creatures of the Third Dimension instruct you on this farther reality. But then they do something perhaps a little mean: they turn you into a square again and tell you to preach the Gospel of the Third Dimension.
You’re in trouble now because there is nothing in the language or experience of two dimensional constructs that allow you to communicate what you have seen in the third dimension! The two dimensional beings listen to you for a bit and then decide that you are insane, so they throw you into the loonie bin.
This is the dilemma that we who live with mental illness face: how do we get others to take our consciousness of the third dimension seriously. It’s hard to communicate new ideas that come out of mania and psychosis. It is true that many of them are pure garbage, but some real gems come with the trash. And we don’t always have a language for it. Newton had to write massive volumes to explain what he had figured out and what he had discovered; and he had to invent a new mathematics. He also careened off into violence and religious extremism. These do not negate the value of his Science, but reflect his negative bipolar symptoms. Byron and Shelley felt soaring moods that they could not share with others, so they developed verse forms that came close to bringing unafflicted readers into the states they experienced.
Kay Jamison believes that doctors should be careful of overmedicating those of us who live with bipolar disorder. We need enough medication to curb the negative symptoms, but killing off the positive ones is a tragedy that Society cannot afford. Flatland dramatizes the need for neuroplasticity and reasonable tolerance of the mentally ill. Frontiers of human experience and knowledge exist that only a few of us begin to sense. It is our gift to the world and the neurotypical should be careful before they drug it out of existence.