Aditya Sinha: Manic depression and a bipolar society

Perhaps the highs and lows of Bipolar Disorder are a metaphor for the bouts of mania that appear and fizzle out in society as well

Bipolar Disorder (BPD) recently topped Google searches after singer Yo Yo Honey Singh disclosed that he was a patient. It was suprising but not shocking: as a newspaper editor I knew three youngsters with BPD, including a close friend who is currently institutionalised for a medium-term stay at a facility on Mumbai’s outskirts. We’ll call him @yessen.

After 18 months away from the  public eye, Yo Yo Honey Singh revealed last week that he was battling BPD
After 18 months away from the  public eye, Yo Yo Honey Singh revealed last week that he was battling BPD

His hospitalisation comes after an 18-month calm; previously he spent 100 days at a facility on the outskirts of Delhi. Such places aren’t cheap and cost nearly a million rupees; but mental health care is mired in ignorance and shame, so you either have crowded, dirty and neglected government facilities — think of Raghu Rai’s 1984 photos of Ranchi mental asylum and its near-naked patients in chains — or you have pay steeply for a high-end facility. There is no middle-ground for the growing middle-class.

BPD was earlier called manic depression. It probably existed throughout history, but until Freud we didn’t have names for psychiatric conditions. @yessen’s BPD is manifested by three-week-long periods of mania and hyperactivity; then’s there’s a meltdown; then hospitalisation; and then he sinks into depression. In his mania, @yessenn’s mind works furiously; he phones up at odd hours and talks of “connecting the dots of the Universe”, linking events, people and ideas in a way that is either pure genius or madness. He once said that I and Don Draper from Mad Men were avatars of the same being. You usually hear of “unity of things” from religious men like Adi Shankaracharya, or from LSD-soaked friends who see patterns in sounds and emotions on the walls. Heightened synaptic activity in the brain gives the illusion of interconnectedness; in the case of drug-users, once sober they can’t remember their insights. Similarly, the ineffable truths that @yessenn grasps slip through his fingers once he’s medicated.

His mania is sometimes menacing. He says his BPD is linked to a childhood trauma that is central to his life, his personality and his psyche. Thus, he feels resentment towards family members and when the mania peaks, he rages. And he has issues regarding personal identity that remain unresolved despite years of therapy and psychiatric counselling.

The mania recurs every six to eight months, though his 18-month stretch of calm came while he lived at home in Calcutta. @yessenn keeps trying to escape Calcutta, undoubtedly due to his childhood trauma. His pattern is to find a job in another city and start a normal life. Two problems inevitably emerge. First, the stress of a daily job; and then the stress of an intimate relationship. For an articulate youngster, meeting women is not a problem, but when it’s time to raise the intensity of their intimacy, he cannot cope and goes manic.

The mood-regulating Lithium is the key to managing BPD. Of the two others that I know with BPD, one worked in my newspaper and confided in me of how she ran away from home to Calcutta to join the Missionaries of Charity. Medication now helps her manage her BPD, though she’s often afraid (“I keep thinking Ill get stomach cancer,” she said); she doesn’t stop taking her pills because of a solemn promise to her father. Also, her boyfriend (now her husband) is supportive. The other BPD patient is a writer; he’s married to a strong, independent woman who manages his medication and takes charge whenever mania peeps over the horizon.

But @yessenn doesn’t want to take his medication: he claims it stifles his creativity. He is brilliant and well-read, but Lithium prevents him from the imaginative leaps necessary for a writer. Job and relationship stresses accumulate; but whereas the rest of us fall back within the bounds of routine behaviour, he becomes delusional and denies reality, relying on distorted memories. For @yessenn, his mania becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; he sees transcendent truths while others carry on with their mundane routines. Ultimately, he ends up sedated in a psychiatric hospital.

It must feel like a psychic trap, to take a drug that chains you intellectually. It’s a sci-fi version of freedom of expression: ideally you want no bounds but increasingly society wishes to straitjacket you to avoid ‘rocking the boat’. Particularly when some groups try to fashion a society along pre-conceived lines instead of allowing it to flourish in life’s chaotic and unpredictable manner.

Perhaps @yessen’s BPD is a metaphor for the fractured times we live in, in almost every society around the planet. Each soceital fragment speaks as if in mania — that only they know the essential truth of being, and only they see the underlying pattern of the universe. The political chasm has widened, and now violence has entered the lexicon. Problem is, mania eventually fizzles out and normality returns. Society forgets what the fuss was ever about, and life returns to its mundane routine. Until the next episode.

Journalist and writer Aditya Sinha is the co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to

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