Thursday, 14 April 2016

Psychologist who experiences mania without depression says "madness" can be enriching

A US-based clinical psychologist has published an extraordinary essay in the journal Psychosis in which he claims to have experienced 17 bouts of mania or "mood elevation" between 1997 and 2015 without any intervening instances of depression.

Mania is usually experienced alongside alternating episodes of depression, in which case it is described by psychiatrists as bipolar disorder. David Ho, who has taught and practised in the USA and Hong Kong, says his experience of "unipolar mood elevation" shows that we should not view mental disorders purely in pathological terms, and that, while his episodes of mania have caused him social difficulties and sometimes been upsetting for his friends and family, overall the experience has been enriching rather than damaging.

During his bouts of elevated mood and mania, each of which lasted between a week and two months, Ho says that things often felt speeded up, that he experienced feelings of enlightenment and mystical tranquillity, often reaching a state of "selfless self". "I became a more colourful person, more empathic, generous and loving," he says. He felt "supreme self-confidence" during his episodes but claims to have been able to maintain enough insight so as to avoid delusions of grandeur.

However, Ho goes on to describe how he has been able to "achieve feats beyond my wildest imagination" including developing the sudden ability to play the complex strategy game of Weiqi at the level of an advanced player, and on another occasion being able to write different Chinese characters in the air simultaneously with each hand. Another time he says he even managed to heal his seriously injured knee "by directing the energy flow within my body to do it". He adds that "this was verifiable to several people who knew about my injury."

Ho further describes how his "explosions" of creativity and empathy – the latter has included experiencing Jesus' pain on the cross – were often accompanied by incredible mental fatigue, insomnia, occasional confusion and sometimes anguish. But this anguish did not adversely affect his daily functioning, he says, rather "it allowed me to be in touch with my deepest pains and anxieties."

Ho adds that he has over time learned to anticipate when a new episode is coming and take "precautionary measures to manage [his] behaviour in public and avoid incurring unnecessary social costs or physical danger". An example of a social complication of Ho's episodes includes the time he broke down in front of a university class when lecturing them about the 4 June massacre in Beijing, tears coursing down his face.

However, Ho has enjoyed social upsides too. For example, he once danced almost nightly on a Mediterranean cruise: "I surprised myself with how good I was," he writes in diary entries made available alongside the journal essay, "when I entered into a state of selfless-oblivion. For the first time, I was able to be spontaneous, to move without any inhibition, to enjoy myself, in public. Sometimes, when I danced alone, people on the dance floor would stop dancing and watch me".

Overall, Ho says his "self study" leads him to question the "deficit model" of mental disorders in which they are seen as purely pathological. "Is it not possible that a life totally devoid of madness is an impoverished life?" he asks. "This then becomes my goal: to lead a dignified normal life enriched by madness."

Without any third-party expert corroboration of Ho's accounts, it is of course difficult to verify the accuracy of his descriptions of his experiences or the claims he makes for the feats he has achieved during his episodes of mania. Nonetheless, his essay and the accompanying diary materials (including an example of free association during a manic episode) make for fascinating reading, especially since Ho's lucid account is written from the perspective of a clinical psychologist with a multicultural background.

Ho follows other psychologists and psychiatrists who have reflected on their own unusual and difficult mental experiences, such as Marsha Lineman, Elyn Saks, and psychosis expert Peter Chadwick who wrote a 2007 article about his own psychosis entitled: Peer-Professional First-Person Account: Schizophrenia From the Inside.


Ho, D. (2016). Madness May Enrich Your Life: A Self-Study of Unipolar Mood Elevation Psychosis, 1-6 DOI: 10.1080/17522439.2015.1135183

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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