Not only can bipolar disorder act as a refiner's fire, purifying the faith of a believer, but manic depression itself, can mimic the behavior of someone growing in her spiritual life. That's great news for me! The next time I get manic and tell an inappropriate joke to a colleague, I can say that I'm just getting closer to God, that's all. A confusing statement, but a true one, I believe.
Carmelite scholar Kevin Culligan, O.C.D., explains this concept in his fascinating essay that was published as part of Dr. Keith J. Egan's book, "Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century":
"The spiritual life can also easily mask a bipolar disorder or what has traditionally been called a manic-depressive condition. As a mood disorder, depression has usually been linked in systems of classifications of mental disorders with mania, an agitated mood that is at the other end of the affective continuum opposite a depressed or dysphoric mood. Manic symptoms are many: inappropriate elation, excessive irritability, severe insomnia, grandiose notions, increased talking, disconnected and racing thoughts, heightened sexual desire, markedly increased energy, poor judgment, and disruptive social behavior. These symptoms may suddenly appear in a person committed to the spiritual journey and life of prayer as making dramatic prophetic gestures, for example, standing on the street corner denouncing abortion or announcing the imminent Second Coming, or giving away one’s financial savings to charitable causes.
"Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross both stress that social consciousness and service of others are effects of genuine contemplative prayer. However, the sudden extreme, and, to one's family and friends, embarrassing character of a manic episode makes it easily distinguishable from the social fruits of contemplative prayer. Two or more of the manic symptoms noted above continuing over a two-month period can be an indicator of a bipolar disorder.
"As with serious depressive symptoms, evaluation and, if necessary, treatment are recommended. Just as we suspect something wrong when a person is continually down, with low energy, and withdrawn, so we also suspect something amiss when a person is on a continual high, with boundless energy, and talking incessantly.
"The diagnostic rule of thumb with mood disorders is balance between ups and downs. When we observe someone at either end of the mood continuum, higher or lower than we expect in normal everyday life, we may suspect a bipolar condition that is possibly in need of treatment."