THIS ARTICLE had its roots back in a 2005 review of John Gartner's provocative book, The Hypomanic Edge. In his book, Dr Gartner argues that America’s greatness can be attributed to an abundance of mania lite genes. The type of people who were willing to risk everything to face an uncertain future in a new world, he says, had very different temperaments than the ones who stayed home. The three countries with the highest rates of mania – the US, New Zealand, and Canada – are all immigrant populations. (Even their indigenous populations, one can argue, possess a spirit-of-adventure immigrant outlook.)
Dr Gartner starts with Christopher Columbus, and works his way through to the religious dissidents and risk-takers who first settled here to the robber barons of the nineteenth century to Hollywood film moguls to the mad scientist Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome.
He also zeroes in on the Founding Fathers and Alexander Hamilton. Wouldn't you know it, for some strange reason everyone seems to be interested in the man on the twenty-dollar bill right now. So let's forget Columbus and the rest and have a closer look at our most unlikely Broadway star ...
"Danger, Hypomanic on Board," could well be the other title of "Washington Crossing the Delaware." With him that historic night was Alexander Hamilton, most famous for being on the losing end of a duel with Aaron Burr. Biographer Ron Chernow describes Hamilton as "a volatile personality," and an "exuberant genius" who was prone to poor judgment and "prey to depression." Dr Gartner surveyed five of Hamilton's biographers without telling them the illness he was investigating. Even though only one biographer had suggested in his book that Hamilton may have had bipolar disorder, all of them overwhelmingly in the survey awarded the Founding Father very high marks for hypomania.
Dr Gartner employs the term hypomania in the context of a personality trait, or temperament, rather than a mood state. This can get extremely confusing. Whereas mood states tend to be transient, temperament is embedded into one's personality. A mood state is a deviation from one's true normal, a trait is part of one's true normal.
The example I like to give is two women dancing on tables. One is your stereotypical librarian, the other is Marylin Monroe. Marilyn, of course, is just being Marilyn. But what about the librarian? Same behavior, two entirely different implications.
So what about Hamilton?
Soon after graduating from Columbia University (in two years, no less), Hamilton caught revolutionary fever. In one two-week period he spewed out the equivalent of a book in the form of 60,000 words of propaganda. During a raid, when everyone else had ducked for cover, Hamilton walked straight into an artillery bombardment. He soon caught the attention of George Washington and became his trusted aide de camp, only to impulsively quit a few years later. At Yorktown, now with a battlefield command, he paraded his troops in front of English cannons. The English were too dumbstruck to open fire. Later in the battle, Hamilton led a reckless charge that turned out right for all the wrong reasons. Oh, and on his off-time during the war, he taught himself economics.
Hamilton was the main instigator of the Constitutional Convention, but one biographer described him during this period as "restless and depressed," and another "like he was on something." He delivered an impassioned six-hour speech, then walked out for good in disgust, unable to appreciate why the delegates couldn’t simply settle their differences and back his brilliant proposals. Nevertheless, once the document was ready for ratification by the states, Hamilton became its greatest champion, cranking out 51 of the 85 op-ed pieces that later became known as the Federalist Papers. He was also the political point man in winning over New York.
By the time Hamilton assumed his post as the new nation's Secretary of the Treasury, the constituent states, united only in fiction, were on the brink of financial collapse. Hamilton’s inspired plan was to consolidate state debts and federal debts into one restructured national debt, paid off in monthly installments. The result was a strong and robust federal government that set the scene for a nation of capitalist go-getters, much to the consternation of Thomas Jefferson who envisioned a pastoral utopia. Without Hamilton, it is fair to say, there would be no United States. Fittingly, he is buried in a graveyard on Wall Street.
The poor guy might have delayed his burial had he not recklessly decided to stop Aaron Burr's bullet. So here we have a man of most singular disposition, intellectually brilliant, visionary, energetic, charismatic (the guy was a chick magnet), and prone to depression and reckless acts. Tempting as it is to slap a bipolar label on him and call him one of us, it is far more instructive instead to regard him as the product of genes and environment. A bastard born on a Carribean island, his brilliant mind could well have gone to waste. But as a young immigrant in a new land where revolution was brewing, opportunity beckoned.
A lot of us are able to be Hamiltons for brief moments in time. The brilliance, the charisma, the vision, and all the rest. Then reality sets in. We crash into depression, or, sometimes much worse, we crash into normal. We go back to being our depressingly average selves. The hypomania may have been fun while it lasted. But for many of us, it is a mood state, a temporary vacation from normal. For Hamilton, though, hypomania was his true normal, part of his personality, a host of inherited traits that remain fairly constant over one's life. Yes, maybe he could have benefitted from toning it down a bit, especially in his dealings with people who know how to aim a duelling pistol, but clearly we don't want a doctor medicating the personality out of him.
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This is a point Dr Gartner and I discussed more than once. People have suffered persecution to maintain their identities, he let me know. We don't lightly let go of what makes us who we are.
Where it gets complicated is that although it is convenient to conceive of "state" and "trait" as separate, in reality the two feed off each other. The pioneering diagnostician Emil Kraepelin observed this back in the early twentieth century. Manic traits, in effect, give rise to manic states. The state-trait two-step has been further developed by modern experts such as Hagop Akiskal of UCSD. In Dr Akiskal's terminology, "hypomania" is the mood state, "hyperthymia" is the mood trait. Dr Gartner uses hypomania for both state and trait, which can get confusing.
This is where knowing thyself is so important. Is it exuberance, for instance, or hypomania? Are you being visionary or grandiose? Are you winning people over or just plain being insuffereable? On it on it goes till we get to: Would being on a bipolar med benefit you, or would it amount to a chemical straight-jacket? Maybe a med would help, but maybe only a light dose, just enough to take the edge off the edge. Dr Gartner likens some of us to the pitcher in the movie Bull Durham who throws hundred mile-per-hour fast balls but keeps beaning the mascot.
Down to 95 MPH will still get the job done, is way better than average. But this opens up new issues. The normal majority tends to think everyone should be throwing 50 MPH fast balls, same as them. In their world, the only justification for extraordinary behavior is unqualified success. Conform or else. But with success, everything changes. Suddenly, you're no longer a nutjob with a crazy idea, you're the guy who started up Tesla Motors.
Elon Musk, of course, would fit right in to Dr Gartner's book. Definitely not normal. Just like a lot of us. But for you, no one is singing your praises, no one is buying shares in your company. You're just a quirky guy or gal with a bad credit rating. Everyone around you thinks they know better than you. If only you would come back to earth or get help or both.
And here you are, your rent past due, thinking they might be right. How do you handle that?
This piece began as a 2005 book review that looked at five people (or groups of people) with hypomanic traits. In light of the success of the musical, Hamilton, I decided to eliminate the others from this analysis and focus on the main man, plus fold in stuff on state-trait (a major theme of my book, NOT JUST UP AND DOWN) plus identity (a major theme of my book, IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY) I picked up over the last decade. Jan 4, 2017.
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