March 22, 2005

Hypomania Mania!

This psychiatric syndrome is hot, hot, hot according to the New York Times, with books like Exuberance and The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America by John D. Gartner. I've read the latter and it does the best job I've seen yet of explaining the bizarre ups and downs of David O. Selznick, producer of "Gone With the Wind" (and subject of the new comedy play "Moonlight and Magnolias").

In Jay McInerney's fine novel about the leveraged buyout boom of the 1980s, Brightness Falls, one of the characters is a billionaire investor who is considered a genius at timing the market, but in truth his manic phases have simply happened to coincide with the early months of bull markets and his depressive phases with the beginnings of bear markets. A lot of success in business is based on that kind of luck.

Gartner doesn't talk about him, but billionaire H. Ross Perot was obviously cycling through manic-depressive cycles during his extraordinary run for President in 1992. Early in the year he suddenly announced he intended to be elected President as an independent, and by the spring he was actually leading Bush and Clinton in the polls. Then, his mood collapsed and he went into seclusion for the entire summer, muttering paranoid nonsense about government operatives disrupting his daughter's wedding. In the fall, he re-emerged as energetic as before and won an impressive 19% of the vote, the most for a 3rd party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt.

But what about hypomania, or being fired up but not to the point of self-destructive mania? The problem I have with this is that it's not so obvious that medical terminology is helpful in explaining every energetic, charismatic individual.

While Selznick was clearly a manic-depressive with major problems, other examples of Gartner's like Alexander Hamilton seem more like an energetic, charismatic individuals. Gartner only gives Teddy Roosevelt a long footnote, but TR is probably the most famous hypomanic, and he was never depressed until his son died in WWI when TR was 58. So, is hypomania, which began as a version of manic depression, a suitable description?

Or consider Bob Hope. He largely invented stand-up comedy (like his friend Bing Crosby in singing, Hope was the first to understand the potential of the microphone for comics). Unlike the many comics who are depressives, Hope was up all the time. It was said of him that when he was walking to the men's room, he was gleefully looking forward to cracking up the attendant. He was enormously successful in comedy, movies, real estate, and charity. He toured until he was 90 and lived to 100.

So, how do you draw the line between a medical syndrome and overwhelming health?

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