Mental Illness

"Once or twice I have felt that odd whir of wings in the head, which comes when I am ill so often… I believe these illnesses are in my case-how shall I express it?-partly mystical. Something happens in my mind. It refuses to go on registering impressions. It shuts itself up. It becomes a chrysalis. I lie quite torpid, often with acute physical pain. Then suddenly something springs…ideas rush in me; often though this is before I can control my mind or pen.” *

Bipolar Disorder (also called manic-depressive illness) is an affliction of extremes. Emotions can range from wild exhilaration (mania) to debilitating depression, with hallucinations and delusions present in the most acute cases. Woolf’s description of being unable to control her mind or pen when the “ideas rush in” is symptomatic of mania. Lying “torpid” in “acute physical pain” portrays the distress of depression. Like Woolf, many people experience extensive periods of normal mood between manic or depressive episodes. Like Woolf, many sufferers end their torment by committing suicide.


Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
Excessively “high,” overly good, euphoric mood
Extreme irritability
Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another
Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
Little sleep needed
Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
Poor judgment
Spending sprees
A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
Increased sexual drive
Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications
Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
Denial that anything is wrong


Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex
Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being “slowed down”
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
Restlessness or irritability
Sleeping too much, or can’t sleep
Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss or gain
Chronic pain or other persistent bodily symptoms that are not caused by physical illness or injury
Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts


classic form of the illness, recurrent episodes of mania and depression milder episodes of hypomania alternating with depression four+ episodes occuring within a 12-month period persistent unstable moods including periods of mild depression and elation




For more information about Bipolar disorder go to the National Institutes of Mental Health

The Madness & Literature Network



Caramagno, T. (1992). The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic- Depressive Illness. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goodwin, K.F. & Jamison, K. R. (2007). Manic Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8

Research Papers

James Pennebaker Ph.D.: Writing and Mental Health


___References for this Section____

* Woolf, V. (1982). A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. (L. Woolf. Ed.) San Diego: Harvest Book, Harcourt Inc.