You recognize, right away, undeniable talent and intellect. He is a song-writer, a one-hit wonder. She is an artist. He is a poet; she directs a television show. He is a computer programmer; she is a doctor. And you’re humble. You go home and think, why in the world see me?
But you know why. The patient needs your particular genius, because his madness is getting in the way. Others are complaining, complaining so loudly, you can hear them and they're not in the room, not even in the building. You suspect mental illness.
And it usually is. Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the links between leadership and mental illness, is of the opinion that it isn't always so bad. Indeed, some creative people have a hyperthymic temperament. They rarely need therapy, not unless no one else will listen to them. It is not a disorder.
A Wikipedia definition:
Hyperthymic temperament or hyperthymia (from the Ancient Greek θυμός for "spiritedness") is characterized by a personality style or set of personality traits that include
- increased energy and productivity
- short sleep patterns
- vividness, activity extroversion
- self-assurance, self-confidence
- strong will
- extreme talkativeness
- tendency to repeat oneself
- risk-taking/sensation seeking
- breaking social norms
- very strong libido
- love of attention
- low threshold for boredom
- generosity and tendency to overspend
- emotion sensitivity
- cheerfulness and joviality
- unusual warmth
- irrepressible, infectious quality
FDR had it, hyperthymia, survivors of trauma and hardship sometimes get it. We see it most often in the descendants of people who once had bi-polar disorder. Teddy Roosevelt, a fifth cousin to FDR, apparently suffered from bi-polar disorder, and Isaac Roosevelt, FDR's grandfather, a trained physician, never practiced. People thought him odd. Take note of the importance of a genogram, that family tree, early in treatment.
Here's how Dr. Ghaemi, in his wonderful little book, describes FDR : (italics mine)
HE WAS HIGHLY SOCIABLE. On his Harvard alumni questionnaire, when asked his aversions, he replied, "None." He spent about a quarter of the working day on the telephone without means of an intermediary. He know how to get people to do what he needed, even if they did not agree with him about why. Once, when asked why he asked political opponents to serve in his administration, he commented, "You know, a man will do a lot of right things for the wrong reasons."I shudder. I know him. A genetic heartbeat away from real mania, more functional, and more loveable than any American leader ever, some say.
His longtime associate and secretary of labor Frances Perkins (also a social worker, read her biography) called him "incurably sociable," even needing to read books aloud to others rather than by himself. His close aide Robert Jackson, who served him as attorney general and later as a Supreme Court justice, viewed FDR's sociability as his strongest asset: "It was here that Roosevelt was irresistible and inimitable. He liked people, almost any people. He liked their company, liked to pick their minds and see what they were thinking, liked to know the details of their lives and problems."
Therapists are much more likely to see bi-polar disorder and uni-polar depression, than a hyperthymic personality. Before I had ever heard the word, I labeled the condition (hyperthymia) as uni-polar, the good kind, the opposite of true unipolar depressive disorder, the only unipolar disorder in the DSM IV-TR.
We often catch uni-polar depression or bi-polar disorder when people can't function, aren't meeting their potential. Kids are coerced to coming to therapy for not getting homework done, or not getting it in on time, breaking curfew. They will say, (italics mine):
I can’t do it, there is no doing it, not this; my brain isn’t there. I can’t focus, can’t see why I even should focus on school. I do other things (more compelling things). Doing my assignments feels absurd, a waste of time. Did I tell you about the new guy I met downtown? Let me play something for you on my harmonica. Can I just show you something on YouTube? Get me out of school, would you please? These people, my teachers, are making me crazy. Could you, doctor, please?Or they are too depressed to say anything.
Therapy, a quest for sanity, is a parental request. The bi-polar child, like an adult with the same disorder, is either vegetative or unstoppable, more than occasionally unreasonable, and often brilliant. Mad, brilliant, neither one without the other, indistinguishable, certainly, to themselves.
We distinguish it quite well, of course. Most of us don't trust people when they're too high. And they're not all geniuses. John F. Kennedy, in Ghaemi's good leader group, didn't shine academically, and most don't believe him to have been a genius. But he was certainly manic, as were many of his relatives, and he had bouts of depression and suicidality. Still, he empathized with the down-trodden, and used his position for positive societal change.
We tend to find more often, however, is that the afflicted bi-polar disorder have less peripheral vision, not more, only see what their brains command them to see. Significant others, family and friends, are lost. No empathy, not in the episode.Greatness will be during remission, perhaps, hypomania.
Indeed the manic adults we know aren't generally Presidents, they are not the political leaders. They are your every day Joes, Janes, and when they have authority, will think so fast that others find them impossible, and their demands time-intensive and unreasonable. The boss doesn't come to therapy. His employees do.
Less manic at the top of the company (or family), the work is more likely to get done, and get done well. Similarly, rock stars who finally quit drugs will admit their work is better, straight. Like imbibing too much too often, sliding too far up or down, going manic or catatonic, creativity suffers.
Yet a select few, according to Dr. Ghaemi, still achieve greatness, in large part because of their illness. The irresoluteness of mania, the empathy following depression, big things get done.
They are the minority, but we see them. Nassir Ghaemi's detractors will say that for most, a bi-polar disorder diagnosis is tantamount to selfishness and inaccessibility. The empathetic moments are too few and far between. And we really can't tell a manic brain, not even the brain of a hyperthymic individual, necessarily, to go someplace it doesn’t want to go.
Ordinary people do what is expected of them. We meet expectations, take one for the team. We go to work because we know that if we don’t, we won’t get paid, and the family needs the money. We put one foot in front of the other, even when we don't feel like it, and go. We can make ourselves go.
That's because we're ordinary. You can’t make an extraordinary brain do something ordinary.
The ordinary don't make good leaders, however, according to Dr. Ghaemi's thesis. The normal among us, homoclites, aspire to do well, be good, and be liked. We carry on quietly, seek simple comfort, do what is expected.
A president like George Bush, normal in every way, even in his alcoholism (described as progressive until dysfunctional, when he chose to quit) is destined to fail his people in a crisis. President Bush responded to 9-11 like normal people respond to an attack. Attacked, President Bush attacked back. And he didn’t have the guts, he didn’t have feeling enough for the dead and the victims in that far away land, to get out.
People with mental illness, on the other hand, are more empathetic (when not in the throes of an episode). They can’t deny their feelings, the breadth and depth of sadness they feel for the hard of luck, the down and out, the poor. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, all suffered from severe affective disorders and subsequently, empathized. Their empathy moved them to greatness, to do great things for humanity.
Ghaemi's thesis: There is an association between having suffered mental illness and choosing to do the right thing, even becoming a great leader in crisis.
That’s what I tell those young people, having read his book, the ones who can’t do their homework, the ones who can’t make their brains go where everyone else's brains, those ordinary brains, have no problem going. Think, greatness. First rate.
(1) A First Rate Madness is a first rate book. I don’t even want to lend mine out. Nassir Ghaemi is wonderful writer, and I’m sure a very empathetic psychiatrist. He reviews many leaders, even Hitler, and defines Hitler’s followers as homoclites, just following orders.
Reflecting on that, post 9-11, I suppose this explains the popularity of terrorism. Suicide bombers, terrorists, are normal; they are followers. Having swallowed a leader’s ideology, they do what normal people do. They fight for what they believe is the truth.
(2) Nassir writes more than your average psychologist, but not more than your average hyperthymic blogger. Check out his blogs, Mood Swings and Free Associations.
(3) To read other bloggers who reviewed A First Rate Madness, check out:
A Library of My Own
What Would the Founders Think?
A Bookish Affair
The Left Coaster
Deep Muck Big Rake
The Abraham Lincoln Blog
They Gave Us a Republic