There is no normal

It’s common to hear those living with a mental illness to refer to normalcy. They may even wish to be normal. In my teens I was part of that camp; bipolar disorder was isolating, isolation being the common denominator of all mental conditions.

But then, the thought drums at the back of your skull. It grows until you have to face it – what on earth is ‘normal’? What are its characteristics, and why have I aspired to be it?

Really, when people have some kind of isolating characteristic, they aspire towards a statistical concept. Normal is the mean, or the median. It’s not a real, tangible thing. It’s like the all-American family with their 2.4 children. The 2.4 can’t be applied to a single, ‘normal’ family. And all these normal, average metrics are just a combination of variation, and include extremes. 2.4 is averaged from many zeroes, along with reality-show families with two dozen kids.

In the end, I am normal. I’m a part of the average, with a lot of people like me and a bunch that are totally different. Dysfunction and function exist in a complicated relationship – what is weird or immoral varies over space and time. Ask the next ten people you talk to if they can define what ‘normal’ is to them. You’ll get >1 ideas from that sample.

Part of ending the pain of isolation is to end self-isolation- in which people define themselves as outside certain boundaries and barriers. These barriers can be real and tangible, but they are also self-assigned. Even if certain legal and economic obstacles are removed in the struggle for racial equality, people must emerge from those feelings of inferiority or superiority that came with those policies. Just because those with mental illnesses don’t get locked up for decades at a time that often doesn’t mean the separation ceases to exist.

Holding your two selves together

Image by Andrew Mackay.

Growing up, I was diagnosed with anxiety at an early age. From age seven onward therapy was a regular aspect of my life- it was just another after school activity. Some kids went off to learn viola, I went to a biofeedback room to learn how I could control the fear and unease that ruled my life.

That was theĀ diagnosis up until just before I turned fifteen- anxiety. General anxiety, social anxiety, separation anxiety. It was something, a vague combination of all the ways one can feel out of place and time. There were constants. To this day I hate calling people on the phone, which dates as far back as I can remember. But it was in flux. Maybe some of this was obsessive-compulsive disorder (a psychiatrist theory). Or just a weird adolescence. Perhaps I suffered the same fate as many ‘gifted’ children- a dysfunction around others, even those I had a lot in common with.

The lay of the land changed when the moods formed a pattern and my problems found a name. Ever since, life has been about reconciling old issues with newer ones. What is anxiety to me? Where does it fit now? Is it fully independent of bipolar, its own sovereign disorder- or perhaps that they feed each other in a cycle much like the steady sin wave that governs my mood swings and struggles with the extremes of bipolar disorder.

Anxiety, as it stands shortly before I turn twenty-four, is a symptom. A special sort of symptom, fed by hypomania followed by depression. It is the metaphorical headache that comes with reconciling two wildly different, but very real persons. After engaging in stupid or dangerous things while manic, my depressive self must deal with the social ostracism and humiliation. I’ve heard classmates and friends telling me they prefer the funny, hypersocial me- the same one I fear and hope never reappears. Each cycle one self creates commitments, strange friendships, debts monetary and not- then the other self must sift through them. A constant reminder of behavior that is both at times shameful and bizarre. Why did my depressive self let all this crap pile up? Why did my hypomanic self blow all that money?

To me, bipolar disorder is not just the two selves with little in common. It’s the attempt to be sinew, and connect the various fractions into a coherent self. It’s difficult and demanding- and gives me great anxiety. But anxiety is not a standalone issue- it is the water gushing from the crack on the dam. You can buy all the buckets you can find, and gather the water to keep it from flooding what lies below- but the water will never stop. The crack needs to be fixed. Thoreau spoke that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”. Day-to-day maintenance is so overwhelming that in the past I could rarely ponder “why am I anxious?”

This present period of stability is incredible. It far surpasses the most raucous fun of hypomania, and it is the most treasured possession I have. It has allowed me to understand symptoms from a new perspective- the major cause is being controlled, so what still bothers me?

And anxiety is still there. I don’t like calling even close friends on the phone, or knocking on a stranger’s door. The anxiety is less widespread and reminds me more of my pre-bipolar past, talking with a soft-spoken psychologist and trying to control my breathing and body temperature with biofeedback. This is what remains, once the anxiety of reconciliation is kept to a dull roar. Like the tremor in my right hand from lithium, it’s okay that it exists. I can handle it. I’m okay.