On Not Being Normal

When I started this new web site, I personally resolved not to talk as much about mental health issues and to focus more on science communication and literature.

However, this January marks the sixth year since I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder, and there are a few things I’ve learned in the past year that I think are important as we head into the New Year.

I spent the first 3-4 years of my illness trying different medications and experiencing their lovely side effects. The past two years, however, have involved trying to fine tune my current cocktail of medications to best manage my illness, which hasn’t worked out as hoped.

2019 was probably the worst year for my illness, as I had two really high highs and have fallen into a deep low after the last high in September. I had to change my medications to manage the highs, and had to maintain those medication changes even through the low phases, so that I don’t have a “breakthrough” high event.

I have written a lot about my illness, about what it means for my daily and seasonal activities, about how I have to manage it, about the way things have changed for me since I was diagnosed. But the problem is, I haven’t been taking my own advice about doing what works for me and sticking with my own path. I think one of the reasons 2019 was such a bad year was because I was trying too hard to be normal.

Of course, “normal” is a relative term – I’m using it relative to people who don’t have a mental illness. These are all of the “normal” things I’ve thought of that apply to my situation:

  1. Normal people don’t have to sleep half the day away.
  2. Normal people don’t get sudden, unexplained anxiety attacks that make their stomach drop and leave them feeling dizzy, sweaty, and nauseated.
  3. Normal people can plan their days and weeks in advance because they don’t have to account for a bad day (or a bad week, or a bad few months, which is where I’m at now).
  4. Normal people can work full time because they have the ability to manage a full cognitive load.
  5. Normal people don’t have to ask their partner to drive them places because they can’t concentrate behind the wheel of the car.
  6. Normal people don’t have ecstatic high emotions one month (including increased purchases, obsessive pitching, and decreased sleep) followed by super low feelings a month later.
  7. Normal people are adaptable to change and disruption both at home and in their personal schedules.

My New Year’s resolution is to be truer to myself and smarter about my abnormalities, and to look after myself instead of trying to be someone /something I’m not. This means taking a break from online time sinks like social media (partially because it’s hard not to compare yourself to others), doing my fabric art, exercising, and working on my book.

I recently read Digital Minimalism : Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. It was good because he doesn’t just say “social media is bad.” Instead, he outlines a roadmap to follow to reduce your use of online time sinks like social media, email, Netflix, etc., and to focus more on tangible things in life. He recommends a 30-day period without these time sinks – but you must have alternate activities lined up to take up the time you would normally spend online, because otherwise you’ll get bored and be more likely to return to bad online habits.

Once you’ve finished the 30 days without these time sinks, you can start to reintroduce them into your life – but on your own terms. You may realize you only want to read about science communication things on Twitter, and decide to simplify your feed by only following the hashtag #scicomm. You may decide to set aside an hour a day to look at your social media accounts, rather than checking them regularly throughout the day. You might only check email twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening. The key is that you choose for yourself, instead of letting the app choose for you.

I’m going to try this approach with the goal of acknowledging my “abnormalities” and aiming for better management of my illness. Let’s not have a repeat of 2019 (though my half-marathon walk was a huge highlight of the year and I hope to do another one this year!).

Happy New Year everyone!

Note the featured image is used under a CC-BY-3.0 license from Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “On Not Being Normal”

  1. Happy New Year, Sarah. Thanks for sharing your experience of learning to thrive with bipolar disorder. Not only are you helping others who have similar challenges, you are shedding light on mental illness, an important subject that has been taboo for far too long. A lot of people face mental illness, like physical illness. As I see it, you’re normal, but your challenges are specific. And your courage to help us understand is inspiring. I wish you all the best for 2020!

  2. I thought I was starting my new year off right by taking a cab to the doctor’s office for my B12 shot. Apparently you need to make an appointment for this service now – but none of my clinic’s patients were informed of this. Since I’m several months overdue for my shot, I’ve been falling asleep in my office chair no matter how much I sleep. I just burst into tears. So I hear you, Sarah. But I’m also telling myself that just because 2020 doesn’t seem to be off to the greatest start, it IS only January 2. Lots of time to turn this year around. 🙂


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