April 25, 2014

The maddening pursuit of normalcy

I don’t know what good looks like. I don’t know what normal feels like, either.
Finding a “new norm” is one of the challenges facing the mentally ill on their journey toward recovery.

Take this week. After a few good months of mental health—a miracle for me—it felt as though recovery was slipping through my fingers. Not feeling great isn’t the worst part. It’s the paralyzing fear that things might go south, that the airplane bound for recovery might slowly lose altitude and nosedive into a fiery crash.

Next to the pain of depression and the madness of anxiety, fear is the most troubling emotion.

My therapist has been helping me deal with fear and establish a “new norm” since my bipolar diagnosis. For all I know, this squirrelly week may not be too far outside the norm. Only I wouldn’t know because I’m not sure what normal feels like.

My doctors at The Menninger Clinic in Houston told me something important when I left. Relapse is often part of recovery. In other words, it’s “normal” to have set backs.

I’ve only experienced one really tough relapse since returning from Houston, which is a blessing. It was painful, but it was brief. If I only experience one or two of those a year, I’ll take it.

The pursuit of normal may be a futile chase, like me trying to find a destination without a navigation app. Who’s to say what normal looks like for anyone, much less a bipolar patient with an anxiety disorder?

We all end up strapped in roller coasters from time to time, unsure of how we got there. We all feel the stomach drop when the coaster slowly ticks toward the top of a big hill, preparing us for what’s to come.

We all know the feeling when it bends over the apex and rushes down in a free fall. All of us. Not just those of us dealing with a wicked hand of genetic cards we’ve been dealt.

That’s one reason I think we can all benefit from therapy. Or at least talking to a friend who listens.

I’ve had coffee with several struggling people. I mostly listen. Even though I don’t know what I’m doing, they all seem to come away feeling better. It’s not anything I do. It’s the power of telling our story.

All of this advice makes me a hypocrite this week. I haven’t had the best week, and I haven’t told anyone how I feel. My wife finally asked me today if I’m okay, and I wasn’t fully honest.

I know a lot of people can relate. We don’t want to burden others. We don’t want to admit we might be struggling. We don’t want to scare our loved ones. We don’t want to accept the reality that every day or every week or every month won’t be a good one.

That’s why I jumped on the computer today and banged out this blog. It might not be the best one I’ve ever written, but at least it’s a reminder of something I know to be true.

This disease can’t be defeated by an army of one.


  1. Dear Jack, what a day you have had. Everyone's normalcy is very different. I am not bi-polar but do have problems with clinical depression and anxiety--great fun, NOT. You are right, you remember your good days and move forward towards what that felt like and try to leave the old reaction behind. Much easier said than done I know. I want to be of encouragement to you today by making a statement that always helps me and I pray maybe will be of some small help to you. That is you have already survived. Whatever is happening, you are here, therefore have already survived this time today. It is done. God says He knows where we are going, and He is waiting for us there. He is already waiting for you in your tomorrow. You have done this and will continue to do so. Love, hugs and prayers to you and your family.

  2. Jack, the reality of your experience and the honesty of your response (and feelings) keeps me coming back to your blog. Your penultimate paragraph is a fine example of thought-ties that bind us together. As an ACoA and a fellow sojourner, I see the richness embedded in your words - wisdom born of experience breeds hope. No, the disease can not be defeated by an army of one. Many of us stand with you. Your gifted style of composition makes this blog relevant and deep-reaching. Thank you for continuing to tell your story. I feel like we've just had coffee and will do so again. Grace for the moment and peace going forward. PE Germany

  3. My wife sent me the link to this posting and I thought as I read it that I could well have written it myself. I have been inspired to create my own, and to finally do what my Pastor, Psychiatrist, and Therapist have wanted me to do for a long time. Write about it. Thank You. I have had some success with this, I have made progress over time with some relapse or retrograde but still I am better than I was when I was diagnosed. If you want to get in contact that would be great.