being normal - not

I once heard the great Stephen Fry say that if given the opportunity he wouldn’t choose to live without his bipolar. He thought that bipolar made up who he was and stimulated the creative side of his soul. I’ve often wondered if I agreed with him or if being normal was better.

All I have ever wanted is to be a normal person. My husband Scott tells me all the time that I am normal, I just have an illness that affects the way I live sometimes. He says that everyone has their own issues and their own dysfunctions. My dysfunctions happen to be mania and depression.

I don’t feel like a normal person and I wonder what it would be like to go out for dinner without feeling the gripping anxiety and paranoia of people looking at me and judging me. Often I wonder what it would be like celebrating Christmas without having to pace myself so that the stress of organising and planning doesn’t overwhelm me and send me into a depressive episode. I wonder what it would be like to hold down a nine to five job that I enjoy, that helps pay the bills, that doesn’t make me become obsessed with perfection and seeing things through, only for my stress to kick in and the inevitable depression to follow.

How do other people function with mental illness?

Even when I am really well I always have to consider my illness. I always have temper everything I do with the knowledge that it might send me to depression or even mania. Every activity I attempt, every job I do, every plan I make must consider the level of stress and the possibility of illness. I’ve worked out through the years that stress is my enemy. It is the absolute worst thing for me and if I allow my stress levels to become too high I get sick. If I stay stress free, I can stay well. Usually.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just eliminate stress and presto my illness goes away. I’m afraid though that it’s not that simple. Unfortunately, life doesn’t come without stress. It just doesn’t. If you are alive, you experience stress. There are always things beyond our control that affect our lives and our experiences. There is no avoiding that, so what is the answer?

I believe the best we can do is manage is our stress. The way I do this is:

  1. Keep life simple. Have three or four daily tasks that you can do really well. On a good day you might be able to handle ten tasks, so set the bar a little lower for an average day and do those tasks really well. You will be able to maintain those three or four tasks every day, even on a bad day. Some days you will be able to do your tasks and still have energy to burn. On those days do extra but be careful to pace yourself. Don’t go too hard too fast.
  2. Find a way to get your stress out. I find the best way to do this is to move. If I’m feeling stressed and verging on becoming unwell, I go for a walk. I don’t go that far and certainly don’t walk fast. I move though. Moving seems to not only be good for you physically by giving you extra energy but it gets your brain chemicals pumping so that you can better cope with your stress. It doesn’t matter how you move, just that you’re moving. Go for a swim, do a yoga class or do some gardening. Just move and try and do it outside.
  3. Consider your yeses. Before you say yes to any invitation or plan or opportunity, consider your current stress level and how that will be affected by the added stress (be it good stress or bad). I try my best to not answer any offer straight away. Generally I try to mull it over for 24 hours and then give my answer. I talk it through with my husband and get his perspective. Even if it’s something as simple as hosting a dinner party. Go slow and be careful. I can do stress, but it must be on my terms. Don’t be pressured to add stress to life. Know the consequences.

So I don’t know if I am normal or not. I just know that my normal involves managing very carefully the stress in my life. My normal is taking my time to commit to plans and pacing myself when it comes to activities and functions. Always in the back of my mind I am aware of the consequences of taking on too much. I don’t always get it right. In fact sometimes I get it so wrong that I’ve wound up in hospital. After I pick myself back up (which can take many months), I adjust my sails and start again, ever vigilant for signs of too much stress, my enemy.

What tips do you have for managing stress?