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Redefining Normal Amidst Mental Illness


In my last therapy session, I broke down into tears while discussing my marriage and subsequent divorce. My therapist asked, “Do you miss him?”

I said, “No.”

She said, “Then why are you crying?”

I answered, “I miss me.”

You see, I’ve changed. I’m no longer the woman I once was.

I used to have “high-functioning” depression and bipolar II diagnoses, but because of trauma I’ve experienced, I’ve also been diagnosed with bipolar I, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and social anxiety.

I keep thinking the “real” me is somewhere inside this mass of flesh and bone — and that somehow I’ll find her again. After everything, it feels like something fell off the shelf inside me and shattered on the floor, and I’m picking up the pieces all over again.

Some days, I manage to get the laundry and dishes done. Today I managed to feed my kid breakfast and get her off to school, and somehow I will manage to pick her up at 3:15. And there were no disasters.

I tell myself it’s the small things that matter.

But some days I feel it’s not enough.

I’m home, and my partner is at work. I’m alone with only my thoughts and the dog who is not the dog that was. Does that sound strange? I lost my dog in July. She had been my companion for 12 years, and though my family got me a new dog, I can’t seem to get attached to him, and so I just feel senselessly alone and abandoned. Rationality should say I’m not, but my brain doesn’t work that way. And my skin is raw with the tingling of panic as I fight to catch each breath and keep from hyperventilating.

Days for me usually look generally the same. I have to lay down for frequent naps to get things done. It’s the only way I can manage. Lunch, nap, load the dishwasher, nap, unload the dishwasher, nap, put laundry in the washer, nap, laundry to the dryer, nap, put laundry away, nap.

I’m not lazy, it’s just each task feels like a Herculean effort that saps me to the bone so afterwards I’m sweating and trembling and feel like my skin has been doused in acid. There is real physical pain. My fingertips burn. My skin burns. My face feels like it’s been smashed into a bed of needles, and my ears are ringing.

I want normalcy. But what is normal?

That word gets thrown around so often like some sort of fabulous brand of mouthwash. I’d love to get a hold of some so I could rinse, spit, repeat and get rid of the taste of metal in my mouth. Wait, that’s blood… I’ve been chewing on the inside of my cheek again. A stress response.

But this is my normal. However much I may want to fight it and wish it were not so… this is the body and mind I live in. And so I get up again and go to the computer to tap out words because my therapist reminded me recently that one of my goals was to write, and at my last 90-day revisit of my treatment plan “goals,” I hadn’t accurately met them.

Normal. Not Normal. Normal. No. This is life. My life. This is me.

But it’s OK because I fight every day for what my normal is. And somewhere between coffee and curling up with the dog who is not the dog that was and feeling numb and eviscerated by my own pain, I find the courage to get out of bed and sit at the computer again.

I’m not quite so isolated now. It’s not a step out of the front door, but it’s a step out of my bedroom door. It’s a step into the outside world when I turn on my computer. It’s my window to the world, and my chance at participating in a “normal” way.

I present my heart.

This is who I am. Imperfections, mental illness, “my normal.”

I can’t be anything else, but that’s OK. I don’t have to be “her” again, the “old me.” It’s time to find the new me among the imperfections and changes. No one is perfect anyway. I can’t go back… but I can go forward.

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Thinkstock image by Victor Tongdee