Why be Happy, when You Could be Normal? is the title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of growing up gay with a fiercely religious adoptive mother, whose response to Winterson’s burgeoning sexuality is to have her exorcised. It’s a worldview that sees personal development and satisfaction as less valuable than being normal and fitting in. When I was an adolescent, the last thing I wanted to be seen as was normal. I preferred to be viewed as different, interesting, temperamental. I wanted people to think that I was exceptional. And although I had no way to think about my dramatic mood shifts since I wouldn’t receive a diagnosis until I was at university, they were part of me, part of what marked me out as intense and, I hoped, compelling.
Sometimes undergoing treatment for bipolar can feel like a choice between normality and happiness, only the bipolar’s choice is the other way round: why be normal, when you can be euphoric, mercurial, irrepressible? There have been times over the past couple of years when I have almost come to fear returning to an even keel. Despite the horrors of depression and dysphoric mania, it’s hard for me not to feel that my bipolarity marks me out as in some sense special. Many of my (online and real life) friends have only known me since I’ve been negotiating the swings of the current episode. At times I find myself wondering whether they will find my personality as interesting, or my company as stimulating, if my moods become completely stable.
It’s also easy for bipolars to believe that it’s their hypomania, rather than their underlying abilities, that fuels their creativity and ingenuity. Many people with bipolar have told me that they fear being over-medicated because they believe they need a little dose of hypo to keep going, to get their projects completed. They feel very strongly that they write, play, paint, create, think better when they are at least a little high. For my part, I know that I can still achieve when I’m asymptomatic. I hold two first class degrees; one was achieved despite my going in and out of mild highs and desperate depressions. The other I gained with relatively ease slap bang in the middle of my eight year remission. I didn’t need a hypo to shine, yet I’m still struggling to let go of the sense that I am more brilliant, dazzling, when I’m in an elated high. Looking at the evidence, I actually achieved more career success during my last remission than at any time in my life, because I had sufficient stability to progress from one step of the ladder to the next without being knocked right off – until, that was, I was completely broadsided by this recent episode.
Like many people, I believe that I am sexier and more beautiful when I am high, despite more usually being plagued by insecurities about my appearance and especially my weight. Flirtation comes more (too!) easily when I’m high and I tend to dress more flamboyantly. In remission, however, I found myself sufficiently stable to develop an enduring, secure relationship. A healthy one, that didn’t arise out of elated desire or terror at being left to cope with another depression alone. My partner and I had over five years together before I became symptomatic. He chose me, and I him, when I was neither up nor down; just me. When we met, I was so far from being hypomanically reckless that I remember avoiding alcohol on our first date, as I wanted to make a clear-headed assessment of my response to him. He got to know me very well before we had to deal with the rollercoaster loops and the medication side effects together, and that helped us to get through two and half years of illness together.
All the evidence of my life suggests that it is is better when I’m in remission. I achieve more, not less, when I’m euthymic. It’s certainly better for my children, and for my partner, when I’m more able to be consistent and predictable. My chances of being able to maintain employment and enjoy a reliable income are greater. And yet, as the possibility of recovery has seemed closer and closer, I have almost resented the idea of giving up the last vestiges of hypomania and have engaged in behaviours that maintain, rather than tackle, a mild high. It took my psychiatrist pointing this out a few months ago for me to realise it was time to make I choice. I could continue being elated, or I could edge towards being normal. This has meant me accepting that “normal” does not mean boring. It doesn’t have to mean conventional. It doesn’t have to mean ordinary or mediocre, and it doesn’t have to match anyone else’s definition of the word. It just means being who I really am underneath the hypomania, underneath the depression, underneath the anxiety and the irritability. The core of who I am, the self who makes steady progress in work and relationships, rather than embracing volatility and impulsivity. I think I’m ready to be normal again now.