Bipolar, Normal, and Not Normal: Finding Our Own True Normal

Patient Expert

In a previous piece, we discussed whether or not Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the US, lived with bipolar. More relevant to our discussion is the issue of “normal.” TR’s extraordinary life and legacy happily disqualifies him from this fate. So, is “not normal” what we need to shoot for? Depends how you define normal. Let’s investigate …

Not manic or depressed …

From a strict bipolar perspective, normal is that lucid interval between mood episodes, part of a cycling pattern that defines our illness. In this context, normal is a temporary state of “nondepression” or “nonmania.”

We are relatively symptom-free and reasonably functional. With effort and luck, we can maintain this state. But then we have to ask ourselves: Is this as good as it gets?

Perhaps a little bit manic or depressed …

But what if we are exuberant or excited or morose by nature? Throw in some eccentric tendencies for good measure. Here, we are talking about heritable personality traits that stay with us our whole lives. There are no pills for changing personality, and heaven help if they ever came up with one.

The issue, then, is finding our “true normal,” and learning to live with it. The catch is our own true normal may be seen by those around us as “not normal,” which sets us up for a lot of conflict.

A mean, an average, conforming to the “norm” ...

These are people who follow the common rule, who do what society expects of them. A half-century ago, Roy Grinker identified a group of mentally healthy “upright young men” and tracked them over the years.

He found that these people led successful lives as far as fitting in and achieving modest goals, but they did little to distinguish themselves. In this sense, “normal” is an adaptive trait but hardly an ideal.

We can take this a step farther and say that “normal” is highly over-rated.

Connecting the dots …

It is helpful to view bipolar, “not normal,” “true normal,” and “normal” as existing on the same overlapping spectrum. This spectrum also includes an overlap between personality and illness.

In other words, if our bipolar were to magically disappear tomorrow, what would our “normal” look like? Many, if not most of us, I submit, would remain decidedly “not normal.”

Yes, “normal” is the world we need to fit into, but we also need to recognize how basing our lives on the expectations of the majority may only make us depressed and anxious.

"Thriving," basically, demands a different strategy than merely "surviving." This involves finding our “true normal,” learning to accept and even celebrate our “not normal,” and somehow figuring out how to make all this work for us. Teddy Roosevelt was a master at this. In this sense, we have a lot to learn by his example.