Something that I have noticed on social media over the past few years is the normalization of the symptoms of mania and depression. It is usually motivated by the desire to raise awareness or help foster compassion for people that are experiencing the symptoms. Awareness can be helpful if it is done to help people recognize the symptoms in themselves or others so that they can get help, but normalizing the symptoms is different.
To normalize something is to “make it normal and natural in everyday life” but there are things that we shouldn’t be viewing as normal. That includes the symptoms of bipolar. I understand the desire to make it seem normal because it feels like this will be your “normal” for the rest of your life and you want to be accepted as you are.
Is It Normal?
If I had been able to see people normalizing bipolar symptoms 13 years ago it might have felt validating for me and it would have made me feel less alone. At that time, I believed the best I could expect out of my life with bipolar disorder was learning how to suffer well with it. After 12 years of trying dozens of different medications prescribed by my doctors, hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy and suicide attempts I had resigned myself to an existence of just surviving life.
Experience had taught me that no matter how hard I tried, or what medication I took, I would always suffer with unpredictable mood cycles and struggle helplessly through the manic-depressive rollercoaster. I felt like I had no control over my bipolar and I would be at the mercy of the mood-cycles for the rest of my life. The idea of helping people understand what I was going through and asking them to have compassion for me when I was compulsive and irrational would have been very appealing.
Over the past thirteen years my perspective on bipolar has changed. In 2010 I found the first tool on the road to wellness. My doctor and I found a micronutrient treatment that helped my brain begin to heal. Over the following decade I started finding other tools to continue the healing process and I eventually discovered that I can live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
Once I recognized that it was possible to live well with bipolar, I started to understand that normalizing the symptoms of the disorder is actually very detrimental to those who are living with it.
A Mind in Distress
The first problem with normalizing the symptoms of bipolar is that you start to view them as normal or acceptable rather than what they are, indications of a mind in distress. We don’t normalize the symptoms of other illnesses.
Take diabetes, for example. If someone is having excessive thirst and fatigue, blurry vision, losing weight without trying, or passing out you don’t seek to normalize these symptoms because you are afraid the person will feel bad for what they are experiencing. That would be ridiculous! You recognize that there is something wrong with the body. It is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause of the symptoms.
The same should be true for bipolar disorder. The symptoms of mania and depression are indications that the mind is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause. Normalizing these symptoms doesn’t help you when you’re suffering, it just prolongs it unnecessarily.
One of the worst challenges that I experienced when I was struggling with bipolar for the first decade was that I would do and say things when I was manic or depressed that I wouldn’t normally say or do. This included behavior that was abusive and painful to my family.
When I was back in a rational state of mind, I felt humiliated and discouraged by what I had done and vowed that I wouldn’t repeat it again, only to break that promise the next time I was in a mood cycle. This contributed to me feeling helpless and hopeless. I knew I was damaging relationships and I didn’t know how to stop it.
The worst experiences came in 2008 when my disorder was at its worst. That year I was hospitalized multiple times, experienced my first psychotic episode and I made two attempts on my life. The symptoms I was displaying were emotionally and mentally damaging to my husband and my children. Regardless of whether I was doing them on purpose, my family was being harmed–and I knew it.
Normalizing the symptoms that were hurting me and my family wouldn’t have helped, it would have hurt us. It wasn’t fair to me that I had bipolar, but it also wasn’t fair to my family. I needed to find a way to treat my disorder effectively, not expect them to accept abusive and damaging behavior as part of our relationship.
Normalizing Perpetuates Stigma
Finally, the idea that trying to create awareness for bipolar by normalizing the symptoms actually has the opposite effect than what is intended. Instead of creating more compassion around the disorder, it can make people who see it from the outside more cautious about entering into relationships, or hiring people who have bipolar because it looks like people are trying to make excuses for unhealthy behavior.
While it can create a feeling of solidarity among those suffering with bipolar, it perpetuates the stigmas for those who do not understand what it feels like to have those symptoms. Additionally, it can make those who are newly diagnosed feel more resistant to accepting their disorder and more helpless and hopeless that they can ever live well with it.
We shouldn’t stigmatize the behavior of someone that is struggling with something that they feel is beyond their control. But it doesn't help to try and normalize the symptoms of bipolar either. Recognize symptoms as indications that the mind is in distress and needs help because it is possible to treat bipolar and live well with it!
Accept Your Diagnosis
The first step to treating your bipolar is accepting that you have the disorder. This can be a struggle for people often because of the stigma attached to the disorder. When I was early on in my diagnosis, I struggled to accept that I had bipolar because it didn’t feel tangible to me. The diagnosis is based on mental and emotional symptoms that seemed really ambiguous.
Any time I didn’t experience the symptoms I would think that I had been misdiagnosed and that I didn’t really have the disorder. Then another mood cycle would start up again. Remembering that the symptoms of the disorder are indications of a mind in distress can help you view the symptoms in a healthy way. The symptoms of bipolar are like your body having a fever. They are trying to tell you there is something wrong that needs to be treated.
Track Your Symptoms
Begin tracking the symptoms of your bipolar using a mood tracking app. I highly recommend the Bearable app.
- (This is not sponsored and I receive no benefit from recommending the app, it is the one I use and it is very user friendly, highly customizable and the free version is very robust.)
Tracking your symptoms can help you provide more accurate and complete information to your doctor or therapist for more effective treatment. It also will help you to recognize when you are entering a manic or depressive episode so you can manage the mood-cycle more successfully.
Proactively Manage Mood-swings
Developing a Mood-cycle Survival Guide will help you learn to successfully manage your bipolar mood swings. While you are learning the tools necessary to effectively treat your bipolar will experience mood swings and being proactive about managing them will help you:
- stop feeling like a victim to the mood-swings,
- lessen the impact on you and your family, and
- shorten the duration of the mood-cycle.
Get on the Path to Wellness
Unfortunately, the comparison between bipolar and diabetes doesn’t extend to the treatment of the disorder. It would be wonderful if treating bipolar were as simple as taking an insulin shot. When I was first diagnosed, I was told by my doctor that all I needed to do was find the right combination of medications and I would be fine. That idea was appealing to me because it was as simple as taking medication, but it proved to be false.
Even though treating bipolar isn’t as easy as just taking some medication, it is possible to treat it effectively and live well with the disorder. The path to wellness includes:
- Giving your brain what it needs to be healthy, whether that is medication, micronutrients or a combination of the two.
- Utilizing therapy to identify and heal unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy boundaries and unhealed trauma.
- Developing a self-care routine that includes mindfulness meditation, exercise, healthy sleep and nutrition habits.
- Managing stress.
- Seeking support and encouragement from others who are on the same path to wellness.
You don’t need to suffer with the symptoms of your bipolar for the rest of your life. Remember, symptoms are an indication that your mind is in distress. If you treat the underlying cause, you can heal your mind and lessen or eliminate your symptoms. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar. There is hope and there is help.