Abby… Normal?

I probably needed glasses long before I finally got them. Like so many nearsighted kids before me, I had perfected the fine art of squinting. I didn’t exactly cheat on those regular eye tests at school, but I certainly did my darndest to pass them. I think it was a math teacher who favored red dry-erase markers that finally did me in–I had to see a real eye doctor.

I didn’t have any particular fear of glasses. I was already solidly unpopular, so the threat of being called four-eyes didn’t have much bite for me. I do remember hoping I would still see light sources in the same way. (I did.) I also didn’t see anything particularly “wrong” with my vision. I was having some trouble seeing algebra equations, sure, but things were supposed to get a little fuzzy in the distance, right?

The first time I looked at a lawn with my new glasses, I was stunned. There were individual blades of grass! Did other people see details like that all the time?

I have corrected-to-normal vision.

I also have corrected-to-normal emotions.

One of my doctors was thoughtful enough to tell me, “We need a better word than ‘normal.’ Maybe ‘average’?”

We were talking about the average person’s emotional highs and lows. Think of a piece of string that’s not quite taut. There are a few dips and bumps, but it’s relatively straight. Now try mapping the emotions of a bipolar person, and you’ll see a broken rubber band. The lows are lower, the highs are higher, and it’s entirely possible that something might snap.

My hospitalization came as quite a surprise to many people in my life. “I had no idea things were that bad,” my therapist told me. I almost laughed. I had no idea either. I thought I was normal.

And, in some ways, I was. Certain things are fairly universal, at least in terms of human emotion: change is scary. Breakups hurt. Long winters can be depressing. But for me–and, it seems, for many of us with mental illness–there was no way to predict the depth of my emotion. It was like perpetually diving into a swimming pool with no lights, never sure if I was going to crack my head on the bottom or struggle to reach the surface. (Did I mention it took me an inordinate amount of time to learn to swim as a child? It did.)

People now seem amazed when I tell them I wasn’t particularly scared when I was in the hospital. Confused, sure. Paranoid, boy howdy. Exhausted, absolutely–at least until we found the right sleep aid. But I was never scared. I knew I was in good hands, and I knew I was finally getting help.

Interestingly enough, I got help in what turned out to be an adult psychiatric unit specializing in medication-resistant individuals. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as “medication-resistant,” but then I remembered that I’d been diagnosed with depression and anxiety before–and always took myself off the medication. (For those of you playing along at home? Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, if taken alone, can work quite badly on those of us who are actually bipolar.)

I was in the hospital for a week, then a partial hospitalization program (colloquially known as a day program) for five days. I’ve been out sick from work for over three weeks.

And what am I going to say when I get back to work?

I was sick. I was in the hospital. Now I’m better.

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4 Responses to Abby… Normal?

  1. NTE says:

    So much of this resonates with me. So well put, really.

  2. dreamingiris says:

    Very well put. I never really knew growing up that I wasn’t “normal” either. It’s still a shock to me sometimes that others don’t feel as strongly about… well… everything as I do.

  3. Sarah says:

    I wasn’t in good hands when I was hospitalized. I was forced in. Drugs were forced on me. I was traumatized. I wanted love and got medication instead. I did not sleep for two weeks because I can’t sleep with some stranger “checking” on me every 5 minutes, I need privacy in order to sleep.

    They tried to make me normal and instead hurt me deeply.

    I’m glad you recovered, but the mental illness model does not work for everyone who has scary emotional extremes, and has harmed a lot of people. People whose “abnormality” means not being accorded the same protections against assault and kidnapping as the general population, because it’s for our “health”.

  4. pandanose says:

    Sarah, I’m so sorry hospitalization didn’t work for you. I would never claim to speak for anyone else, and I know that hospitalization isn’t nearly so positive for many others with mental illness.

    I do know that I was very fortunate to be taken this particular unit, which I gather is widely regarded as one of the top programs in the country–but even there, a minority of the patients didn’t check themselves in, either because they were already in the custody of the justice system or because they were committed by family members.

    While the unit was a very supportive, positive place for many of us, our experience may very well have been quite different because we were able to control our own care in a way those patients who were involuntarily committed could not.

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