The Oxford Dictionary defines recovery as “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” But what is a normal mental state? The biomedical model of mental illness has tried to convince us that binaries — normal and abnormal, stable and unstable, sane and insane — exist. Proponents of the recovery model reinforce the idea that there is such a thing as well and unwell and that if we take our medication, talk to our therapist, exercise, drink lots of water, sleep, eat well, maintain healthy relationships, practice self-care etc. etc. we can “recover” from our illness. There is some truth to this, but recovery is not a linear progress and the journey is unique for everyone. Also, relapse does not somehow mean that we have failed in our endeavor. The reason why the recovery model can be so dangerous is because it can instill in us the idea that we are not worthy of our desires until we have “recovered” or found “stability.” It can lead to years of working on our recovery while denying ourselves of opportunities to pursue our personal and professional ambitions, such as being in a romantic relationship or going after our dream job.
I acknowledge that abstaining from certain pleasures, for instance, like romantic relationships in the early stages of sobriety may be helpful to recovering addicts. It may also help newly diagnosed people with mental illness who are just learning about their illness and how to navigate the world with it. The last thing that we want to is fall into co-dependent relationships where we expect others to save us or distract us from our pain. However, I think something has to be said for the futility in chasing “normal” and waiting for “stability” to pursue the things we want most in life.
After 8 years of living with a bipolar diagnosis, I’ve really come to believe that there is no such thing as normal or stability. Sure, I have found stability after years of trial and error with medical and therapy, learning about myself and my symptoms, and maintaining a lifestyle that promotes wellness. However, all the work I have put toward my “recovery” has not led to complete stability. Even while medicated and doing all the right things to take care of myself, there are still days when I cannot get out of bed. I will still experience a flash of hypomania from time to time. Sometimes the insomnia creeps back in and my sleep medication stops working. Other times I cannot keep the anxiety and rumination at bay. But this is my stability. It’s far from perfect. It’s probably not the universal normal, but it’s mine. This is the level of stability at which I thought I would be able to cross off most of the goals on my bucket list, but funnily enough it was during the period of the most instability that I actually achieved my wildest dreams.
It was during the big manic-depressive episode of 2019 that I found my life partner, got married, became pregnant, got into prestigious PhD programs, and won a National Science Foundation grant. I was 25 having a major quarter life crisis struggling with unmanageable symptoms, intense psychosis, and existential chaos. Yet, this what also the year that I received bigger blessings than I could have ever imagined. All this is to say — yes working on our recovery is wonderful because it enables us to maintain and hold onto our achievements and the blessings we have received, but we are deserving of our desires REGARDLESS of where we are in our recovery journey.
Life is messy for everyone, not just people with mental illness. Even people without mental illness can have unstable lives for a whole number of reasons because we live in an unstable and unpredictable world. We don’t have to wait until we are more “normal” or “stable” until we become worthy of what we want. Instead of denying ourselves and counting ourselves out until we are “cured,” we can live through the messiness of life with others who likely navigate their own abnormalities, complexities, insecurities, and imperfections. Not everyone will be down for the cause, but trust me — there are a few keepers out there as well as amazing opportunities and experiences waiting to greet us. So when it comes to normal, there really is nothing to chase because it’s not a real destination. Day by day we do our best to be well. It doesn’t always look pretty, but somehow it’s still beautiful.
What is you relationship to the concept of normal and your experience with seeking stability?
Jason Hawkes/Getty Images
Lush green meandering hedge maze at Longleat House near the town of Warminster, Wiltshire, UK.