On the Outside of Normal

Mental illness, mental disorder, psychiatric disorder, these are the clinical terms used to describe people who don’t fit into the normal range of “normal”, within four quadrants of assessment: behavior, feeling, thinking, and perception. I put “normal” in quotations because “normal” does not actually exist, it is defined as the most common behavior seen in society.

According to WHO, mental conditions affect one in four people worldwide. This is a staggering number. There are many factors considered when diagnosing a mental disorder, largely interpreted with the four quadrants of assessment. The variables for assessment are tremendous. There are many contributing factors that play into every diagnosis, consciously or subconsciously: personal biased, the theory of education of the individual making the assessment, current societal views/ trends, continuing professional education and updates, whether or not the psychiatric association you a granted your license by recognizes the condition you believe is the diagnosis (this is a thing, there are many different psychiatric “playbooks” of what constitutes an actual condition that will be recognized by the institution, and of course, they vary widely from country to country) and...

What exactly is normal? What did our baseline teach us? What is normal for me is certainly not normal for you, or anyone else. What is normal to one society, is barbaric, or archaic to another. If I grew up from/with a well off family, I would not have the slightest clue what it was like to be poor, until I was taught. So, what’s the deal? If we can agree that "normal" doesn’t exist, how do you even define, diagnose, treat, or live a mental disorder? The imperative and most crucial element to defining a mental disorder is how it affects your daily life.

Are you able to function? How are your relationships? Do you “contribute” to society?


The word "contribute" is in quotations because I have a personal biased about what constitutes a contribution. I once knew a homeless man who made me smile every day when I walked by. I consider making people smile an incredible contribution to society. He also showed people you don't need to live a  conventional life to be happy.


These mental illness identifiers are assumed under the requisite that the current societal structure is accepted by you, me, and the masses. Example: Alexander the Great. Alex likely suffered a serious mental disorder by today’s standards. In his place and time: a ruthless ruler capable of leading his country to victory. After his time, a vicious villain.

Moving passed all the grey areas of diagnosing a mental illness, once diagnosed with a mental illness, individuals suffering from a mental disorder are often met with a unique set of challenges.

People who suffer from mental disorders are often misunderstood, and stigmatized, due to the lack of general understanding, and compassion from the very society that accepted the current definition of normal in the first place. These issues in receiving an appropriate diagnosis, receiving the care you need, and then facing day to day life have an enormous impact on people living with mental illnesses and disorders.

Deanna Symington is here to help us understand what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. Deanna, thank you for being willing to share your story with us.


1. There are four types of bipolar disorder, what are the primary differences between these, and which type are you affected by?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme periods, known as “cycles”, of mania, and periods of depression. Mania is defined as periods of elevated, or irritable mood, beyond the norm. Mania is associated with higher risk-taking behavior and impulsivity. Depression is associated with loss of interest in enjoyable activities, extreme fatigue, and insomnia, a higher risk of self-harm, feelings of extreme guilt and/or shame, and unexplained/uncontrollable crying.

Bipolar 1- The cycles of bipolar are generally experienced for at least 7 days, and are sometimes coupled with psychotic features. (Sometimes referred to as rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.)

Bipolar 2- Recurring cycles of depression and hypomania (a less severe form of mania). To classify as bipolar 2 disorder, at least one episode of hypomania, and one major depressive episode in your lifetime.

Cyclothymic Disorder- a milder form of bipolar. The highs and lows are not severe enough to be considered mania or depression. If left untreated, it can become a bipolar disorder.

Bipolar due to another illness or substance use disorder- when the symptoms of another disorder present as bipolar. For example, oftentimes someone suffering from a substance use disorder could have drug-induced bipolar disorder that may, or may not dissipate after the patient receives treatment for the substance use disorder.


2.  How old were you when you received your diagnosis?

I was first diagnosed by my family physician with depression when I was 13 because I tried to commit suicide. 

When I was 22, I called my mother to ask her to take me to the hospital because I did not feel right. I was admitted to the hospital and it was discovered I was having a manic episode. From this, I finally received a diagnosis that better fits with my symptoms, of bipolar 1 disorder.


3. Before your diagnosis, what were some of the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge I faced was my inability to channel my emotions in a healthy way. My emotions were overwhelmingly huge and disproportionate to the situation: sadness was not just sadness it was distress, grief, and rage; happiness was elation, and euphoria. I legitimately felt everything so intensely. In my mind, it was real, and needed validation that it made sense for me to feel the way I did. My relationships were deeply affected by how difficult it was for me to manage my emotions. I still feel terrible about some of the outcomes of my behavior before I got the help I needed.


4. Before your diagnosis, how long did you have to wait to receive care?

That depends on the kind of care you’re talking about. My family has always looked out for me as best they can, I am so grateful to be surrounded by a loving family. Many people suffering from a mental disorder don’t receive the kind of care I do from my family.

Medically speaking, as a young teenager, it was determined, like it is with so many teenage girls of that age that it was, “just hormones.” They finally took me more seriously after I attempted suicide when I was 13, and I was diagnosed with depression. I was prescribed a medication that they thought was the best fit for my age, and the current information available. Unfortunately, because the information was incomplete, so too was my diagnosis, and the prescribed medication only treated half my symptoms while causing the other symptoms to become more intense.


5. What were some of the factors contributing to your realization that something was “wrong”, or “off”?

I’m not entirely sure of the individual factors contributing to my realization. A large part of it was how easily I became upset, coupled with how my mind would rile me up for any or no reason. I felt that I was a burden to everyone, including myself. I vividly remember one evening when I was not seven years old crying and telling my mom and dad that there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t explain what. I just that I felt too different from everyone else and I just wanted to be normal. They responded the way any kind, loving parent would and assured me that it was a normal part of growing up.

I didn’t recognize my behavioral patterns until I was properly diagnosed. Now, I can look back and recognize many incidents as being related to the symptoms I had been experiencing.

When I had been admitted to the hospital in 2009, my parents had been informed of the diagnosis, and the explanation for the diagnosis. They said they could see symptoms of it as early when I was five years old. The doctor said it was quite possible I was born with it.


6. After your diagnosis, how did your life change? Were you better able to cope with your symptoms? Did you have a sense of relief? How did receiving your diagnosis make you feel?

Receiving a diagnosis that actually made sense with my experiences gave me an enormous sense of relief. I now knew what I was dealing with. I would be able to get proper help. I had hope for the first time in as long as I could remember.

After receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, and sticking with it, my relationships improved, I was able to make amends. I was able to see where I had gone wrong without feeling like a catastrophic failure as a human being. While I was admitted to the hospital in 2009, I was referred to an exceptional psychiatrist that I saw regularly for four years, they helped me navigate life after being discharged from the hospital.

In the present day, I have better self-control, and I feel content in my own skin, which is huge because I can’t say I have ever felt that way. I have goals and aspirations for whom I want to be as a person, and I am confident I will get there.


7. What are some of the stigmas, if any, that you have experienced by others who may not be aware of how bipolar affect the individual with the condition?

In my experience, there is a big misconception that people with bipolar disorder are clinically insane. This is deeply hurtful, and it adds to the burden of people who are learning to live with bipolar disorder.

I’ve encountered people who have this idea that having to take medication somehow makes me less capable and less worthy than people who don’t have to take medication. Taking medication to help me function is something I have come a long way to be able to do, and minimizing my journey by making me feel subhuman for doing the medically responsible thing for me is a great weakness in our society.

Sometimes when I have tried to make amends for my past transgressions, I am treated with the same disdain the mistake caused in the first place. I have put so much effort into my own healing, and into recognizing where I made mistakes. Accepting that not everyone is going to be open to reconciliation is painful. It sucks that I can feel so much remorse, and yet cannot undo what has been done.

I would like to add something I have found even more hurtful than stigmas and that is when people try to make jokes or make light of a condition I have lived with my whole life feels awful, or when people dismiss other people’s emotions or habits by saying they are being bipolar or any other mental disorder.


8. How do you cope, and thrive with the symptoms of your condition on a daily basis?

I still occasionally struggle with my moods and putting my foot in my mouth, but I have made every effort I can to make amends for my wrongdoing prior to my bipolar diagnosis, this helps me to find direction for whom I strive to be on a daily basis. I think because I feel blessed to know what is going on with me, it helps me to maintain a positive attitude about my diagnosis. I feel empowered by having received my diagnosis and taking the steps necessary to live a healthy life, including taking my medication, seeking therapy, frequently self-checking and correcting, and surrounding myself with people who genuinely love and care about me. I feel deeply grateful for my life and where it has brought me, without my past, I would not be who I am today. I have gone from being someone I hated, to someone I love.


9. How have your symptoms affected your relationships?

Pre-diagnosis, all my relationships were strained. I was unpredictable, and I can wholeheartedly say I was not a good person to be around. I could not accept responsibility for my actions, and I was highly impulsive. I hurt a lot of people because I could say and do things that were incredibly hurtful, and then I wouldn’t apologize because I felt justified because my emotions were so intense I must have been “right”. I went through a time in one of my depressive episodes where I couldn’t even take care of myself, everything had to be suggested, like, “Deanna, it’s time to brush your teeth,” while simultaneously this could cause me to erupt into sadness and uncontrollable crying. It was horrible and I never want to have to experience it ever again.


10. What do you wish more people knew about bipolar disorder?

You can’t just turn it “on” or “off”. It’s a difference in brain chemistry. It is a lifelong condition, and it affects every facet of my life. It is part of a person, not what makes them. Bipolar does not have to be a “bad thing” it is just a thing that has to be managed. It is possible to live a healthy, happy life, concurrently with bipolar disorder with proper individual treatment, and effort. Having bipolar disorder does not make me “crazy”.


11. Is there anything you would like to add?

If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, be patient with yourself. It is 100% possible to lead a wonderful life. Remind yourself to take it day-to-day. Know that it is OK to set boundaries. If you need help, be sure to ask, I know that is often easier said than done, but you are worthy of the love you need.

If you think you may have bipolar disorder, please do not wait to seek help from a professional.  The condition does not get better without treatment and your active participation in the process. A diagnosis is the first step to recovery, not the last. There are tons of resources available to help you on your way.

There will always be ups and downs in life- no matter who you are- it is how we handle ourselves that is most important.


Deanna, thank you so much for opening yourself up to our readers to help us understand what it is like for someone living with bipolar disorder. I believe that you are doing wonderful things for yourself, and that you have so much good to offer this world.

Living with a mental disorder or mental illness should never be viewed as a sign of weakness. Imagine if for a moment if everyone took a moment to really understand what was going on behind the symptoms of someone who is experiencing a mental disorder. I am certain the result would be overwhelming empathy and compassion.  Going through the stages of realizing you are struggling, to receiving a diagnosis, to learning how to care for yourself is such a tremendous achievement.

As a friend or family member of someone coping with a mental illness or a mental disorder, it can be challenging to see past the behaviors that can be so very devastating, it can be very painful to watch someone you love hurt themselves and others so badly. This is why having an understanding of your loved one’s condition is so vital. Knowing what’s happening behind the scenes improves care, communication, and compassion. When you know why someone is behaving a certain way, it becomes so much easier not just to forgive them for their transgressions while they were struggling to live with their condition.

When someone who is experiencing mental illness or a mental disorder begins to understand what is happening in their own minds, self-love, self-care, compassion for oneself, forgiveness towards oneself can truly begin. It opens the door to allowing you to love yourself enough to let yourself heal.

First Published: 01/01/20

An Interview by jcArt 

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