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The dangerous myth of normal

Is the aspiration to be normal the cause of our suffering? Why we need to question our assumptions.

In 1989, I had a serious horseback riding accident. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. It wasn’t my horse, and I wasn’t doing dressage. I’d just stopped for a break in a riding ring, easing my grip on the reins which, I soon discovered, meant the feisty Arabian beneath me could easily buck me airborne like a bony projectile when startled by a rickety old truck backfiring. And she did. I landed on my back with a resounding thud. The world went black.

When I came to and tried to get up my lower body was lifeless. My misshapen legs were twisted beneath me, unwilling to heed my brain’s request to move. I knew then that I was in trouble.

After a bumpy ride to the country hospital, a bag of microwave popcorn, and umpteen x-rays during which my lower body was placed into position by a remarkably affable radiology tech, I was told that I’d broken my pelvis, and sustained considerable ligament damage. Believe it or not I was relieved. I thought my back was broken. Despite the good news, the injury was debilitating, and recovery was painfully slow.

A couple of years of chronic back pain later I’d landed a good job with health insurance. I visited a chiropractor multiple times a week. She put me in the rack; an archaic looking padded traction device that held me by the ankles, neck and head and pulled. It felt good. I also got to know the office staff pretty well. They were a collection of middle-aged women whose pleasant chatter could sometimes be heard well above the din of the rack in high gear.

One day at the end of my appointment, feeling thoroughly elongated, I made small talk with the receptionist. A sweet-faced woman with glasses. I sighed aloud and said, “I just hope that one day I can live a normal life.” In unison, the entire office gaggle erupted in laughter. Seriously. What was so funny about living a normal life? Were these women crazy?

Apparently not. In the intervening years since then I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as normal. It’s right up there with fairies and unicorns.

"I’m not convinced that holding out a carrot of normalcy

as a gold standard is helpful."

I’m a psychologist. I come from a profession that, by its very nature, categorizespeople into normal and abnormal for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment. Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely essential to understand what isn’t working well, and why, as a first step on the path to wellness. But I’m not convinced that holding out a carrot of normalcy as a gold standard is helpful. Quite the contrary.

Just about every person I’ve ever met confesses to feeling anything but normal. Sometimes it may be an intermittent experience, and at times it is a life-long state. Not feeling normal, or believing that you’re failing to live up to an artificial standard of normalcy, can be really problematic. Particularly if it just makes you feel worse about yourself than you already do.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary contains eight, distinct definitions of normal. Among them are descriptions such as: “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule or principle; conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern for example, ’He had a normal childhood’.” Others include being “mentally sound, free from mental illness,” and so on.

This presupposes that, to be normal, a person must conform to societal rules and expectations, be free from adversity, and be without any symptoms of mental illness. That is a tall order, even for the most well-adjusted conformists among us. It also leaves little room and less tolerance for those who fall outside of the curve, leaving the door wide open for discrimination.

This also might explain the ever-increasing number of conditions that now warrant diagnosis and treatment. Whether some are bonafide illnesses is up for debate, but it appears that societal tolerance for behaviors and mental states related to grief, trauma, hormonal changes, aging, typical and atypical child development, and myriad other human anomalies is declining.

Rather than respecting and revering those who fall outside the distribution of acceptable conduct (as defined by the prevailing culture), or who are doing their utmost to navigate a turbulent landscape of life experience, we jump to the conclusion that they must be fixed. Why?

Is our mission to improve the quality of their lives, or ours? Are we so afraid of the unpredictability of the human experience, or the shadow side of human nature that we need to stuff it into a box of socially-sanctioned conduct? What is the driving force behind the need for normalcy? Fear? A need for certainty? Something else?

Of course, there are exceptions. Individuals who harm themselves or others require our utmost attention. The thing is, they make up a very small proportion of the diagnosed, treated, or medicated children and adults in this country. They are outliers. They are the individuals whose names are emblazoned in our minds. The ones we fear will do us harm. They are still, however, outliers.

"Is our mission to improve the quality of their lives, or ours?"

Consider how much society has shifted during the past half century. The overwhelming number of adults that I know, including myself, would have not escaped childhood without some form of diagnosis. In spite of it, most of us are healthy, functioning adults despite our attention deficits, hyperactivity, anxiety, social withdrawal, depression, experimentation with substances, et cetera.

Again, I’m not saying that some children and teens don’t require assistance to navigate the stormy seas of growing up. But a large majority do not. They certainly do not need to be medicated to be normal, and they most definitely do not need to be handed a label that they will likely own for life. Yes, times have changed, and sadly, that change includes a heightened intolerance for those who do not conform to the illusion of normal. Including ourselves.

The assumption of normalcy moves far beyond the mental health realm. It can, and often does, encompass all dimensions of life. We feel somehow less than if we haven’t attained a stable job, financial security, a home, family, and social status by a certain age. We engage in relentless comparison on social media, where the ostensibly perfect lives of our popular, successful peers are on public display. We become convinced that we’re missing out on something, even if we don’t necessarily want to be doing that something. We’re still missing out. We seek the ever-elusive normal life, until we finally live long enough to realize that normal is an illusion. Or maybe we don’t.

Either way, seeking to attain normalcy can be a self-defeating proposition, both individually, and as a culture. Perhaps it’s time to step back and examine this assumption, rather than continuing to perpetuate the myth.

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