There is no normal

It’s common to hear those living with a mental illness to refer to normalcy. They may even wish to be normal. In my teens I was part of that camp; bipolar disorder was isolating, isolation being the common denominator of all mental conditions.

But then, the thought drums at the back of your skull. It grows until you have to face it – what on earth is ‘normal’? What are its characteristics, and why have I aspired to be it?

Really, when people have some kind of isolating characteristic, they aspire towards a statistical concept. Normal is the mean, or the median. It’s not a real, tangible thing. It’s like the all-American family with their 2.4 children. The 2.4 can’t be applied to a single, ‘normal’ family. And all these normal, average metrics are just a combination of variation, and include extremes. 2.4 is averaged from many zeroes, along with reality-show families with two dozen kids.

In the end, I am normal. I’m a part of the average, with a lot of people like me and a bunch that are totally different. Dysfunction and function exist in a complicated relationship – what is weird or immoral varies over space and time. Ask the next ten people you talk to if they can define what ‘normal’ is to them. You’ll get >1 ideas from that sample.

Part of ending the pain of isolation is to end self-isolation- in which people define themselves as outside certain boundaries and barriers. These barriers can be real and tangible, but they are also self-assigned. Even if certain legal and economic obstacles are removed in the struggle for racial equality, people must emerge from those feelings of inferiority or superiority that came with those policies. Just because those with mental illnesses don’t get locked up for decades at a time that often doesn’t mean the separation ceases to exist.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

2 thoughts on “There is no normal”

  1. I think a lot of people who are mentally ill are so used to being told that they need to manage or adjust their expectations of life that when they say “normal” they just mean free to live their lives without the burden of mental illness. I know that I have given up on “normal” as something that exists (my normal is not your normal, after all) and yet when I am in unwell I will hear the words “but I just want to be normal” pouring out of me time and time again and, in all honesty, when you are in the throes of mania or depression you are not living a normal life by any standards. I mean, crying in a heap on the floor because you can’t remember how to turn bread into toast is not normal, checking the 1 inch gap between your couch and wall because you are convinced someone is hiding there is not normal, being unable to stay in your own home because you are a danger to yourself is not normal. Of course it does begin to feel normal and you could argue that I am using “normal” as a stand in for “functional” but I think most people would agree that a degree of functionality is normal by most standards.

    It is an interesting topic. Even as someone who doesn’t believe normal is a tangible concept, my first thought in any in/outpatient setting is how surprisingly normal everyone is, so I feel like I am contradicting myself and writing around in circles but I hope I have made some kind of sense.


  2. Reality is such a complex and delicate issue to talk about. Not only concerning mentally diseased people, but also in general, like when talking about religions or political views. For human beings, the search of reality is the search of the truth, we always want to know the truth. But what we don’t get to realize is that maybe sometimes reality might be harsh to us, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to face it. It is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Sometimes reality isn’t entirely what we wanted to be, so we hide in what we want to be the truth, just like the Matrix. Sometimes I had asked myself, what if maybe those we call ‘diseased’ are the really “normal” ones that can see reality as it really is, but that reality is so distorted from what we want it to be that we keep on telling ourselves that the world as we know it is indeed the real one.

    Interesting discussion you started in here. Hope to read more from you.


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