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.

We might all be monsters one day

Some of this may sound a bit dated, but it’s written because of a post yesterday on Gin & Tacos called “Incurable“- about how smart, regular people become bitter right-wing fanatics.

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A primary component of stigma against people with mental disorders is belief that the population is inherently violent. If I may forward my own theory, I think in the past decade we have seen an even more radical belief. It’s gone beyond ‘the mentally ill are violent’ to ‘all great acts of violence are done solely by the mentally ill.’

We can never forget what happened at Newtown. The subsequent blame game has important lessons as well. Wayne LaPierre ran a dedicated campaign to deflect responsibility from guns to quite literally anything else. Violent video games, the collapse of the nuclear family, and most frequently, mental illness. Had he been speaking about blacks or Latinos, his tone would have been considered hate speech. The Economist wrote a feature in the aftermath about the campaign, and conclude, bluntly, that “when he talks of mentally ill ‘monsters’ and ‘lunatics’ walking the streets in such numbers that all prudent citizens must arm themselves to the teeth, he is slandering both them and his country, just as surely as any American-hating bigot.”

The APA concurred in several publications, including this statement:

The association objected to LaPierre’s assumption that horrendous crimes such as the one committed by shooter Adam Lanza are commonly perpetrated by persons with mental illness. In addition, he conflated mental illness with evil at several points in his talk and suggested that those who commit heinous gun crimes are ‘so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them,’ a description that leads to the further stigmatization of people with mental illnesses.

That bolded portion leads me to my point. It’s the move from tendency to sole causality. In the NRA’s view, and the view of a large portion of the American public, regular ‘sane’ people don’t commit terrible crimes. Ever. That sentiment is dangerous. I’ll talk a little about the present then jump over to a historical example.

A couple years back I read David Neiwert’s The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the RightIt opens with a man walking into a Unitarian Universalist congregation during a children’s play, firing a shotgun. He killed two and injured seven, and they found in his truck a short manifesto blaming liberals for ruining America, and lots of material by right-wing talk radio and television personalities. The UU church took out a full page ad in the New York Times in which they declined to hate in favor of love, perhaps their finest hour in recent years.

So was this shooter completely insane? Or was he made violent by extreme political talk, over months and years? In this case, was it perhaps not genetic mutation but cultural influence that cause him to strap dozens of shotgun rounds onto his person and enter a sanctuary to kill indiscriminately?

Similarly, are those that shot Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 totally insane, or lashing out in grief and pain to make someone pay? Is not racism learned rather than a born trait?

Is every person in the US military insane when they plan and execute military operations that may kill far more civilians than Adam Lanza ever did? What about business executives who cut corners to increase profits, which could injure or even kill workers or members of the public?

Perhaps these things make people insane, and thus capable of great crimes. If that was the case, why is the NRA’s rhetoric, that  ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” bravado exempt from that trend? Even if some people are just by birth monsters, it is absurd to think that monsters cannot also be created- or that people can deteriorate at some point.

This doesn’t even touch how hypocritical groups like the NRA have continually been about mental illness. Dumping stigma on a group will not lead to more people getting treatment and being less of a threat to themselves and (possibly) others. It will keep people from getting treatment, because it is now thought of as a synonym for evil. The rhetoric is self-defeating, which reveals what it was all along- typical political scapegoating. Any speech by any politician of any background that identifies something else as the problem, yet is disinterested in taking steps to solve it, is not worth the paper it was printed on.

This whole process, which started well before Newtown but has organized itself since then, is about denying our collective capacity to do horrible things. You can see this in any discussion of a genocidal regime or dictator- as usual Hitler is the most visible, but there are dozens. People treat Hitler as a different species- something unique for all time, that could never be replicated. And in that, they let their guard down, and forget that as twisted a soul as Adolph Hitler was, he was still a human. He has more in common with each of us than society would ever like to admit.

To think that the ‘regular’ section of American life couldn’t possibly commit horrible atrocities is naive. It’s not all at the feet of mental illness, just like how Newtown wasn’t all at the feet of guns or violent media. But the more the United States public is willing to accept reality distortion to meet short-term political goals, the less will be done to make all citizens safe from criminals- of all types.

 

 

Coming out…as living with a mental illness

In a perfect follow-up to my earlier post on mental illness and stigma, Al Jazeera America has posted a lovely feature about Elyn Saks, a distinguished legal scholar who “came out” as schizophrenic in 2007.

I think her story helps demonstrate a parallel between combating stigma about mental illness and combating stigma about being LGBT. Friday’s celebrity news was dominated by Ellen Page coming out as lesbian. The more people that are open and public about their sexuality, the easier it becomes for those who are still tentative about coming out. Saks, by deciding to emerge as a genius academic living with a serious mental condition, sends a clear message. Having bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or major depression isn’t a personal failing, and it doesn’t guarantee a life of missed opportunity. There is power in her story, where she went ahead with her dreams despite pleas to choose a less ambitious career.

There are many traits that can isolate us- being LGBT, having a religious or political philosophy at odds with our family or community, and yes, living with mental illness. The reason I choose to live openly as a bipolar is that I’ve come to learn that I am not alone. There are other people like me, hundreds of thousands in the United States. When Saks and those like her talk about their experience in public, it helps to show that the struggle you are having is not unique.

And that it’s not something to ever be ashamed of.