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Mental Health Beyond 101: There Is No Normal

Mental Health Beyond 101: There Is No Normal
  • On November 6, 2015

This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.

Many times, when people struggle with their health, they lament that they wish they were normal. I do, too. I wish I didn’t have anxiety or asthma or any number of other traits that make me different than other people. I wish I was normal, just like everyone else.

The problem with the idea of normal is that it convinces us that there is a standard we are somehow not living up to. The fact is, after 15 years in the helping people business, I’ve never met anyone normal—at least, not in the way we all seem to define it.

Normal seems to be a strange mix of things in our imagination: non-emotional but also tender, strong but also vulnerable, never rattled but also deeply affected by tragedy, never mistaken but always willing to apologize, never in pain but always available for the pain of others, never awkward but always patient, never tired and eternally energetic (especially for work), open minded but never weird or outside the box. Let’s not forget the most strongly damaging ideals of normal, either (at least in America): White, heterosexual, cisgendered, thin, fit, not disabled or ill, Christian and male.

Honestly, trying to be normal just about killed me. So many contradictory mandates, so little room for the actual human condition. I tried to cram myself into a box that was constructed by society, despite knowing that no individual person ever fits inside that box. I tried to ignore my anxiety, shame myself out of having emotions, and struggled to match each person’s definition of normal rather than focus on my own needs. I hated myself for not being able to just suck it up and figure it out. Turns out, there was nothing particularly wrong with me to begin with. I just didn’t look or feel like everyone else (whatever that even means). My problems were caused more by the struggle to fit in than the struggles I faced being myself.

When we talk about getting help for mental health issues, we sometimes use the word recovery (specifically in addiction, but not only there). I read a Tumblr post the other day that lamented the idea of recovery—why, it asked, should recovery be synonymous with making one’s self appear normal? They argued that recovery is far more nuanced than people realize, and I agree.

The way I see it, recovery isn’t about looking normal. Recovery is about uncovering the sources of one’s own troubles and addressing those sources so that life becomes more easeful on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean I aim to be happy all the time or to never make mistakes or to be universally liked by everyone. It also doesn’t mean I don’t have moods or struggle or stress about things. Recovery, at least for me, simply means changing the focus of my struggle to something productive. I can struggle to fit in, or I can struggle to be seen. One leads me down a path of self-hatred and general misery, and one is terrifying, overwhelming, and difficult on the best of days. Neither path seems good, but I know from experience that being seen makes my life better in ways that fitting in never will. I may struggle with fear, but I have far less shame, better self-esteem, and healthier relationships as a result. I struggle in ways that feel more productive, overall, if I choose the scary, vulnerable path over the hidden, trying to fake normal one.

Recovery also looked like honoring my body’s abilities, rather than trying to force it into a form it won’t take (I am talking about cardio). I had to look for ways to move that fit my needs, not try to force myself to fit a norm. I had to honor my anxiety by allowing myself to say no and avoid certain situations, but at the same time not let it force me away from joy. I had to learn to balance self care with my desire to do cool things.

In essence, recovery, for me, was about not being normal at all. It was (is) much more about being myself. Recovery isn’t something I did one time—it’s something I do every day. Life doesn’t get easier, the challenges seem to keep leveling up the older I get. I can only choose to grind for XP and get higher in level myself. I see no reason to keep shooting for normal when I could shoot for better, instead.

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