Normal. Before we can look at the energies expended by individuals in the pursuit of normality, we must first look at what constitutes normal. Check any dictionary definition of normal and you’ll find a variety of descriptors; most commonly occurring, average, natural. The list goes on. But we are dealing with human beings, every one of them unique. Does normal mean neurotypical, or without apparent disability? Surely nothing so discriminatory. After much thought, and reading, I have concluded that the most useful definition of normal is simply having the characteristics one assumes everyone else has.
It’s that assumption which causes the problems. Every person has insecurities (everyone barring those with very specific personality disorders anyway). For some, the struggle to appear normal is a temporary state. It could be a brave face put on for work when tired or hungover, or a happy smile at a social event after the sort of day that makes you want to eat ice cream and cry into a pillow. But, for the majority of people, it is temporary and it passes. It doesn’t pass for everyone though.
Many people with chronic illness suffer continuous pain, and fatigue at levels that people who haven’t experienced it couldn’t possibly comprehend. Don’t think you know anyone like that? I bet you’re wrong. There are tell-tale signs. They might cancel plans at short notice sometimes, you might spot them taking painkillers or drinking too much coffee. Mostly, you’ll never know unless they tell you. You won’t see them fall into bed without eating after a normal day’s work, or crying in pain when they’ve done too much. You don’t see because of the energy they’ve expended just to be normal, just to not stand out.
Then we have those with non-neurotypical brains, such as those with ADHD, ASD. The way these groups of people perceive the world is different from the majority of people. Environmental stimuli that most people hardly notice can be extremely uncomfortable. Information processing is performed differently. A ‘normal’ working environment can be exhausting. Most people are familiar with the more severe presentations of ADHD or ASD, but few realise how many people fall somewhere on the spectrum of these conditions. You don’t get to see the exhaustion after a day spent coping with frequently confusing situations and stimuli, because of the energy that has been expended to appear normal.
Mental health issues can affect people’s ability to feel that they can pass as normal. Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Bi-polar Disorder, eating disorders, these can all alter the way an individual perceives both themselves and the world around them. Because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, there is often a desperate desire to appear normal to everyone else. Many people are still afraid to disclose their mental health problems, for fear of rejection or reprisal. They hide as many of the symptoms as they can, and hide away when it all gets too much. In some cases, the desire to appear normal can prevent people from seeking the treatment they need.
For others appearing normal may be a matter of personal safety. In countries where homosexuality is still illegal, normal equates to heterosexual. Anyone not conforming to that particular normal risks imprisonment, or worse. Not passing as normal could cost you your life.
In conclusion, ‘normal’ isn’t real. It’s constructed from expectations, and conventions, and experiences. It is constantly shifting. It expands with acceptance of individual differences, and it contracts with closed-minded judgment. Normal excludes people who somehow become ‘other’. Normal isolates people who feel they don’t conform to societies expectations. Normal can be dangerous. So, what’s the take-away message? Acceptance. People are unique. Everyone faces challenges no-one else knows anything about. Widen the definition of normal. Defend human rights, demand accessibility, work to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, educate others.