Questioning Normality

By Lies Vervloet. Lies, 35, is a cultural anthropologist from Ghent, Belgium. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Meet Henry. Henry is a middle-aged man. He is married and has two wonderful daughters. He owns a house in the suburbs and has a steady job. Since he works in education, he enjoys long holidays each year: time he spends camping with his family. Some people might say he’s got it all. He leads a fairly normal life.

At night, Henry lies awake. He stares at the ceiling, imagining the medicine cabinet. How many pills would it take to end the pain? He dreads getting up in the morning. Day after day, his reluctance to go to work grows. He can’t stand to face his colleagues and put on his ‘everything is fine’ face. He feels unfulfilled, unhappy, trapped in his own life. There is no rational or objective reason for this. It is just a feeling. But it is a feeling that grows stronger every day. There is a darkness within Henry that he doesn’t know how to stop. He is drowning. Death seems more appealing with each passing day of darkness. One day, Henry cracks. He is admitted to an institution. Everybody wishes him the very best. They all want him to lead a normal life again. Henry is quiet.

Meet Ethan. Ethan is a happy child, a smart child. He has everything he could wish for. He loves Lego and computer games and football. He has plenty of friends and enjoys going to school. He loves his parents and his little sister. When Ethan grows up, he wants to be an engineer and build fancy cars.

Ethan doesn’t like sitting still and being quiet. He has a lot of energy that he needs to let loose. In class, he has a hard time keeping his attention focused. He tries. He really does. But after a while, he starts fidgeting. He starts wiggling and waggling in his chair, up and down, side to side. The teacher gets annoyed. “Be still!” He tries. At night, back home, Ethan still has all this energy. He laughs too loudly at his parents’ jokes. He speaks with funny voices and can’t stop moving his legs. His mother is tired. It’s been a long day; her patience has come to an end. “Stop it! Be normal now!”

Meet Rose. Rose is a child of her generation, seizing the opportunities that she’s given. She has a Master’s degree. Studied abroad, then worked abroad, in different countries. She even made it into the UN. She’s quite successful in her field. She’s been a bit of a job hopper, but who can blame her in this day of age? She’s single, too, even now that she’s over 30. That’s a good thing. Everybody who knows her can see she is a strong woman and she won’t settle for ‘good enough’. Rose wants more out of life.

But no matter how good she plays this role, it is just a role: she can act confident, but she isn’t. She cares what people think and dreads the idea of someone not liking her. She spends all of her energy making sure that everyone around her is fine. She spends hours worrying about her boss’ opinion of her. She responds positively to every request of her friends. If she does think of an excuse, she ends up feeling guilty about saying ‘no’, long after everyone else has moved on. She does not believe in herself. She doesn’t know how to validate herself. She is lonely and full of self-loathing. Every morning, Rose puts on a mask. Heaven forbid anyone would notice she is not normal.

I could go on for a while with these anecdotes, and you might think that I merely invented these little tales to make a point. But I didn’t. These are people that I know and love, people close to me, each somehow straying from the norm in their own, loveable, perfectly imperfect way. As a matter of fact, I AM Rose. I am that girl in desperate need of someone saying: “You are okay.” That woman who will do anything to be accepted by others.

About ten years ago, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Well, well. Those are quite the words, aren’t they: personality disorder. It means that my personality has been looked at and tested by society, and has been found to be abnormal – woops. It means I have spent hours, days, years, and lots of my hard-earned money in therapy in order to learn how to be more ‘normal’. Thou shalt not have mood swings. Thou shall have control over thy emotions.

And yes, it does wear me down to keep up this appearance of a normal and self-assured person who knows what she is doing. It wears me down so much, that in the evening I most often have no energy left to do anything at all. So much that I can’t manage to work a full-time job. I am perpetually tired. Tired of hiding things, of pretending, of trying to figure out what others expect of me and subsequently to try to fit into this expectation. I wish I could just let go and shamelessly be myself, my abnormal self. I don’t have the strength and self-esteem needed, though: I need the approval of others.

I find sad comfort in knowing I am not alone: the number of people with mental health problems is staggering. One in four individuals will suffer from mental disorders in their lives, making it one of the leading causes of ill health worldwide. Truthfully, who among us does NOT know a loved one, family member, friend or acquaintance with one of these afflictions? Depression, burnout, eating disorders, social anxiety, ADHD, borderline, etc: they are more present than ever before. Sadly, most of the people suffering from one of these don’t seek professional help. Stigma and prejudice still abound. And so, many suffer in silence, trying with all their might to ‘be normal’. Many of them fail.

Our culture and society dictate how to act and who to be. Of course we all know that ‘normality’ is a fluid concept. There is not one, singular ‘normal’, but rather expectations that differ through space, time, and context. Things that were considered normal in the Middle Ages might no longer be so today, and what is normal in a present day rural community in Sub-Saharan Africa might be considered strange in an urban setting in western Europe. Even within one and the same society and during the same day, context and situation might dictate different ‘appropriate’ responses. And yet somehow, most people know what is expected of them and find it easy to act accordingly.

Of course, everyone is unique. We place high value in our individual freedoms. Just make sure that while enjoying this freedom and your uniqueness, you work five days a week, from 9 to 5. Make sure that you make enough money to buy your own house. Please do make sure you find your life partner at an appropriate age. Then, have 2.4 children, as is the norm. Of course, yes, everybody has their own personality, but surely everyone wants the same things? A successful career, a responsible job, a nice house, a fancy car, a family. Right? Wrong.

I, for one, do not fit into this mold, and to be confronted on a daily basis with the fact that I should, that this is the life I should be yearning for, is confusing me (I want to please everyone, remember?). What I want and what society wants of me is blurred in my head, and to find out the difference is not only draining my energy, but it is considered abnormal in itself: you should simply want what everyone else wants. In this day, in this society, trying to find out who you really are and what you truly want, takes guts. Not everyone is up to the task.

But what is my other option? To know at any given time, place and situation what exactly is expected of me, what is to be considered normal, and mostly: to live up to this, is just as exhausting.

In short:

· Not following the norm is exhausting to me.

· Following the norm is exhausting to me.

This is a plea to wake up. If each and every one of us is given the liberty to discover our own path, we might no longer judge others for their choices, but support them in their quest for fulfilment. Our lives should not be predetermined at birth but rather we should be encouraged from a young age onward to think for ourselves and make decisions not for others, not for the economy or for society, but for our own good. We are not pawns. Let’s stop acting like them.

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