Having suffered from mental health disorders my whole life, I’ve always strived to be 'normal'. Yet, what is normal? If you are like me, you may also be beginning to question this concept with all the recent events making headlines these days.
For most of my life, I compared myself to others judging their status by what I saw externally. They appeared to seem to have it all together. They had thriving careers and families. Yes, I also managed to have a family and career, but mine felt different somehow. The people I judged as normal also appeared to excel in ways I didn’t. They seemed to manage and cope with life’s challenges with ease while some days I struggled just to get out of bed. They seemed happy and healthy both mentally and physically. I would never confess to that back then as I was trying to live up to the expectation of appearing ‘normal’.
Did you notice I used appeared and seemed instead of are and is? As I've started down this new path advocating for the mentally ill and with recent events, I find I must question my views on 'What is normal'. I don't know about you, but the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have helped open the doors to something that had been small cracks and fissures in my thinking. I was shocked to learn of Kate and Anthony's suicides and I believe more importantly shocked that they suffered from mental illness. From the outside, their lives seemed perfect. They appeared to be 'normal' people whom were happy, healthy and successful. Little did I know they suffered from depression and mental illness as I do. I was unaware that they knew the hell I suffer. It never occurred to me they wore the same mask I’ve worn most of my life so people wouldn't see what I was really feeling and going through.
I was having a conversation with my publisher about these events. I wanted to make a few changes to my book due to added clarity I've achieved working with people with mental illness since I ‘came out’ along with volunteering and being on the Board of Directors with NAMI, several recent suicides from teens in my church along with Kate and Anthony’s suicides. It was during this conversation that the notion of what is normal came up. Although my publisher does not suffer from mental illness, she is well versed in it through friends and family members who suffer from it. She told me she believes that the term normal is a myth and there is no such thing. She explained that everybody at times suffers from symptoms that express as depression, anxiety, OCD tendencies, thoughts of suicidal ideation and more. She said the difference is that those without mental illness even though they experience many of the symptoms from time to time, those thoughts and feelings aren't constant and controlling.
She explained everybody has reactions to stresses and events, which occur in life and due to that stress and our past experiences, we all exhibit the symptoms of mental illness from time to time. This made sense to me as I understand the damage that stress and trauma can put on a person. She told me she believes what causes one person to be able to handle a stressful event differently from another is due to their experiences and the manner the stress hormones trigger in our brains. She believes that since no two people have the same experiences and the same brain synapses (connections in the brain that ‘wire' our thought processes) that it's impossible for anyone to have a normal response.
My publisher shared that she believes our reactions are unique to each of us and fall into individual ranges of mild to moderate to severe. She tells me even a 'normal' person can have a severe reaction to events. I thought of my friends whose 19 year old son took his life. The difference between those with mental illness and those without comes down to the sum of our reactions of mostly mild, mostly moderate or mostly severe due to traumas and experiences that effect how the synapses fire in our brains. These synapses form in our brain from birth and the things that we are exposed to and experience help to formulate our thought patterns.
She gave me examples like how my own mental illness was triggered by genes, childhood trauma and environmental factors contributing to my situation. I queried her as to what about a person who seemed perfectly normal who undergoes a sudden traumatic event such as becoming paralyzed. One person in this situation may after a period of adjustment learn to live with and adapt to their new reality while with another person the sudden trauma could cause a mental break they are unable to recover from. She wanted me to see that we all live in a fragile plain of existence that could change at any moment. How we cope with life's challenges changes as we age, the condition of our physical health and so many other factors. All of these factors affect how we will handle and cope with a situation, so is there such a state of being called ‘normal'? Normal today is different from yesterday's normal and normal people are rarely more than a step or two away from falling into the abyss. Those who don't, simply have better balance.
To better clarify her point, my publisher shared a story with me. In her twenties, she was helping a friend who suffered from mental illness. Her friend Pam had a book of psychological tests to gage the severity of reactions to fear stimuli. They both decided to take the test because Pam wanted to judge her own results to that of someone normal. The test asked you to rate how fearful or non-fearful you felt about different situations. The results surprised both of them because Pam who definitely suffered from mental health issues received a result of normal when she was so fearful she was homebound with agoraphobia and panic anxiety while my publisher ranked off the charts on both ends of the scales. My publisher went on to explain based on the questions asked in the test, things that scare most people didn't affect her at all, while things that had little effect on others scare the daylights out of her. It turned out that my publisher’s responses were extreme in both directions with little middle ground. Her balance per se came from the fact that the scales were equally weighted on both sides giving her the appearance of normalcy. This is why she believes being normal is a temporary state of mind where we all visit points in between. She knows that if the right situation came along that tipped her scales to one direction or the other, she could end up in my shoes. "But for the grace of God go I ".
Applying her story to the new awareness of my own of late, I am forced to question, "What is normal". I'm seeing more and more people I considered normal who have issues I never imagined. Maybe they are good at wearing their masks, or maybe I see my own condition in such a way that it distorts my condition as so much worse than what others suffer. Don't get me wrong, the conditions in my brain I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. Yet I had to question myself if I would be willing to trade places with someone else if it meant having a normal brain who suffered from something as terrible such as paralysis, blindness, etc. I have to admit, being in their shoes with a 'normal' brain, would I remain normal or sink into fear, depression, anxiety, etc. It is impossible to know how we truly could/would handle events in our lives if we were different as I often used to wish.
What it all seems to come down to is what they term in Dialectical Behavioral Thinking (DBT) is radical acceptance of our situations whatever they may be and not looking or judging others as better than ourselves. It has taken awhile for me to realize that I have value to others regardless of and possibly because of my mental health condition. I know I am on the right track in my mission to advocate, educate and empathize the mental health community.
I will end with a quote from Lewis Carroll “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”.
With you on the Journey, Alice