Normal vs. Normal

For the last week I’ve been wearing a doctor-ordered heart monitor, 24/7. Last week I casually called my doctor asking if there was any way to have my heart checked out, because I was nervous the Geodon has been having ill effects on my heart (which, heck, I don’t know, but I’ve been having some odd symptoms). They rushed me into the doctor’s office that day, and after an EKG they concluded that, at the very least, I have an arrhythmia.

Basically, that means I have an irregular heartbeat. This could be nothing at all (as many people have irregular heartbeats that don’t cause problems) but they set me up with the monitor to make sure there aren’t any larger problems at work.

This week I’ve found myself thinking back to my childhood, and even more recently, when I’ve thought to myself, “wow, it doesn’t sound like my heart is beating normally.” It sort of speeds up and slows down and pauses every once in a while, but since this is what I was used to… it seemed normal. 

After 27 years, this same activity has been deemed irregular. Abnormal, compared to most other hearts.

It makes me laugh, a little bit, about how often this sort of thing happens. Not about hearts, necessarily, but with life. Mental illness is another example of how, though I was used to the symptoms (they are my normal), I’ve been told that they are abnormal when compared to the general population.

Lots of little things raced through my mind, like growing up thinking one thing (that seemed normal) only to realize later that it was abnormal. Trying hard to avoid seeming normal through high school and college (coupling me with a group of people that had the same goal, making our actions ironically normal to us).

What is the fascination we all have with what is normal? It is a word that has its own stigma associated with it, is normal good? Is normal bad? What defines what is normal? Is it something you can quantify, or is it simply our own perception?

The thing that I don’t like about the word normal is that its being requires its opposite; abnormal. The connotation that comes with abnormal is a negative one. Nobody wants an abnormal test result at the doctor’s office, and who could forget the “abby-normal” brain Dr. Frankenstein puts in his monster in Young Frankenstein? 

So, if something isn’t normal, it is abnormal… leaving “normal” to be the option of choice.

With mental illness, it is easy to feel abnormal. What feels normal to someone with bipolar disorder might seem extremely abnormal to someone who doesn’t have the illness, and it is common to hear that our thoughts or behaviors are abnormal (when compared to the general population).

I have a few final thoughts on this matter…

First, lets consider replacing “normal” with the word average. An average can be measured with mathematics, it isn’t something that is based on our perception of ourselves and those around us. “Average” also doesn’t have a negative word associated with its antonym, so there is no particular pull  or shame involved with being average or not-average. Personally, just thinking back on my life, I can feel an extreme desire in my youth wanting to be “normal” (the same way kids want to be well-liked by peers), but if you replace “normal” with the word “average”, I have never felt inclined to be average (beyond wanting to stay within the realistic realm of human behavior, and not be so not-average I become a menace)!. The switch in words makes me feel more confident in myself, instead of making me feel ashamed.

Second, lets take a second to consider how the perception of what is “normal” is formed. When we are used to something, a set of symptoms, for example, if they are all we’ve ever known, we don’t have anything else to compare them to. How could we have another perspective, or even know that symptoms or actions aren’t average?

At the same time, there is the perception of “normal” that is formed in the community, basically social norms and standards set by the actions of the people within it. People’s personal versions of what is normal can be wildly different, and not fit into the community’s expectations of “normal” at all… and people can live their entire lives without realizing they are acting in a way that is considered socially unacceptable (because it is the only way they know how to act).

Personally, I believe that we are capable of creating our own personal “normal”. By going to therapy (to get another perspective of my normal) and having expectations for myself beyond what what been my normal in the past, I’m changing the way I manage my symptoms, and interact with others. Though I may be pretty far outside the realm of social normalcy (having pretty active bipolar disorder), I’ve found ways to connect with others and make that social normalcy more accessible.

And finally, if you don’t like not fitting in with the social norms around you, why not change the people around you? If you have recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, lets say, and you have been told you are now abnormal compared to your friends and family, you can switch things up by comparing yourself to the population of people with bipolar disorder. In other words, head to a support group. Surround yourself with people who share the same “normal” as you! Putting yourself where you are considered average, and the change in perspective can really help in the acceptance process!

Normalcy is a funny concept. I can’t say that I fully understand it, and what it means to the vast majority of people in our society. But, with bipolar disorder, I am in a constant state of change… which means I often feel free to change the things around me that others wouldn’t generally consider. My sense of normalcy, how I view myself, and how others view me are all things I have spent many years contemplating and trying to understand, but every day I still learn something new.

Maybe my normal and your normal are cousins. Maybe they’re familiar, or maybe they’re total opposites. The point, I think, is that they’re always changing too…

2 responses to “Normal vs. Normal

  1. Very good post, Sarah! I often feel like an alien compared to the world around me for that very reason, because the stigma of a mental illness carries a lot of shame attached to it. Keep spreading the word to those that struggle with this, especially the kids who are just learning about their condition. “Fitting in” is overrated 😉

  2. I was inclined to believe “normal” didn’t exist until a coworker informed me it’s a town in IL. :->

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