A young wife and mom I know, a former student, spoke recently at a training for those who love and care for people with mental health challenges. This young woman–let’s call her Elizabeth–told the group about her childhood. Elizabeth grew up with a mom with mental illness, a mom who loved her dearly but who, when things got beyond coping, would just go into her room and check out of life for a while. She’d leave the kids a note that might say something like, “You kids are on your own. I’m tired of waiting on your ungrateful little selves.”
Elizabeth, who has a big personality, outspoken and strong, would go and stand at her mother’s bedroom door.
“You get OUT here!” she would yell. “You come and take care of your children!”
That never worked, but in a couple of days, the mom would re-emerge, rested and ready to cope again. Then life would be fine for a while, until the stress built up to the sticking point, and the next note appeared on the kitchen table.
“I always thought that was normal,” Elizabeth said. “I thought everybody’s mother had her disappearing days.”
Then Elizabeth grew up and got married. After the birth of her baby, she plunged into a depression that did not, for a year, dissipate. Instead, other troubling symptoms arrived, and Elizabeth finally came to realize that she, like her mom, was mentally ill. Her treacherous journey to recovery and independence leads her to advocate for others who haven’t yet completed the trek. It leads her to understand her mother, with whom she remains very closely tied.
Elizabeth told her story, last week, with verve and laughter and poignancy. The group of care-givers pelted her with questions and comments, to which she responded with honesty, humor, and self-respect. When she took her leave, the room suddenly seemed empty, as if a huge force had just ebbed away.
The people gathered were quiet for a moment. Then one of the women said, “Wow.” She paused and then added, “She seems so NORMAL.”
My colleague and I looked at each other, balancing how to respond to that. But my knee-jerk, uncensored thought was, “Well, thank God she’s not.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘normal’ ever since, about what it means and where it happens and about whom it might describe.
I think of my mother, talking to me over morning coffee, after her prayers were said, when she was waxing a little wistful.
“Maybe,” she would say, “when things get back to normal, we’ll paint the living room.” Or: “Maybe, when things get back to normal, we’ll go visit Annie’s kids in California.”
I grew up hearing that ‘back to normal’ refrain from my mother, and I always wondered when things had been normal. I thought, at first, it must have been before me, because I couldn’t remember it. I was born, and from then on out, things were never normal. But someday, things would go back to being that way.
I looked forward to learning what exactly that meant.
I think of my son James, dealing with his own diagnosis as a young teenager, waking me in the middle of the night to plead, “I just want to be normal. How can I be normal?” And knowing what he meant, but not being able to assure him that, someday, yep, Buddy, you’ll just be a ‘normal’ kid.
And then I thought, but who’s to tell us what normal really means?
I look up normal in an online dictionary and it says this:
Normal, the noun, means “…the usual, average, or typical state or condition.”
In its adjective form, normal means conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.
Normal, I kind of think, sounds a little bit boring.
But, if you use that definition, then Elizabeth’s childhood days WERE normal; they were normal for her family. It was expected that her mother, when life got too chaotic, would retreat to her cave. It was typical that the kids would band together, making meals, getting clean clothes for school, covering for their mother’s temporary absence. It was usual for Elizabeth to pound on that bedroom door, demanding an audience. And her mother’s eventual return to active life: that was a given, too, a standard.
“Gosh, that’s not normal,” someone might say, but it was. It was normal for them.
My mother had a ‘normal’, too, only her ‘normal’ might mean your ‘unsettled.’ Her family was together until she was four, when her mother died, and her father, shortly afterward, left his seven children alone. The eldest, Jim and Annie, were 16 and 14; they quit school and raised their siblings.The little troupe moved many times during those Depression days. Never settling in became normal to my mother. Never having quite enough to eat. Always having clothes that were a little bit odd, a little bit different, gleaned from charity boxes. They made it through, miraculously, but they struggled.
Struggling was their normal.
Later, when my mother met my father, and they got married, I imagine the two of them thinking, “Oh, God: finally. Love. Home. Normal.”
And then: World War II erupted; my father was drafted less than two months after the wedding. That must have felt normal, to my mother, too: the important people seem to have to leave, don’t they? She and her baby, my oldest sister, followed Dad as long as he was based in the States, but when he was shipped overseas, she went to stay with friends in Ohio. Where my sister died, with my dad far away. They say my mother just about died herself, from that much normal.
And Jim has a normal too: days filled with writing and reading and the watching of movies, with organizing and rearranging and time at the computer. And just lately, with the onset of a new small business launch, he has hours of independent industry. He likes to accompany me to work and take up a spot in a small study room, where he works away, his fingers flying over his keyboard. When he’s flush, he’ll treat himself to lunch at the College cafeteria. He chats with my colleagues when he sees them in the halls. At home, after dinner, he searches to find a series we all like so we can watch an episode or two together in the evenings.
He doesn’t like to party; he’s terrified to drive. But he has a normal, Jim does. It’s his normal; it’s not like anyone else’s.
When we say,’That’s not NORMAL,’ we mean, really, it’s not ordinary, or, I think, regular. We mean, this is not a lot like everyone else’s. We mean it’s not average, and it’s upsetting or weird.
We say it like being normal is a good thing–like it’s THE thing.
But I think of the people we remember from history, the ones who made a difference: I think of Abraham Lincoln, who was too tall and probably depressed and didn’t really win any elections until he became president–Lincoln with his high, nasal voice, and his weird southern wife and the two of them grieving for that little boy who died. Lincoln navigating a country through a Civil War, finding the words to say as his train charged toward Gettysburg. Lincoln with his folksy tales and homespun education and scary premonitions.
Let’s face it: that man wasn’t normal.
And think about Mark Twain, with his white suits and his stogies and his stories, his acerbic wit and his lifelong feuds. Or how about Einstein, showing up, splendidly dressed at an awards banquet, then sitting down to let his pants ride up and show off his hairy white ankles? The genius who always forgot to wear his socks. What of Eleanor Roosevelt, with that remarkable voice and her gender-bending friendships, and her vast influence on an important presidency and a country’s civil rights? What about Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi; what about Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and John Lennon?
Please. NONE of those people are exactly what you’d call normal.
It strikes me that normal sounds restful and safe and like a haven; it strikes me that normal is probably not what, or where, any of us, really, wants to be.
This is not to say that being ‘not normal’ is easy.
It is not easy to be mentally ill in a place and time that writes you off when you surface with a diagnosis and a behavior that’s quirky and distressing.
It is not easy to be developmentally delayed or to have a physical impairment in a society that prizes perfection.
It is not easy to be a woman in a political arena that treats women with utter contempt.
It is not easy to be a person of color, or a person of an alternate gender, or even a person of an advanced age, in a biased society that cannot recognize its own biases.
It’s not easy–but it is normal for those people so placed. And for all of those people, and all the other people whose differences I didn’t mention, there is the possibility of a rich and meaningful life–a life of contribution and love and accomplishment.
It is hard, I think, to be ‘not average.’ It is hard to be outside the boundaries, to be reminded, everyday, of where you don’t belong. But. Those are the folks who change things. Those are the folks who invent and create. Those are the folks who start the movements and win the freedom that the next gen’s normals take for granted.
Those of us a little far from center–we have a chance, I think, to make a real difference.
This has been a week of startling surprises, a week when we have to wonder: what will the new normal look like? Whatever it looks like, it’s not an end to striving or growth, or to beauty and progress. Challenges may be greater; we may have to cast our net more broadly. But there’s opportunity lurking in the haze.
And to create, as a troubled, heartsick, nation, the possibility from the improbability, we need all our voices. We need the farthest out, fringiest voices to join the chorus, to pull us out of the slough. Our definition of ‘we’ needs to expand and expand and expand.
The gift of this week, even in our fear and distress and trepidation, may be a whole new, more inclusive and more caring, definition of normal.