What is normality?

If you’re so inclined – and many of us are – the idea of normality can be a pretty toxic stick to beat yourself with.

I don’t feel normal. I’d go as far as to say I never have. I’m not sure any of us do. In fact, I think our idea of normal is often confused with some sort of imagined ideal. The trouble with imagined ideals is that so few of us fit into them. This takes on much darker significance when you examine what our society holds up as aspirational and how often it is subject to ableist, sexist, racist prejudices.

As a young child, normality was all I wanted. I was desperate not to stand out from the crowd in any way: not to look, act, or be different from everyone else. Thankfully, as I’ve aged, I’m managed to start to find peace with who I am. This process has been all the more challenging because I live with mental illness. Completely on brand, it’s only really been in the last eight or so years that I’ve spoken and written freely about this. After all, it’s not “normal”.

Or is it? In any one year, one in four people living in Scotland are affected by mental health problems. Alarmingly, this figure is from 2019(1) so it doesn’t take account of the impact of the pandemic on mental health. Though we may have a huge range and variety of conditions, one in four is not a small figure or one that is easily dismissed.

Clearly, I can only speak for myself here, and I encourage anyone reading this to seek out other stories about life with mental illness or other limitations.

The pandemic and normality

The last year or so in Britain has been characterised by a collective loss of normality. Almost overnight we were plunged en masse into a different kind of normal: a normal where our access to places, people and resources was limited. The generally accepted stance is that we are now collectively emerging into a new normal, re-entering the world. However, for many people, myself included, this simplistic narrative doesn’t tell the whole story.

The coronavirus pandemic has cost far too many lives and has thrown many people into hardship of all kinds. Nothing I am going to go on to say here is intended to diminish the cruel reality of what has happened. And yet, the somewhat awkward truth is that for many of us there have been aspects of this ‘new normal’ that have been easier and, indeed, preferable to our ‘old normal’.

I don’t have the expertise or lived experience to talk about physical disabilities and accessibility, but I know something about the mental aspect of this. Our lockdown life afforded opportunities to access places and events that might otherwise not have been possible.

Although I am as healthy now as I have ever been, my anxiety disorder still impedes my access to many activities, for example, large events or gatherings. This made the concerts, festivals, book festival events and so on that I’ve attended from home in the last year an absolutely joyful experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a concert whilst feeling calm or relaxed, able to simply enjoy it: it’s just not how I’m wired. The Edinburgh Book Festival is one of my favourite things in the world and yet there’s not been a single festival yet where I’ve managed to attend all of the events I’ve booked into. You just can’t when you have a mental illness that affects how you interact with the world.

Compared to many people with mental illness, including myself in the past, I live a life that is relatively free from barriers: I go to work, I go out with friends, I participate in the world around me. How much harder when you can’t do these things. I’ve been that person: so overwhelmed by illness that I couldn’t leave my flat. Let’s try to remember that this ‘return to normal’ that is being celebrated means a shutting back down of the world for many people.

Further to this, if you’ve experienced acute mental illness, or a mental health crisis, then the sudden and wholesale loss of your normal reality is not a new experience. The different thing about the pandemic has been the shared experience of it all. Imagine for a moment how terrifying and isolating it is to lose all sense of normality while the world around you keeps on turning. Let’s be honest, because it has affected everyone, there has been a monumental effort put into allowing – and indeed encouraging – us to be able to work, socialise, and all the rest from home. How jarring, how upsetting, that there seems now to be a rush to ‘get back to normal’ when we know this will leave some people behind.

Are we asking ourselves what we can keep from this new world that improves access for all? A wonderful consequence of the pandemic has been the increased emphasis on protecting our own – and each other’s – health. Could this be something that we actively try to carry forward?

But you’re so normal!

I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve spoken to someone about my mental illness and been told, “But you’re so normal!” It’s always intended as praise, and yet it’s a compliment that makes me deeply uncomfortable. If we remark on how normal one person presents, are we not setting that up in opposition to those who don’t – or can’t – present as “normal”.

On a personal level, it sets up a dangerous temptation within me to congratulate myself for hiding the limitations my illness imposes on me, for ‘getting away with it’. The truth is that I don’t always look or behave in a way that you might label normal.

In a fuller sense, use of the word normal makes me very uncomfortable in that it posits the existence of the other, the ‘abnormal’, the ‘subnormal’. It’s similar to when people talk about ‘high functioning’ mental illnesses. Such discussion is usually very well-meant, but it introduces the notion of ‘low functioning’ illnesses. What do we mean by that? Where do these ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ come from? The same place that ‘normal’ comes from.

It’s perhaps important to say that this stigma often resides inside us, even if we’re the ones living with a condition such as this. I’m currently having out-patient care at the local psychiatric hospital and, in a way that I absolutely would not feel if I was having out-patient care for a physical ailment, my reaction is to dismiss this, play it down, hide it from people. This is because of my own internalised assumptions about psychiatric hospitals and the people who use them. Terrible! Although most people have been inside hospitals, many people will never have been inside a psychiatric facility. My prejudice is all the worse because I’ve been there many times before as an outpatient. As I look at what I’m writing here, even my repeated emphasis on ‘out-patient’ seems defensive, as if I want to reassure myself (or a reader?) that I’m not in full-time psychiatric care, that I am ‘normal’. This prejudice is coming from me, someone who has lived with mental illness for nearly twenty years. This is how deeply our prejudices and assumptions run.

Moving forward into ‘normality’

The truth of it is that we’re all struggling. A really powerful thing for me to learn when I was at my lowest was that, as ‘abnormal’ as I might have felt, others had felt the same as me. Not only that, but they’d gone on to recover to varying degrees. This freed me from the terrible fear that there was something fundamental wrong with me and I would never survive this, never mind live a normal life. There’s also the issue that society isn’t always set up to include or accept those who are different. Put those two things together, and no wonder the very idea of normality can feel so exclusionary to so many of us. So what to do?

Perhaps the most radical change we can make as we build this ‘new normal’ is to make and hold space for those who weren’t served by the ‘old’ normal, especially those who face barriers that made it daunting, frightening, or inaccessible.

Acceptance is a powerful idea and self-acceptance especially so. It may seem a scary or impossible idea, but what if we accepted ourselves, and each other, just as we were? What if we stopped measuring ourselves against one other, or an imagined normal, and let ourselves just be?

by Rachel Alexander

Rachel is 38 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.

(1) The Scottish Health Survey of 2019 reported that around one in four people are affected by mental health problems in Scotland in any one year. [https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-health-survey-2019-volume-1-main-report/pages/5]