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When a Student Asked Me, 'How Do I Help Someone Be Normal?'

How do you help someone be normal?

Part of my job involves speaking to high school and college students about my lived experience with mental health issues. This is a responsibility I take seriously. I am humbled by it and grateful for the opportunity to help be a part of these young lives even briefly. I was asked, “How do you help someone be normal?” during one of the question and answer portions of the presentations. In the context of mental health perhaps the intended word was “healthy” or “stable” or “well-balanced” or even more to the point “homogeneous,” but the term normal struck a nerve with me.

Am I even close?

I have never felt normal, have never known what that looks like. The idea of normal was something I saw on TV or at friends’ homes. My friends at school seemed normal and I pretended to be just like them. I am not what most think of as normal, I never will be. It took me years to understand this, even more to accept it. Now I am finally at a place where I am at peace with it. I am what is called a double winner. Dual-diagnosed. I have major depression and I am an alcoholic. That is normal for me. My sister’s bipolar is normal. Asperger’s is normal for my son. In my mind as a teenager, and possibly in that teenager’s question, normal means fitting in. It means being like the majority, especially in high school or college.

What does “normal” really mean?

I have the Merriam-Webster dictionary app conveniently located at the end of my fingertips. I looked it up. The first listed definition has something to do with math, perpendicular lines and tangents. I have never been one for math although I do love a good tangent. (Oh, look something shiny and distracting.) The second definition is, “According with constitution, not deviating from the rule.” I have learned that I am just like other alcoholics in the way I think, feel and react to situations. My experiences with major depression does not deviate from the rule. I am unmotivated to do anything in my daily life, I cry and sleep a lot and do not take joy in activities that are typically enjoyable like spending time with friends or showering. The third definition is the one that brought it home. The third one says “occurring naturally” which is in direct contradiction to definition four, which is the only one that mentions “mental illness.”

Normal is natural.

Whether they were brought on by nature or nurture, my reactions to the events of my childhood, my issues with depression and addiction, occurred naturally. They occurred as a defense mechanism, they were not forced, they were not coerced. This was the natural evolution of my spirit faced with the horrors I endured. My sister’s bipolar occurred naturally as a result how her brain works, and most likely events from our childhood as well. My son’s Asperger’s occurred naturally, part of his genetic makeup, his DNA and his life path. I think it is telling that this definition precedes the one that mentions mental illness. The definitions that follow go into chemistry and other examples that I would guess most of us would never even think to use in relation to “normal.” I think maybe they stuck that mental illness one in there as a distraction or to appease those masses who like to think they are normal.

Normal is whatever you want it to be.

I have a dear friend who works with me in mental health. She is an amazing speaker. The work she does to help the homeless and those struggling with mental illness is nothing short of Mother Teresa type angelic-ness. When she presents she likes to say, “There are only two types of people…” (Then she waits for a dramatic pause, which if you are ever lucky enough to see her unbelievable eye lashes is quite dramatic. Oops. There’s that tangent.) During the pause the inference is that the two types of people are “normal and not normal.” At least that is what many lean toward, yet she follows her pause with “diagnosed and undiagnosed.” If you haven’t yet been as lucky as we were to figure out what your “normal” is that doesn’t mean you aren’t normal. It means keep looking. Find your people. Figure out what occurs naturally for you, what is your constitution, your rule. Embrace it. Don’t seek to be normal, seek to be you and normal will follow.

Follow this journey on Jolissa Hebard’s site.

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