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What the Concept of ‘Normal’ Means to Me in My Mental Health Recovery

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.


If you were to find this list scribbled on a piece of paper, you may assume it is just an odd sort of shopping list, or maybe a packing list, or maybe a list of missing things. At first glance, there is nothing unusual about the objects on this list – they are all items an average person uses every day.

But there was a time when I was not allowed to use these items.

When I was 16, I spent three weeks at a mental health hospital in treatment for depression. At the hospital, there was a list of rules for the patents – things we couldn’t do, and things we couldn’t have. These rules were there to keep us safe as we learned to be safe with ourselves, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the nature of the prohibited items. I kept thinking that if I wrote down all of those objects on a slip of paper, to someone outside the hospital, it would look like nothing more than a shopping list. Unlike me, they wouldn’t automatically see it as a list of objects that could inflict harm.

The rules at the hospital led me to ponder the concept of “normal.” The normal items I wasn’t allowed to have made me think (albeit inaccurately) that I must not be “normal” either – at least not at that moment; I was not in a normal state of mind and I was not in a normal place. Despite the phrase “nobody’s normal,” I couldn’t help thinking there must be degrees of normal – degrees of what is considered everyday life. And when I entered the hospital, I had been removed from the sphere of everyday life completely. My normalcy had been stripped away. And yet, I clung to the hope that in a place which was devoid of ordinary, I could slowly relearn how to be a “normal” person.

Mental illness, and especially thoughts of self-harm, can distort a mind in a way that blurs your vision – that stops you from seeing ordinary objects as what they are meant to be used for. Things around you change. You can’t see pencils or shoelaces or doorknobs as what they are meant to be anymore. You see them as possibilities – possibilities for harm, for “escape,” for release.

I didn’t want to learn to be a “normal person” in the sense of conforming to a certain standard or falling in line with social norms. By “normal,” I meant I wanted to look at a pencil and see it as a pencil instead of a tool for self-harm. I wanted to look at a plate of food and see it as a delicious meal meant to nourish my body instead of something terrifying that makes me feel like I’m losing control. For me, that was what normal meant.

Maybe “normal” isn’t the right word. People with mental illness are as normal as anyone else – but sometimes our illnesses can cause us to view normal objects and situations in a different way. This can be overwhelming, and it can make someone feel alone – cut off from the world, in a sense – if they feel like they are the only ones struggling with this problem. If you are reading this and you feel this way, please know you are most definitely not alone, and it won’t be like this forever.

The distortion of my perception of normal was a difficult barrier for me to overcome, and sometimes I still find myself stuck on the harmful side. But I am working on it. I don’t know what normal truly means, and I don’t know if normal truly exists, but I do know I have developed my own concept of the word, and it helps me move forward to reach my goals. I don’t want to live in a state of mind where I see tools for harm everywhere around me, in places where they aren’t meant to be seen. I want to look at the world through a clear pair of eyes, not eyes that are clouded by the fog of my mental illness. And I hope that someday I will be able to see a pencil as nothing more than a tool for making marks on paper – a tool I can use to write my own ending.

Photo by Hazzel Silva on Unsplash

Originally published: July 25, 2018
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