The Narrowing of Normal

Years ago I was on a work team with a colleague who, as it became increasingly apparent, was bipolar. During a manic phase, she promised a non-profit organization close to half a million dollars for a project which had yet to go through the corporate approval process. When the team business manager caught wind of it, she called our colleague on the carpet. “You can’t promise money for something that’s not approved. There are policies! There are SOPs! We don’t even know if half a million is fair market value!” The conversation escalated. There was a call with our manager. Our colleague refused to back down. She’d promised the money. She was going to deliver. We would find a way to make it happen or she would quit. In the end, that’s exactly what she did.

In the aftermath, there were a lot of closed door conversations between teammates about what the heck just happened. Dr. C. who’d once done a psychiatric residency, commented rather smugly, “She was clearly bipolar. But she’s not the only one on our team who’s not normal. I’ve got a diagnosis for every one of you.”

Hmm. Not exactly what I was hoping to get from my Secret Santa.

I’ve always thought I might be a little defective. How could I not be, given the murkiness of my gene pool? When Jeff, a therapist I saw after Jerri’s tumultuous arrival in Durham, asked me, “how did you manage to turn out so normal?”, I suspected sarcasm. Either that or he just wasn’t very good at his job.

Then today, while surfing, I stumbled upon this great news. It’s not just me. We may soon be living in a culture where very few people are free from psychological defect. According to this article at Psychology Today, the fate of normalcy hangs very much in the balance. With the increasing ability of technology to see us as we’ve never been seen before comes expanded diagnosis. Mental disorders are encroaching on more and more territory. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that half of us will have a mental disorder in our lifetime.

I’m not too concerned about the fate of normal. I once told Bruce, a friend and colleague, that I was’t even sure there was such a thing. “Who gets to decide what’s normal anyway? Normal means common, typical, usual, standard. Who’s to say what is and isn’t? Maybe normal is just a myth. Maybe it doesn’t even exist.”

20120830-113811.jpg“Sure it does, Terri. Normal exists. It’s a town in Illinois. And guess who was born there?” He rocked both thumbs back toward his chest. “Yep, you got it. Poster boy for Normal here. Where. I. was. born.”

Okay. Maybe so, but I want to see the birth certificate.

The article goes on to say we’ve already narrowed the bounds of normal to the point that doctors are now “treating” personality traits which are normal but considered undesirable by the patient:

As Lane writes, “We’ve narrowed healthy behavior so dramatically that our quirks and eccentricities—the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood—have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix.” Psychiatry’s critics also complain that doctors medicate patients who meet no diagnosis, who practice what I have dubbed “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” to move a person from one normal, but disfavored personality state, like humility and diffidence, to another normal, but rewarded state, like self-assertion.

This is a conversation I’ve had with my sister. “I neeeeeeed that medication,” she says. “Without it I can’t focus. My mind is constantly racing. Always thinking, thinking, thinking. And I can’t shut it off. When I don’t have THAT medicine, I have no interest in gaming. It’s not even fun. But when I take it, my mind quiets down and I can play games all day long.”

“My mind is always thinking too, Jerri. That’s normal. It’s what minds do.”

“Really?” She seems confused. “You think ALL the time? Your mind never shuts off?”

“Yep. And – news flash – I don’t enjoy gaming. I’ve never thought it was fun. It’s just not my thing. Maybe it’s not yours either.”

“Or maybe, you have a milder form of what I do. Maybe you’re bipolar too.”

And according to the article, she may be right.

Recently, I broached the whole self-medicating-to-change-who-you-really-are thing with my nail technician and she confessed to “trying” her son’s ADHD medication so she could “understand what he experiences when he takes it.” Uh huh. She said everything became so much sharper for her. She was able to understand things that had previously eluded her. She wondered if she, too, has ADHD. Her son said when he takes the medication, he can understand mathematical concepts that he can’t without it. He doesn’t take the medication all the time but he will ask for it when his class is studying a particularly difficult subject. She concluded by saying, “I’m glad he’s willing to do what he needs to in order to succeed.” This seems completely whacked-or is it just me?

The article goes on to say that because computers have the ability to identify varying degrees of severity for hundreds of factors associated with different diagnoses, we are likely approaching a future where we find we are all defective to one degree or another. So yay! We can all breath a collective sigh of relief. Pretty soon there will be nowhere to hide. We can all just stop pretending. We will soon be free to walk about the cabin as our crazy, wacky selves. Normal, as we know it, may soon cease to exist. If it ever did. Except in Illinois.

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One Comment on “The Narrowing of Normal”

  1. I know I’m not normal, but I was still kinda hoping I was :p


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