The Line Between Normality and Abnormality is Wide and Murky

I have been pondering how to measure psychological normality. This may be a simple process to those who address such questions professionally, but I rather doubt it. The human mind is a complex thing and I suspect that there is not so much a line between normality and pathology as there is a large murky area which may be one or the other. When my daughter needs to take a small object to school so that she feels secure, this is normal. When she fills three quarters of her backpack with small objects and is insistent that she needs all of them, there is a larger emotional issue which needs to be addressed. For a long time I’ve had a functional definition for a disorder. Something becomes a disorder when it interferes with the things the person wants to accomplish. It is a good and solid definition, except for the fact that the human mind is wired to adapt and it will gradually change its perception of normality. Then I’m left wondering how we all came to consider as normal my daughter hauling seven pounds of erasers, small toys, pencils, pencil sharpeners, and trinkets to school. Once we identified the issue as a problem and found the root causes, my daughter was much happier and life was better. These days she skips off to school, her backpack empty of everything except school work.

Our own lives are always normal to us, except where they compare with recent history. My life feels normal to me, which is why I am bemused when someone tells me that reading my blog helps them feel like their life is more manageable, because they have less to handle than I do. I am then left to ponder, have I inched my way out into some abnormality without recognizing I have done so? If I have, why did I do it? Does it need fixed? Is my life structure a problem? On nights when I lay awake with my mind spinning and my heart racing I think that perhaps yes it is. On days when I get everything done and the sun is shining I think that perhaps it is not.

Standing in the middle of my life, it is hard to see past all my things to tell if the whole thing is running out of kilter or straight on course. An outside perspective is necessary. I rely heavily on prayer and inspiration for my outside perspectives. I get daily, sometimes hourly, feedback about whether to stay the course or shift things. I also depend upon several perceptive friends. I talk until my voice is hoarse and they see things which are invisible to me. I am extremely fortunate. Perceptive friends keep turning up in my life just when I most need them. They function in many of the ways that a good psychologist or therapist can function. Sometimes I get to be the perceptive friend for someone else. I always feel honored when this is the case. The truth is that we all need rescue sometime, often when we can’t even tell that we’re drowning.

8 thoughts on “The Line Between Normality and Abnormality is Wide and Murky”

  1. I ponder normality sometimes myself. Especially as we’re checking our oldest for possible autism spectrum issues. And yet, both my husband and I recognize 90% of his behavioral oddities in ourselves or our families. Surely it isn’t just the last 10% that is the difficulty?

    1. I read lists of possible signs of ADD and am puzzled. You mean there are people who don’t do all these things? Yet I don’t need to be medicated for ADD because I have smoothly incorporated those traits into my lifestyle. However I often wonder if perhaps I am just so adapted to the state of things as they are, that I don’t see clearly.
      Is there a problem, or isn’t there? That is the question. I have no more answers than Hamlet did.

  2. The line is broad and murky, but there does seem to be a difference on either side of it. I remember the David L. Rosenhan study where the patients in the insane asylums recognized the imposter research subjects. The staff and doctors never did. The lack of medical detection of sanity is scary, and what the study paid most attention too. But it is interesting that those who did struggle correctly suspected those who didn’t. Maybe it’s just that the patients were more studious people watchers, possibly due to boredom (study was done in early 70’s).

    1. Interesting. I’ll scratch my plans to sneak into a psychiatric facility and pretend to be a patient.

      It makes sense that they would be able to tell. First hand experience trumps book knowledge every time.

  3. This post and my reaction to it has been circling my head all weekend. I have learned these last months to not worry about what is “normal” so much as what is “healthy”. Some people consider those the same things, but they are not.

    My life is completely opposite from yours in most respects. The major commonality that I can gather (after reading your blog for years) is that we are members of the same religion. Yet what is normal in your life (husband, children, homemaker, working from home) is totally abnormal to me (not married but seriously dating someone, no children, working in retail). But my life is just as *healthy*, by finding balances between spirituality and daily living, finding a love that makes me laugh every day, finding moments for hobbies that calm me, things like that.

    To me, the difference between healthy and normal is that when you’re trying to be normal, a person might hide things that bother them, because they don’t want people to know about their secret. There are a lot of accepted “normals” now in the world, but there is underlying darkness (or just differences) that cause stress when you just want to be normal. But when you are trying to be healthy, you don’t hide your differences, you find ways to celebrate what makes you unique.

    (Of course, if you’re talking “normal” in a psychological or developmental manner, my point doesn’t quite apply, but still, I wanted to say it.)

    1. Your point is an excellent one and a useful addition to the conversation. You are right. “Normal” does, and should, vary from person to person. What I’m trying to sort in my brain are those instances where “normal” has shifted imperceptibly into dysfunction. An abusive relationship can feel normal to the people who are in it, but that doesn’t make it good for them.

      Brushing aside all the generalities, what I’m really trying to figure out is whether the levels of anxiety I feel in my daily life are something I should accept and work around, or if they are something I should get treated. I’m closer to being ready to address this topic publicly than I was when I wrote the post above. Privately I’ve been staring straight at it for weeks. However, with the start of school, we’re at the front edge of a new normal. Perhaps this new normal will make the anxiety a non-issue, or perhaps I should use the new era of calmness to address it directly so that it doesn’t become a problem again with the next iteration of normal. Gah. My head spins.

      Anyway, I hope that the thoughts on normality which circled you were helpful to you in some way. The ones you shared here are certainly helpful and interesting to me. Deception is a huge indicator that something is not right.

      1. Like you already said, if the anxiety has been increasing but you’ve been incorporating dealing with it in your life, it’s going to be hard to all of a sudden turn and spot the point that it is or it’s going to be too much to deal with. This last eight months of my life has contained the most stress I figure I have ever had to deal with in my adult life. And I know if I continue on the direction I’ve chosen, I will have more stress, coming from different sources. But one fortunate thing I have is a group I go to, a therapy group, of women who are dealing with similar issues to what I’m dealing with. And at least there I have a place to vent and get feedback on a topic that I can’t raise in very many other places. This (one point of) stress in my life came very suddenly, and there was no other way to face it but deal directly with it. But going to this group has also helped me find ways to deal with the other parts of my life, the other bits of stress and anxiety, that I’ve been dealing with, or even made me realize I was ignoring.

        I hope that the new normal of the schoolyear will help you find the window you need to figure it out. But I do feel an impulse to say that if you do go and get some kind of treatment, or start the process, then you can find ways that you haven’t thought of before to handle the anxiety, to see the other pockets that you might have overlooked that are either contributing to your worries, or that can help you overcome them. Because I worry that if you decide not to persue treatment because things seem to calm down and you feel better, what happens when the next round of anxiety comes and you can’t pull out?

        Ok, I feel like a massive downer for ending on that note. On the other hand, this has helped me put into words worries I have for some other friends, so at least this has been helpful for me, I hope it is for you too.

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