Rely On Community And Relationships To Create A New Normal
Even now, I don’t consider myself a normal person. I wasn’t as a quiet kid, and I still am not quite a normal person as an eccentric adult who is a believer, teacher, writer, runner, and every other identity category in between. But in no means am I normal or traditional in any of those labels. And I don’t really think about how different I am from how your normal or average person gets things done or relates to people: I do things my own unique way, adapting with the input of valuable mentors.
The connotation from that may come to many me putting myself under the bus. But the truth is that your “normal” person in our perceptions of cultural America is a 30-year-old white dude working a 9–5 office job. And obviously, I’m not a 30-year old middle-class white dude, and I don’t work an office job. I’m a 22-year-old Asian-American, first-generation, whose immigrant parents worked several jobs to make ends meet.
Normal is defined as an adjective, “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.” No, I didn’t have a normal upbringing that’s typical of the American experience, but I made choices all throughout school about not conforming to cliques and the expectations of whole groups. I wanted attention. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be different, and these behaviors often manifested themselves as always wanting to be the smartest kid in math class, and making sure everyone knew how smart I was. Humility was something unknown to me before eighth grade, or just a characteristic I deemed not “manly” enough to pursue.
Even once I went through bouts of painful anxiety and realized that I was no one special, I still yearned to be noticed for things well into high school. I wanted to be fast and run fast times as a runner, and be recognized for it. I wanted to get good grades in every class from AP U.S. History to Multivariable Calculus, and be recognized for it. I wanted to have the most Instagram followers and likes, Facebook friends, and be recognized for being somehow exceptional.
As I got older I began to respect values like loyalty and community much more than I valued my own personal identity. These values coincided with being a part of my Cross Country team, a community of people I opened up to about childhood traumas and who I lived with, ate with, and fellowshipped with. My commitment to loyalty and community over myself also coincided with my conversion to Christianity and finding a ministry group, RUF, to fellowship with.
I didn’t need to be unique and stand apart, because I had all these people and communities in college that filled those gaps that the attention I sought out didn’t. It was through these communities that i learned that it doesn’t matter how normal or unique you are, that yes, you are your own individual and unique person, but living and breathing in relationship and community with others is what life is all about. We’re all in this together.
I’m someone who very easily gets in his own head and thinks himself in circles. I struggle with solitude, and I struggle mightily with being alone. And that struggle doesn’t just mean that I’m a natural extrovert that happens to think a lot, but that I recognize my need for other people and companionship in my life. I have a lot of other issues in life, like most people do, ranging from finances to familial expectations to struggles in adheeding to principles in my faith. But that’s okay, especially in community that validates and supports us through our experiences.
We’re all in this together, so why struggle alone?
“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be,” Maya Angelou once said.
The truth is we’re never amazing on our own. LeBron James was raised by a mother, Gloria James, who had him when she was 16. Bill Gates founded Microsoft alongside his friend, Paul Allen, not to mention the countless employees that have made Microsoft what it is today. Even Jesus fulfilled God’s prophecy and Scripture only through the aid of his disciples, the ones who loved and abided by him, but also Peter, the one who denied him, and Judas, the one who betrayed him.
These people were made history because they were not average, traditional, or normal. But they also had a lot of help along the way: people to financially support them, people to listen, and people to love them. That gave them the adaptability to survive and succeed.
Abnormal psychology is a field that has come under much public scrutiny: in 2010, psychiatrist Allen Frances described the potential problems mental health workers face with the creation of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-V. The biggest issue with its contents was that the American Psychiatric Association has exclusive control over its content and publication, and psychiatrists are medical doctors. Medical doctors treat all “unnormal” symptoms as diseases or illnesses.
The fact that the American Psychiatric Association had full reign over the contents of the DSM-V meant that the biological view of mental health was dominant, that depression could be boiled down to a chemical imbalance in the brain, that medication is the best and only way to treat mental health, and pharmaceutical companies who infuse medications into the market are the ones to treat it. The biological view of mental health was problematic, but even more problematic was the influence of money that Big Pharma help over the interests and well-being of patients.
Let us not forget that we see medical doctors because there’s something we deem not normal about ourselves. The latest ulcer, kidney stone, or stuffy nose so bad we could barely sleep are unnormal symptoms so disorderly they disrupt our daily functioning. And seeking help for mental health, I would argue, is indicative of invisible symptoms even more disruptive to our daily functioning. No one wants to admit that they’re depressed, having thoughts of killing themselves, or having such bad anxiety they can barely breathe. As many strides society has made in de-stigmatizing seeking help for mental health, demonstrated by much higher demand for mental health services, the fact is it still feels embarrassing and vulnerable to admit issues like feeling depressed or being such a germophobe you can’t use public restrooms and can’t stand being on a train or bus. The cough and rash are visible, and anyone can understand that. The irrational thoughts aren’t.
The line for when we deem ourselves normal or abnormal, tends not to be in contexts of identity and whether we fit into societal or communal norms, as I introduced at the beginning of the article. After all, who cares if you have a couple of quirks or out-of-the-ordinary interests? Rather the question of normalcy seems like a life or death situation, where it seems like the world is going to end tomorrow if the issue goes unaddressed.
The fact is that mental health professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers wield tremendous power in their hands, differentiating the normal from the abnormal, making life-changing and stigmatizing decisions. The decision to call Child Protective Services for child abuse is one that a social worker knows is likely going to ruin a parent’s life and re-chart an entire child’s life. The decision to make a psychiatric diagnosis is also one that’s going to change how a person lives, thinks, and perceives and navigates the world.
“Psychodiagnosis is a very useful way of recognizing and conveying the pervasive presence of such problems,” wrote psychologist Stephen A. Diamond of Psychology Today. “But it should never be about merely labeling or determining who deviates from the social norm. It is rather, when properly understood and employed, the first step toward providing therapeutic help to a suffering human being.”
I wonder where the legal standard of the presumption of innocence comes in in these difficult and potentially life-altering situations. The presumption of innocence abides by Blackstone’s Principle, which states that it is better for 10 guilty people to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongfully imprisoned. I’m all for assuming the best for a person and giving them the benefit of the doubt. After all, I am a teacher and a champion for kids. That’s my mission and how I survive.
But can we live and sleep at night, as a society, if we say it’s better for 10 mentally ill people to not receive a diagnosis than for one not mentally ill person to receive a diagnosis? If this were a disease like tuberculosis, then by all means, it’s better to be safe than sorry. But the subjectivity and ambiguity with which mental health is assessed means that it’s a lot more complicated of an answer than we might wish for.
Everyone is going to have symptoms of anxiety and depression, and we’re all going to be at least a bit neurotic, but according to Diamond, “the difference between mental health and mental disorder is merely a matter of degree, duration and debilitation.” As a volunteer on the Crisis Text Line, I don’t break confidentiality with a texter unless they’re at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, and perhaps that’s where the line between normalcy and abnormality comes.
That’s why I come back to community as a solution and transcendence to whatever issues we may have with normalcy, in every respect. Assessing whether someone requires a psychiatric diagnosis is a very hard, life-changing decision. Assessing whether someone is guilty of a crime is, too. That’s why the input of multiple individuals and multiple groups of people is necessary to dictate and assess normality: there should be more than just one individual who makes those fateful decisions. On the Crisis Text Line, I always work with a supervisor in imminent risk situations wot determine the best course of action, and perhaps that’s a lesson to any person facing a decision that’s going to completely change their own or someone else’s sense of normalcy: seek a second opinion, and then a third or fourth.
Although Hillary Clinton has popularized the phrase (to much ridicule and chagrin), an old African proverb once said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” And that extends much more to raising a child: acknowledging in life and whatever we do that we’re not alone, and that we’re all in this together, so let’s rely on each other to make a new normal, and make those hard and life-determining decisions to go on.
This article was written in response to the writing prompt from Invisible Illness: “Describe your idea of normalcy and how that’s changed and developed. What is ‘normal’ to you? Do you believe in being ‘normal’, and if so, do you think the standard is a good thing? What experiences have shaped these beliefs?”
Originally published on August 16, 2019 on Invisible Illness.