I used to live in a world where everyone was Normal.
Everyone in my family, certainly. And all our neighbours, of course.
Of course, there was the Polish guy living on the decrepit farm, who no-one ever saw, except when he came out to roar incomprehensibly at us if we rambled too close to his house. (Did someone say he’d been a prisoner of war? Do I remember that right? Not that I had any concept of what that meant, or might mean, back then).
And there were the occasional stories my father told, making a joke of it, about the shakes and the nightmares and the weird reactions he had for years, probably decades, after the war. Oh, all a great laugh, don’t you know. Nothing to fuss about, certainly not requiring therapy or anything extreme like that.
There were a few mentions of relatives – ours and other people’s – who were ‘eccentric’ or ‘odd’ or ‘tragic’, in passing, but nothing (whisper it) abnormal.
And there was the neighbour who ‘had to go away’ at intervals. (Where to? Why? Why did everyone say it in whispers, shaking their heads, and talk about ‘her poor husband’? No one explained, it was just one of those mysteries of adulthood, wreathed about with an aura of discomfort and secrecy).
And there was me. With my weird self-destructive habits. An odd child. Generally well-behaved, I just would insist on hurting myself. It was a phase, I’d grow out of it, other than that everything was normal.
I was still doing it when I was in my teens. All the other girls at my school were, of course, perfectly normal (except me, by then I knew I was a freak).
Well, there was the girl who got thinner, and thinner, and thinner. And the other girl who had sudden radical mood changes, who sometimes disappeared from school for days. A few things like that. Quite a few of us who were, one way and another, a bit weird, unsettling, gossip-worthy. Everyone else was normal.
In college, everyone was normal too. Louder and drunker than I was used to, perhaps. Well, there was the student who attempted suicide. I mean, that was…perhaps, not quite normal, but…it wasn’t like I knew them, or anything. And the guy who went on these weird crying jags, which I didn’t know how to handle, and the woman who dropped out partway through her second year, she’d been having some kind of problems, apparently, and…well, most of us were away from home for the first time, all those academic pressures, some people just aren’t cut out for it. Quite normal, really.
And me. Most of the time I passed for normal. But now and then I stopped being able to cope with life. Or people. Or anything. Stayed in my room for days, missing lectures, missing everything, creeping out to get food only when no-one was around. Yeah, I was a freak.
But I was fairly good at acting normal.
Eventually, I had a job and a partner and was generally, to the casual eye, a functioning adult. But there were still some things, like sobbing on the kitchen floor for hours, and self-harm, that weren’t really enhancing my life, and maybe admitting that and getting some counselling might actually help.
It did. It was partially group therapy, and, amazingly, there were really quite a lot of other people there. Teachers and parents and till-workers. Surprisingly normal people.
Of course, there was the employer who I had to ask for time off for these sessions, who warned me against telling people I was in counselling when I applied for my next job. Because it might look, you know, as if I had problems. As if maybe I wasn’t, well, normal.
But over the years, as I met more people and made more friends and read more books, as people started talking about these things in something other than horrified whispers, I realised, actually, I was normal. Mental health problems happen all the time. Some are long term, some are temporary. Some are comparatively minor. Some are life-devastating. Somewhere around all of us every day, someone is dealing with this stuff, in one or more of its various manifestations.
I don’t feel quite so much like a freak these days. It’s not that I don’t have some issues, some anxiety, some irrational fears and unhelpful reactions. It’s just that I’ve realised having these sort of problems is part of life. If everyone who has ever suffered any kind of mental health issue is a freak…well, us freaks, we’re the majority.
Which makes us normal.
And we always were.