Opinion: Nobody is normal

Published: 8/7/2022 9:03:19 AM
Modified: 8/7/2022 9:00:02 AM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

As a former therapist, I learned long ago that no one is perfect. We’re all good at some things and bad at others.

Gregarious individuals who are masterful at handling people might be terrible at detail work. In contrast, introverted and obsessive individuals might excel at precision tasks but shrink into wallflowers at a cocktail party. The only normal thing is that we all are a diverse mix of strengths and weaknesses. The key to happiness and success is complementing each other by working together.

The anthropologist Roy Grinker has written a treatise on this subject called Nobody’s Normal. He explains how “normal” is not a fact of nature but varies from culture to culture and over time. Normal, rather than embedded in our DNA, is whatever a society values as good, whether that is being a cannibal in New Guinea or a vegetarian in San Francisco.

Mental illness is never something you either have or you don’t. Instead, Grinker says everyone has some. That’s because all our attributes exist on a spectrum from a little bit to a lot. Take anxiety for example. Some daredevil types who enjoy taking risks have little anxiety, while other folks have so much they become paralyzed with fear, afraid to even venture out of their homes.

It’s the same with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. They too can exhibit a wide range of symptoms and symptom severity, “some people with schizophrenia require residential placements while others, like the writer Elyn Saks, a dean and professor at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, are highly functional.”

People who have such a functional impairment are subjected to a “double illness.” Not only do they suffer from the symptoms of their mental illness, but they are also stigmatized for being different, which often means being treated by society as “flawed and incompetent.” Often the resulting stigma becomes more debilitating than the impairment. Worse yet, crippling stigmas extend far beyond mental illnesses.

Societies can harshly stigmatize other aspects of our identity, like our skin color, sexual preference, or place of origin. I grew up in the aftermath of WWII in what has been called The Age of Conformity, a time when “normal” was severely restricted, applying fully only to non-disabled, white, heterosexual men of European ancestry with a good job.

It was a stultifying time of overt discrimination against Black people, minorities, and uppity women; witch hunts were mounted against communists and homosexuals; and the mentally ill were locked up, often for life, in institutions like the NH State Hospital and Laconia State School. Grinker calls this a time of national neurosis because of America’s inability to accommodate change and diversity.

Repressive laws and stifling stigma during that period smothered individual differences, creativity, and innovation. What a world of difference between then and now! Today we are entering what could be an exciting new world of possibility, “a time when many mental illnesses and diverse ways of being are less stigmatizing than at any point in our history.”

While forward-looking people are celebrating our enlarged palate of expression, conservative Republicans are attempting to turn back history. On the state level, a good example is New Hampshire’s “divisive concepts” law. It’s so vaguely worded that a teacher can be accused of violating this law for merely pointing out policies that might be considered “inherently” racist or sexist. Worse yet, the law will be enforced by encouraging any resident to file a complaint against teachers they think may have broken the law , who, in a draconian reprisal, will have their teaching credentials revoked if convicted.

This retrograde Republican affliction has metastasized since Donald Trump first ran for president, promising to “Make America Great Again.” These are code words to turn the clock back to the 1950s, a time “defined by a desire to follow traditional patterns of social life —including the division of labor between the female homemaker and the male breadwinner.” A time when women knew their place, homosexual and trans people were considered abnormal and abhorrent, and Black and brown folks were deemed inferior.

To avoid returning to those days of stifling discrimination and oppression, we need to wholeheartedly support the life-affirming diversity blossoming all around us today, whether it is promoting gender, sexual, and racial liberation or gaining freedom from the stigma of a mental illness diagnosis.

Full-fledged diversity is more than the spice of life. It is mother nature’s proven recipe sauce for success — only rich, diverse ecosystems can thrive in a rapidly changing world. The community that flourishes is the one that permits all members to contribute their unique talents, whether they are trees or human beings.

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