Monday, 19 August 2013

“What’s normal, anyway?” 17.08.13

It has become very popular these days in my social circle to hear people say things along the line of “well, what’s normal, anyway!”  The consensus seems to be that as a society we have become so diverse that people are just doing their own thing, and so accepting that we can’t measure people’s choices against any fixed standards.

I have unknowingly embraced that tenet for a long time.  After all, I’m relatively well-travelled, open-minded and non-judgemental, ain’t I?  I have seen people live in all sorts of ways depending on their culture, so I don’t believe there is a “right way”.  Everything is relative, and who am I to judge anyone, anyway?  I mean, I’m both caring and left-wing, so I can’t believe in this “normal” malarkey.  Or can I?

As it turns out, I do.  You see, it may sound reasonable and clever and almost post-modern to say that there is no such thing as normal.  However, I know for a fact that there are things that are ABnormal.  You don’t believe me?  Ok, let me take you through the looking glass:
  •          There isn’t such a thing as the “right” way to be a parent, yes?  Ok, fine.  But I remember when one of my mum’s friends had a nervous breakdown following the death of her husband.  By the time people figured out that something really wasn’t right, her toddler daughter and her German Shepherd had both learnt to eat out of the bin, drink out of the toilet bowl, and do their business on the floor.  Google “coprophagia” if you aren’t worried yet.
  •          I was exchanging stories with my ex-father-in-law while we were scrumping cherries.  He told me about fruit-picking in his uncle’s orchard as a child, and all the lovely associated memories.  I told him how we used to go scrumping in the abandoned villa near my mum’s house, and how we had to watch out for the homeless guy who lived there who used to chase us with an axe.  I was under ten at the time.
  •          During a seminar we were discussing ways to survive in the event of utter catastrophe and the subject of prostitution came up.  After a little while the teacher asked me “are you aware that women in the Western world seriously struggle to see prostitution as an available option?”  And no, I had no idea.  And I remembered when I was fifteen and I used to have to keep watch while my best friend had sex with her pusher in his car for fixes.  This wasn’t a problem at all for me until the day she tried to sell me, too.

Ok, so these are somewhat extreme anecdotes.  However, this does not make them irrelevant or meaningless.  The fact is that we look at them and our Weird Shit-o-meter should start sounding off.  It’s not normal for children to drink from toilets or be chased by wannabe axe murderers or prostitute themselves.  These situations happen, but they are clearly ABnormal – hence, there must be a normal.  The fact that our “normality” has become a far more diverse and flexible concept that it might have been in the past doesn’t invalidate its existence.  It gets a whole load easier to realise that there is such a thing as normal when you find yourself well outside of it, when you look around and realise that somehow you strayed off the path and now normal is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back over there.

The fact is that, over time, pretty much anything can feel normal.  We humans are incredibly adaptable beasties and we can get used to almost everything.  I have seen that particularly with young children.  If you present them with a situation or fact and don’t make a song and dance about it they just seem to absorb it and get on with it.  The thing that seems to phase them the most is not change per se, but the adults’ response to that change.  If you take it in your stride, or at least pretend very convincingly, they are often utterly unbothered.  Older children and adults are often very attached to their particular brand of normality and may be very resistant to change.  However, present them with small, incremental changes and soon enough they may find themselves in situations utterly unlike anything they ever imagined being involved in, let alone be accepting of.

When some sort of tribe is involved in a situation, the abnormal seems to be turned into the norm even faster.  Unspoken rules are established so that everyone knows their role and some stability can be created.  For instance, I know households where “if it happened during a blackout it doesn’t count”.  Now, I am not disputing whether that’s “right or wrong”.  What I am saying is that there are households out there where blackouts are so much the norm that there is an etiquette for how to deal with them.  Similarly, I know children who know that if the curtains are drawn then “an uncle” is visiting mummy and they will be busy upstairs; they are to wait outside until he has finished. 

We are designed to adapt to our circumstances.  It is a key survival skill.  The crucial thing, after all, is not meeting some sort of universal standards; it is to keep on going both as individuals and as a group regardless of what the world throws at us.  In this context, “normal” isn’t nearly as important as “functional” or “stable”.

I am the product of such a process of adaptation.  I was raised by a group of people who could be kindly described as “surreal”; I can’t describe them accurately without resorting to language which would horrify my gentler readers.  Whilst everyone appeared superficially functional and even successful, the way people interacted with each other was, well, just not normal.  The men, when present, were shadowy figures who brought the money home, did the heavier lifting and generally hid in corners.  They did not have a speaking part.  The women ruled the roost by a combination of emotional blackmail, meltdowns, bullying, gaslighting and a number of other unsavoury techniques that could be comfortably classified as psychological abuse.  They all hated each other, yet could not function separately.  No issue was ever addressed directly.  Nobody, ever, told the truth.[1]

I left home at fourteen and never really went back, bar a few forced holidays when I was younger.  I told my grandmother to “fuck off” (literally) when I was sixteen and we never spoke again.  This might sound awful but I still hold that under the circumstances I was fully justified.  The few times I was forced to interact with my aunt and uncle, now deceased, I made sure that I was slightly drunk, because that way I could see them as amusing rather than repellent.  It is likely that I will not go back to my mother’s house until the time has come to clear it out.  However, the more I think about it the more I realise that I have not managed to fully leave home yet.  The problem is that, regardless of all the miles I put between us, I failed to realise that I had carried with me my family’s interpretation of “normal”.

I look back at ways in which I’ve handled close interpersonal relationships and shudder.  The bottom line is that I have never had any idea of how to recognise, create or maintain healthy, non-toxic close relationships, for the simple reason that I’d never seen one up close.  This did not just apply just to partners, but to my closest friends too.  I could be “normal” to acquaintances, but as soon as someone became really important in my life the crazy seemed to come out.  When things went badly I didn’t know how to fix them.  When things went well I probably sabotaged them.  When things went terminally screwy I just did not know how to press the eject button.  I had no role models, no standards and no functional techniques.  I was ill-equipped.  I probably still am.

I am currently trying to develop some criteria for “normality”.  This, at the moment, is requiring quite a bit of conscious effort.  I am working at developing an internal watcher, who keeps emotionally unaffected by events and judges – yes, judges, however un-PC this may be – events based on whether they are “abnormal”.  By identifying abnormalities, I am learning where the boundaries of normality fall.  What I am not willing to do anymore is to pretend that everything goes, that every kind of behaviour is acceptable, that whatever people decide to throw at me is fine because it is “their normal”, and that I can do the same back to them and call it “my normal”.  In time, I am to develop my special brand of normal and a set of techniques to help me maintain it.  It may end up being quite a wide “normal”, with a lot of wiggle room in it, but it will have boundaries, nonetheless.

[1] The truth is, in fact, still safely hid.  My mother, the last surviving member of the family, has been told by her doctor numerous times that she needs psychotherapy, but she is refusing to undergo it because “you can’t speak ill of the dead”.

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