Monday, December 21, 2015

"As soon as we have achieved normality - whatever that is."

Nerdly brownie points to the first reader who nails the reference in today's title.

Normality has been much in the forefront of my conversations and reading for a few months now. An old friend of mine resurfaced after decades, and has had me looking at the state of mental illness in our culture and communities, but also: I'm a writer, and there are a lot of writers who consider being offbeat to be an important part of the identity.

My response to this is a certain bewilderment. Where did these people get the idea there is such a thing as normal?

My old friend - let's call him MOFF, because Star Wars is much at the forefront of our culture, too, right now, and y'all know I have this thing for acronyms - suffers anxiety and depression to the tune of actually being on disability. Many Americans are aware just how difficult it is to get disability in our country, so consider the context here. This is someone who has to take a Xanax, just to be on the safe side, in order to complete the task of sending out Christmas cards.

Now, as for me, I deal with that particular piece of stress by simply failing to send cards at all, for something like the last eighteen years. I hate drugs.

But MOFF and I have discussed normality at length, both as a subject of curiosity, and as a problematic goal/desire. It is a great desire of his, to be able to live a "normal" life ...

Interestingly, in he earlier iteration of our friendship, which was a bit more romantic and would make a great story I do not intend to tell y'all, he was often concerned with the same thing. What he considered to be his deviations from the norm were different matters, but the desire was the same; indeed, even the anxiety was there, all the way back then.

And, even then, I'd laugh him off and dismiss him, "Even my MOM knows there's no such thing as normal."

Which is true. My mom, who is as conventional as conventional gets in some ways, has always maintained - and taught me and my brother - that, really, "normal" is not really out there. It's a convenient construct, makes for a good context to tell a story which inevitably deviates, and gives us a sense of stability and reassurance. But, at bottom, "normal" is a sham. Nobody who seems it or claims it can withstand an honest investigation into their utter ordinariness.

So I've never been able to believe in "normal" and I can actually *feel* myself getting insufferable, sometimes, reassuring MOFF that "everyone feels what you do" TO SOME EXTENT or SOMETIMES or whatever palliative I wield at him in any given conversation. But even in those, I know that that is the very problem. What he experiences is multi-track, is unending, and is not something to be "got over" the way most of us have to in order to get on with a day. It's not merely brain chemicals, it's an emotional paralysis which - universal as it may be in moments or situations - is singular in its implacability.

I feel the way he does, sure. For a day, or for that one minute during PMS when I actually enjoy submitting to the weepies - or even for a few months, off and on, when I have to look for a job or am missing Mr. X, or whatever pain I may have to endure.

I've never experienced pain like this - the fear and hope conglomerated, influencing my entire life to the extent of in fact *becoming* the life I have left to lead.

I may not believe in "normal" - but I don't have to live so decidedly outside its apparent existence. I may not believe in "normal" - but I am not denied it, either.

So when writers start talking about how all writers are weird, or how all our work is offbeat - I actually recoil, emotionally.

I am not normal, no. But that's only because normal is a stupid idea to start with.

And my writing ... if it is offbeat at all, it's only in the fact that I wrote about a Frankish king most Americans haven't heard of, or much about at any rate. It's not because my form is innovative, nor my genre exceptional. If anything, the novels I've worked on are "traditional" in the extreme ....

... and here we go down the rabbit hole of whether "traditional" exists either: which I say it does not.

The need to categorize and quantify is so strong in our brains. We need to believe ourselves to be some thing or another, we need to believe others are, we need to think the world has order - in order that we may participate in it, or to rebel against it. We need a PICTURE - to view the landscape, or the people in it, or the acts played out upon it, in some coherent way.

We *need* "normal" - "traditional" ...

I depend on it. So do you. What form you depend upon is the question (and I hope someone will comment upon their framework, their "normal" and "traditional" - especially now, at a time so many experience their presence and absence with such acuteness).

And every one of us knows, there is no such thing.

Just ask my mom.


Anonymous said...

MOFF seems like someone I'd like to know. I think I'd understand him.

Troy Metheny said...

This quote was written about the suffering of those in North and South Korea, but the sentiment also applies to those with mental illnesses:

"To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence"

- Andrei Lankov

DLM said...

Paul, he's a good guy, and might quite like a little more understanding. We were talking last night about Douglas Adams' SEP field (and *hint, hint* regarding the provenance of this post's headline) -'s_Problem_field - the way we render those things we can't deal with invisible, by presuming they are not our problems.

This is mental illness. It's simultaneously inescapable and yet the very thing that people treat as irrelevant because they don't know what to do with it. And it may be easier for me to be sensitive to it precisely because MOFF and I have not been face to face in a double-digit number of years; I *don't* have to deal with his depression and anxiety, not in a real-world way - and so, as sympathetic as I am to MOFF, his family's and friends' obtuseness is ... understandable.

Even if it does seem damnably mean.

The reason I dragged writers into this is that I get itchy when WE stat throwing around the stereotypes, even about ourselves. It's no less lazy to submit the pose that "all writers are offbeat" than it is to propose that all ____ are ____, fill in any offensive or theoretically innocuous categorization you like.

It strips people of the dignity of their individuality.

And it's craptastic writing, for G-d's sake.

DLM said...

Yoiks, and my apologies. I did not mean to rant at you!

Troy, that violence quote has long been a good guidepost. People get almost as queasy looking at others honestly as they do looking at themselves that way, eh?