Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Defining Normal

It happens sometimes that people get sidetracked into the swamp of defining what 'sanity' is, what ‘normal’ is. Usually they just leave the question hanging. If we are going to accurately monitor ourselves, however, we need a benchmark for sanity. We need to have some way to know when we have gone off the rails, when it is time to curb our behavior. We can’t decide what to do about psychosis, if we don’t know we are psychotic! The real question is, what does sanity feel like to YOU?

A lot depends on the age at which we became mentally ill. Obviously, if disease struck you at age 26, you have some kind of memory of what ‘sanity’ felt like, however you may define sanity. The world felt different. Perceptions were different. You can remember. You can compare. But what about those of us who started early? Some of us have never experienced adult ‘sanity’. We were kids, and then we were insane. No ‘before’ picture to measure by. Some of us were even insane as kids. What do you do then? How can you tell that things have gone further south than usual?

Well, if you’re lucky, at some point your medications will stabilize you – even if only for a little while – and that can become your measure of what adult normal feels like. I had to wait until I was 34, myself. But once I knew, I had a reliable way of telling when I had got too far from the beaten path. We have to pay attention to our bodies as well as our minds. There are certain sensations I associate with mental illness – a sort of tight, closed-in feeling, as if only my mind exists and my body is locked in a box, and I literally CANNOT notice what is around me, or change the topic my brain is stuck on, no matter how hard I try. I feel overwhelmed, over-stimulated, a little panicked, a little trapped. I cannot listen – the words inside me must be spewed out. I cannot calm down – there is a firestorm in my head that often turns into a very real physical headache. I certainly am not breathing very deeply. The irritation and tightness that accompany this are clues that I am losing it, and should go lie down.

If you observe yourself for a while, you will learn your own cues.

If your meds have never graced you with adult ‘normal’, it is trickier. You have to judge by lesser or greater, with no absolute benchmark. And you have to depend a lot on the reactions of other people. If everybody around you is concerned or hostile or telling you to stop or shut up, chances are real good you’ve crossed the line. You might want to set up a verbal or visual signal with someone you trust, a simple phrase like, “Honey, you don’t seem like your usual self today.” Something simple and inoffensive that will not set you off all by itself. And you will have to surround yourself with people that you trust.

This can be tricky, too. It is to easy for those who are not sick to label anything they do not like or understand as ‘insanity.’  Holding dissenting opinions is not insanity. Having an unusual idea is not insanity. Insanity is operating from a non-standard reality, and not knowing you are doing so. That doesn’t happen every day, for most of us. We need intimates who allow us to be our disparate selves, and this can be a challenge. New Year's Resolution: surround yourself with people you can trust.

It is difficult to be mentally ill partly because of the way it messes with our fundamental belief that we are right. A person with a mental disorder has to be ready to concede, at any given moment, that they may be wrong about virtually anything, even the smells wafting into their nostrils! The least we can do for ourselves is make sure those around us can be trusted to have a sense of what is our illness, and what is simple idiosyncrasy on our part.

There are individuals like that out there. Go and find them, and happy hunting.

Deborah Fruchey
Deborah's new book, Is There Room For Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness, is now available on Amazon.com, Kindle Editions, and Apple's iBookstore. See the above link for an introductory video.