by Monica Ross
I remember sitting in an Abnormal Psychology class in the spring semester of 1994 in Burdine Hall on the University of Texas at Austin campus. I was 20 years old. The professor on the first day of class said, “We’re here to study Abnormal Psychology. Who here though can tell me first what normal is?”
It was an “aha” moment for me. The purpose of studying the abnormal would be to juxtaposition it next to what would be considered normal, right? I mean what else? People come into therapy to talk about how to make what isn’t working, work. To “fix” something?
But to fix something makes the assumption that something is broken in the first place. It’s mechanistic language. And we as human beings are not machines. More on that in the next post.
There is many a time I will tell a client that there is actually nothing wrong with them. Then there is often the insistence that surely there must be something wrong, after all someone will argue, look at the mess that is my life.
Where I am going with this is that we all are perfectly imperfect as human beings. There are misalignments and feelings of "stuckness" and impulses to improve in some way, to problem solve, to do some things differently. Understandable.
And sure, we talk of diagnoses.
And if there is a diagnosis, there must be some pathology behind it the argument goes. There is mental health, after all. If something is not healthy it is unhealthy, no? But we’re also talking philosophy here.
I don’t mean to parse words, I’m just trying to get across a broader concept. That even if we were to say that someone is abnormal, broken, unhealthy, ill (and the hairs on my neck stand up in writing these words)--these are terms that we assign as a society to try to make meaning of behavior and to recognize that something isn’t working in some way.
But what if something even in its abnormality was normal, even in its brokenness was whole, even at its most unhealthy was healthy, and even in its illness was well? That may be stretching things a bit. But is it really?
This is more I think than a revisit down George Orwell’s Animal Farm lane, which was a critique on totalitarian government. The concept behind “War is Peace” in the novel was to point out propaganda used to enforce governmental power over a people.
But what I’m employing here is not doublespeak. This isn’t about power over, but power within.
It’s about taking up personal agency and responsibility and wresting it from the hands of those who would write one’s story for them. From this vantage point, the lines between abnormal and normal and healthy and unhealthy become more blurred.
Though still at times these things may border on the distinct, they need I think to be more personally defined and expressed and/or personally owned as it were. It’s a radical concept and takes some extra maneuvering in thinking that at any time we can simply accept where we are at in life despite the labels that are placed on us.
So that just maybe we are not all on a search for the “missing piece” be that in our career, in our love lives, in the decision to have children, or whatever the missing piece might be. It’s the idea that we each already contain all the pieces though some of those pieces perhaps have gotten less attention over time.
It's to go from saying "I'm irresponsible and always have been" to saying "I am a responsible person who has issues with tapping into that responsibility at times"--a subtle shift in language and something I picked up in my studies along the way.
The point is to go from externally searching or seeking to an inward process of self-discovery of what is always already there. Self-discovery is important but also at the end of the day its not just about our own lives and how we want to operate in the world, but how we affect those lives around us.
It's about the individual and the society of which the individual is a part. The task becomes less about separating out or ostracizing or creating neatly defined categories of illness or identity even. It becomes more about a bringing in, an incorporating, a recognizing of the interweavings and interconnectedness, a focusing on relationships, and on the web of existence of which we are all a part.
As I was a student sitting in that class I thought too of the same concept in a way echoed in the city's slogan--"Keep Austin Weird."