Why Do You Pretend To Be Normal?

A fellow blogger – Stevie Turner – published a post on Monday about the odd phrases that people have entered into search engines as a result of which they have landed on her blog. Her post is called ‘WordPress Search Terms,’ and can be found here – as with all her posts, I recommend it. I’ve often marvelled at some of the weird and wonderful things people search for. In my case, I once wrote a post for Think About Sex Day – yes, it really does exist – which gave me the opportunity to use the word ‘sex’ in the post’s tags, giving rise (or not, ahem) to countless disappointed people since then. I commented on Stevie’s post that my all time favourite was someone who had found my blog by asking ‘why do you pretend to be normal?’ I’ve always hoped that wasn’t aimed specifically at me, but there is always that nagging doubt, isn’t there?

At first I said to Stevie that I hadn’t tried to answer the question, but then I dredged the depths of my memory and realised that I had, in a post from June 2013, entitled ‘Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal.’ The post was written in response to one of the old WordPress daily prompts, back in the days when a) they still did them, and b) they were sensible. As you can see from the conversation I had with Stevie on her post, she expressed an interest in seeing my earlier attempt so, on the basis that I was guaranteed at least one reader, I agreed to share it again. Here it is – I’ll drop back in again at the end for a postword:

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STRANGELY STRANGE BUT ODDLY NORMAL

Daily Prompt: The Normal

Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt asks ‘Is being “normal” — whatever that means to you — a good thing, or a bad thing? Neither?’

This is a subject I’ve been struggling to write about for quite a while – since I started blogging last autumn, in fact. I think what has held me back from this is a twofold fear: firstly, that I would look as if I was trying to be an eminent expert, which I’d never claim to be on anything; secondly, it could be pretty dull. But the prompt has persuaded me to do it, so here goes. This is a companion piece to my earlier post today on Men’s Health Week.

Pretending

How do we define what is normal? What standards/criteria do we judge it against? Do we mean ‘conforming to societal norms?’ If you have a mental illness, like my depression, does that mean you are abnormal? Or if you are physically disabled, does that mean you aren’t normal either? Is ‘normal’ something to want or aspire to anyway?

Seeking inspiration, I tried looking in the dictionary. It said:

NORMAL, adjective

1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.

2. serving to establish a standard.

3. Psychology:

  • approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment.
  • free from any mental disorder; sane.

So there you have it. It’s a fair cop but society really is to blame for anyone who isn’t normal! I once asked someone on Twitter, now an ex-friend, to define normal and her off the cuff response was along the lines of ‘being or doing something that matches more than 50% of the population.’ That is, I guess, the societal norm approach. But why should you be considered abnormal if only 49% are like you? Where would – or could – you draw the line in such an assessment?

The reason we are no longer friends is that she decided I am an unpleasant, needy ‘attention whore,’ and that I am psychotic. And she said this in a very public way. Naturally, I strongly disagreed with this assessment but it makes my point for me: two people’s view of the same thing, or of each other, can be so different that the ability to define what is actually ‘normal’ must be subjective. In other words, it is different things to different people. 

Medication can be good for you!
Medication can be good for you!

Looking back at the dictionary definitions, I don’t really have any problem with the first two, which I see as being ‘situational’ definitions. But as you might expect I really cannot agree with the psychological view! Whilst those may be the standards used by clinicians to diagnose their patients, I don’t believe that people with depression or other mental illnesses are helped by being defined as ‘not normal’ in a social context. I function perfectly well in society. So do most others with this and similar illnesses. Of course, medication can be helpful in achieving that, but would anyone consider it wrong to take medication for an ongoing physical condition, such as diabetes? I think not. That ‘not normal’ description, taken out of context, fuels the beliefs and prejudices of people who don’t understand that there are different types of illnesses. It is a factor in creating the stigma that exist: having depression does not mean you are ‘psychotic.’ But it is easy for people to be led into believing otherwise in these days of mass consumption of mass media. Remember The Sun’s ‘Bonkers Bruno’ headline when Frank Bruno was admitted to a clinic suffering from a depressive illness? I rest my case!

As Men’s Health Week is just about to begin it is an appropriate time to ask, not just for men but for all those suffering depression or who are in some way not ‘free from mental disorder’: can we please stop being thought of as abnormal? Why should we or those who have a severe physical illness or disability be regarded as anything other than normal? Basically, that is an insult.

Ignore labels. I am me. You are you. We are us. We are all unique and special, in our own way. One thing you can do better than anyone else is …. be yourself. 

Who wants to be ‘normal’ anyway?”

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And this is me today. The concept of normality isn’t something I think about every day, but that line about being yourself is the one that best sums it up for me. We each have our own version of what it means to be normal, and it provides us with the reference points by which we live our lives. Why should anyone define normality for us? As I said in the original piece, it is to some – possibly a large – extent a subjective matter. How we perceive ourself must impact on our view of others, mustn’t it? How could we possibly remove that from our reference framework?

A couple of footnotes:

1. Men’s Health Week is coming up again. This year it runs from 10 to 16 June. I’m intending to do a post about it – it’s about time I reintroduced my Dates To Note series.

2. The title of that original was borrowed from a song: the opening track of Kip Of The Serenes, the 1968 debut album by the Irish hippy folk band Dr Strangely Strange. In case you were wondering 😉

300 Not Out – A Retrospective

Recently I mentioned that I was planning something to mark my 300th post. Well, this is number 300, and the more observant among you will have noticed that it has been more than a month since number 299. The gap is much longer than I had intended, partly due to my natural indolence and a bit of illness, but more the result of the several false starts I made on the planned post. Finally, I’ve accepted reality: it just wasn’t working, so I’ve consigned it to the WordPress equivalent of the round metal file on the floor. I covered some of this ground in my recent-ish post 69 Months Later, but I’ve been looking back over what I have posted over the years, and post number 300 seems as good a time as any for a fuller reflection on what I’ve done, whilst using that as a stepping stone to the future. So…. here goes!

I’ve often restated why I began this blog so, at the risk of boring you, I’ll do a brief recap now to start off this retrospective (you have my permission to skip this bit if you’ve heard it before!). I was diagnosed in late 2011 with depression, and was off work for more than nine months. When I went back I was invited to take a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and, as part of this, I did a number of written exercises which got me thinking more than I had ever done before about me, my life, and what was important to me. After all, I was only 59 so it wasn’t too late to start! At the suggestion of my counsellor, who described my writing as ‘inspiring,’ some of these became the basis for my first few posts. These can be found under  ‘My Story’ in the menu above, and if you haven’t read them before I think they’re worth a few minutes of your time if you want to know where I’m coming from.

The point of doing this wasn’t to wallow in self pity, though: what would have been the value in that? I started blogging because I had realised how important our mental health and well-being is to us, and hoped that by sharing my own experience I could encourage others who might also be having a hard time to see that they weren’t alone. The response was encouraging, so I decided to keep going. Mental health is still, and will always be, important for me and it is a theme to which I return even if I’ve rambled off into the distance for many of my posts.

I think you can learn a lot about blogs from the category descriptions their authors use. I’ve tinkered a bit with my categories over the years, both to tighten up what was in danger of becoming an amorphous mass, and also to (hopefully) make it easier for readers to find their way around. The current menu structure has been largely unchanged for quite a while now: it works for me, and reflects what I’m trying to do. Dip in to some, if you haven’t before. You’ll see that some just take you to the most recent post in that category, while others give you a sub-menu of posts – basically, these are the shorter menus (some were getting ridiculously long!).

Over the past couple of years the number of people following my blog has increased tremendously. Many of you won’t have seen some of my earlier posts before, and I’ve mined my back catalogue a lot to share some of these. I usually add a new commentary, updating what I had previously said, and I hope you have enjoyed some of these. It should go without saying that any post which has been given this treatment is one that I enjoyed writing and revisiting, and sharing them again has the added benefit of sparing me from writing something new! As this is a retrospective, I thought I’d highlight a few favourite posts – both mine and those which appear to have been popular in others’ eyes.

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, when I went through my back catalogue I found quite a few posts that I hadn’t recycled. Some of these, such as those I produced in the two years that I participated in November’s National Blog Posting Month – post every day, watch the quality fall off a cliff – were probably best left alone, and I’ve long since removed the menu link for them. Masochists can always find them via the Archives tab on the right, and looking for the Novembers of 2014 and 2015! One early post which I rather like was Dazed And Confused, from August 2013, in which I had one of my little rants: the target for this was marketing, which is a worthy subject for a moan! Another post from 2013 has a great deal of meaning for me. In those days I often responded to the daily prompt offered by WordPress, back when these were meaningful thoughts, rather than the single word option they went for instead – which was responsible for more pointless doggerel appearing in my email notifications than I could ever have wished for. No surprise to me that these prompts were eventually discontinued. In this post, My Mind’s Eye, I was looking ahead to my imminent retirement and sharing the symbolism of the London Eye for what I wanted to do with my future. My two wonderful daughters took me out for a special day to celebrate my 60th birthday and retirement – I must have mentioned my wish to go on the Eye, as that was part of my day! For some reason it took me a while to write about that day, but I eventually got round to it three years later in A Celebration – another of my favourite posts.

Having begun this blog to post about mental health, I’m rather proud of the fact that my three posts which have achieved the most ‘likes’ from readers are all mental health posts: see the ‘Top Posts & Pages’ links to the right. As I’ve said before, I don’t have a huge readership for this blog, and a typical post is likely to pick up around 20 to 25 likes: these three posts are all comfortably beyond that and the top one, Mental Health Matters, has 140 likes. For some of you that is nothing significant but for me it is astonishing! It was written in response to a report in the paper, about the way that the commissioning bodies for health services here in the UK were diverting funds which were supposedly ringfenced for mental health treatments, using them instead for other services. It seems that I wasn’t alone in finding this outrageous! Those top posts can all be easily reached – just click on the titles – so please feel free to take a look at any that you may not have seen previously. Mental health has been a recurrent theme for me. I used to do a regular series of ‘Dates To Note’ which were usually about health and social care subjects. Mental health featured often in these posts, which have their own menu entry above – as, of course, does mental health itself. If you’re interested, you’ll find my most recent posts – from May this year – under both menu headings. One of the aspects of mental health that has exercised me on several occasions is the way that it is stigmatised. This post from 2013 is an early one of this sort, and I have used that as the basis both for a reblog and a reworked piece. Sadly, this is still an issue now and I fear there may need to be another post of this kind when the time comes this year. As I said, mental health is still an important issue for me, so expect to see more about it in future.

Another important subject for me is music, which has played a central role in my life since I was a child. I have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, but I couldn’t live without music. It gets its own special mention in the tagline for the blog, and the blog’s title is that of one of my favourite songs. As well as countless sharings of songs at random times, I also have my occasional series of #SaturdaySongs where, by and large, I share the story of why a song is important to me. The menu gives you easy access to them all, but probably the most important piece for me which relates to a song isn’t in that series: I Hope You Dance, which I wrote to welcome the birth of my first grandchild, has that honour. I’m grateful that so many of you have hit the ‘like’ button for it: that means a great deal to me.

So, after 300 posts in nearly six years, where do I go from here? What does the future hold for my blog? I don’t imagine that I’ll change my blogging habits in any perceptible way: I’m not someone who can produce to a schedule and, since I retired and tried to remove stress from my life as far as possible, I imagine that there will still be erratic gaps or, more rarely, very short periods between posts. I don’t want to be driven by a clock or a calendar, but at least that means you’ll always have that element of surprise when an email notification lands on you! In short, the future for this blog will be more of the same though hopefully not in any boring way! A blogger I respect enormously told me in a comment today that I ‘have a fantastic blog.’ I’m not sure I deserve that, but I’d like to think that I can in some way inform, entertain and amuse you sufficiently to make you come back for more.

Those of you who, like me, use one of the free WordPress packages will, no doubt, have noticed that Facebook have recently made an ‘improvement’ which has meant that we can no longer share posts with our Facebook friends. They did this in the name of reducing fake news: frankly, I think removing this facility from those of us with personal blogs is ridiculous, but who am I to question Farcebook in its infinite wisdom? This has, however, prompted me to do something new. So, as you can see from the picture link to the right, I have…. cue fanfare…. started a Facebook page for this blog. I haven’t done much with it yet, but the intention is to post pictures, YouTube videos and news links which I hope you’ll find interesting and enjoyable, as well as being relevant and complementary to my blog. And, of course, new blog posts will all appear there – Facebook still lets us do that, probably because it gives them the option to bombard us with entreaties to ‘boost’ our posts. For a fee, of course. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be taking up their kind offer! So please, take a look and if you feel in the mood to ‘like’ the page I’d be very grateful. As I said, there isn’t much there yet, but I intend to make it somewhere worth spending a moment or two of your time. I expect I’ll be plugging it here a bit, too!

This has turned out to be a much longer post than I intended, so thank you for reading this far! Thank you also for following my blog – assuming that you do, of course – and for bearing with me for however much of the past six years or so that you’ve been here. Thank you also for all of the likes and comments: it’s good to know that so many of you have enjoyed at least a little of what I’ve been doing, and being a part of the blogging community and sharing those interactions is what really makes it all worthwhile.

See you again soon, I hope 😊

#TimeToTalk Day 2018

I’ve submitted a piece to the people who run the #TimeToTalk blog, in the hope that they might find it helpful to support #TimeToTalk Day, which is tomorrow. They receive many more submissions than they can actually use so I doubt that my post will be one of them – rather than waste it I thought I’d share it here, to raise awareness of the day. If you’d like to find out more their website is here, and there are loads of resources available for you. I was particularly taken with this one:

This is what I wrote:

I was diagnosed with depression in late 2011. After months of treatment, both with medication and counselling, I finally returned to work more than nine months later. Perhaps ironically, I worked for a large NHS Trust which provided mental health services – though I didn’t live in the Trust’s catchment area – and whilst I had had a fair amount of involvement with service users in my twenty years there, most of the people I worked with hadn’t.

When I first returned, initial reactions were mostly of the ‘I haven’t seen you for a while’ variety. It was clear to me that only a few people knew why I had been off work, and I decided early on that the best way to tackle this was to be open and honest with anyone who asked about it. Not that I shouted it from the rooftops, but I wanted people to know and understand why I had been away, what it meant for me, and what it might mean for them. Some seemed apprehensive – I think they feared I might ‘have a turn’ or do something strange! The difficulty with any mental health problem is that other people can’t see it, in the same way they can see a broken leg, for example. This adds some kind of aura, a mystique, and can instil in some a fear of the unknown and unseen. I didn’t want to start some kind of crusade, but I believed it important to share my experience with anyone who asked. After all, to all intents I was the same person they had known for years, so why should they now treat me differently? Some might have had an expectation that I had changed in some way, and I wanted to reassure them that whilst the illness was a part of me I was still that same ‘me.’ People who have suffered a mental illness deserve to be respected as themselves: the illness isn’t a badge they must wear or, worse, a stigma to be borne as some sign of weakness.

I retired a little over a year later, and having already started my own blog I was aware how important it is for fellow sufferers to know that they are not alone, that others have shared something similar. But that isn’t the same for those who have been lucky enough not to suffer. I probably had around fifty conversations with co-workers in that last year at work, and made a point of telling them a few key things:

1. There is no shame in having been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness.
2. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
3. It is far more prevalent than people imagine, and it was quite likely that other people we worked with had similar problems.
4. Whilst some may not, many will welcome an initial approach of the ‘is everything ok?’ type. It does help to talk, and an informal chat can often be all that is needed to help someone.
5. Don’t be judgemental – people need to be heard, not given well-meaning ‘diagnoses’ by friends who aren’t qualified to judge.
6. Having been diagnosed doesn’t change who you are, and shouldn’t change how others see you.

I’d like to think that, in my own little way, I did something to help understanding and awareness. The important part of this was that it was on a one to one basis: I’m a great believer in the need for efforts to be made to widen the general population’s knowledge on mental health, and this low key approach is a good way to do that. Just imagine how many could be enlightened if we all had just one chat!

This Thursday, 1 February, is #TimeToTalk Day. The day is all about opening a conversation: this may be with someone who may need support; it could be to help raise general awareness of mental health issues; or it may be to help people be more sensitive and caring towards each other. I hope you join in – no special skills or resources are required, just be yourself and talk to someone. You may be pleasantly surprised at what happens.