Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Anomalies of Normalcy

Normal. The word makes one cringe when they hear it. A word that should have every positive association attached to it carries a hoard of negative connotations when you realize it is a term that doesn't apply to you. A social definition of what is deemed acceptable behaviors and appearance in one's host culture, what is normal is rarely black and white; the boundaries are blurred and surrounded by a sea of gray. Its idea changes from person to person, family to family, to neighborhoods to states and so on; it is hard to know where you stand in the scheme of things and your placement is always determined by someone else, and is always changing.

There is often a movement somewhere in the world that sets out to magnify our differences. Highlighting how unique we are from one another, they call attention to wonderful qualities and talents that help us stand out, so we don't feel that dreaded monotonous sameness the Nazis once dreamed of. What these programs don't warn against is the risk of being too different. "Express yourself!" (but not too much), "Follow your dreams!" (except those dreams), "Love whomever you want!" (but not that person), "Be yourself!" (wait-not that self). And the people who dare to step out of the bounds of acceptable uniqueness are the individuals who are, in essence, excommunicated from society. Met with stares, frowns, abusive remarks, and even pure avoidance, those who go against the grain become isolated, save the small circle of friends with similar quirks who accept them without judgment.

In being a therapist, our business is Normalcy. Leave the people who are normal alone, make those who are abnormal become normal, with the help of societal standards and our handy dandy DSM IV TR (another socially determined collection of defined categories of normal). When a patient comes to my office, I am essentially charged with a Caesarian rule: thumbs up or thumbs down, sane or crazy, normal or abnormal. But how does one truly know what is normal? In one psychology class we were asked to develop a clear cut definition of normal, and few if any could compose an accurate representation of such. So who are we, above anyone else, to wield the power of labeling people who might just be different?

Working predominantly with a severely autistic population, I am exposed to the rare black and white that most of us can't see when it comes to determining "normal". Normal becomes survival in society, the ability to talk, the ability to communicate with others one's own thoughts, feelings, and needs without bursting into tantrums of frustrated screams and physical aggression, and most importantly, the ability to develop and maintain relationships with others, because we are, at our cores, a social specie. But once we gravitate to higher functioning autism, and even Aspergers, one is met with opposition to such labels of anomalies. Thought of as socially deficient, these individuals have found peace with their diagnoses and have learned to function in society without seeking or desiring a cure. They may struggle with interpersonal awkwardness, as we all do at times, but they are content in living their lives as they may, with or without judgment from others, and wish to be left with their oddities and idiosyncrasies.

As one who could easily be described as socially inept, I sympathize with this population, one which parallels much of my own symptomology. Plagued with an at times debilitating social anxiety disorder, I also struggle with interpersonal exchanges: making appropriate facial expressions at appropriate times, making and maintaining eye contact, reading social cues, taking comments too literally, expressing my thoughts clearly, and properly adjusting my prosody (tone of voice). For the most part, I have coached myself well enough to engage in conversation without much difficulty, I mentally develop scripts to various scenarios and can usually respond to others effectively. However, in times of heightened anxiety, I become a bumbling flustered idiot with a flat affect who stares at the floor or out windows and fidgets with any object of comfort that can be found nearby.

Now, for the most part, people have come to take me as I am. There is an understanding that I am slightly odd, that certain facial expressions are not to be taken offensively, that eye contact is not a necessity for listening, and that silence does not always manifest lack of comprehension. For others, they struggle with the nature of our exchanges and, confounded by such, require alterations. What this becomes is not so much a fault on my part, but a need of theirs that is not being met. They need to know I'm listening by making eye contact, they need to know I'm friendly by having me smile when I don't particularly feel reason to, and they need me to respond to feel as though I'm understanding them. So, content in my own ways, how much should I change myself to make others happy? To make them comfortable?

The problem is, we all at one point or another want that normalcy. We want to fit in, we want to be like everyone else, we want to belong. In these times of desperation, we are given to sacrificing ourselves for that comfort of having a niche. But our uniqueness is what sets us apart, even if those idiosyncrasies are not always shining beacons for model citizens. Sometimes our idiosyncrasies are abnormal, and downright crazy, sometimes they annoy the hell out of the others around us, but what would the world be without them? Without van Gogh's inability to fit in, we would not know the pain-driven beauty of his creations. Without Emily Dickinsons' need to isolate herself from the world, we would not have her devastatingly breathtaking poetry.

While I can hardly compare my blogging and sporadic poetry to art, writing is my creation and my best way of communicating with the outside world when my mouth and my face can't say what I long to. I may be odd, but oddities create art, create beauty, and create change. Those who are different are the ones who make history, those who conform are the ones we forget. And yet, when they are living, the world is confounded by them, they challenge the balance of things and are usually scorned. Embrace them. The strange child of today can grow to be the quirky genius of tomorrow.

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