The Myth of Normal & Why I’m Not

 

I recently watched a talk by Dr. Gabor Mate, physician and addictions expert, about what he calls, “The myth of normal”, a concept that divides people into normal and abnormal based on pathological traits. What I loved right away in listening to this talk was that Dr. Gabor stated that he doesn’t see a division among people, but a continuum where mental distress is present in every single person to a degree.

Essentially, this means we’ve all got a bit of “crazy” going on inside – some more than others.

He goes on to say that mental distress and pathology (disease) are largely a result of a materialistic culture that idealizes and promotes individualism, while ignoring emotional needs.

I agree.

So, essentially, our society at large classifies individuals as normal or abnormal, with the abnormal ones displaying some pathological symptoms like addiction, depression schizophrenia, bipolar, OCD, and so on.

Do you realize there are over 500 disorders in North America (according to the American Psychological Association) that pretty much tell us what, and who is pathological? It’s no secret that many people are struggling, including myself, in which case I could diagnose myself with a couple things today if I really wanted to.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 Americans will experience a psychological crisis in their lifetime, 75 percent occur before the age of 24.  

Chances are YOU or a loved one have already or will experience such a crisis. 

I know I have.

“I’ve got a chemical imbalance”

Yes, there are instances where chemical imbalance occurs in the body, and yes, pharmaceutical drugs have been somewhat helpful.

But please hear me on this…

The hypothesis that says drugs will cure chemical imbalances are lacking in evidence.

Where’s the stats on that?

Here are some helpful statistics that show drugs are NOT necessarily doing the job manufacturers would like you to believe.

In 1988, there was $500 million spent on psychopharmaceuticals for mental health.

In 2008, there was $40 billion dollars spent. Yes, 40 B I L L I O N.

In 1998, there were about 1.25 million people with a clinical diagnosis. (depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, addiction, etc.)

Ten years later, in 2008, 4 million.

Today, in 2017, that number is up to about 10 million in the United States that live with a “serious” mental illness. That’s 1 in 25 people. [1]

And, don’t get me wrong. I believe there are some prescription drugs and treatments that are helping people, but I also believe that oftentimes they are simply treating the symptoms and the root of the issues never get resolved. There’s no digging underneath the surface to really see why the depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, bipolar, etc. is manifesting.

There’s only  the handing out  band aids for gaping wounds.

Normal vs. Abnormal

Throughout my twenty years in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed some progress in understanding and treating mental illness.  I mean, homosexuality is no longer diagnosed as a mental disorder as of 1973, thankfully. Clinical depression is not viewed upon with such stigma anymore, as more and more people are openly talking about it. More addicts are being treated for a disease of the brain, rather than judged for lack of moral or willpower.

However, there is still much stigmatization and prejudice, and a misunderstanding of what society deems “abnormal”. Maybe it’s that people don’t understand or fear what they see as different, or maybe it’s that we can all somehow feel the familiarity – at least to a degree, of the symptoms.

Who hasn’t felt anxiety? Disconnection? Fear? I know I have, and at various anchor points on the continuum. Have you felt such emotions on the far end of the continuum? The side that would be diagnosed as a mental health disorder or the for-real cray cray?

Have you felt them and stuffed them? Self-medicated? Never reached out for help due to fear? Shame? Or you just had no idea what to do?

Disease as a culturally manufactured paradigm

Much of it is cultural, folks. A major culprit of disease is a culturally manufactured paradigm.

We live in a society that cuts us off from spirituality and idealizes individualism. Yes, it’s getting better here in the West, but come on. It’s got A LONG ways to go…. Our society largely destroys cultural contexts and ignores emotional needs. This, dear ones, generates emotional and physical pathology.

Our economic system

Listen, there’s a “self-love deficit” epidemic going on. There’s an emotional pain epidemic running wild.  

How’s your self-worth? What do you base your feelings of worth on?

Your status? Amount of money? Popularity? Social Media activity? Success level? Partner’s attention? Rituals?

Gabor Mate states that here in the West, it’s not so much about who you are, but how you are valued by others. The producers and consumers of society tend to be valued more by the whole. The others, (non-producers, non-consumers) are not valued as much.

Why?

It’s like they’re devalued because they aren’t keeping up with the Joneses or the American Dream. They’re classified as weak, lazy, ignorant, lower class, cray-cray, etc. This goes for the schizophrenic, heroin addict, senior citizen, homeless, etc.

Now we know this isn’t a new occurrence. Even Jesus talked against promoting the man who shows up in a nice suit over the man in rags. He spoke against segregating man, and welcomed ALL.

And, I will add back in the day, Jesus didn’t turn the so-called “abnormal” ones away. In fact, he went to them, and they went to him, and oftentimes healed them with a healing power that I believe is still present today. (Can I get an Amen from all the healers out there?)

What if our society really started dropping the “abnormal” labels, such as schizophrenia? Bipolar? Bizarre? Weird? What if communities were more accepting of those who are “not the norm”? Where people make room for those that are different, where connection is not broken, but rather, maintained. Where you’re not ostracized, but welcomed and you’re free to express yourself how you wish.

What if we honored and celebrated those that have forgotten who they really are? Do as many indigenous cultures do and sing and hold ceremony with them?

Don’t we all crave THAT kind of community, whether we’re diagnosed with some disorder or not?

Can society find meaning in craziness?

The American Dream is great, as the government should protect each person’s desire to pursue their own idea of happiness. Each person IS created equal, but is that really how it plays out? Or has the American Dream somehow been twisted over the years to promote materialism and greed? Has it slyly infiltrated the minds of people with thoughts like, “Do more, be more, get more, and then you’ll be happy”? Yes, it sure has, and just look at the incredibly high stress levels and exhaustion of most people as a result. 

Do you realize about half of the American population has some sort of chronic illness? (diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, mental illness, addiction, etc.) Oh, we see everyone posting happy pics on social media, but let me assure you that millions upon millions are suffering in silence. And many who are voicing their distress are running into closed doors and wide-eyed people who just don’t know how to “deal” with them.

There’s no doubt a new American Dream needs to go forth, as the Center for a New American Dream envisions, where “a focus on more of what really matters, such as creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature, and spending time with family and friends.” 

Mind and body are connected

There’s this mentality that is actually taught to kids in schools that the mind and the body are separate. They’re not. They’re connected, and this has been validated by modern science. Just look at the traditional Chinese or Shamanic schools of thought that are slowly, but surely making their ways here to the States. (Yay!)

The mind (thoughts and emotions) affect the body, which brings into question what’s being taught to society at large? What’s getting into the minds of people in everyday American life?

Look at advertising. Watch commercials. And if you can stomach it, watch the news. You know what’s being propagated? Drinking is the best way to have fun. Shopping for the latest and greatest things is the “cool” thing to do. The more you have, the more valuable you are. Produce. Get more. Have more. Be more. Go, go, and go some more.

Why don’t they show the almost 20 million people who are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction?  Those on the verge of suicide (and one occurs somewhere in the world every 40 seconds) What about those who are so far in debt that they’re miserable? Overworked, and tired deep in their bones? Those that have traded the almighty dollar for their very own souls.

The abnormal addict

I work in the addiction field, so of course, I hear stories each day of how addiction/alcoholism is ruining individual lives and families on a grand scale. Addiction to booze, drugs, prescription drugs, cigarettes, sex, porn, food, people, gambling, video games, and so on.

Is the addict abnormal?

No.

When it comes to addiction, choice and genetics don’t always explain it. People don’t choose to become addicts and genetics no longer can be blamed for it. That’s what we’ve been taught, but when you dig deeper, you get some interesting findings. 

During the Vietnam war, many soldiers began using heroin while in Vietnam, and about 40 percent became addicted. Now, you would think there would have been a heroin epidemic in the States upon their return, but there wasn’t.

Why? Because their circumstances had changed. They left a highly stressful, even traumatizing, environment, to a loving family or atmosphere that was peaceful, and overnight, the majority of heroin users stopped using. Granted, changing an environment isn’t the cure-all, but it’s one factor that is important to consider.

{Check out this wonderful video on the Rat Park Experiment, showing how community (loving people) makes a HUGE difference in whether one becomes or stays an addict} 

The Rat Park Experiment

Let me reiterate what Dr. Mate states:

It’s not an addiction epidemic, it’s an emotional pain problem.

We live in a society that promotes emotional shutdown. Stiffen that upper lip! Be strong! Suck it up, cream puff! Or, as in my case, kids grow up in homes where parents aren’t in touch with their own emotions due to stuffing or repressing their own wounds, and this unhealthy cycle continues. Everything piles high under the darn carpet. 

What’s the solution?

I think we all know the plight of our society, and can agree that some things must change. But what’s the solution? How can we stop judging and stigmatizing those who fall on the far side of the normal/abnormal continuum? How can we celebrate our spot on any point on the continuum, realizing that being different is alright, and part of being human?

How can we better treat the “emotional pain” epidemic going on?

Ah, if only there was a clear-cut solution. The reality is that there are a variety of things we can do, and part of my focus for the upcoming year is to tap into more of the traditional wisdom of indigenous populations around the world that oftentimes contradicts our Western views about mental health.

Learning from those who have for centuries embraced all spots on the “normal/abnormal” continuum, and use natural, alternative healing techniques (and acceptance) to

transform a psychological crisis into a positive, transformative experience.

I’m also going deeper myself. This year has been wonderful in so many ways, but I’m called to deeper waters. Deeper connections with myself and a community. Deeper peace, and deeper love.

And, a resolve to bring healing to a greater number of people who are suffering emotionally.

Tips for you

As I close, I want you to ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling connected to myself? To others? (Not social media. Real life, face-to-face)
  • Do I feel free to express myself, no matter what that looks like?
  • Am I drinking/drugging to cope?
  • Am I afraid to reach out for help? (Counseling, coach, support group, 12 Step group, etc.)

Regardless of where you are on the “normal” continuum,

  • Embrace a journey toward a deeper understanding and awareness of yourself, God/Source/Spirit, and others.
  • Resist the urge to disconnect and escape from painful emotions.
  • Resist consumerism.
  • Reach out for help, be it a therapist, energy healer, friend, spiritual advisor, mentor, etc.
  • Commit to a season of honestly looking at your past (trauma, abuse, neglect, etc.), on your own or with a therapist/shamanic healer/spiritual advisor/pastor, etc.) Oftentimes, addictions, depression, anxiety, etc. are the consequence of early trauma. It’s time to begin healing there, at the root.
  • Explore what it means to go through an emotional crisis.
  • Find meaning in your “craziness”. Celebrate it.
  • Encourage others who are struggling.

You’re not broken. You’re not abnormal.

You (the real you) is whole.

Continue your journey toward experiencing that reality.

XO

[1] https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf