Normal. It’s become a ‘buzz word’ in political discussion. I’ve heard it used frequently over the past 2 decades in my work with people who live with chronic illness. But this new context has led me to wonder about what it means and how does it impact our view of ourselves and our lives?
When do we use this word and why? It seems that wanting a return to normal comes up when the change wasn’t wanted, isn’t welcome, and especially, when it seems beyond our control. Hmm — interesting similarities between politics and and debilitating, chronic illness.
What does normal mean? In my experience within the chronic illness world, it’s typically used in these ways:
- “I want to be normal again.” (reflecting back to a previous,healthy life)
- “I wish I were normal, planning to have a family, like everyone else my age.” (referring to what they think is the standard for healthy people)
- “I’m adjusting to my new normal.” (referring to the new state of health)
I’m bothered by the implicit assumption about shared understanding of what normal describes. Normal isn’t a noun (a person, place or thing). It’s an adjective.
- Webster’s dictionary: normal: adj, conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.
And, where there’s a normal standard, there’s a not normal, an abnormal. According to this psychology teaching website: “Ideas of “normal” and “abnormal” are largely shaped by social standards and can have profound social ramifications.” Normal/abnormal are subjective, not objective, standards. The words and ideas behind them shape who we are and impact behavior. If you don’t fit your idea of normal, who do you become? When you compare yourself to those that fit the type and you don’t, you’ve got to conclude you’re abnormal. Does living with debilitating chronic illness leave you feeling abnormal?
There’s another way this word is used, to normalize a situation. Normalizing: v. to bring or restore (as in government relations) to a normal condition.
So normalizing offers a way to restore and stay resilient. I’ve seen personally and professionally the value in normalizing a life with illness. I came across this article, “Why normalizing chronic illness would make it easier to cope”, and some valuable points. “…living with illness is more normal than we think. Society seems in a state of denial that illness is a fact of life for most families. It is part of the human condition. Serious and chronic illness is becoming more common. At any one time, about half of us will be managing a serious health condition and around one in five of us will be experiencing two or more serious illnesses at once.”
Not normalizing chronic illness makes a difficult situation worse. The authors conclude, “… <when> remaining quiet about illness becomes normal, illness is often hidden and many people cope with illness alone. While it may be acceptable to talk about having a common cold, it seems that speaking about more serious illness is not. Sometimes we hide away our health troubles behind a mask of wellness. acceptable to talk about having a common cold, it seems that speaking about more serious illness is not.”
Normal, abnormal, normalize. The words we use matter. How do you think about these words and what does it do to your view of yourself?