Am I Normal? Am I Depressed?

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Which insightfully bewildered comic strip character was it who said: I never knew what I was missing until I lost it?

I read that line about ten years ago after a series of surgeries had removed a few expendable body parts and left me in a lot of pain during the weeks of recovery. Suddenly I thought of all the things a healthy body lets you do – simple things, like bending down to get your shoe on, that I had never imagined having trouble with, or complicated things, like climbing mountains, that I had never realized I might someday might dream of doing. So those words hit home.

Depression wasn’t so immediate in impact as surgery. Instead it crept up on me over such a long period that I didn’t realize how much energy of life and mind was disappearing until I got to a point where others had to tell me what I had lost. A basic force for life had gone missing, and I wasn’t sure I would get it back. It was no small part of depression’s voice to tell me over and over again how I had wasted life, and I hadn’t fully realized what was passing me by. Strange how a comic strip character can make you laugh about a condition that wants to leave you hopeless and humorless all the time, that wants you to think about loss, about what you lack that normal people still have. Comic insights often run deep.

That line was in my mind the other day when talking to an insightful friend and helper about the cyclic pattern of my ups and downs. I was describing a particular pattern I had observed in thinking about long periods of my life. I had often put myself into leadership positions in great bursts of outer directed energy, but then I would pull back to what is for me much more normal, an inner directed state of recharging and creating things in a quiet way. People would get angry and disappointed because they wanted me out there and at my peak all the time. My friend thought about that and said: It’s really all about the assumptions. We hear from family, friends, school, work, everywhere, that our varying moods aren’t acceptable – so we grow up with the assumption, the belief, that there is something wrong with us. What if you, if everyone, could just accept those ups and downs, extroverted times vs introverted times, high energy, low energy, as something that happens, without the stigma of success or failure or of healthy vs. sick?

This was an interesting thought. The pattern could simply be seen as what’s normal for me, a variation in ways of being in the world and expressing who I am. The problem is that parents, when observing these variations in children, start worrying that all is not well, school teachers make comments, and later in life colleagues in the workplace are upset at the loss of the person they want to see. All come to agree that something has to change, and that assumption seeps into one’s mind early in life. My friend’s point made a lot of sense. I could begin to grasp what several writers have claimed, that the meaning assigned to one’s mental health or mental disorder comes partly from what we learn to accept as what is normal and what is not, what is health and what is disease.

Normal? What was that in my case? I’m not sure I could begin to understand or miss being normal until I had lost that state and arrived at depression. Then it was a scramble through various treatments and medications to get back what I had lost. But what was the normality I had to get back to? My friend’s approach was more appealing, but to accept the changing flows of energy and focus in my life, I would have to make a lot of progress in undoing the assumptions I had grown up with.

I started thinking from a very early age that there was something wrong with me, that I ought to be different – more like the person my parents said or implied I should be. I was never quite clear what sort of person that was, other than completely “successful,” but I assumed, I knew deep down that I wasn’t it. In fact, I was all wrong, somehow fatally flawed, never able to be quite that splendid guy. That didn’t stop me, though, from trying to be the number one success, imagining all sorts of great things I would do on the upswing side of my outer-directed energies. But by following the path based on just one side of my personality, I was forcing myself into a life that didn’t really suit me in the first place.

I was creating a false self to meet my inner assumptions and the apparent expectations of everyone around me. Now, that’s a pretty tiring and draining thing to do – constantly going against the grain of my own personality. I would not only attack myself for not achieving those perfect goals, I would also be resisting – unconsciously – that whole course of my work life since I was having to suppress a big part of who I was. So round and round I would go, reaching for a career that didn’t fit and at the same time undermining my attempts to get there. To reach the logical conclusion of this trend, if I were somehow able to achieve that perfect success, I would also be achieving perfect unhappiness in work that wasn’t right for me to begin with.

It took years to become aware of that pattern. In living through it, I came to think of myself as healthy or normal when the outer directed energy was high and sick or inadequate when that energy redirected itself to inner needs. Almost always, the work that directed me toward social goals won out over the inner life that seemed illegitimate, self-indulgent – simply wrong. So the overall effect was that I became inconsistent in what I could do in either sphere. Sometimes I was really good, sometimes I fell flat. I simply couldn’t get comfortable with my own natural rhythm and differing needs. For so long, I couldn’t get over the inner belief that being me wasn’t acceptable, that my energies needed to go in just one direction.

This is a point where a form of social conditioning got right inside my mind. People didn’t want my changing energies and mind swings. It wasn’t normal, it wasn’t healthy. How much does the inner belief encouraged by those reactions contribute to depression? What is the link between the psychological loss or distortion we might grow up with and the socially reinforced meanings of health, disease and normality? What do you think?

8 Responses to “Am I Normal? Am I Depressed?”

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  1. Kelly says:

    Thanks for the information on depression.

    We recently wrote an article on genetics and depression Brain Blogger. It is widely known that depression results from a combination of many different factors. Environmental factors such as stressful life events can trigger the development of major depressive disorder (MDD), but doctors suspect that there may another, unheard-of underlying factor — genetics

    We would like to read your comments on our article. Thank you.

  2. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    The easiest way to get in touch with our adapting to our environment is thinking about how we were parented. Our parents were our first environment, our culture is originally mediated through our parents. When can usually be quite clear about some of their beliefs about the world (that we agree or disagree with). We can usually be clear about how we went along with them or fought them. These beliefs usually are reflected in our broader culture. This gives a place to start that is emotionally engaging. Of course the emotion involved may just get in the way instead of helping – in which case you’d need to start somewhere else.

    Another would be to think of the place you enjoy being most and the place you enjoy being least. How are they different?

  3. John D says:

    I know the word “normal” is irritating as hell, perhaps because it is that focal point for getting at the intersection of social forces and individuality. I’m trying to understand what a lot of people have maintained for a long time, that mental states are conditioned, or at least strongly affected, by the social setting we’re a part of. I can grasp that intellectually, but it’s another thing to see how that could be playing out in my day to day life. Last year there was a post on Furious Seasons that linked the words normal and depression – posing the question as to whether depression could be considered a normal part of life. That triggered about 80 comments, a lot of anger, nasty fights among commentors, many self-righteous pronouncements and a lot of ideological spitfire. The intensity of the reaction intrigued me, and I certainly shared it. So the reaction to the word makes me think there’s something going on there, and I need to explore that more fully. Sorry – but I’ll probably make us both suffer a little more of “normal” until I get to the bottom of it.

    John

  4. http://zathynpriest.com/blog says:

    I’ve never liked the word ‘normal’ and the older I get the more I dislike it. Whatever that word means, I’m glad I don’t categorize myself in it and I’m glad other’s see me as left of the middle.

    I have bipolar, as you know, and the massive swings from high to low are not what would constitute normal moods. But I also just have days when I feel quiet or I feel energetic, and that’s ME not the disorder. People should be allowed to express those good and bad days without being labeled for it.

  5. John D says:

    Untreatableonline –

    I guess we share something. It’s a terrible experience, trying to live a life that isn’t your own. I’ve held back from saying that caused my illness, but you’re right in pinning it to your Borderline condition. I probably shouldn’t be so cautious. The sheer energy and perverse commitment it takes to create that untrue person would be enough to undo anyone!

    Thanks for your comment.

    John

  6. John D says:

    Evan – I agree that normal is tricky, but in growing up when I did that concept got ingrained long before any idea of mental health took hold. In those days, not being mentally healthy meant you were having a “nervous breakdown” – and those people just disappeared. Nobody talked about mood disorders! And a kid, while wanting to stand out and be exceptional, also wanted to be seen as normal (as opposed to weird) and to be part of a normal, respected family. The term meant something like you were basically OK, one of us, part of our world. These days everyone cherishes their uniqueness, and normal seems totally boring. But I am intrigued with the concept that mental illness could be a “normal” part of our lives under the strain of social and economic conditions. I’m still trying to understand exactly how that might play outin my own experience.

    John

  7. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    Normal is tricky. My preference is to think about being healthy. A rough guide being to be in touch with what’s going on and being able to respond creatively to it.

    It may well be normal to be depressed given the kinds of pressure that our society puts on us. Knowing this may be a first step to healthy, but only a first step.

    I can relate to high expectations without knowing exactly what they were. I was more fortunate than you – I wasn’t expected to excel or be the best.

    It sounds to me like you got to the end of one way of living, in accord with the program you had grown up fulfilling. My guess is that depression is a normal response when we get to this point.

    I guess almost all of us grow up with messages about who we are – and that some of them aren’t right about who we are.

    I think with any psychological loss some depression is probably normal (even if it is a loss of something that didn’t feel especially good to us. People who’ve been awfully abused can still feel the loss when the abuser dies.)

    The social meaning given to health and disease I find to be quite neurotic. Normality is almost always unhelpful I think. After all our normal ways of organising have lead to a devastated planet and societies relying on mood altering drugs to function – normality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least in my humble opinion.

  8. http://www.untreatableonline.com/ says:

    By trying to be who everyone wanted me to be and suppressing my true self is more then likely the cause of my Borderline Personality. Spent so much time building up this perfect image that would meet others approval and keep me safe that who I actually was disappeared somewhere along the line. When I finally hit that moment where I realized my life was not normal I was completely lost for I was not sure what parts of my personality were actually me or just a role to maintain that false image that was created a long time ago.

    Good post.