When I was a student editor, we printed an article in the university magazine that I’ve never forgotten. The author was a psychology student, Sam Keast, who had an interesting take on the 'Norm'. Keast described Norm as, “an enormous shadowy figure that lurched into his world of learning” who would “loiter around certain subjects and had been sitting comfortably among the academia for ages". I was fascinated and drawn to his concept because I, too, found that this Norm pervaded my existence. Norm made me look different, made it possible for others judge me and treat me according to that judgement. Norm was, and still is, the foundation upon which I can be diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Thankfully, the concept of Norm has been extensively debated and modified, even within the slower moving world of clinical mental health care. Symptom experience is now more likely to be expressed as something that does not fit with a person’s usual occurrence of mental health. One person’s experience of bipolar is not the same as another’s, so how ‘well’ they are cannot be measured accordingly. Just as once person’s experience with cancer cannot be measured against another’s. Still, Norm is very much a standard by which mental health is critiqued and evaluated and unfortunately, it will continue to be while we consumers allow it to.
I totally confess I am guilty of judging myself by Norm’s standards. If I am having a particularly bad day, I do a quick mental assessment to see if this is, by what Norm would consider, a socially appropriate response to the set of stimuli I have encountered. Or in everyday terms, is this just the usual kind of crap others have to put up with. Based on this, I then determine if my response is one of Norm’s varieties or if it is deterioration in my mental health. I was actually prompted to write this blog when I recently found myself highly motivated to do a bit of a spring clean in the bathroom. As I used my fancy battery-operated swirly-brush to get into the tiny nooks and crannies of the taps, I found myself thinking, "oh no, does this I am getting manic?". I realised I waste a lot of time checking and double checking within myself to make sure I am within the Norm.
That is not to say that doing a self check is a bad thing. No one knows better than us what our usual experience is. That self check can help us determine if we are in a crisis and need help of the mental health kind, or in a crisis and in need of help of another kind. By evaluating ourselves by our own standards and not Norm’s, we can take action that is appropriate to us.
In the last few years, as I have returned to a mental health state that I consider my best function, I have become a part of my society again. In this, my children have learned there is a difference between Mum just getting into the swing of a party by dancing—or worse still, doing karaoke—and Mum needing to up her meds. I have learnt that sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed because I’m just plain tired, and not because I’m getting depressed. Over the years I’d gotten so used to analysing everything that I’d forgotten that sometimes life is just life—and this is the real Norm.
Fiona L Browning