What is Normal?

Yesterday in my Advanced Psychopathology class we revisited the idea of normalcy and abnormality in relation to mental health. The professor showed us this slide:

Screenshot (145)
Based on Jahoda’s six aspects of normal functioning

And he assured us that all of us were “normal” because the department had viewed our applications to the program and we all got in, so nothing sent up any red flags. This automatically set off the little alarm bells in my head because “hi, my name is KD, and I am not normal.” I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The abnormal sitting amongst the self-proclaimed, instructor-identified “normal.” Granted, my depression is “in remission” and my anxiety is basically a non-issue these days; I still struggle. The mask could slip at any moment and then what?

Everyday is like running a marathon just to stay one step ahead of what feels like depression that will completely annihilate me. I know that this is just a part of me trying to communicate some old fear and worry to my present self. I know that adult me cannot be completely destroyed by emotions. But, there is something that lingers under the surface, that nags at me, “don’t slow down or the darkness will consume you.” It is completely, totally, utterly exhausting living this way. Maintaining “mastery of my environment”, realizing that I have “autonomy of action,” keeping up with things enough that I am able to “cope with daily demands.” I mean, yes, I’m doing it… I’m feigning normalcy really, really well right now. But that doesn’t excuse the dark, ominous, portent at the dinner table. The harbinger of despair never disappears. He is like a damn dementor. A black hole, a vacuum of nothingess that saps away happiness and productivity. That is what I’m trying to stay ahead of… so, yeah, maybe I can play a part in this masquerade of normalcy but the mask is heavy, painfully, agonizingly heavy. And, I’m tired.

I question the price of normalcy. Is being “abnormal” really so bad? I know that for the program I am in, the answer is, “yes.” Being abnormal could be grounds for dismissal from the program. The policy states:

“Self-disclosures will not be used as a basis for grading in any course. However, should a student disclose information indicating impairment or the potential for harm to clients, the faculty member may take appropriate action in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics (2014).”

The part about this that stands out is that one little word, “impairment.” What makes someone “impaired” in the eyes of their professors? When I had just been broken up with, had just lost my job, when I admitted to feeling “existential despair,” was I impaired? Does that just count as temporary impairment or could it come back to bite me in the butt later? I know, I’m doing that paranoid thing again, but really… I feel like these are valid questions. The Clinical Mental Health Counseling handbook goes on to say:

Counselor Educators are charged with the responsibility of acting as “gatekeepers” for the counseling profession. This means that the program faculty helps students consider other areas of study when the counseling profession is not appropriate. The process of determining appropriateness for the profession is conducted by the faculty as a group and not as individual faculty members. As stated in the Retention Policy, in the event that a student demonstrates a behavior incompatible with the goals or values of the counseling profession, program faculty members meet to determine the best method of assisting the student by developing a remediation plan or by advising the student out of the counselor education program.

So much about this worries me. I left a profession specifically for the purpose of pursuing this one. I really, really doubt very seriously that my behaviors would be called into question this far into the program but again, who gets to decide what behaviors are “incompatible with the goals or values of the counseling profession”? When I stood up for myself in regards to my grade, could that have been considered deviant, abnormal? I sent multiple emails and received no response. I am well aware that “multiple emails” is seen as aggressive and combative. I am aware that it is within the realm of abnormal behavior according to members of the department; however, where is the line drawn between acceptable an unacceptable when a person is trying to advocate fairly for him/herself?

There is so much subjectivity here and, being a person who is treading water to stay afloat every single day, the subjectivity scares me. This question of what is normal and abnormal and the fact that others get to make that decision bothers me. I’ve had interactions where I could see the wheels turning, the little diagnosis gears had been switched in my professors’ heads. They’re thinking, “self-injury, suicidal ideation, impulsive behavior” and likely thinking “unstable.” Easily grounds for dismissal. Should my normalcy ever be called into question, would I get credit for pursuing DBT therapy, EMDR therapy, and group therapy? Would the work that I am doing be considered enough to salvage my spot in the program? Is this work enough to make me “normal”? Or at least, abnormal but in remission?

5 Thoughts

  1. I find that a strange choice of words for this profession with ‘unconditional positive regard’ and all. I don’t really think there is such a thing as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. As far as I’m aware if you’re in therapy it means that you’re managing your own mental health. It is unfair that someone gets to make the decision. Also, mental illness can strike at any so anyone who are considered ‘normal’ may be different in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. As someone who is not exactly “neurotypical” it gives me an interesting perspective in my classes. I can see why things like what happened Wednesday in group happen. Because there is still this disease model being perpetuated. Where the counselor is supposed to be more normal or more well than the client. But often that really isnt the case. And, as you said, mental illness can strike anyone at any time.

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      1. Which is also the wrong attitude! You’re still a person with opinions and principles despite your illness. I would imagine that a lot of people would question paying more because of the agreed rates. There are plenty of bad therapists out there.

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  2. I find it frightening that a prof would show a slide titled “normal mental health”. There’s such a value judgment inherent in that kind of language, and to me that seems like it should be incompatible with the goals and values of the counselling profession.

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