By ERIN JAMIESON
The year I turned eighteen, I became obsessed with the word normal. It’s a word all of us use daily, discarding it the way we do our trash, without realizing its impact. Normal is a reference word, a term of comparison. We use it as a reassurance, a way to gauge how we are living our lives if we are doing things the normal – that is, the proper way.
It wasn’t a shock when I was diagnosed with both depression and anxiety. I was nearly seven before I agreed to try to ride a bike without training wheels; I was ten when my parents, desperate, finally resorted to bribing me with an Anastasia Barbie doll in order to coax me into jumping into the “deep” pool. I had only jumped off the diving board that year. For the first time.
It was easier to hide my anxiety and my depression than you’d think. I had moments of intense discomfort when my peers were doing things I was not, and I had to manufacture an excuse why I couldn’t do the same. I became more and more skilled with coming up with these excuses, and all of them, notably, were in the vein of some sort of principle: I needed to study for an exam, or I had college applications to fill out, or I really needed to clean my room.
And that perception of discipline worked as a mask, for people who didn’t know me well. I was praised for my unseemly dedication to studying or working or working out. I cannot count the number of times someone told me, I wish I were as disciplined as you. The only ones I couldn’t fool were the ones to me: my closest friends, my relatives. The harder I tried to hide my mental illness, the more and more it deepened.
I didn’t have one low point. I had many. I had days I did not want to get out of bed, days I wondered what would happen if I stopped doing anything at all. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, not really. More and more, it was the overwhelming pressure of living, as if a balloon was inflating inside my rib cage and there was less and less room to accommodate both it and my lungs.
Anxiety and depression and deeply related, something we know factually but have more trouble understanding on a personal level. For me, my anxiety, my fear of failure, of disappointing others prevented me from doing many things. The cruel irony: by missing out on family gatherings and vacations, I sensed a growing disappointment, even resentment at behavior no one, not even me, could understand. Shame grew into depressive spells, some deep and long, others brief but still acute.
I felt shame that I was not normal, that I was not what others expected or wanted me to be. I searched for years for that normal. I saw therapists and tried cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, everything therapy pretty much that was some evidence of efficacy. Except for medication. Ironic or not, the anxiety of taking medications—and the possible side effects it could cause—was enough to convince me to continually refuse to try it.
The therapy did help. The therapy was necessary, vital, needed. Without seeking help, I would not be alive today. But that isn’t to say it was a specific therapy itself or method that truly helped save my life. More than anything, it was having someone listen, without my need to cover up or explain away why I felt the way I did, or why I did or didn’t do things. For years, I wasn’t comfortable with this vulnerability. Maybe I still am not, entirely, with the people closest to me. It is a process, and, at times, a painful one.
Part of that process has been trying to abandon my search for normality. When I started therapy, I saw only an end goal objective: to become normal again (if I ever was). If I was normal again, it would mean I had succeeded. If I could do things without anxiety and enjoy doing the same things I saw others around me enjoying, then the therapy would not have been a waste of money.
But the burden of this only exacerbated my healing process. I would quit therapy, slide into worse and worse spells of anxiety and depression. Whenever I succeeded at one thing, I would inevitably “fail” at another. Even as I reigned in my outward signs of anxiety and depression, the pressure inside my chest built and built. As others praised my progress, I felt increasingly isolated, alone, hopeless that I would ever feel relatively “okay” again.
This article isn’t about me finding a magic moment or a break through. It isn’t like that for me, or probably for anyone, despite society’s tendency to envelop recovery in cinematic moments of renewal or triumph. This is about my slow acceptance that no, I will never be normal – at least not in the sense that I once defined it. It is my slow acceptance that therapy is not meant to fix me, or anyone else.
I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but I am learning that my search for normal is elusive. Whenever I find myself comparing my dreams or desires or fears with what I think is expected, or “normal,” the more I fall prey to the very things I am trying to manage.
Maybe I’ll always be a little anxious, a little prone to depressive spells. But I don’t see that as a statement of defeat. It is a recognition, finally, that I can be strong without meeting other’s expectations. It is a testament that I can, and others can learn to love themselves and their experiences as their own.
Normal? I’m not sure. Authentic, real, worth living for? One hundred percent.
Erin Jamieson is an MFA candidate at Miami University. Her work has appeared in Flash Frontier, After the Pause, and Blue River Review. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.