Normal is an illusion

Myth: “People with mental health problems are different than normal people.” Fact: “We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health.”
Myth: “People with mental health problems are different than normal people.” Fact: “We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health.”
The first time I experienced mental health therapy was under duress. I was in middle school, and one of the many times I was bullied that year had resulted in me being injured to a degree that the school nurse said I needed to be taken to the hospital. This ultimately led to the administration deciding that the only logical response to how often I was being bullied by other students was to threaten me, the victim, with expulsion unless I got therapy. And my ability to remain enrolled was contingent on the therapist reporting that I was making adequate progress. Whatever that meant.

The therapist spent all of our time together making me describe and then analyze specific incidents of bullying, trying to identify which of my behaviors had provoked the bully, then trying to teach me to act like a normal boy. I don’t think she ever used the phrase “normal” to my face, but she certainly did when explaining things to my parents. Just as school officials and teachers repeatedly told my parents in parent-teacher conferences and the like that these incidents would surely stop if I would just learn to act more like the other boys.

This experience did not instill much confidence that therapy was meant to help me.

Throughout my teens I was dragged into therapy several more times for various reasons. There was concern for a while that my migraines might have a psychological cause, for instance. Another time, I got into an argument with one of my Aunts because I refused to agree with her that I felt traumatized by my parents’ divorce, which eventually led to an ultimatum from Mom to start seeing a therapist. So I saw this guy once a week for a few months, though what the therapist wanted to talk about was very confusing and didn’t seem to have much to do with my feelings about my parents’ divorce (I was thrilled to no longer be living with a physically abusive man). It was many years later that I learned that my mom’s insistence that I see the therapist was related to the secret prayer meetings she was having with other church ladies because she was afraid I was gay.

Again, not an experience to inspire me with confidence.

Then there had been the continuing spectacle of watching my sister being diagnosed with various contradictory mental illnesses, going in and out of mental health facilities over decades. One of the early rounds for my sister happened while I was still a teen living at home, and Mom decided that we needed full family counseling. At least that therapist told Mom after a few sessions that it would be better use of the limited amount of time Mom and her insurance could afford to focus on my sister’s issues.

Many years later I sought out therapy on my own, and that time I found it helpful. Of course, it was the first time I had a therapist who didn’t treat either my being gay nor my love of science fiction/fantasy as a symptom (seriously—but that’s a story for another day). That alone was a big improvement. And it was the first time I had made the decision to seek help. I sought help because I was concerned I was turning into an abusive person, like my dad. I didn’t want to become him.

But it also helped me get over the lingering sense of distrust I had for the idea of mental health treatment. My bad experiences weren’t proof that mental health treatment is hooey, they were proof that prejudice and bias can happen anywhere, even in a profession that thinks of itself as objective.

No two people will experience the same illness the same way. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Even more important, what works for a person for a few months or years, may not work as well later. We just have to do our best, try to adapt, and most importantly, try not to beat ourselves up over things.

Having lived with, loved, and otherwise been close to people with various mental health issues, I am very aware of the importance of getting treatment, getting the right treatment, and getting support and affirmation from your friends, family, and community. It’s hard to know, sometimes, how to be supportive. There isn’t a simple, one size fits all approach.

Try to be there. Listen if they want to talk. Don’t push. Let them know you care. Be willing to give them space. And take care of yourself: if you get stressed out and frazzled on their behalf, you aren’t actually helping.

Love them. Love yourself.

2 thoughts on “Normal is an illusion

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