When first remembering childhood abuse, many survivors mourn the loss of a “normal” past. Mainstream media sells us a vision of what our lives should be, and convinces us we are less-than if our lives are different. Even if we live in a home that embraces difference, we may feel shame when we venture outside. At the same time, survivors may accept violence as a “normal” part of family life, never having known anything else.
Violence is common
Survivors of violence feel alienated, cut off from normal experience. In part, that comes from dissociation, feeling separate from the physical experience of being alive. In part, it comes from society’s myth that experiencing violence is rare and abnormal.
Abuse is heartbreakingly common. In the United States, at least 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually assaulted by age 18.1 Intimate partner violence is endemic.2 The same mainstream media that idolizes childhood innocence is full of overt violence.
We send soldiers into war zones to both commit and suffer atrocities, and then tell them their experiences are “inhuman” when they return. The experiences may be inhumane, but humans clearly commit and experience violence at high rates.
Normal is relative
The dictionary defines normal as “usual, ordinary”.3 Each of us defines “usual” and “ordinary” based on our viewpoint and environment. Small children stare, point, and comment when they encounter something new to them, such as a person using a wheelchair.
The wiktionary entry also notes: “Warning: normal, when used to describe a majority group of people, can be considered offensive to those who don’t consider membership of their own minority to be unusual. Care should be taken when juxtaposing normal, particularly with stereotypical labels, to avoid undue insult.”
“Normal” when applied to a majority group supports the privilege of being the expected, accommodated default, while everyone else has to fit in around the edges.
Ideally, responsible adults teach children that “normal” is relative, and that it is good manners to hide their surprise as they learn about what is normal for someone else. Sadly, many adults never learned this lesson themselves, moving through the world as if they are entitled to make others uncomfortable with their prying questions.
Avoid prying questions
When we ask questions to satisfy our curiosity, rather than to connect with someone, we are labeling them as Other, and demanding their time to educate us. When we feel curious, we can pause to acknowledge that each person is normal to themselves before entering into conversation. We can also pay attention to people’s responses, and stop asking if they seem uncomfortable.
Disability of any sort seems to elicit the same rude questions over and over. Somehow US culture encourages us to think we are entitled to intimate health details about anyone who seems different. Strangers are visibly taken aback when I decline to discuss the details of my sensitivities with them. As the person being asked, we can say, “I’m not interested in discussing that further,” or, “Nice weather we’re having!” or calmly wait for them to find another topic.
When we realize that we have treated someone as Other, we might feel intense shame. We can apologize to the person and process our reaction elsewhere. We are all learning to be more aware and respectful of people who differ from what we assume is normal.
Your body is normal
Human bodies vary widely in size, shape, and other physical characteristics. Each body is normal in relation to itself, despite the myths we persist in believing against all evidence.
- Myth: “Normal” weight is healthiest.
Fact: “Overweight” people have a lower risk of mortality than people of “normal” weight.4
- Myth: Human races are genetically different from each other.
Fact: Differences within races are larger than among races.5
- Myth: The differences between men and women make them easy to distinguish from each other.
Fact: Differences within genders are larger than among genders.6
In the US, whiteness and maleness are the default against which others are measured. The social costs of being considered less than “normal” account for a lot of the differences between people of varying body sizes, skin colors, and genders.
PTSD is sensible
The dictionary also defines normal as “healthy; not sick or ill”. As if the pain of trauma were not enough, survivors with PTSD feel additional pain at being considered abnormal. PTSD is the body’s normal, sensible response to overwhelming trauma.
Normal for you
In what ways do you see yourself as normal? In what ways do you see yourself as less than (or more than) normal? Spend some time with your answers, with as much kindness and compassion as you can. Carry the questions inside as you interact with others who have their own sense of normalcy. Do your answers shift over time?
1. National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (NAASCA) – What are the statistics of the abused?.↩
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.↩
3. Wiktionary – normal.↩
4. Time Magazine – Being Overweight Is Linked to Lower Risk of Mortality.↩
5. PBS – RACE The Power of an Illusion background reading.↩
6. American Psychological Association (APA) – Men and Women: No Big Difference.↩
“The Price of Blackness” by Lanre Akinsiku describes one of the ongoing costs of being seen as Other.