Some thoughts on ‘normality’

“What even is normal anyway?”

I’ll get this over with right out of the gate: I loathe this question, and it takes everything I have not to roll my eyes at anyone who asks it in front of me. I don’t even manage it every time though my hit rate is improving. I understand where it comes from. At least, I think I do. The intention seems to be about trying to validate the ‘non-normal’, which is a noble one for sure. We’re all so different that ‘normal’ is robbed of all meaning.

Except it isn’t. I grant that humanity’s variety is infinite and huge. It’s mind-bogglingly cool, actually. But to say that that variety negates any useful concept of ‘normal’ is to blinker oneself to the impact of that word, and to claim the existence of a level of acceptance within society that simply isn’t there.

Because if you can ask that question “what’s normal anyway?” I can tell you haven’t felt what it is to be unspokenly abnormal. It’s not your fault, usually, that’s what societal ableism does for you. But I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask that question. I have always known I wasn’t normal, ever since I first went to school and my social circles started expanding. I couldn’t have pinned down why I felt that way (and even when Mum tried, she was knocked back), but I knew very clearly that I wasn’t like everyone else.

Throughout my schooling, everyone noticed I wasn’t normal. From the kids who were picked out for me by my teacher to be my friends because I couldn’t make them myself, to my dorm-mates on the school week away who teased me mercilessly because I answered maths questions correctly in my sleep, to the girls who made my life hell throughout secondary school, to my friends at sixth form, who tolerated me but teased me about playing the recorder well beyond my saying I’d had enough and just drifted away.

All these things were small, on one level, but the common thread was the feeling I had that there I was always just one step out with everyone. The moments I’ve mentioned were just some of the ones I can pinpoint, but the feeling of being slightly disconnected from everyone was constant. As I got older, I learned that I could bury it, style it out, play up being the quirky one, rein in my strangeness, whatever it took to keep things funny. I’d already learned that telling any of my close friends how I felt wasn’t going to get me anywhere – they would brush it off, tell me not to be so sensitive, that it was all in my head.

One of the hardest things to get used to in the seven and a half years since I got diagnosed is the realisation that it wasn’t in my head. That my first 21 years of thinking I was different, strange, and that my friends could see something odd in me were down to something that had a name, a real, tangible condition of my wiring. I wasn’t normal enough to be accepted as I was. The unidentified strangeness I had set me apart from the people I was hanging around with, separated me from them in ways I couldn’t see. They couldn’t see them either, but I think we all knew they were there.

So when people say “what’s normal anyway?” my answer is that it’s the thing you leave unquestioned because you fit in well enough. It’s the lack of feeling like everyone else is working on a wavelength that you can’t access. It’s the assumption you can make that the way you are will be accepted at least nine times out of ten. It’s a sign of privilege that you were normal enough in the ways that society has deemed to be important not to notice how ‘abnormality’ is treated.

We can accept humanity’s variety when it’s people who like books or sport or both or neither, die-hard Sibelius fans and obsessive Queen lovers, those who excel at art or science or writing or bricklaying, and those who kill succulents or grow prize dahlias or limp towards a small potato harvest each year. That’s just human variety, all those people are normal enough.

But when it comes to those of us who work in literal terms, who engage with social situations differently (if at all), who wear our interests on our sleeves and take them very personally? Believe me when I say we are not accepted. We who are pained by bright lights and the noises you love so much, we who cannot process what the person at the front of the room is saying if you’re whispering at the back (especially if we are the person at the front of the room), we who ask for adjustments so we can access the world. We are not normal. We are hit by this fact every day that we have to deal with these small actions, micro-aggressions that prioritise the neurotypical and/or able-bodied experience and subtly ostracise anyone who doesn’t fit that mould. So subtly that we spend decades of our lives wondering if it’s just us, and even when we’ve worked out that it is something real, we still have to convince ourselves and each other of that fact.

The next time you are tempted to ask what normal even is anyway, remember those of us who are not normal. Instead of questioning us when we say we are not normal, understand that your view of normality is a privileged one. You are seeing normality from the inside, which makes it hard for you to see at all and allows you to ask that question. But only by seeing it can it be acknowledged, and only by acknowledging it can it be taken apart. And it’s only if it’s taken apart that we stand a chance of actually accepting difference at all.

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