The bounds of 'normality'

As I said in my last post, we all think we know what being "mad" means. By the same token, we all have a rough idea of what being "normal" means. So do we, when a family member's behavior becomes "abnormal", immediately assume that the person is mentally unwell?

If you read the writings of some psychologists, you might be persuaded that the person's relatives are quick to come to this conclusion — and to drag the person off for compulsory psychiatric treatment. We live in a society that is intolerant of those who are "different", we are told. And families, we are led to believe, are particularly intolerant. Furthermore, they turn the "abnormal" son or daughter into a scapegoat for their own dysfunction. Thus, by taking him or her to the psychiatrist, and having him or her subjected to an "exorcizing" operation, they are able to absolve themselves of their sense of failure or inadequacy.

But does this actually happen? If we were living in England in the 1940s or 1950s, I would say that it sometimes does. I know, from my own experience, that English society was extraordinarily intolerant in those days, and often cruelly coercive. But does it happen today? And specifically, does it happen in New Zealand?

I think it has to be pointed out that society has moved on since the 1950s. We no longer cane a boy for failing to sit up straight in class, for setting his cap at too jaunty an angle, or for allowing one sock to slip down an inch or two. Indeed, some people argue that society has gone too far in the opposite direction — and now tolerates almost any kind of unruliness.

In the early 1990s, as the father of a young woman who had graduated from university and entered the workforce, the last thing I wanted to do was interfere in her life. I thought I had done my job — and done it well. Her future was now entirely in her own hands. I was so detached, I did not realize, for a while, that her interest in the physical routine of the Fitness Foundation had become an obsession, and that everything else in her life was sliding into oblivion.

When I did realize what was happening, and also became concerned about her hypercritical manner, what did I do? Did I label her "mad", and attempt to railroad her into a psychiatrist's office. No, I extended the bounds of normality to accommodate her increasingly aberrant behavior. I made allowances for her. I rationalized. I told myself: "This is a stressful time for her. It will pass."

When her criticism of me became distressingly scathing, I remembered the ease with which she had sailed through adolescence, and thought: "Oh well, I'm copping it now, rather than then."

Like her friend in Western Australia (see previous post), I continued to believe that she was well until I was forced, by the incontrovertible absurdity of her statements, to accept that she was not.

The above post was originally written on February 18, 2005.