Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Is Anyone Normal Today?

Is Anyone Normal Today?Take a minute and answer this question: Is anyone really normal today?

I mean, even those who claim they are normal may, in fact, be the most neurotic among us, swimming with a nice pair of scuba fins down the river of Denial. Having my psychiatric file published online and in print for public viewing, I get to hear my share of dirty secrets—weird obsessions, family dysfunction, or disguised addiction—that are kept concealed from everyone but a self-professed neurotic and maybe a shrink.

“Why are there so many disorders today?” Those seven words, or a variation of them, surface a few times a week. And my take on this query is so complex that, to avoid sounding like my grad school professors making an erudite case that fails to communicate anything to average folks like me, I often shrug my shoulders and move on to a conversation about dessert. Now that I can talk about all day.


Here’s the abridged edition of my guess as to why we mark up more pages of the DSM-IV today than, say, a century ago (even though the DSM-IV had yet to be born).

Most experts would agree with me that there is more stress today than in previous generations. Stress triggers depression and mood disorders, so that those who are predisposed to it by their creative wiring or genes are pretty much guaranteed some symptoms of depression at confusing and difficult times of their lives.

I think modern lifestyles — lack of community and family support, less exercise, no casual and unstructured technology-free play, less sunshine and more computer — factor into the equation. So does our diet. Hey, I know how I feel after a lunch of processed food, and I don’t need to the help of a nutritionist to spot the effect in my 8-year-old son.


Finally, let’s also throw in the toxins of our environment. Our fish are dying… a clue that our limbic systems (brain’s emotional center) are not so far behind.

Maybe the same amount of people have genes that predispose them to depression as in the Great Depression. But the lifestyle, toxins, and other challenges of today’s world tilts the stress scale in the favor of major depression, acute anxiety, and their many relatives.

Of course we can’t forget today’s technology and cutting-edge research of psychologists, neuroscientists, and psychiatrists. Because of medical devices that can scan our brains with impressive precision and the arduous work of scientific studies done in medical labs throughout the country, we know so much more about the brain, and its relationship with other biological systems within the human body: digestive, respiratory and circulatory, musculoskeletal, and nervous. All of that is a very good thing, as is knowledge and awareness.


A few years ago, psychiatrist and bestselling author Peter Kramer penned an interesting article for Psychology Today rebutting the claims of popular authors — spawning a new genre of psychological literature — that doctors are abusing their diagnostic powers, labeling boyishness as “ADHD,” normal sadness and grief as “major depression,” and shyness as “social phobia.” Because of their rushed schedules and some laziness, doctors are narrowing the spectrum of normal human emotion, slapping a diagnosis on all conditions and medicating people who would be better served with a little coaching, direction, and psychotherapy.


As I explained in my piece, “Are We Overmedicating? Or Is Our Health Care System Inadequate?,” I believe the problem is far more complicated than overmedication. I’d be more comfortable labeling it “really bad health care.” And if I had to pick a culprit, I’d point my finger at our health care insurance policies, not the doctors themselves. But I don’t even want to get into that, because it causes my blood pressure to rise and I’m trying really hard lately to live like a Buddhist monk.

What I liked about Kramer’s article is that he doesn’t deny that there are more diagnoses today, and yes, some people may feel the damaging effect of stigma. However, more often than not, diagnosis brings relief and treatment to a behavior, condition, or neurosis that would otherwise decay certain parts of a person’s life, especially his marriage and relationships with children, bosses, co-worker, and dare I say in-laws? Kramer writes:


Diagnosis, however loose, can bring relief, along with a plan for addressing the problem at hand. Parents who might have once thought of a child as slow or eccentric now see him as having dyslexia or Asperger’s syndrome—and then notice similar tendencies in themselves. But there’s no evidence that the proliferation of diagnoses has done harm to our identity. Is dyslexia worse than what it replaced: the accusation, say, that a child is stupid and lazy?

People afflicted by disabling panic or depression may fully embrace the disease model. A diagnosis can restore a sense of wholeness by naming, and confining, an ailment. That mood disorders are common and largely treatable makes them more acceptable; to suffer them is painful but not strange.


Then Kramer asks this question: What would it feel like to live in a world where practically no one was normal? Where few people are free from “psychological defect?” What if normalcy was a mere myth? He ends the article with this poignant paragraph:

We are used to the concept of medical shortcomings; we face disappointing realizations—that our triglyceride levels and our stress tolerance are not what we would wish. Normality may be a myth we have allowed ourselves to enjoy for decades, sacrificed now to the increasing recognition of differences. The awareness that we all bear flaw is humbling. But it could lead us to a new sense of inclusiveness and tolerance, recognition that imperfection is the condition of every life.

Amen to that.

Originally published on Psych Central.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment AnneS

    Therese, I usually agree with you but I must disagree that the amount of stress we deal with today is so much more than in previous years. Your list of stresses were all quite accurate but I think of my grandmother’s life: an immigrant trying to learn the language and customs, a widow at a relatively young age with 5 children, financial stresses. Yes, I work 50 to 60 hour weeks, eat bioengineered foods with too much hidden sugars, live at a distance from my family, don’t get nearly enough exercise, but I am also more financially secure and in better health than was my grandmother at my age. I think I would restate Kramer’s conclusion this way: We’re all humans, imperfect by definition. Let’s be grateful we’re here!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Myke McCormick

    Wish I had said that. Now I will have to fight the temptation to claim I did. Undoubtedly some as yet undiagnosed aberration.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Razz2

    If I could put a graphic here it would be a big thumbs up. I think that in general we’re all still “normal” but now we have the means to understand our disturbing feelings and thoughts and know that there is help to change them.

    So yes, things have changed so that in our “time” life is indeed is not conducive to living the more “simple” life of our ancestors. But I also think that now we have a much better idea of what is going on and can actually treat those who were “high strung”, “had a weak constitution”, “enjoyed their nip now and then”, “a bit eccentric” and were prone to “hysteria and the vapors”.

    Be good to you – Razz

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rie


    As a recently retired RN/MFT, I used to tell my “patients” that everyone has a diagnosis or two. With the advent of DSM [and, not coincidentally,] doctors and therapists having stringent time and appointment limitations imposed by the systems in which they work–a factoid I agreed to never reveal as a condition of employment.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment buck baker

    Hi ma’am. I went through a div. where the wife left with another. Lost home. In an apt. for those with low income. I find so many of the people here are leary of anyone. Say Hi. Invite one down for coffee or tea and you are reported for misconduct. Ask them if they need help with anything—–harassment. Thank u for the breath of fresh air i receive with each item you have.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JiLLB

    “Normal” is a dryer setting.

  • Margaret Shalhoob

    I found thius article very reassuring. I do believe there are objective standards of welness, however, which I think is what was once called “normal.” Authentic human needs met simply and without question. I agree that our current ordinry life practices are so stressful, new and unhealthy that we are narrowing the field of those able to adapt and narrowing the skills/attributes necessary to adapt. Another way of putting this, is we are losing our common humanity.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kathleen Clohessy

    Life today is stressful, true, but have you ever looked pictures from or listened to stories about the Depression? The Holocaust? The shortages people endured-happily, by all accounts-during WWII? Sorry, life today is a piece of cake!

    The stress that we suffer from today is largely self-imposed and largely a function of our addiction to “having it all.” If we all took a step back and looked carefully at our “needs” we would see that much of what we believe we cannot live without -and are paying such an enormous price in peace of mind, joy and contentment to have-is just the “fluff” of modern day life. Smart phones and big screen TV’s, gas guzzling SUV’s with built in DVD players to keep the kids sedated and silent in the back seat while mommy talks on her (hands free, of course) cell phone-are NOT necessities. Food, a roof over our heads, and shoes on our feet ARE. If more people could see that simple difference we would see the number of mood disorders and anxiety related illnesses in this society plummet.

    Toxins are not destroying the joy in our lives. WE are. And it is up to us to take it back.

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