On Chronically Normal People

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Note from Network Guide, Mark Stephenson: When we recently posted a sermon by Greg Sinclair, Michèle Gyselinck responded with some frustration that the sermon assumes that listeners have almost no knowledge about mental illness at all. I commented that pastors need to tailor their messages to their own congregations. Because it's important that we hear many different voices, I invited her to say more about what she means by "chronically normal" people, and I offered to post her comments as a guest blog. Here's what Michèle wrote, beginning with the comment she previously posted. 

People who say we should eradicate the word disability from the language (supposedly because everybody is limited in some way) trivialize real illnesses, especially severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and other forms of psychoses. It's one thing to have to admit that you can't run as fast as an Olympic athlete, and shrug it off by assuming those same athletes have other limitations. It's quite another thing to be stigmatized because you hear voices and reply to them loudly in public spaces causing people around you to look at you oddly or fearfully as though you were going to assault them in the next minute. Although psychotic people have been known to do that, most people with mental illnesses are not violent and are more often the victims of assaults by so-called normal people than the other way around. In fact, in an issue of Schizophrenia Digest, as it was called back then, a columnist quoted a friend of his who referred to mentally non-sick—to put it that way since health is more than the absence of illness—as the "chronically normal". I like that phrase because too many people who look askance at mentally ill people are chronically normal themselves.

A lot of stigma against mentally ill people is based on the assumption that they are dangerous because they often act in bizarre ways. As I wrote earlier, some people in the midst of a psychotic episode may hear voices in their heads and talk back loudly to them while in public while others will roam the streets looking unkempt and forage in trash cans looking for food, and both are dismissed as drunkards by people watching them through restaurant windows as they sit comfortably enjoying their meals. It’s easy to judge and condemn when you don’t know what’s really going on. 

The media often compound the problem by reporting at length and in minute detail whenever a person with a mental illness attacks someone who is presumed to be sane, because they don’t exhibit strange behavior or are just minding their business, but those same media never say a word when a chronically normal person assaults a psychiatric patient. The media also perpetuate a lot of clichés or preconceived ideas about people with mental illnesses in sitcoms or TV dramas, like the character Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory who is regularly presented as a geek and laughed at because of his neurotic behavior. When people don’t actually condemn him as a jerk, that is. Those chronically normal people who make laughing stocks of those who suffer in invisible ways then feel absolved of any need to try and understand the peculiar vulnerabilities of their victims. 

I know a child in my congregation who, a number of years ago, asked during the children’s time in church if God forgave those who killed themselves. Because I have a hearing impediment I did not catch her question then. As soon as I could after I learned about her question, I got her a Teddy Bear to comfort her. Because I had been a victim of bullying myself while growing up, I knew how she felt. I also considered suicide 29 years ago as a result of bullying. In fact, I went even further than that and walked to the nearest river with the intent of throwing myself in it to end the pain. It was the Lord who convinced me not to carry it out by making me realize that my family did not know how I felt; by the time they reported me missing, my remains might never have been found. 

Christians may think they’re better but not all are. Unfortunately, there are chronically normal people in church pews too. WAY too many of them if one of the posts this week is anything to go by. When you still have to explain the basics of mental illness to people who should know better by now in a tone that is more pleading for acceptance than considering it a done deal, you’re talking to the chronically normal—people who assume that because they aren’t talking back to imaginary voices or having delusions of grandeur, they’re sane. Well, in the same way that peace is more than the absence of war, health — and especially mental health — is more than the absence of a psychiatric diagnosis.

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Thanks Michele for your article.  I think we tend to judge other people as though I'm the official pattern of normal and anyone slightly different is abnormal.  What a great challenge to love those who are different from ourselves.  Thanks for sharing.