The Harm of “Normal”

The majority of people I know are something less than perfectly healthy.  Whether they struggle with an invisible disease, some form of chronic pain or illness or a mental illness, or a visible disability, “normal” is just a distant speck on the horizon that we will never able to attain.

We, I say, because I’m not perfectly healthy either.  I’d never claim that my health issues merit as much attention as other peoples’.  I’ve spent several years working as a personal assistant to two different people who faced physical challenges I can’t even begin to comprehend.  But just because the spectrum includes severe disabilities doesn’t mean I don’t belong on the spectrum at all.

Today, I’ve spent most of the day in bed with a migraine.  You would think, having dealt with this recurring issue for seventeen years, I’d have gotten used to it.  But it’s still a feeling of, “no, not this again,” every single time.  It’s a feeling of gambling when the first stabs of pain enter my consciousness, is this headache going to just be annoying background white noise to my day or is it going to swallow me whole until any light or noise makes me cry or is it going to be so persistent and paired with such awful nausea that I actually have to go into the ER?  Today’s wasn’t as bad as it could have been, it put me out of commission for a few hours but seems to be responding well to medication. It’s ebbing away right now, leaving me feeling exhausted even though I’ve done nothing at all today.

Last night, I spent some time reading the hashtag #solidarityisfortheablebodied.  It was eye-opening (and I’d encourage you to go have a look at it).  And I began to realize that our society has a huge problem: we hold up a picture of absolutely perfect mental and physical health and call that “normal,” when in fact it’s not normal at all.

When perfect mental and physical health is seen as normal, those with any kind of ongoing health issue feel alone.  We feel stigmatized.  We feel like we’re being demanding if we ask for any help or any accommodation.  Those who can’t identify with us whine that we’re asking for “special treatment” or that we’re “lazy.”  I’ve heard way too much snark about people who appear to be able-bodied taking handicap parking spots, or receiving government aid.  People act as though you have to be in a wheelchair to qualify as disabled, and then they totally ignore or mistreat people who are in wheelchairs.  We’ve got to quit believing that only visible disabilities are real, and we’ve also got to quit making life so difficult for those with any sort of disability.

The truth is, more people than anyone would guess deals with a disability or illness of some sort.  And by perpetuating the myth that perfect health is “normal” we are essentially punishing people for having disabilities.

I remember one particularly awful night when I was working at Wal-Mart. I’d been struggling with a migraine for hours but I kept working because if I left early, my coworker would have to close down the deli all by herself.  I was at the point where I could barely stand and was about to throw up from the pain any second.  My coworker told me to go home. I’d warned my supervisor that I wasn’t feeling well, but when I asked her if I could go home she had to take a while to think about it. She finally did let me go but the next day I found out she’d been really angry and thought I was faking it.    Anyone who has an issue with chronic pain will have a similar story.  Workplaces essentially expect everyone to perform as though they are perfectly healthy all the time. I’ve seen it time and again, where people have to keep working through terrible pain just so they don’t lose their jobs.

One of the women I used to work for would never use the word “disabled” to refer to herself, even though she had been in a wheelchair her whole life and needed help with most daily tasks.  Instead, she said she was “differently-enabled.”  Using this term she oriented her thinking towards how she could work around her physical challenges and find ways of enabling herself to achieve her goals.  What if our society as a whole approached disabilities with this mindset?  What if we quit whining about “special treatment” and instead focused on finding different avenues to enable everyone to have as good a life as possible, to reach their own individual goals, to be able to access the healthcare they need, to see ourselves and everyone else as a person with goals and dreams and abilities, rather than as a nuisance or an inconvenience or a throwaway?

Sure, it won’t be easy.  People with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health issues aren’t a monolith so there’s no magical one-size-fits-all accommodation.  An employer would accommodate an employee in a wheelchair differently than they would accommodate my migraines or someone else’s anxiety disorder.  But when you don’t help anyone, when you decide to go on acting as though everyone ought to be perfectly healthy, you’re being in irresponsible dumbass who is actively screwing almost everyone over (most likely including yourself).

Stop propagating the lie that being perfectly healthy is normal, and start teaching people the truth that if we are all willing to proactively seek out accommodations for the challenges ourselves and others face, we can create a more inclusive, happy, and yes healthy society.

(Sorry if this is a bit incoherent & rambly, thoughts do not come together smoothly during a migraine. But I needed to write this down and share it now, before I lost this train of thought completely)


2 thoughts on “The Harm of “Normal”

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been terrified of losing my job because of chronic illness for years. I’ve pushed through so much pain- I’ve gone into shock on the job, lost consciousness, and came to in the back of an ambulance before my boss believed me. It shouldn’t be this way.

  2. My sister has suffered from migraines like you describe. I can’t even imagine how difficult that is. My own illness usually just limits my joints/spine (walking, standing, sitting, carrying) with only moderate levels of pain compared to a migraine. It mostly means not doing things with people. My boss once had us do a “walking meeting” outside, and after being effectively paralyzed for the rest of the day I had to tell him that I would not be doing that any longer. I don’t know how I could work if my bosses weren’t flexible.

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