The Problem with Normal

Comments: 2



If you’ve read my book Harmonic Feedback, you probably know I’ve got a problem with the word “normal.” Sure, it has its purpose. Like—Your blood tests came back normal. Yay! I just don’t think it’s a good way to describe who we are or how we think.

Perhaps ‘normal’ behavior is best described as a ‘normative spectrum.’ (Hey, autism has a spectrum—why not?) For example, how do YOU think most people would react if a stranger called them ugly? They might get angry, insult the person back, cry, walk away, etc. These are fairly predictable reactions, right? What if they laughed? What if they responded by giving the person a hug or asking them where they got their shoes? Your first thought might be something like … wow, that was weird. But is it wrong? They’re not really hurting anyone by reacting that way.

Let’s add culture to the mix. What we consider “normal” or “acceptable” here in the U.S. might be a crime in another part of the world. Where we grow up and how we grow up (good ol’ nurture) has a huge impact on who we are and how we behave. I believe our genetics give us the foundation and our environment turns that foundation into a whole person. We wouldn’t be who we are if we were born with the same genes but different parents in a different part of the world.

So, to me, there is no such thing as normal behavior. There is just behavior that is considered acceptable where you live.

Here’s my other issue with “normal.” We can tell some people are different as soon as we look at them or hear them speak. Someone on the severe end of the autism spectrum, like the Rain Man, does not pass as “normal” in our society. So, people are able to rationalize their behavior. Well, he doesn’t want to hug me because he’s autistic. That doesn’t make him a bad person.

But those of us who appear “normal” (and those are some serious italics around appear) are expected to act normal. If we don’t, it’s generally assumed that we have defective personalities. An example:

Crowds make me very uncomfortable. The voices coming from every direction. People pushing up against me, breathing down my neck. I get dizzy. My heart races. I feel like I’m literally going to jump out of my skin. Sometimes I can swallow back my discomfort and just go with it. Other times … I can’t. When I can’t, people get angry with me. I’ve been called selfish (because I’m ruining other people’s fun), a drama queen (because obviously I’m just doing it for attention), and insane (because doesn’t everyone love being crushed up against a blockcade at a concert?) When I was younger, I lost friendships over this kind of thing. And, at the time, I would’ve given anything to be like everyone else—to just get lost in the moment and be able to filter out unnecessary noise.

But that’s the thing about me. I go into sensory overload very easily—sometimes I even get it in grocery stores. My brain has a lot of trouble focusing on one thing when there are a million noises and things going on around me.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, and what my neurologist described as one of the worst cases of anxiety he’d ever seen. These disorders (as they like to call them) are nothing but labels to me. Labels that make other people feel more comfortable about me being different than they are. They don’t define who I am. They don’t make being different any easier. Just like everyone else, I have to go out into this world, work a job, pay my bills, and function. There are many situations, like at work or large social gatherings, where I have to mask my “differences.” And I have quite a few …

Sensory overload is a big one for me. Whenever I’m in a situation where I have to converse with a group of people, I leave with a mother of a headache. I have to concentrate really hard on the following:

  • Focusing on the person speaking to me, rather than everyone else who is talking
  • Figuring out how to insert myself into the conversation without interrupting anyone
  • Trying to avoid saying something random or irrelevant—because my brain is often hopping from one thought to the next
  • Ignoring the need to run out of the place because I feel trapped
  • Smiling through it all and acting like nothing is wrong

I’m much more comfortable socializing with people in smaller groups and in quiet places. In fact, I rather enjoy that. So, when I can, I often invite friends over to my house or for a hike. I’ve also discovered that ear plugs help me immensely with crowds. This obviously works best at a concert or when I don’t have to carry on conversations. But just dulling the noise around me works wonders.

I’m afraid of germs (this is where my OCD comes in). I cringe inside when I have to shake someone’s hand or touch a doorknob. The best ‘coping’ mechanism I’ve found  is to always carry hand sanitizer with me. I know it doesn’t kill everything, but it’s enough for me to function normally.

My OCD is actually the most disruptive when it comes to food. I hate going out to eat at restaurants because I don’t know what the ingredients are or who touched it. I generally don’t like to eat any food that I or someone who knows me and my quirks (less than a handful of people) didn’t make. I check expiration dates obsessively. I give everything a sniff test before I eat it. I will no longer eat anything that has ingredients I can’t pronounce. My coping mechanism for this is simple: I eat at home 99 percent of the time. But you can imagine how difficult it is when someone invites me over for dinner or out to eat. I either say no and hurt their feelings or explain myself and risk them thinking I’m nuts.

The thing is … I don’t think I’m crazy. In my mind, I’m trying to protect myself from getting sick and I’m, um, very thorough. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that washing your hands in a public bathroom is pointless if you touch the doorknob when leaving. Hey, medical doctors will back me up on this one—look it up!

Sometimes I wonder … is there really something wrong with me? Or is my caution level just much higher than most people? I guess it doesn’t really matter since these “quirks” of mine do affect my daily life and my ability to have relationships with other people. Believe me, there are so many days I wish I didn’t have these “disorders.” And I really hate that they are called disorders—because we are really just saying that these people think differently.

On the other hand, I like being different. I like that my brain can just wander and gather up all these bizarre and wonderful ideas. Melodies just come to me. I can pick up almost any instrument and start playing it—no joke. I can often see perspectives others can’t. I don’t think I’d be the writer or the musician I am if my brain worked differently.

The best I can do is take the good with the bad and cherish the people in my life who love me and accept me for who I am.

About Author

Tara Kelly

Tara Kelly adores variety in her life. She’s a YA author, one-girl-band, web/graphic designer, editor, and she’s back in school getting her M.Ed in School Counseling. She lives in Portland with her ten guitars, supercool bf, and a fluffy cat named Maestro. She's the author of Harmonic Feedback, among others.



  1. Tara, I really enjoyed your post. A friend happened to see it and sent me the link. I admire what the three of you who are doing in July.

    I am a writer and kidlit blogger. I focus on books that are healing for kids. I’m trying to use “different abilities” as I continue my work. I could relate to your post as I had a serious brain injury 9 yrs ago and have difficulty with sensory issues. My nervous system was compromised and I understand the need to stay away from stimulation, noises, a lot of people — I’m very sensitive and soak it all up. Fortunately I enjoy being with myself and I love quiet. I was a journalist and worked in PR most of my career, but am reinventing myself as a children’s author. I’m having more fun now than I ever did with any job.

    Again, thank you for such a lovely and heartfelt post!

  2. I like the word normal as a simple descripter of how a person compares to the rest of their society. For example, normal on an IQ test means an IQ between 70 and 130. I don’t get why so many people insist that normal has to be ‘better’ than abnormal – Mozart was abnormal, Einstein was abnormal, etc. The fact that their differences were in a form many people consider ‘better’ doesn’t make them any less abnormal.