Who Wants to Be Normal?
Normality, in sickness and in health.
Posted Mar 02, 2018
Do you long to be normal, or shudder at the very idea? If you are ill, is normality what draws you towards the light, or what makes you hesitate on the threshold of action? If you’re in recovery, has what normality means to you changed since you began?
I’ve been thinking about normality a lot lately: about the light and the dark sides of its potency. I’m going to try to sketch out what it meant for me in anorexia and recovery, and what it means right now. In brief, I suppose the progression has been from ambivalence to near-reverence to a less impotent kind of ambivalence.
‘In women, courage is often mistaken for insanity.’ — doctor in Iron Jawed Angel
Normality in illness
In the beginning, normality was an illusion I clung to, and I was able to cling only because the normality itself was so messed up. A couple of weeks after my sixteenth birthday, I wrote:
I don’t know why I bother with this diet thing – it doesn’t seem to do any good in terms of getting rid of my flabby stomach. Maybe it’s just about self-denial, maybe it’s because eating a lot makes me feel guilty and bloated, maybe hunger is something I can deal with, something to focus on when everything else is awful too. Not that it’s a strict diet – I just eat only fruit and a piece of bread through the day – usually an apple and a banana – and the usual evening meal: pasta, stew, whatever, and a yoghurt or more fruit. It’s for my skin as well as my figure – crisps and chocolate make me spotty as well as fat. But my aim is to look good in a bikini by the summer. (04.03.98)
I took care to conserve the appearance of normality (this diet thing, scrupulously casual) to myself, as I did to others (keeping eating the evening meal with my family so that for many months they wouldn’t notice anything amiss). But it’s a normality that makes me sad, now, where I once defended it so matter-of-factly: making my body ready for the bikini.
What happened, of course, was that in the quest to look good in that underdetermined ‘slimmer is better’ way, I rapidly got thin enough to be embarrassed about my body from the opposite direction:
it’s ridiculous – I’m dreading summer because I’m too thin to wear a swimsuit, even a T-shirt, and yet I feel my stomach and I feel I’m too fat, grossly bloated. What happened to my rationality? (15.03.99)
Bikini dreams of perfection had crumbled into a mocking reality severed into two extremes of imperfection: too much ‘success’, too much ‘failure’, together infinitely contradictory failure.
Part of falling ill, though, was a rejection of the normality I felt others imposed on me. For as long as I could remember, I’d been the ‘sorted’ one: mature, sensible, unflappable. At some point, this standard started to feel impossible to live up to. Alongside all the other things it made me feel, a body that looked sick made me feel relief, because it forestalled all those assumptions that everything was fine:
Maybe I’m just afraid of becoming normal. I want people to recognise that I have a problem. I’m sick of being thought of as infallible. (15.03.99)
A starved body makes a statement. What that statement says is never quite certain; but one thing it signals clearly, when starved enough, is frailty. But of course, ‘starved enough’ is hard to pin down, and thinness has become such an unquestioned ideal that even a seriously malnourished body can often seem to say: yes, this looks like frailty, but what it means is strength of mind. I suppose I liked the contradiction: liked looking too thin but also admirably thin; liked embracing the two versions of abnormality, pathological and desirable, in a single form.
As the realities of undereating entrenched themselves, though, the pathology won out, and with it the signals of an unapproachable kind of unhappiness that keeps at arm’s length precisely the gentleness, patience, or sympathy one might have wanted to attract through starvation.
The insight into the futility of all this grew, but remained sterile:
I know, or part of me does, that this control thing is all an illusion, that it’s the illness, the addiction, whatever, that’s in control, but I can’t quite make that change anything. The two parts of my brain are separate, and one – the wrong one, the blind one – is controlling what I do, what I eat and want to eat or not eat – and it simply can’t connect to the other part. They speak different languages. (10.02.99)
A lot of the sterility, I think, came from a paralysis around normality. One self craved it:
I just want to be normal, I want food not to matter any more. (07.02.99)
The other self spurned it:
I’m scared of being normal. That’s what it is. I’ve never admitted it before, but maybe this is my way – my ridiculous, misguided way – of trying to prove my individuality, superiority even. I look in at the windows of restaurants and I despise the people stuffing themselves inside, even as I feel lonely on the outside. (11.03.99)
This other one won out, for years. Almost as soon as I’d felt that clear wish for food not to matter, I would back-pedal on it, stop being sure I did want it any more. And so I moved gradually from having to make one step – from wanting change to achieving it – to having to make two: somehow starting by making myself want.
Increasingly worried parents making me feel like an invalid helped keep the former self alive, though. If the alternative to food not mattering was food being Complan shakes like old frail people drink, normality started to look decidedly more appealing:
Still exactly the same weight – I have to eat even more. I’m going to start eating some bread and cottage cheese when I get back from school, and more nuts at lunchtime. That should do it. They want me – or Tom [my father] does – to try Complan. The idea terrifies me – it’d make me feel like someone who’s really ill – an invalid or something. I just want to be normal, I want food not to matter any more. (07.02.99)
The diagnosis, when it finally came, also gave the normality of health and happiness a rosier glow of contrast: when the psychiatrist told me that he was in no doubt that I had anorexia nervosa, the calm, categorical, irrefutable way he said it made me feel pathetically normal. He knew all the symptoms, he’d fitted them against me, he’d ticked the boxes and now here it was, my label: the two impersonal words that summed me up. Who had I been kidding that this was anything special? (Read more on the flipside of illness as abnormality – illness as the ultimate predictable banality – in this post.)
Even before that momentous labelling, though, I was using the idea of an eating disorder to demean myself against others and them against me. When I felt jealous of my boyfriend’s exes and other female friends he’d have long phone calls with, for example, I would say:
I bet she doesn’t have an eating disorder. I bet she’s normal. (13.12.98)
I can hear the venom in that italicized normal from all this time and space away: the envy and the derision teetering on their endless tightrope.
Normality in recovery
"Many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself." —Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 1956/2002
Despite all the ambivalence, as I embarked on the process of eating more, normality did represent something crucial. It did so when I attempted recovery as a teenager and then in my early 20s, and then again in my mid-20s, successfully, lastingly. There was, I felt, something real that was just eating and not worrying about it. I suppose it was real because I remembered it. I didn’t exactly look back and remember specific episodes of bafflingly complete ease in eating – though the photo my father kept of me aged nine, beaming on an Argentinian train, having wolfed down whatever they’d served in the restaurant car that lunchtime, was long a talisman of all the ways in which I’d saddened him since. But I could let that feeling wash over me: the feeling of a day passing and food being its inconspicuous foundation, not its fraught center. I didn’t care how normal it really was; to me the conviction that this normality did exist, had always existed, never entirely disappeared. It saved me in the end, I suppose: it came flooding back to me on the morning in July 2009 when I finally heated up a pain au chocolat for myself and just ate it, outside in the fitful morning warmth as soon as I’d got out of bed.
In the first recovery effort, as in the other two, I had moments when it felt effortlessly within reach, when recent abnormality felt correspondingly distant:
It’s so good to be able to eat with everyone else, comfortably. So utterly different from last year when I lived off Mars Bars and nuts and raisins and muesli all from England, and tiny portions of pasta and parmesan... I couldn’t be normal... (20.02.00)
And in the second attempt, I reminded myself of my own middle-distance past to help myself habituate to the ‘new normality’. Part of the new plan was to double my quantity of lunchtime bread:
– and I did eat it, and it was OK, if my stomach did complain a little at first; I think, after all, 200g is only what I used to have every lunchtime on Lancer [the boat I lived on much of my student time and again now] without a second thought. (11.04.03)
Thus the arbitrary changes by which each measured-out amount became immovably smaller (which I discuss more thoroughly here) turned from foe to friend, because whatever today’s rules were, yesterday’s were less destructive.
My family also seemed fairly good guides to what food-normal was. But I discovered that the logic of copying other people’s foody normality isn’t as straightforward as it seems. At first, I tried just eating lunch with the others, and it turned out that their lunch was far too small for me because of course they’d had breakfast, and a pre-prandial beer, and would have wine later, and a decent dinner…
Difficult to eat enough when their meals here are so tiny – I had to fill up with bread on the side, ate my solitary pile of bread and cheese instead of their salad, my usual chocolate instead of their fruit; how is it that they’re fat and I’m thin? (29.08.03)
This was one of the many things that kept me terrified of eating even just a lunch or dinner with them again: they ate so much less – because they ate so much more often – that I’d have to eat an official meal but then supplement it later. At least when there’s no point of comparison, because eating happens secretively in the dead of night, there’s no challenge to the feeling that ‘I’m eating the right amount’ or rather, ‘I’m eating the right amount by eating too little’. In other words, the conflict between alternative versions of normality, mine and theirs, was less stark.
It occurred to me, of course, that I could adopt their whole routine – every milky coffee and gin-and-tonic and biscuit on a whim. But as soon as I contemplated that I rejected it as impossible, in practice, but also as theoretically meaningless. For I told myself that although it had a basis of routine, their eating had, too, the flexibility that is normality’s only true measure: it fluctuated with weather and engagements and appetite. And it wasn’t even the same for them all: who would I follow, and why? I concluded that I wouldn’t be able to follow – I’d be thrust against the merciless necessity of having to learn again how to guide myself, how to be hungry and ask for more, or be full and leave something on my plate. I’d have plans in the diary again, and let them alter my meals; I’d eat by the daylight and temperature and the seasons, not by the rigid clock and calorie-counting enabled by electricity and supermarkets.
And of course if I did all that I’d become ‘fat’ like them, I told myself. Reflecting on it all in the ‘autobiography of an illness’ I wrote aged 22, I continued:
Fat on little beany stews and fruit, where I’m thin on milk chocolate. God it’s hard to escape. A little thing gave me a little whiff of why I might want to, though, this morning. They’d had guests to breakfast and had eaten bake-your-own croissants, and when I came down at noon there were two left lonely in the breadbin. I picked one up and smelled it. It smelt of Paris. It smelt delicious. I breathed it in and thought of how I can’t ever taste it. All the distracting contingencies of why not don’t distract, in the end, but transfix that impossibility: it wasn’t my breakfast time (breakfast is a yoghurt and raisin bar at 9pm; breakfast time could and should have been with them); the taste wouldn’t live up to the smell (true only because the taste would have been that of guilt, upset routine, chaos and confusion, anticipated nausea, utter demolition of the day; it could have been perhaps true, perhaps not, consumed anyway, not minding much, not having smelled so achingly, not having great expectations, eating because it’s time to eat and there’s something there, listening to the conversation not to inner voices, eating and moving on and not giving a second thought to the breadbin remnants). I know so few flavours these days. It bewilders me when I begin to think of all that it would mean for there to be more.
That, again, is the real thing that normality can mean: an abundance of flavours, all accepted without fear, with pleasure, with nonchalance, as simply there, self-evidently, to take when you want them.
The paradoxes kept haunting me, though:
But anyway, I mustn’t falter now, just because I’m finally finding success; I wanted, I need, to gain weight [I needed to persuade myself that needing was wanting], and I am doing so, and it’s not going to be painless [the most painful parts being those that seemed so frighteningly painless, effortless], but I must consider it a necessary cure (even while the rest of society considers it a reprehensible sickness). (16.04.03)
It was a weird kind of agony, knowing I was eating, now, more than the norm, even while people looked at me and thought me too thin. That divergence between appearance and reality, or rather the time-delay between the initiation of the cure and its external effect, was surreal: people would tell me, or their glances would imply, that I ought to eat more, maybe they even felt ashamed of their own ‘excesses’ in my presence – and all the while I knew that I couldn’t eat more, that they were eating less than I was, and that they wouldn’t believe it if I told them so.
And yet despite this I also didn’t really want the disparity to disappear by my thinness softening into normality, my diet accordingly then relaxing towards normality: a lot of the time I still wanted to make it disappear by retreating back into my old abnormalities, where I looked just as fucked-up as I felt. And yet I also feared the long-term consequences of that, and those fears battled it out with the older ones, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but only ever precariously winning because of that second time lag: the one between looking better and feeling it.
Some things felt different, the final time. The conviction of the awfulness of life now was the most important thing that did: the certainty that it was now or never, and that I had barely anything to lose. But other things, too: things which might have changed because between the late nineties and the late naughties the world had changed; or which might have changed simply because I got further along the path than I ever had before: far enough to be thrown into conflict with everything.
These differences come down to a deformity in what normality has come to mean. I realized it with more and more distress in the early and middle phases of my final recovery: this (UK/Anglo-American) society’s food normality is itself pathological. It is nothing to aspire to. On the contrary, it needs fighting with all the strength I have.
It began close to home: coming to understand that my family’s, especially my mother’s, relationship with food was far from what I’d idealistically believed. And it washed out over everything and everyone else: from the women endlessly expressing their unease about eating, to the magazines and websites encouraging them to; from the impossible ideals to which women’s bodies are held, to the traffic lights in supermarkets warning us away from everything that has nutritional content. Carrying on recovering meant turning away from every single one of these false idols. So while I still clung to the warmly glowing idea of the person who simply eats to live and to give herself pleasure, I could not find that person anywhere except in the hazy recesses of my own childhood. What had begun as an effort to turn back to the world was forced into a more profound self-reliance than had ever been asked of me before. There was no adequate normality to aim for that I could see anywhere outside of me, so I had to create it for myself.
This is not completely true, of course. However it feels, self-reliance is never total. Once I had begun a relationship with a man who was healing his own relationship with food, sharing love of eating became an important part of our love for each other. And the close friend who had helped me embark on recovery was also there as a role model of frivolous yet grounded enjoyment of food. And the blossoming of my relationship with my father revolved around shared appreciation of simple foody pleasures too. It’s interesting, though, that no female figures on this list. More or less low-level anxiety, dissatisfaction, moralizing, and insecurity seemed to be the norm among the women I knew, and it did not feel possible to turn to them for inspiration or comfort.
Gradually, through this mixture of solitary stubbornness and selective trust, my confidence in my new ways of relating to food and my body grew – or rather, it softened from what needed to be a very active rebellion (not least because for some years I kept eating a lot more than other people) to a gentler, more measured kind of rejection: I know this is what I need for myself, so what you do is simply not relevant to me.
But then what? What happened as regards normality once food was no longer a problem?
"Insanity is relative. It depends on who has locked who in what cage." — Ray Bradbury, 'The Meadow,' 1947
The phases my own recovery and post-recovery went through can be summarized something like this. Some of the stages overlap: for me, especially 5-8. And the elaborations in italics are my personal variations; yours may well differ, even if you follow roughly the same path through the stages.
1. Aspire to have a normal relationship with food and your body.
Aim for stuff that feels like normal (eating at normal times, eating with other people, eating in response to hunger and preference, etc.). Feel my grasp on that happy, simple kind of normality growing in confidence.
2. Realize that in the food/body realm, normality is not healthy.
Come to see that the majority of people (or at least, in my experience, the majority of women) do one or more of the following: diet ignorantly and ineffectually because they feel indefinably bad about their bodies; make energy intake a moral issue; hold themselves to impossible standards; etc. etc. See that they condemn themselves to unending conflict with food and their bodies. See that this is not least a media- and technology-fed problem: that normality has congealed into impossibly narrow habits of objectification and comparison (for example, via endless self-representations in visual form) which no longer incorporates the breadth of ‘normality’ as natural variation on a continuum, nor the self-sufficiency of experiencing one’s body as a subject not always also being observed.
3. Define yourself against that normality.
Actively eat more than any woman I know would eat, or at least let herself be seen to eat (in practice, eat more like what men eat)
Later gradually eat less (because the demands of weight restoration and early maintenance are lessened) but actively practise being inclusive and open about what I eat, and being non-judgemental about my own eating and body
Start powerlifting and begin to appreciate the alternative that strength and capability present to the ideals of thinness and delicacy
4. Realize there are broader unhealthinesses beyond food and bodies
Understand that in my professional sphere, academia, it’s very easy to get sucked into destructive habits of working (long hours, no separation between work and anything else, total neglect of the bodily), and unhealthy habits of thinking about work (as mattering more than anything else in a vague unquestioned way, as a moral imperative).
5. Define yourself against that normality, too.
Resolve to make academia work for me – or not – on my own terms. Decide that if academia starts to make me unhappy or unhealthy again, I will leave it.
Have a great time as a researcher; apply only very selectively for permanent jobs and research grants that I really want.
Five years after my PhD, end up without an academic position. Take part-time roles in (very rewarding) support roles and work freelance on other projects, for which I willingly relinquish other job opportunities. Spend time with my partner in California, for which I willingly relinquish ‘proper job’ opportunities. Realize that for the first time post-PhD I don’t have a salary: that I’m not earning in the way I ‘should’ be: that I long felt I could only be calm and happy if I knew I was doing all that could be expected of me as regards earning money, but that now (despite the anxieties about my life not being financially viable) that sense of obligation has loosened.
6. Realize/remember that there were things about you or your life before you became ill that are abnormal but also important and cherished parts of you or your life.
Growing up, once my parents had separated, my brother and I spent half the week with my father on a narrowboat in the Bristol docks. I lived on her for most of my student days in Oxford (and my brother joined me for one year), but I left when the job I got after my PhD came with a flat, and then my partner’s did too. I lived with my mother and stepfather while I worked on a book project with my mother, and recently I moved back on to the boat (for the times I’m not in California). I realize how much I love living here, and how much it feels like home – a cozy and compact and moveable home. I enjoy being usually the youngest captain on the water by about 30 years, and one of the rare women who drive a boat skillfully. (And ditto to both for the campervan I also inherited from my father.) Become less able to imagine buying a house – and link that to a lot of other ‘normal’ things I feel distanced from (with, overall, neither positive nor negative value attached to the distance): salaries, mortgages, pensions, childrearing...
7. Accept that there are things about you that may be linked to the origins of anorexia but are now separate from it: that you can work on these things where they cause problems but that even though they were related to anorexia they are not now pathological. They are OK: a manifestation of natural human variation.
Accept that these traits or habits include an introvert’s cherishing of solitude and autonomy; attitudes to work that are not perfectionist but somewhere on that spectrum; a readiness to judge myself and other people by hard standards (though also to laugh, later, at those judgements). And at the lighter end of the spectrum: the inclination to signal difference no longer through frailty but now by wearing and dyeing my hair bright colours. Understand that these all have consequences, and that life would be different without those consequences. Understand that there is some but not limitless mutability in all of them, and that life is pretty good already.
8. Open yourself to new experiences without immediately erecting protective barriers. Indeed, go through a post-illness phase of ‘catching up’ on missed opportunities for experience that catalyze rapid change. Realize new things about yourself that may always have been true but whose significance is now newly clear.
Having had one long-term relationship before and during my illness (and ended by my illness, among other things), and one during and beyond recovery, I end the second because of feelings of entrapment and a perceived shift from romance to friendship. I spend a summer having casual short-term relationships. I fall in love and start a more serious relationship. I fall in love again and end the first relationship. Tentatively start the other. Realise there’s a problem: I love them both. Spend years trying to choose between them, lying to myself and them, with varying degrees of involvement with both. Accept, finally, that the trying to choose is the problem – a problem that need not be imposed on the situation. Declare my unwillingness to pretend any more to choose. Start to work out how to have an openly and acceptingly non-monogamous relationship. Have counselling to help it work; never get beyond just-about-viability. Our living circumstances change and I spend less time with both of them, and meet someone else I care about. Accept that for me, neither exclusivity nor permanence is for now a relationship characteristic to be aspired to. Continue to negotiate what that means in practice, for me and others.
9. Realize that in many respects now you feel different from many other people in all kinds of respects, some of them great, some small, many of them actively cherished.
Reflect: I have no job, no children, no house, no marriage. And for now, I don’t want any of them. And life is good. Smile at the strangeness and the uncertainty of it all.
10. Accept that because of your history, normality will always be part of a particular and important set of dynamics in your life and personality, and that you have no choice about this: if you want to stay healthy, you have to be abnormal, and abnormality has a habit of spreading.
How can I say whether without anorexia I would have found my way to powerlifting or polyamory? Whether without anorexia I would have stayed in mainstream academia? My father’s death, around the start of what I’d now call my post-recovery, changed everything too. But it did so so powerfully perhaps because death had so long been with me as the shadow of my half-life, and now here it was in a parent in his 50s, someone I had never dreamt would die. Embracing death’s ever-presence is central now to my embrace of life.
And now, existing in the place where these many journeys leave me, I find myself asking the question that ties them all together: to what extent does being healthy (and happy) simply mean being well adjusted to your environment? If you come up against a version of normality that hurts or hobbles you, is it stupid to rail against the normal because by default that will make you unhappy? The definition of insanity, after all, is violating accepted norms, including social norms (though of course not every violation of a social norm is insane), and to the extent that they or others affirm their insanity, insane people tend not to reliably prosper – they either burn brilliantly or they crash and burn.
So does setting yourself against social norms automatically spell (some degree of) unhappiness, however obviously unsuited to you those norms are? If so, would the unhappiness be greater, or different, if you made yourself conform? Does conformity in action inevitably entail a gradual conformity in thought and feeling, and the comfort that comes with it, or does there remain a dissonance, a self-denial that breeds misery? How long is long enough to be sure that it’s the latter? And which kind of unhappiness do you prefer: the one that involves finding the principles you want to live by, and accepting the consequences; or the one that involves accepting that happiness lies in accommodation? Most of us opt for different answers in different contexts: in different areas of life, at different phases of life. And there are many established countercultures, too, which mean that rebellion needn’t be an isolated thing – so that even if some aspects of the dominant culture become more and more suffocating, the alternatives are more numerous and, paradoxically, more normalized too.
But however inevitably context-dependent their answers, these questions are worth asking, even though the road not taken can never be known. They are one way of asking what matters to us, in this brief time we have to live.
I believed all along,
everyone would go mad
just to see me sane.
— Suman Pokhrel, ‘Before making decisions,’ translated from the Nepali by Abhi Subedi
Thank you to my mother for the beautiful birthday collage.
Fromm, E. (1956/2002). The sane society. Abingdon: Routledge. Google Books preview here.