Labels And Quirks And Trying To Be Normal

My husband and I were talking yesterday. Well, actually I was complaining and he was listening, but at the end of my rant, I said: I know I’m hard to get along with and my standards are too high so I’m not actually going to say anything to [person I ranted about].

Scott agreed and we made some jokes about him being the same way and said: It’s a good thing we ended up with each other because no one else could’ve put up with us.

Scott and I are both quirky. Weird. Odd. I once had an entire year of crying on Tuesdays. That same year, I found Scott sitting in the dark under a tree and his reason was: I have a hard time with Fridays. (Scott says I’ve told y’all that story before  — another quality of mine is telling the same story over and over.)

Nowadays, I get terrible anxiety before going somewhere new — sometimes going somewhere old but alone — and my husband doesn’t really go anywhere.

We’ve rebelled with red and blue hair and Mohawks and piercings as conservatives. We live the suburban life as liberals except Scott thinks the death penalty is fine. We believe in God in a very hands-on and intense way while believing in global warming, evolution and a woman’s right to choose. We often get mistaken for attachment parents even though I hated breastfeeding, and we love the existence of vaccines because I also loved my sling and hated when my kids cried. I am also helicopter-y while fostering independence, and we don’t even do time-outs let alone spanking.

There are so many labels out there. Some are less consequential than others. Being labeled a certain type of parent doesn’t offend me or have much affect on my life except on mom forums. Being labelled with psychiatric disorders means I can’t get life insurance.

So I wonder where the lines are. Do we de-stigmatize all the labels or do stop labeling so much so often? Labels can get a person medical services and play groups and support. Labels can also make people feel left out or believe they are unable to get better.

In medical school, we were taught that after a second depressive episode, 90+% of patients will need medication for life. But what if the depression was misdiagnosed and the person is going through a few temporary tough times or what if the graph is just not true (with “true” meaning “fate” not “scientifically sound”)? After 2 episodes, will patients ever attempt to go off medication or find support for such the idea? Should they? Depressed people are among the many stuck between “I should go off my medication so I can be normal” and “I should stay on my medication so I can be normal,” but what if the problem is the definition of normal?

From the outside, Scott and I seem normal. Big house in a nice neighborhood, kids in a good school, well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated, well-spoken. Are we just good at hiding our quirks? Are our quirks just enough to make us interesting without scaring people? What if I said that sometimes I scare myself with my thoughts? What if I admitted that I’m 33 years old and still afraid of the dark. What if I called them symptoms instead of quirks?

Our society seems to embrace a little difference because it’s cool to be different until it makes other cool people feel uncomfortable. We can be dark and depressed as long as it’s mysterious and deep and artsy, not ugly and needy and constant. Or I think back to fourth grade when I tried to pick up snorting while laughing because  a popular girl did it. Had an unpopular girl done it, I would’ve mocked it. Just different enough and on the right person, it’s cute. Had it been a tic, well, she probably wouldn’t have been popular. Is it a tic?

These questions are even bigger with children. Labels, access to care and belief in change and outcomes have long term consequences and often conflict with each other. Without a label, a child cannot get proper intervention and without medical invention, a child’s outcomes are much worse. But symptoms fluctuate based on development and  environment and a label can narrow everyone’s view of a child. This plays out in doctor’s offices and medications prescriptions and schools and homes. What is the difference between illness and maturity and individuality?

The mental health lines are confusing and ever-shifting as though we, as a society and as individuals, can’t decide what to accept, what to emulate, and what to fix. I’d rather be anxious than be medicated for it. I make that choice and live my consequences without judging those who chose a different path. However, I would not rather be suicidal than medicated. The consequences are too high because death is permanent. However, suicidal ideation is an extreme symptom of depression; if I couldn’t leave the house due to anxiety, I’d want a pill because I need to leave the house.

I do have more tolerance for my crazy. I like feeling what I feel even when it hurts. I like being as strange as I am even when it makes me think that I am less lovable. When I dig deep, I realized that I’m more comfortable at the edge, which maybe makes me more crazy. Or maybe I’m popular enough or funny enough or normal enough to get away with it. Maybe normal is wide and personal and not found in a checklist.

The answer is not simply to get rid of labels or embrace them all, nor is it to medicate less or more. We must each draw our lines with our doctors and our families. The questions I have us each ask are: What can I, the patient (adult or child), handle? What can the family handle and afford? What does medicine have to offer?

These questions aren’t warm and fuzzy and deep. They are facts that vary based on circumstance and science and gauge our tolerance levels before our problems. I don’t know what I am supposed to think and feel and bear, but I’ve learned what I can handle, what my children can handle and how much we can afford to take society out of the equation. Mostly, I’ve decided that normal is not as important as laughter.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

43 thoughts on “Labels And Quirks And Trying To Be Normal

  1. “Maybe normal is wide and personal and not found in a checklist.”

    Bingo.

    Or, as I like to say, “There is no normal, there is only Zuuuuuul.”

    OK, I don’t really LIKE to say that, but damned if it didn’t pop into me head.

    It’s kind of weird in a way because I think that I gave up on the concept of defining “a normal” a long time ago, I just didn’t know that I had done so. I’ve just never found there to be much value in wondering why someone doesn’t act “normal” because usually by the time I might be wondering that, I realize that said behavior is what is normal for that person. Ergo, the question is moot. That’s not to say that “normal” = “acceptable”…not at all, in some cases (e.g. just because someone’s engaged in criminal behavior all his/her life and we say “well, that’s just normal for ___”, then it’s still criminal).

    Having said that, though, I do get bugged when I gather that the less-enlightened around me discount my own personal strengths and talents because I exhibit a certain set of exuberances and personality traits. But in most cases, I get over it because I’m almost assuredly having a better time than they are.

  2. “Normal is not as important as laughter” one of the best things I have ever read. Ever. Can’t wait to meet you and even more so now that I know that you and I are both going to be dealing with the same anxiety.

    1. I totally agree. With everything except the part where you two get to meet each other. Because I am not meeting either of you. Anytime soon. Probably.

      (Maybe someday?)

      Sigh. (Or giggle. Or both.)

  3. Pretty much every day, at least once a day, I say a phrase or sentence in a British accent. It’s sometimes out loud, sometimes just in my head. I’m a big olde Anglophile and love to imitate the accent. I know it’s not “normal” to do that on such a regular basis but I don’t care. It’s part of who I am. Having said that, I almost never do it out loud if someone is right there with me. It’s my little inside-my-head or I’m-alone-and-can-do-it-out-loud British moment and I don’t care if it’s a little nutty.

  4. What a great post. I really appreciate this. I begin to write more, and realize I’m writing too much, so I’ll just stop with saying how much I appreciated this post today. Thank you.

  5. Labels can be dangerous, stifling, and unproductive, but at the same time I understand why we seek to create them so we can process, categorize, and have a framework for interaction. Labels pertaining to mental health strike me (a non medical professional) as particularly difficult because as a culture, we have such a poor vocabulary for all things related to mind, mood, and mental matters… if we don’t have descriptive words to bring clarity to the way we’re feeling, it’s hard to know how to move forward with that state of mind, whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s a way of life or a medical anomaly worthy of treatment. Don’t entirely know where I’m going with these thoughts…but you’ve opened the door for some valuable discussions… again : )

    1. I think part of the vocabulary problem is that happy is different for different people. As is sad and angry. My husband will say “Alex you’re yelling” and I’m all confused: “What? This isn’t yelling. THIS IS YELLING.” Heh
      I also think categories can give us perspective and they can also give us traps.

  6. I get it, because I’m an introvert who fakes being an extrovert pretty well. The only disappointment I sometimes have is that sometimes the people that I want to hang out with the most are the ones who often cancel or don’t want to come to events because they’re introverted or maybe even get anxiety about it. That being said, I get it. I’m the friend who usually waits for someone else to plan something. I hate planning things, and I always have this tinge in the back of my mind that no one will come. I also hate having people over to my house. Sometimes that’s alleviated once they’re here, but sometimes I count the minutes until they leave. Sometimes I want to go out for a social event, sometimes not.

    1. Leigh Ann,
      Your comment amazed me. I’ve read it at least three times now. You have described me so well in ways I have never articulated out loud. The not wanting people over, but wanting them to want to come over and then when they are over hoping they don’t stay long. I can fake being an extrovert and sometimes truly enjoy getting out and socializing, but most of the time find it stressful and exhausting. Thanks for putting all of that out there. I feel less alone when I read other people go through this stuff. It makes me feel more “normal” I guess! Strength in numbers, right?

  7. first, I would love to know the story behind where this came from. Because my quirk’s name is Nosy Nelly.

    Also? there is not room enough in this little white comment box for me to fit all my ponderings and musings about labels.

    I hate them.

    They are necessary.

    They suck a big one.

    They are stupid.

    I have them plastered all over me.

    Grrr.

    1. I think the labels have to be taken as a path to help and freedom rather than a box or a death sentence. You do well in making it something to be seen and understand but not dwelled on and neither overcome nor ignored. It’s there and it sucks but to doesn’t make YOU suck.

  8. I, too, would rather feel the anxiety and the awkwardness than the numbness of medication. But, if I couldn’t function, I would take the meds. The problem is, only I can really ascertain that- not even my doc can, without my input.

    I am not a believer in the idea that two depressive episodes should result in lifetime meds. Some people might need that. Some won’t. Broad, sweeping statements like that make me itchy. It’s as if it takes all of the personal experience and background from the person experiencing the episode(s).

    1. You are right on. I think medication should be used if we aren’t functioning and should bring us close enough to functioning (or “normal”) to do whatever we need to be doing to feel better and live life with laughter. Meds are sometimes a means but I wish they were further down the line and I wish our strangeness wasn’t so determined by society.

  9. For some reason this brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it’s because I find myself described in some of your words and in some of the comments left by other readers. The awkwardness, the anxiety, the fear of not being “normal” and then the fear of being normal (who would I be without my quirks and hang ups and off-key random singing?) because I can’t exactly define normal or where I fit into it. How boring would the world be if we all were the same anyway? It certainly wouldn’t be very funny.

    In our culture we seem determined to categorize things in terms of this or that or black and white. We miss all of the shades of gray in between. I think this is the primary reason I felt compelled to exit the field of psychology. Diagnosing felt too arbitrary to me and treatment methods too stagnant. People are often treated as label instead of as people.

    I think you are right. Laughter is much more important than being normal. Laughter is what gets me out of bed every morning.

    1. I struggled and feared not being myself and being myself too. I think that I’m at a point now where I can be me but I still struggling with “being me” and “being out there” because while I like me, and my close friends and family like me, and my bloggy friends like reading me, I have a hard time believe a new person would like me in person.
      Humor is the key for me too.

  10. I’ve got a lump in my throat after reading this, I think because this one hits too close to home. I can’t even put together a better comment than this because I’m scared if I do, if I think a little too hard or long on how this applies to my life right now, I will fall down that rabbit hole of snot and tears and anxiety, and I know that once I allow myself to get to the bottom of that hole, it can be a long climb back to the surface. But thank you for articulating the experience of many, Alex, and thank you for posing the same questions I ask everyday.

  11. Oh, and one last thing, Alex? Your quirkiness, your openness, is what made me love you the very first time I met you. It made me comfortable. My mother always said that there are folks who add color to life, and others that strip it away by trying too hard to meet other people’s standards of convention and normalcy. She wanted to be surrounded by the colorful people who lived life out loud, people who had something interesting to say. I hope you know I mean it as the highest compliment I can put forth when I say that my mother would adore you.

    1. Thank you Moe. That means a lot. It’s been a long road of struggling to figure out which is me, which is what I think other’s want and which is what I think other’s want so I’m doing the opposite even though the opposite isn’t me either.
      You are a special and awesome person as well and that’s why I could sit at a table and talk with you for 3 hours the first time we hung out 🙂

  12. This is so good! I was actually thinking about this same thing the other day. As a former teacher you are so right about labels benefiting kids, but also adding a social stigma. I just read the book The Paris Wife for book club – it’s historical fiction based on the lives of Hemingway and his first wife from her point of view. It was great but also eye opening as it seemed many of the greats back then (be it artists, poets, novelists) had some depression issues or other things that these days we’d label in a heartbeat and medicate. Then I got to wondering…would they be famous still if they were medicated? Would they have been able to have the vision to create all these pieces of art that we treasure in our society? Who is the artist, performer, writer medicated today that may not see their work and feelings as clearly to produce such a piece? I am NOT by any means saying people should not take medicine. In our family we are walking down this road currently in two different circumstances and know there will be a third eventually, and it has helped in both situations. But you are so right. There is a line and tough questions have to be asked, and usually you have to take the + with the -. Great thought provoking piece Alex!

    1. I think it is weird that so many artist and writers struggle with depression (and addiction) although sometimes i wonder if they are just the ones we talk about more because their lives fascinate us (draw to the just crazy enoughs like the phenomena on reality TV).
      I do think that staying on the edge helps but I know at my lowest, I could not write. But having been to my lowest means I can write better now if that makes sense. (not that i’m a hemingway of course – ha!)

      1. It’s weird in that it’s a pattern but I’m pretty convinced that the “artistic” mind just is differently wired in the majority of cases; that’s what makes them such prolific producers of art, but it’s also why so many so often don’t seem to be able to take CARE of themselves.

        Oh, wow…I just obliquely defined art as dysfunction. I’ll show myself out.

    1. I felt that for a long time with my husband. BUt then he had a hard time I was there for him AND I was reminded that for all my quirks and emotionality, I’m a pretty awesome person. You are too and your husband is lucky to have you even though you probably sometimes get on his nerves. HA!

  13. I love you. That is all.

    I am medicated for lots of reasons. It’s not the first time, but I hope it’s the last…though it doesn’t sound like it will be because of the stats you listed. Oh well….

    I do time outs. I spank very rarely and only ever with my hand, over clothes, and it’s never hard enough to make anyone sob. LOL. I’m hard to get along with, too—and have high expectations of myself and others. I’ve been on and off meds….and it sucks that i have to rely on them to quash certain thoughts/feelings/inclinations.

    1. I think that sometimes it is better to use meds to quash certain feelings and impulses than hurt others or ourselves. When I was horrifically suicidal, I could’ve hugged the makers of Prozac because I got to live. And living is fun and all the laughter I would’ve missed makes me tear up a bit. I think meds have there place but I’ve also always been relieved when it’s time to come off them. Whether you ever do or don’t, if they let you laugh again, they are completely worth it.

  14. Is ‘normal’ not a label too?

    I wonder sometimes who defines ‘normal’, ‘quirky’ etc. Is it us? Society? Culture?

    More questions than answers.

    Oh, I talk to myself all the time. Yeah, I’m one of ‘those’ people.

    1. I definitely think normal is a label and sometimes used in a derogatory way, which gets to that a little bit of different is good but too much or too little is very very bad.

      Also, my post got too long for me to get into the idea of society and culture but for example, some of what is normal with in the US wouldn’t be normal in Sudan, so I think culture and media (cultural icons) play a large role in normalizing behaviors.

  15. I hate it when you takes posts out of my head. Our families should hang. we’d eithe rget along famously or kill each like characters the The Lord of the Flies, within hours.

    As weird, quirky, medicated, crazy, and odd as I am, both clinically and regularly, the 4 women I live with are bat crap goofy too. It is impossible to label anyone in this house. we only work in the context of the five of us. If you tried our tactics elsewhere, child services would be called.

    It’s amazing how in tune crazy people can be with each other, but not with anyone else.

    great post

  16. I fight my quirks and I am too scared to live closer to the edge, even though it would make me happier.
    It seems I fight to be “normal”. I don’t think it’s my natural state.

  17. Oh how I loved this post. I want to comment on so many points, but don’t want to go on and on.

    These are the thoughts that swirl through my head when I get pressure to go on meds for the depression I think is normal at this time in my life. I mean, being sad, being angry, being anxious – those are normal emotions. Why try to surpress them? Why not cry on Tuesdays if it makes you feel better? Why not sit under the tree and breathe?

    And living with someone who was on medication often made me wonder – did the meds make it worse or better? Sometimes, it was better. But often, it was worse. When he forgot to take a pill, when he didn’t eat enough, when he didn’t take them at the right time, he turned into someone I didn’t know. Were the meds making him Jekyl and Hyde or was that always inside of him and timing, age, circumstances brought it out?

    And if what he was going through was diagnosed as mental illness, why wasn’t it treated as cancer or Lyme disease or mono? Why was it instead treated as a problem, resulting in disciplinary actions at work?

    Is it because it wasn’t “normal” to be on anti anxiety and anti depressant medications?

    But considering how many people I know on them, maybe it is normal. I don’t know.

    I do know that if there was laughter, that might have helped. 🙂

  18. It had to be pointed out to me that almost every signature in my high school yearbook started “to a weird but nice guy”. I started college at 16. In the military I was both short and smarter than most of my officers. I was always labeled. I’ve been married twice and they and the girlfriends in between have always been labeled “weird”. Okay, well one did have seven personalities, but she has one now and a doctorate. My friends have labeled me a “weird magnet”. My own father thought I was Gay [sorry guys, exit only]. I’m not afraid of the dark but refuse to take out the trash in the dark. I have a reason, that I’d love to tell you. I’m a field grade underachiever.

    I count my friends in a very small circle. They truly know me and accept me. I’ve long ago stopped telling stories about what has happened in my life because I’m sick and tired of being labeled a liar. I revel in knowing my friends know that I’m the least judgmental person they know. But they also know I’ll fight to the death when I know I’m right.

    Watching my child suffer with ADD, I came to realize that I probably am too. But was treated with ass whippings instead of Ritalin. I still not sure which is a better remedy. I am aware that I’m ACOA. [google it!]

    I’ve had one nervous breakdown and after war,death and divorce my therapist said I deserved one and should enjoy it. My first therapist after our first session went into the woods and blew his brains out with a shotgun. I’m not really sure I was not the cause. I survived Prozac. Over the years I have learned not to buy tickets on the Emotional Roller Coaster. My last therapist told me to go get a PhD and do whatever I wanted to. We met years later when my son was in therapy. He recognized me and I said “This is what I wanted to do”. A family.

    I hate being labeled, but people so readily ascribe them. I’ve been told I’m a Drama Queen and revel it in while I know I hate it. At 54 I’ve been labeled the coldest cut of all, “OLD”. the last thing I am is closed minded. I definitely know I’m not crazy. Quirky? Yes. If i had money I’d be eccentric.

    The biggest reason I am your fan is that in reading your victories and defeats over the urbane trails of life I label you a kindred spirit in this thing we call Life. You keep swinging for the fence girlfriend. Let the rest of the world stick it where the sun don’t shine if they’re too stupid, weak or bigoted to get it.
    PS: I sometimes switch from English to German and back again. Especially when I’m excited. Get weird looks for that too.

      1. If by married, you mean stuck in an elevator, the answer is maybe. If you mean married, as in, lets go to Vegas and find a JOP and get hitched, the answer is no.

        😉

  19. You’re right, normal is not as important as laughter. Not to quote Dr. Phil, but years ago he talked about some woman who had an imaginary friend. Her husband, adult children, friends, and family all just went with it. Otherwise she was completely “normal.” So what’s the big deal? I guess they all drew the line there and everyone was fine. I’m sure they had a steady supply of imaginary friend jokes too!

  20. One of the points you touched upon is societal labels. I think they are dangerous because they change, but also, as of late, I think they are exceeding in both number and damage. Today we “hate” breast-feeders, meat-eaters, people who don’t share their money, people who do share their money, the anxious, the needy, the overweight, the intelligent, the employed… you can’t win where societal labels are concerned. They need to be dismissed, especially with how watered down we’ve become. We don’t try to understand folks like so many of you who struggle with anxiety or other obstacles. You’re “weird” if you home-school your kids. And your kids are “weird” if they are too smart.

    But no one offers an acceptable alternative, or clear definition of “normal.” If you go by the media’s offerings, we are supposed to dumb down, not care about what is happening to our country, care too much about Kim Kardashian or Snooki, eat crap food but work out 65 million hours so we look good on the outside but rot on the inside…

    We could go on and on. At this point, all that matters to me is that I live according to MY standards, and the labels I choose to identify with (or not) are the only ones of value. Because they meet MY standards, and to hell with anyone else’s. You mentioned that you’d rather be medicated so you could function, but so many people feel such a stigma because they need medication… how sad for all of you that you feel you can’t do what you need to in order to live your lives. Medicine used to be seen as a tool to help the sick… but now we’ve decided what medicine is or isn’t “cool” or “acceptable”? It’s disgusting and stupid.

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