What Is “Normal” Anyway?

I was 19. Just one month into my first semester of college. With ombre hipster highlights and this oversized t-shirt with Greek sorority letters embroidered across the front.

I looked every inch the part.

But I wasn’t roaming a campus, textbooks nestled in the crook of my elbow, flaunting a Starbucks nonfat mocha like the stereotype I’d once hustled so hard to become.

Nope. I wasn’t exhilarated by the “newness” surrounding me. I was an entire world removed from it all.

As most of my peers doodled on the creases of their notebooks, feigning concentration on some 101 lecture, I perched in a rusted folding chair, knees clutched to my chest. A defensive posture that I figured might help me seem invisible.

The room was sparse. Light was scarce. And I was just one of eight other girls near the same age, seated in a circle and firmly avoiding eye contact. Our therapist had stationed herself in the center, presiding over the sullen group of teens which formed our motley crew.

Based on first impressions, we had nothing in common. And yet…for that singular moment, we had everything in common.

A rigid frame of reference that controlled each perception or opinion we held about ourselves. A shared experience through which we funneled our deepest insecurities and secret shames. We heard the white noise of inadequacy, the siren call of addiction—heard it loud and clear.

And we all had answered.

It brought us together in that austere, clinical room. Sequestered from our lives. Detached from the habitual. The expected. The routine. We didn’t know if “routine” was a place we even belonged anymore. We couldn’t decide what seemed real. So we became a unified “other.”

But as I watched the surreal scene materializing around me, there was a sense of abstract observance. No agency or active participation. And so the words just tumbled out…

I want to be normal.

Translation: I want to feel acceptance, approval, affirmation. But I’m different. I’m weird. I’m uninvited. I’m alone.

What does normal mean though? How did we reach this conclusion? What standard are we comparing against? Should we strive to attain that benchmark? And how can we know if we’ve gotten there? Is anyone normal—or is normal an illusion?

I’ve since realized that I don’t have a working definition of “normal.” It’s such an overused, ambiguous term. I can’t even articulate the draw of normalcy. But it’s there. A cultural fixation. A gauge for social inclusion. A mold we don’t understand but wedge ourselves into regardless.

So that’s how society perceives normal. But how does the dictionary interpret this word?

Conforming to a type, standard or regular pattern. Not deviating from a norm, rule or principle. Characterized by average intelligence or development.

That is…

Mediocre. Forgettable. Ordinary. Same.

Normal fades into the background. Dims around the edges. Blends into its environment. Normal isn’t human.

The scope and depth of normal are never enough to contain all our facets, dimensions or complexities. We’re not shrouded in sameness. We’re saturated in living color and sharpened focus.

If I could re-enter that room and crouch beside the 19-year-old aching for validation, I would urge her: Don’t conform. Don’t you dare. Because you’re not normal. No one is. And that’s our saving grace. We are diverse. We are luminous. We are quirky. We are intense. We are striking. We are fiery. We are original. We are the resident weirdos.

We’re humanity.

And normalcy has nothing on us.

don't be normal

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On Being Tough. Or Not.

fearless

“You’re the toughest person I know.”

It’s a sentiment I hear often. People commend me on this, and their intentions are sincere. I believe that. They leverage these words as grandiose reminders of the crossroads I’ve traversed. Barricades I’ve thrust aside. Mountains I’ve trekked to an unfamiliar precipice.

They applaud my supposed strength as though I’ve earned some bragging right—“Look what I overcame. No coup de grâce will finish me off.”

Except for one caveat. I don’t feel strong. Not even remotely. Under that impenetrable bravado I’ve fought to maintain, I sometimes feel damaged beyond recourse. Wary of exposing those chinks in my armor but desperate for someone to glimpse the truth…

It’s no bragging right to possess insider knowledge of how a psychiatric ward operates. To detect the muffled yet deafening click of a deadbolt for which you have no key. To forfeit both dignity and independence upon stepping inside.

To hear medical professionals issue warning after warning that your actions have fatal consequences, while not caring one iota. To curse a body that you’ll never escape. To pine after an identity which doesn’t compute as your own. To just keep existing—but without purpose or vitality. Or…to flirt with the temptation of not existing altogether.

Those are the memories swarming my consciousness when I’m labeled “tough.” Because the fact is, I’m not.

Today’s cultural climate demands I revoke this confession before it can materialize further. Don’t admit your frailties or vulnerabilities. That’s the accepted mantra. Disguise your battle scars. Force a confident smirk to repress the emotion. And never concede that you can’t survive this alone. That maybe—just maybe—you need another lifeline.

But I won’t conform to those standards anymore. This arbitrary rulebook on how to feel—how to live—I reject its merciless constraints. I’m no hero archetype whose staunch self-reliance is more than enough for whatever crises loom ahead. Nor should I feign this performance. I’m a fragile, breakable human being. That’s my truth.

Flawed but redeemed.

Wounded but healing.

Uncertain but learning.

Weakened but sustaining.

Fragmented but still breathing.

Emotionally stunted but growing.

I’ll take those attributes over “tough” every time because they manifest something emphatically more worthwhile—courage. And even if nobody declares me “the bravest person they know,” choosing to view myself through that lens is enough. More than enough, in fact.

In the (Start-Up) Business of Loving Myself

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Self-Love is a buzzword I hear often. Even social media hashtags proliferate the concept. Yep. #SelfLoveSunday. It’s a thing.  So are those barefaced “I woke up like this” selfies. Of course you did. After 10 minutes of choosing a filter.

But regardless, the implication is clear. We should accept, embrace, even flaunt our own uniqueness. And the haters can just shove their criticism. Well…umm…brownie points for that empowering mantra, but one issue still remains.

Social media is not an accurate depiction of reality. Which makes me wonder: How many of these self-love posts crowding my Instagram feed represent women who really do love themselves?  

Do they feel as confident, poised and vivacious as their expressions would suggest? Or is there a secret shame cowering behind that camera lens?  A brokenness hidden beneath a brazen facade?

I’d guess the latter.

Not because I’m a cynic, but because we live amidst a contradictory culture that heaps emphasis on airbrushed physical standards, while encouraging women to appreciate their idiosyncrasies.

These two messages can’t coexist. When society demands perfection, where does that leave the imperfect? Scrutinizing every inch of their bodies, chasing self-love but coming up short.

I’m no stranger to this cycle.

In fact, the first conscious realization of my own “subpar” physique came at 8 years old. This perception (however irrational) spiraled into a decade long struggle with distorted body image, restrictive behaviors and obsessive hyper-criticism. A.K.A. the antithesis of self-love.

No hashtag is gonna convince me to change that perspective though. No social media campaign will reverse these beliefs entrenched in my psyche. No superficial impetus can undo the damage within. Healing comes from a much higher pursuit.

When you recognize that vulnerability isn’t weakness.

That admission of flaws isn’t acceptance of defeat.

That relying just on yourself isn’t a buffer from pain. 

That drawing strength from others isn’t disempowerment.  

So, why is self-love an elusive concept? Because we’re conditioned to skepticize and overanalyze these simple truths instead of affirming them at face-value. But when we move past the barricades, we experience more than self-love.

We discover identity.

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