I am an abnormality.
It is a strong word to use but don’t think for the briefest of moments that I embrace the term. I don’t use the word as if I had ABNORMAL emblazoned on the back of a black leather jacket with matching long black hair. Unfortunately, I’ve never been the kind of abnormal that has been proud to be part of the other. I’m the kind of abnormal with such profound shame of who I am and what I’ve done that I know I can never belong to a group. Groups get to know each other, reveal what makes them different from normal society, and unite in their commonalities with a glorious cry of “Fuck the world!”
I’m not that kind of abnormal.
I’m the kind that hides behind a mask of normal. I am a middle-aged, white, heterosexual, cis male, who is married with children. I am entirely nondescript. I am the boring majority. As a child, I remember reading that the power of invisibility lies not in some magical power but in the ability to get people to stop seeing you. I took that lesson to heart. You could walk right past me and not remember having seen me. I seldom make eye contact, smile, or engage with the world.
This means that an open piece of writing like this is especially strange for me. On the bell curve of life, I don’t stand proudly upright in the spacious centre but instead crouch in the tiny space designated for the outliers. But now I think it is time for me to inspect what makes me different from normal people – what I’ve always known about myself and what I’ve discovered.
1) I was an alone child.
I was not a lonely child because I think the feeling of loneliness lies not in absence of people but in one’s awareness of that absence. I never felt that absence. It was all I knew. I was and am an only child but I know only children who are not alone, who socialise well, and have many friends.
I was an alone child. I spent most of my time alone. Friends rarely came to my house and I rarely went to other friends’ houses. It happened a little as a child and hardly ever as a young teenager. Throughout my childhood, I knew that this was not a welcome idea. Once I had a friend over and my mother, clearly frustrated with my friend infringing on our schedules, asked when my friend would be leaving because it was time for dinner. None of my friends ever stayed for dinner.
At school, I had a couple of friends but the relationship felt more functional than affectionate. When I joined secondary school, I stopped seeing any of my friends from primary school and when I started college in preparation for university, I stopped seeing my friends from secondary. This despite the fact I lived in the same house from age seven to eighteen and I did my A-levels in the same school where I attended secondary.
I never really fitted in. I wasn’t sporty so didn’t play football. I was smarter than other kids in the kind of schools where if you were smart, the first thing you understood was to keep quiet about it and put neither your hand nor your head up. And let’s be clear: I wasn’t finding the cure for cancer smart, but I was smart enough to be noticed by bullies.
Bullying was a feature of school. In primary, I got kicked in the balls so hard, despite having just left hospital after a hernia operation, I immediately needed another one. In secondary, my backpack was regularly opened out on the school field and I had to spend my time going around, collecting the contents. What school taught me, apart from the fact that the French call Ursa Major “the frying pan”, was that I do not fit in.
2) My childhood contains the one single fact that makes me know I am abnormal.
I have gone through different stages of understanding how this fact makes me abnormal. First, I knew that losing my virginity at 14 was not normal and it was wrong for me to have lost my virginity to someone in my family. 25 years later, I learnt that what I considered just to be wrong was actually abuse. I’ve also learnt that statistically, I’m not normal. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one in 53 boys are abused compared to one in nine girls (1.89% of boys). In 88% of sexual abuse cases, the abuser is male. In only 9% of cases, the abuser is female. That means I represent 9% of 1.89% of men, or 0.19%. My wife may not have married a one in a million man, but she definitely married one in a thousand.
Going into the details of the abuse will distract from the main point of this essay – the idea of being abnormal. So for now, I’ll just explore the qualities it left me with.
One of the main qualities is disassociation. The child survivor of sexual and emotional abuse, I quickly hide in a state of nothingness when threatened socially. Disassociation uses the same skills as invisibility – avoiding eye contact, disengaging, no facial expressions. The difference between being invisible to the people you pass in the street and disassociating from the people you are with is that when you disassociate, you actually become more visible. Ever noticed someone just staring into space for a long time? It is a hard thing to explain away.
Another quality I picked up from being the son of divorced parents was being able to profoundly believe two conflicting realities. I maintained one reality for my father and another for my mother, and kept a constant mental record of what I had done and spoken about with them so as not to displease the parent I was talking to at the time. Apart from this being mentally exhausting, it is also dangerous to be this flexible with reality. It has affected relationships and means my opinions and attitudes change with the wind and I am thoroughly convinced each one is correct.
Beyond the qualities I developed from the divorce and from the abuse, I was deeply affected by living in an environment which put me in a mental state to accept the abuse. I am crushed when I receive no affection and confused and dismissive when I do. Hugs make me uncomfortable unless they are on my terms. I get intensely angry when I feel I am being criticised or being attacked but will let no one help me or support me to get things right. In short, I’m a fucking difficult person to love.
1) Things that don’t seem normal can actually be good for you
At the age of 42, I started listening to a podcast called the Mental Illness Happy Hour which helped me decide to join a support group of people who have survived similar abuse. This was an incredibly important decision. I would recommend it to anyone coming to terms with how far the shadows of their past reach into their present. Apart from helping you to realise that there are many people who have happy and successful lives despite sharing similar pasts, it also helps you to understand the important habits you need to develop. For example, locking the bathroom door.
This may seem a weird example. Surely everyone locks the bathroom door? After all, that’s the normal thing to do.
But I am an abnormality.
Throughout most of my childhood, I never locked the bathroom door because my abuser would always, at the very moment that I was in the bathroom getting undressed, need to come in and get something or need to do something like brush her teeth while I stood there. Whenever I did lock the door, I would open it if she knocked and it never occurred to me that I should ask her to come back later. The fact I was naked didn’t make this seem any less normal. In fact, this pattern of behaviour, of an abuser deliberately chipping away at their victim’s boundaries is an extremely common feature of abuse. Years later, I realised that I was repeating the same behaviour with my children. I wasn’t walking into the bathroom while they were naked but I would simply push the door behind me when I entered the bathroom just as my abuser had done to allow them to wander in.
It was in my support group that I learnt that the normal thing to do was to lock the bathroom door. That having physical boundaries wasn’t selfish nor inconsiderate but simply normal. Having so many people comment on this made me reflect on what I did in comparison to my wife, and I suddenly realised that my wife had actually always locked the door.
This, the most pedestrian of examples, is to demonstrate the importance of being able to compare your experience to others. This is why it is crucial to have people around you who have faced similar issues and dealt with them successfully or people who are successfully leading happy, functional lives. This is how you learn to incorporate new, positive behaviours into your life. This is how you learn a new normal.
2) Things that seem normal may not actually be good for you.
The other side of learning a new normal is the importance of realising that simply because you have done something for years does not mean that it is what normal people do.
In the depths of my depression, I was cycling to work and I passed a truck. I suddenly began to fantasise about what it would mean if I were to throw myself under the truck. Would my family be better off? Perhaps not financially, but almost certainly they would prefer not to have such a negative influence in their lives. How could they miss someone who was so negative? It could only be a good thing to remove a monster like me from the world, a person capable of doing such horrible things like incest. It was that same day when I had my breakdown, and began uncontrollably crying at work and in the street outside.
Later, explaining how I’d felt the day I had my breakdown, my therapist asked me if anything had triggered my negative feelings. I thought about it and said “just the normal things – contemplating suicide and throwing myself under the wheels of a truck”. He looked at me very seriously and explained that this was not normal. That normally people do not have such thoughts, the ones known as suicidal ideation. That these thoughts were precisely the sign that something was not normal.
And yet, it has always been something that I have done.. It is as normal for me to contemplate suicide as it might be for someone else to make a to-do-list in their head and mentally tick off the items. Whenever I’m in a situation that is not going well or I feel that I have irreparably damaged a relationship with someone, my thoughts turn to suicide. I think about where and how and what I would need. It is a fantasy but I don’t make the details fantastical. For example, I never contemplate shooting myself because I know I will never have a gun. So typically, I think about dying by hanging, gassing, or overdose. I have been doing this since I was a child. One of my early memories was waking up crying after having a dream in which I had been hung. I was crying because I was worried about how my parents would react to my death.
These types of thoughts are called intrusive thoughts but I think that term is misleading. After all, my thoughts of suicide don’t intrude on my otherwise perfectly happy line of thinking. I tend to be thinking very negatively and feeling that I have created a situation that is entirely inescapable. Then I begin thinking about suicide and in that moment, it does not intrude but it is actually welcomed. Perversely, it brings me a kind of comfort – a feeling that there is always a way out for me.
The problem lies in the thoughts that lead me to suicidal ideation. I obsess about the ultimate way out because I fail to perceive the other, more positive solutions. Arguing with a partner does not imply the end of a relationship. Being a bad parent for one afternoon does not mean that I do not know how to be a father. Having a lot of work to do and failing to meet a deadline will not automatically lead to being fired. And even if all of those things were to happen, none of them are irretrievable situations. Broken relationships can be repaired and jobs come and go.
Now, I have learnt that my obsession with suicide is a useful sign. If I reach thoughts of suicide, I know that my thoughts have led me down the wrong path. I know I need to go back a few steps and look for an alternative. If I take myself down a different path enough times, I will learn that new way of reaching a solution, and I will stop thinking that there is no alternative but to end my life.
So normal or not?
What I have discovered is not only that there are things that I do that are not normal, or that some of the things I normally do are not good. The most important thing I have discovered is that being normal or abnormal are not direct equivalents to being good or bad. You are not a bad person because you do things differently from the rest. The only good or bad that matters is doing the things in life that are mentally healthy or unhealthy for you.
And how do you learn what is mentally healthy for you? Look at the friends you surround yourself with. Look at the family you have created. Compare yourself to the other positive, functioning people you know. Have therapists guide you. Try what works. Do away with what doesn’t.
I may not be statistically normal. I may not have had the experiences that normal people have had. But on good days, I’m happy. And I’m getting better and better at learning to deal with the bad days.