Thinking back on my experiences as a seeker of care and a provider, I remember two big misconceptions. “Everyone experiences what I do,” and “No one understands what I’ve been through.” While these statements may seem to appear opposites, they easily co-exist in the belief systems of people experiencing emotional distress. Since I grew up in an alcoholic family, I have easily identified with the movement from the 70’s and 80’s focusing on Adult Children of Alcoholics: identifying the family system, the cognitive adaptations that help your world make sense, and the internal belief systems that rise from families where there is role confusion, denial,unpredictability, and secrecy.
When you do not talk about your inner life, you have few ways to compare it to others’. I remember in my 20’s having an eye exam that showed I was very far-sighted. The doctor asked me if I had experienced seeing double when trying to read. My response was, “Of course, I do. Whenever I get tired. Doesn’t everybody?” Or in my late 30’s when the dentist asked in a standard survey, “How frequently did I have headaches?” then responded with concern when I answered 5-7 days/week. “How had I gone so long without being concerned about it?” I thought it was “normal.” Today I look back with gratitude that someone asked a question in a way that I could respond, which resulted in recognizing that I could have a different experience than I had. It wasn’t normal, everyone did not experience it the way I did, and it wasn’t necessary that I struggle with it either.
The flip side (and yet companion) of defining your personal experience as normal, is seeing yourself as abnormal – the only person who feels this way or has had this experience. Part of the benefit of the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement, pioneered by people like John Bradshaw, Claudia Black, Jane Middleton-Moz, and Timmen Cermak,** was that it described a developmental process and set of beliefs that large groups of people had previously identified as individually unique to them. In the same way, group therapy is often the most helpful with persons having similar trauma experiences, because the individuals see that others have had very similar feelings, emotional or physiological responses, and common self-talk, generated from the common experience and not from a personal deficiency or inability to cope. This exposure to others who share your difficulties “normalizes” the experience and the person’s response, and confronts the internal view that one is somehow “not doing it right.”
Now with all that said, don’t be too concerned about “Being Normal.” A recent post by a friend said something like, “Normal is just a setting on your washing machine.” And when you see a therapist or counselor, and they somehow start to describe fairly accurately how you might be feeling, or thinking, or experiencing something; don’t be alarmed. They are not reading your mind. They are discussing common experiences of many persons in similar circumstances. Experiences you might learn from.Experiences that may be common, predictable, understandable, and human… that’s normal.
** These writers were important to me. I have not tried to be inclusive here.There are many contributors to the ACOA knowledge base and treatment approaches.
Remember, this forum is not intended to be therapy. I have no way to view your body language, hear your tone of voice, or see your emotional expressions. These are essential to effective communication and great tools for the therapist (and for the consumer when reversed.) I will attempt to be as helpful as I can. I will refer you the best I can to needed services. Even though I will not be your therapist, I am a health care professional bound by law and ethics to act to protect persons from harm. I am required to report my concerns of harm to self or others, and suspected abuse of children and vulnerable adults. I am located and providing these services in Washington State.
Again, I am open to communicating directly with you here. If you have questions or concerns, please leave a comment. I will attempt to address the content if I can.