Normal Man

Photo of 1953 Ford 2 Door Sedan

When I was a boy of maybe three or four (when you still have the time for such things, and maybe a little wisdom left from the womb), I had a regular weekday morning routine. I would climb up onto the back of the living room couch in my pajamas, lean over, and look out the front window, eagerly watching for this one particular guy to drive by our house in his maroon ’53 Ford coupe. He always had a tan windbreaker, an old, beat-up felt hat with the front brim pushed up, and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was medium height, not old but not young, kind of ordinary looking, but good-ordinary, and as he drove by our house at precisely eight o’clock every morning, I would nod in satisfaction and smile to myself:

There goes Normal Man.

God only knows what Normal Man was really like: maybe he’d been up all night drinking, and was just heading home to sleep it off; maybe he was living in his car. But for me, he was good old Normal Man — living, comforting proof that maybe growing up wasn’t impossible, wasn’t scary, wasn’t complicated: you could just get a job, some job, any job, and drive to work every morning, listening to your favorite program on the car radio, with a cigarette stuck in your mouth and a satisfied expression on your puss, and it was okay. You didn’t have to figure out where you fit into the world, you didn’t have to invent something fancy to do for a living, you didn’t have to drive a Cadillac, or even a Buick. You could just be a regular Joe, and that was good enough. And good enough was, well, good enough.

To human beings, Normal is important – very important.

But what is this elusive ‘normal’? Does it mean ‘the same as everyone else’? And where do they keep the Standard of Weights and Measures for ‘normal’? Is it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? The National Archives? The Library of Congress? Grant’s Tomb?

More than once, I have had therapy patients tell me variations on this story:

“Before my big job interview (or date, or performance, or test), my friends all said, ‘Just be yourself’. But what IS myself?”

In therapy, over time, people can learn how to answer this question. And often as not, the question ‘What is normal?’ gradually evolves into, ‘What is normal – for me?.

One of my own personal breakthroughs on this issue came when I attended a talk by a meditation teacher many years ago. For some reason, I must have clicked with him, because to this day I still remember several things he said that day. But the one that really jumped out at me was something he kind of tossed off as an afterthought. It was a deceptively simple statement:

We are all incomparable.

At first, I thought, “Awww, isn’t that cute? Kind of like Mister Rogers saying, I like you just the way you are.” But as I thought about it more, and more deeply, over the years, I came to understand what a profound statement it really was. He was saying that we can NOT be compared to one another, because each person is one of a kind, so it would be comparing apples to oranges. So all the internalized parental voices, all the comparing and judging, the peanut gallery that goes on in my mind, and in the minds of my patients (what we call the Goon Squad in my practice), was not only wrong but irrelevant. The only person I can ‘compare’ to is myself.

And that led to another level of realization that hit me after doing therapy all these years. It came from listening to patients talk about ‘advice’ from people in their lives – sometimes well-meaning, sometimes critical, but the message was always the following:

If I were you…

”If I were you I wouldn’t drink so much”; “If I were you I would have quit that job a long time ago”; “If I were you I would study harder; “If I were you I wouldn’t rush into a relationship”, and on and on.

And of course most of us realize that the standard comeback for this would be to say, “Yeah, but you’re NOT me.” But what I’m talking about goes deeper than that. What I realized is this, again deceptively simple, but profound in its implications:

If you were me, you’d be me.
If I were you, I’d be you.

In other words, the sum total of a person’s experience, heredity and life circumstances, produces a unique self that, to that point, couldn’t have turned out any other way. Another person cannot look at them and compare, merely substituting themselves and their own chain of experiences as the subject of the sentence. Saying, “If I were you…” implies hypothetically grafting one’s own set of values and capabilities onto another person’s whole life, which is ludicrous. It would be like saying, “If that factory were a silo, it’d be a silo.” Yeah, and what’s your point? A factory is a factory, and a silo is a silo — period.

Does this mean that people cannot change? Of course not – it’s saying that what has already happened has produced this exact being, here and now, and that if you don’t accept that as fact, it’s you who are out of touch with reality. We know people whom we wish were different; even as a therapist you catch yourself saying, “Wow – he could be so much more; what’s wrong with him anyway?” What’s ‘wrong’ with him is that YOU obviously are making a judgment based on incomplete information, because if you truly saw and understood all the forces that went into shaping that person, you would not be surprised or judgmental at all – you would just nod and say, “Yes, of course”.

Again, this does not mean at all that people cannot change, only that what they are now is the inevitable result of what has already happened. You are free to introduce new experiences that can have a profound effect on the person’s life and capabilities – in fact as a therapist it is your JOB to do so. But you do not do this from a sense of judgment, impatience, disdain, or disappointment with them, because if you do, it shows a serious lack of understanding: they are what they are, period. You want to help them? Good – get going and do something. If it doesn’t work, either you, again, had a serious misapprehension of reality, or you’re not very good at your job, because it is not THEIR “failure” to get better that is the problem! You can certainly be disappointed that they didn’t get better, but not in them personally.

I once had a patient who had borderline personality disorder. He needed medication to help him handle the emotional swings that go with this disorder, and to help him utilize therapy better. He went to a local psychiatrist with a ‘big reputation’ and the following exchange happened:

Big Rep: Okay, so what’s the problem?
Patient: Well, it’s not that easy to describe.

BR: Look, do you see where it says on this form, “Problem?” Well, I have to fill in something there, so let’s start again: What’s the problem?
Pt: (beginning to get nervous) Well, how can I describe it?

BR: Try using words.
Pt: (Breathing heavily now – stands up in place, because he is feeling trapped and criticized)

BR: Sit down immediately! Remember, this is my office!
Pt: That’s not fair. I…

BR: I said sit down – now!
Pt: I don’t have to take this – I’m trying to cooperate.

BR: You’re trying to take over this interview. (Looks at chart patient has brought with him). And I see from your hospital history that this is typical for you.
Pt: (Stands up again, in panic)

BR: Sit down, immediately! You will NOT threaten me!
Pt: (raising voice) Threaten you? You’re threatening me!

BR: (Stands up, yelling) Get out of my office right now – you’re nothing but a, a damn borderline!

What’s wrong with this picture? The psychiatrist is not accepting the obvious fact that, yes, as he just yelled, the person is a borderline. It’s not something to accuse him of: it’s why he’s here! The psychiatrist is blaming the patient for the condition that brought him there: Why are you the way you are! Change!

He was being normal, for him. And that brings us to the irony of change. When you accept someone for who they are, fully, completely and without reservations, they change. It doesn’t mean you have to like the way they are, or ‘go along with it’, or be manipulated by it, or overlook their frustrating and alienating behavior, or join them in denial – it means you come from a place of assuming that “If I were you, I’d be you”, rather than “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

And it doesn’t mean they don’t need, or want, to change. After all, people don’t decide to be the way they are, the way you decide your major at college. They are not handed a menu saying,

Which would you prefer to be? (Check One):

A borderline personality disorder.

Bipolar with touches of raging paranoia.

Happy and well-adjusted, living a very meaningful life.

And yet we often treat people as if this were true. We blame them for their problems in the spirit of If I were you…

People are who their genetics and their environment have made them. To date, we only have relatively primitive ways of knowing how all this works, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to drop down to primitive blaming and name-calling: it just means that sometimes we don’t know, and humans hate to not know, especially when they’re supposed to be experts.

Early on in my graduate school career, I worked at a Veterans’ Administration Hospital for a summer, a training internship, working with veterans with psychological problems. My first ‘case’ was a seventy year-old black man who had psychotic episodes, but most of the time he could communicate well. I sat down, prepared to be an ‘expert’ (I was all of 25 or so). As he began to talk to me about what it was like to be old, what it was like to be black, and what it was like to be a veteran, I tried to think of something I could say to convey to him that I understood him completely. I finally said something ‘impressive’ that I remembered from a book on aging that I had read. He fixed me with a weary, indulgent look and said, “Look, boy, why don’t you shut up and listen – you might learn something.”

And that, from the first few minutes with my very first patient, has been the mantra of my whole career: Shut up and listen. He’ll never know what a wonderful gift he gave me, but I do. He was right, I did learn something. I learned that the most important ‘expertise’ I could offer someone was to respect their uniqueness, and not assume I knew anything about what it was like to be them, what it was like to be their kind of ‘normal’.

And so, working with people all these years, and respecting them, finally took me back to that little kid leaning over the couch, watching for Normal Man.

I realized, at last, that the Normal Man I had been waiting for all along, was me.

How about you?

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.