Celebrating difference


What does it mean to be normal? Is it possible to define what it is that makes a 'normal human experience'? Is there such a thing and who gets to decide what that is?

It seems like such a silly thing to consider really. When I contemplate these questions I am left pondering, why would anyone set out to define it? Yet that seems to be what we have done in our society.

I've just spent the weekend speaking to people at the WOMADelaide festival, with the Many Voices Collective, about how we might start to change the conversations we have about what we call 'mental illness'.

I spoke to a wonderful aboriginal woman who was part of the stolen generation and I was struck yet again with the idea that our society has sought to make some people and their experiences, beliefs and even culture, "normal" and others abnormal. This is so blatant in what has happened in our country with how we have treated and continue to treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (even though this is still not fully understood by our wider society).

Then I think about how the "colonization of our thinking" (to quote Will Hall), is less obvious in how we view what is often called 'Mental Illness'. Have we noticed the ever narrowing definition of what we call normal, or is it so insidious we have just been caught up in it and now agree with it.

I watched a beautiful video tonight where Will Hall talks about how, in the 1960's, the gay rights movement pressured psychiatry to see human difference as normal. They did not seek to change themselves, they fought to end the isolation and powerlessness that society had thrust upon them.

What if we fought for our society to see mental distress as part of the continuum of normal? Maybe we would be less afraid of alternative experiences. Maybe if we stopped scaring ourselves we could stop scaring people who are often already quite frightened by their experiences.

Maybe we could change the conversation from attempting to 'fix' a person to seeking to connect and understand a person. Maybe in doing so we would lessen people's experiences of isolation and powerlessness.

When I speak to people about their experiences of psychosis, suicidal thinking or other forms of distress they often speak about how terrifyingly alone they feel. They speak of not knowing who could help them and how they might find a way to feel less flooded by their experiences.

I'd like to think of a time, in the near future, when as a society we might be just as comfortable speaking to someone going through a distressing experience, as we are now (mostly) comfortable speaking to a gay person about 'coming out'.

Here is the Will Hall video that has touched me so deeply tonight. Enjoy these 13 minutes of inspiration.


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