What Is Normal Anyway?

‘I just want to be normal.’ I wonder how many people have muttered these words during times of turmoil. I wonder how many people have (at least in that instance) wanted to trade their noisy, adrenalised, racing thoughts, for a brain that was more peaceful. A brain that was numb, and void of opinion. I know I have.

As I sit here, staring at the blank page, I can already feel my anxieties rising. As I begin to write, I find myself trying to envision how my words will be perceived by anybody that reads them. Type, then delete, then type, then delete.

The problem is, I rarely talk about these issues for fear of ridicule. I fear that I won’t be taken seriously, or that I will be branded dramatic. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Doctors, councillors, they all just like to label stuff and hand out leaflets. Cyclothymia, Bipolar II, these are just a few attempts at a diagnosis I’ve had thrown at me, to try and ‘define my troubles’. Professional people, friends, family, everyone has an opinion. ‘Cheer up mate.’ ‘What do you have to be down about?.’ ’Things can’t be that bad!’ This is why I say nothing. This is why I shuffle through life hiding the lows and pretending to be ok.

My anxieties go way back. I believe the need for acceptance and the need to fit in is burned deep into the limbic system of my brain. You can pretend to be confident. Bravado can get you so far, but then the armour cracks and that ugly viscous fluid of self-doubt slowly leaks out. It makes you forget who you are. It stains your soul, and the very skin you are printed on.

“As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction!”

The problem is…

I have always know I was ‘different’. Parties, fashion, clubbing, ‘getting on it’, they are all part of ‘normal life’ when you’re 18 years old and living in Newcastle; the party capital of the UK. I hated it. But if you didn’t conform, you were quickly branded ‘boring’. There is no room for introverts here, you will simply be crushed under the egos of narcissistic juggernauts.

Large crowds. Strangers. Drunk people. Rowdy and volatile situations. These are all things that send my anxieties through the roof. I spend most of the night on edge, analysing every detail of the room. Escape routes, possible threats, objects that could become potential weapons. I feel out of control, and the only way to regain any is to analyse everything. To come up with a plan for possible scenarios. As you can imagine, this is mentally exhausting, and I’m usually ready for home well before midnight. But of course, you can’t go home before midnight, because that’s ‘boring’.

Now comes the bit I find extremely difficult to admit. I spent these times (the best part of a decade), finding ways to try and subdue my anxieties, whilst still trying to fit in and maintain the illusion that I was a ’normal’ socialite. Trying to last until 4am when the clubs closed, so I could be part of the taxi-queue victory parade of full-time-partiers! I found the only way achieve this, was to not think about (or not get anxious about) anything. It sounds simple enough. But for me, the only way to achieve this, is to simply to get so off my face that my brain can’t think up anything to worry about. Or at least so it can’t remember any of it in the morning!

Looking back on it, this behaviour made me hate myself. It made me a selfish, angry and often unapproachable person. I would spend my nights unable to sleep, and my days unable to get out of bed. I would snap at anybody that attempted to save me from myself. As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction! I wasn’t addressing the issue. I was simply abusing a coping mechanism. The trouble with coping mechanisms, is that they never address the problem directly. They don’t ever make you feel better, they just delay the onset of despair. And they amplify it when it arrives!

“How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?”

Creative people tend to think more. And by this, I don’t mean creative people are more intelligent, or that people who don’t necessarily consider themselves creative have nothing going on between their ears. What I mean is that creative people have a much higher chance of dwelling on something that others may overlook. They pay more attention to things, in far greater detail. Whilst this is our gift, it is also our curse. That attention to detail is the difference between painting a picture, and painting a masterpiece. But it is also this attention to detail that makes us ruminate. It is the reason we can’t let go easily. The reason we play scenarios out in our heads over and over again. The reason we can always see how we could have done things better.

It is this ruminating that is often the catalyst for depression. Or at least, it is in my case. The constant battle with yourself to be better. The over analytical views you take of your work, or yourself. The feeling that you don’t deserve any credit you receive. These feelings are all too real in our industry. Because, in this industry, it is rare for you to come up with anything entirely on your own. Developers are given work from designers. Designers are given briefs from clients. So when you reach the end of a project, it is often easy to feel like you have possibly been carried by the team, or that you have been handed an idea. If we go back to my counselling sessions they would have called this ‘imposter syndrome’. It is the inability to accept an accomplishment, despite the external evidence.

So how do we deal with this?

Learn to internalise any external verification. When somebody compliments you, believe them and take it on board. Very few people go around handing out lies as compliments, so if they tell you they like your work, it’s likely that they genuinely do. Say thank you, pat yourself on the back, and don’t discuss what you felt you could have done better!

Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. Don’t surround yourself with people that may be negatively impacting your life, or making you feel anxious about just being yourself. One of the biggest problems in my life, was believing I had lots of friends, when in fact, I actually had lots of acquaintances. If people are being negative towards you, then stop taking their comments on board, and stop associating with those people. As Goi Nasu once said: “An entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship. Similarly, the negativity of the world can’t put you down unless you allow it to get inside you.”

Don’t suffer in silence! If you have any doubts, anxieties, or if you are feeling depressed, talk to somebody. Sometimes just lifting the lid off it all makes the load seem lighter.

Look for flaws in others. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should make things difficult for people, or point out their mistakes. But notice to yourself that they do make mistakes, and realise that this is what humans do. Realise that you are not alone. By noticing that other people are not perfect (because nobody is), it can help you to come to terms with your own mistakes when you make them.

Discover your fears. All anxieties stem from fear. You need to work out what it is exactly that you are afraid of, and make an active plan to try and conquer them.

Discover what really makes you happy. Most people think more money will make them happy. But the depression doesn’t go away, no matter how much money they make. For me, I am most happy when I am helping people. I would rather give something away for free and feel I have genuinely helped another human, than see it as an opportunity to exploit somebody and make some money.

Don’t conform. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. I am now teetotal, simply because I don’t enjoy drinking. I never have. The coping mechanism is no longer needed. People may think it is boring, so what? In fact, people often have more of an issue with me not drinking, than I do!

Most importantly: Be true to yourself. Wear the clothes you want to wear, rather than what society has told you is cool. Discuss things that interest you, rather than ‘twerking’, or what ever is popular at the time. Individuality is what makes us human. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that everybody is different. How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?

If you don’t agree with any of these points, then that is fine. If I don’t know you, I no longer require your approval! I am what I am, not what you would like me to be.’

Geek Mental Help Week is a week-long series of articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer, and those who care for us.

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Hi, I'm Craig, and I'm an Interaction Designer at the Department For Work and Pensions.

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