There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place
During the pandemic, there is frequent speculation about when and how we might return to ‘normal’ and what this so-called normal might look like when we get there. This conversation mirrors the prevailing cognitive approach to mental health where the objective is to ‘fix’ a ‘disordered’ person by changing their behaviour so they can return to ‘normal’ society.
The myth of normal
Once we challenge what is meant by normality, the concepts of ‘fixing’ and ‘disorder’ are also thrown into doubt. Many of the couples I work with as a relationship therapist defy the traditional concepts of normality as defined by the dominant culture. Some embrace polyamory and others permanently live apart. Increasingly there are relationships based primarily on collaboration around raising a child together. Then there are inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships and numerous variations of sexual diversity. There really is no ‘normal’.
Exploring new possibilities
The sooner the mental health profession abandons the concept of what is normal and what is abnormal or disordered, the more we can help people in crisis. When we become ‘experts’, attempting to diagnose and fix what is wrong with clients and their relationships, we become part of the problem. Instead, we can help them uncover the solutions that are already in place by encouraging them to discover their best hopes for the future, express what they want to change and explore new possibilities to make that change real and sustainable.
This concept also applies to what awaits us after the pain and trauma of the pandemic. While many clients are reporting increased anxiety driven by isolation and thoughts of death, others are reporting a great sense of relief that the old normal has been shut down. This is not just a random response. I am finding it is prevalent with clients who usually report high levels of anxiety associated with work, family and society. Perhaps these clients have something important to teach us?
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds
– R. D. Laing
The old normal may well be the problem and the neo-liberal ethos that defines power and success, the source of so much unnecessary anxiety. The crisis has revealed that many businesses have been paying extortionate rents, struggling to break even and just surviving from week to week. Our environment is being sacrificed to the interests of rampant growth. Equity funds pursue a relentless drive for development and expansion, generating greater profits and concentrating wealth into the hands of the privileged few. The pandemic has revealed that this so-called normal was not sustainable then and it will be even less sustainable in the future.
Reinventing the old normal
The old normal many of us enjoyed is constructed on a foundation of cheap labour and hidden suffering. Productivity is given priority over personal welfare and wellbeing and mental health professionals see the consequences in marriage crisis, anxiety and depression. Our relationship with jobs and careers compete in an uncaring and unfair way with our relationship with family and friends. The unrealistic pursuit of productivity and wealth creation is frequently the engine room of trauma and despair.
We are in unchartered waters where the map we have relied on does not guide us through this territory. We have a rare opportunity to reset the agenda of our society. If we begin to listen to the people who are experiencing relief at the empty streets and offices, we might hear their wisdom and a message that the real danger is not that we fail to return to normal, but that we attempt to revert to society as it was before.