Therapy is sometimes understood as restoring people to normal, as if we knew what that meant. Next time you meet a normal person, would you please let me know? We find it reassuring to discover that our fears and yearnings have a lot in common with other human beings, and of course they do. We like to measure ourselves against others, to reassure ourselves that we are not too odd to belong somewhere in the human tapestry.
But really, how helpful is it to know that depression is common as crabgrass, and perhaps one person in ten will experience it this year? Perhaps you fit right in. We hope for lives that are colorful and visible to others, and many of us seriously object when sadness casts a longer shadow than in other people’s lives. Mostly, though, when we long to feel normal, we may not know what’s healthy or typical, but long to feel like our true selves. What then, if depression is so familiar that it seems like home?
Somewhere along the way, we found a map. It organized our inner life, and caused it to make sense; we came to trust it. Maybe the “you are here” arrow located you within a family of competitive achievers, where you are noticed only when you win an achievement award. Maybe you found yourself to be the oddball artist in the midst of a community of sports fans and sorority sisters, and nobody spoke your language. Maybe your spot on the map was in the midst of the chaos of a violent, toxic, abusive corner of the universe, and you were alone. The depression that comes with the map we have inherited can feel inevitable, as if it belongs to us. The thought of getting rid of it seems strange.
When depression feels normal, it may be hard to fathom who we would be without it. We come to define ourselves as lacking in something, undervalued by somebody, and we cannot change that. But there is something liberating in considering the possibility that we are not the map. It is possible, now that we are awake and disenchanted with the status quo, to find a new one. Perhaps, quite accidentally, we may acknowledge the quirky sense of humor that was not part of the original map of the universe, or a love of political debate, or fixing old neighborhoods, or dragonflies. Our definition of who we are can expand; we contain undiscovered multitudes. It is the willingness to notice them that changes us, challenging what normal means.
In the era of managed care and quick fixes, therapy has sometimes been mistaken for a mood brightener, a plan for distracting ourselves from our disappointment with fun things to do, and people to see. Nothing wrong with that. But for us to relinquish the depression that defines us and haunts our dreams, we must first be convinced that the loss of the familiar dark landscape is worth the risk. What could be more disorienting than calling into question the map itself, that once had such credibility? Sometimes we are all strangers in a strange land. Be careful, but not too careful.