How the Idea of "Normal" Almost Broke Me
At the end of a long week spent volunteering in July of 2016, I went from being someone who thought I could never have any kind of mental illness to realizing that if I didn't find a therapist that month, I'd be having a breakdown.
Let Me Back Up
By all counts and my own assessment before July 2016, I had a normal family and a normal childhood. Well, as normal as it gets when you've got Type 1 Diabetes.
My parents are happily married (over 35 years so far), and my sister and I get along, kind of. I grew up with dogs, a cat, a few horses here and there, and a close circle of good friends. I was only bullied a little.
That's the thing about "normal." It's an insidious idea that made me believe nothing "abnormal" could happen to me.
When I was diagnosed at age 2 with Type 1 Diabetes, my parents immediately focused all their attention and energy on learning how to manage my disease.
My sister, understandably, felt confused and left out. At four years old, she experienced inadvertent neglect that morphed into a lifetime of taking it out on me.
I didn't know any better.
Sisters, right? They all fight like we did, don't they?
Well, if that early-teenage sister tells you that she wishes you'd never been born, with complete sincerity and malice in her eyes, you've got a problem.
A Family History
It turned out that my sister received the full brunt of the anger issues on my mom's side of the family, and when I was 12 my parents took us to a family therapist.
I'd developed a tic of bouncing my leg all the time--but especially when I felt threatened and boxed in by my sister. I chewed at my fingernails and picked at my thumbs. To this day I have problems with picking at my thumbs.
The therapy session was a disaster. My sister denied all culpability for her anger and malicious words. I was terrified of telling the therapist anything because both my parents and my sister were in the room.
How could I possibly feel safe when I knew my sister would take out her anger and frustration about my words later, when neither parent was looking?
From there, it escalated.
We never went to a therapy session as a family again, and I lost all belief in therapists everywhere.
If that one couldn't help us, who could?
I experienced sisterly treatment that no child should endure: violence, anger, threats, emotional, mental, and verbal abuse - you name it, I got it.
And the worst part is that I thought it was normal.
It makes me wonder how common this is.
How many people grow up thinking that the abuse they suffer is normal? That their feelings mean nothing and their opinions are worthless because of what their parents, siblings, or family members told them?
But let's get back to July of 2016.
The specifics of what happened aren't important, just the fact that my sister yelled and hurled abuse in front of my parents, who did nothing. Instead, they placated my sister.
After my sister stomped away, in tears I asked my parents why they didn't intervene. I stood up for myself and said that my sister's behavior was unacceptable and that I couldn't believe they didn't just tell her to shut up.
I fled to the guest room.
My parents later tried to convince my husband that I was just tired.
As if standing up for myself, becoming emotional after being abused, and retreating from the stressors were all because of my supposed tiredness.
They'd become desensitized to it and had reached the point of giving up trying to rein in her temper and vitriol.
And I lost my trust in my parents' ability to protect me.
After returning home, I found a therapist and immediately began unloading all the feeling I'd had building up over the past decade-and-a-bit.
I'd been skeptical at first, but when the positive effects of not hanging on to those toxic emotions started to show, I became the biggest advocate of getting therapy.
I realized that the family therapist we'd seen years ago wasn't the right therapist for my family.
I was lucky, in fact, to find a really good therapist on my first try.
My journey is far from over. While I stopped going to therapy after moving away from that city, the effects of my six-plus months in it have lasted well into the future.
As far as I'm concerned, everyone should see a therapist.
In fact, my sister started seeing one too and has gradually figured out why she was so horrible to me as a child. She's apologized for her behavior towards me, but is still, unfortunately, a self-defined asshole.
No Such Thing as Normality
Normality isn't real. At best, it's subjective according to our experiences. What my normal life looks like is vastly different from yours. No parent or sibling is perfect, but no child should silently suffer through verbal and emotional abuse and think that it's normal.
For many, divorce is normal. But, for others, it's a tragedy.
For many, standing up for oneself is normal. But, for others, it's a daunting, terrifying idea.
And for many, living with abuse, regardless of its severity, is normal. But, for others, including myself, it's something that needs to have a light shined on it from every angle to expose its true cost.
When abuse and the lasting mental effects from it are normalized, we're cheating ourselves out of true happiness.
What's your normal?
Colleen Mitchell is the recovering perfectionist and organizational nerd behind Inspired Forward, a blog to help anxious millennials cut through the mental obstacles of anxiety, self-doubt, and overwhelm so they can construct a well-organized life and become the best versions of themselves. She's an advocate for mental health and type 1 diabetes education, though not always in that order. She lives near Seattle, Washington, with her husband and cat, even though she's more of a dog person.