What is “normal?”


Working in the Richmond community these past three years has been eye-opening for me in so many ways. Being from a small, quiet, middle class suburb, I have been sheltered from  many of the harsh realities of the “real world.” Probably my biggest take away has been learning that we shouldn’t have one normative baseline against which we compare all of mankind. We must remember that everyone has a different story. We come from different backgrounds, and what is normal for one person may not be normal for someone else, and that’s okay.

This is something I really had to train myself to think about while I was at Rubicon. Volunteering on Monday afternoons, I sat in on anger management sessions each week and heard clients with both mental health problems and substance abuse problems open up about personal things. A lot of the time, it was difficult for the staff clinician to get the clients to share more than a couple word answers, but every so often, people would express their feelings at length.

The staff clinician, Lynn, went around the room one day, as per usual, and asked the clients what their anger level on the anger scale was over the past few days. After hearing a few clients air their complaints, the circle stopped at a man who seemed to be in his thirties. Failing to leave out any hesitancy, the man began by stating is anger level at a 7. He explained that he had been at the HOPE Center for one week, and that the adjustment had been very difficult for him. He spoke of his frustrations concerning the strict time schedule the clients follow. Back on my first day at Rubicon, after getting a brief tour of the facility, one of the staffers showed me the clients’ daily schedules. Every day of the week is planned out to the exact minute. For example, part of my duties at Rubicon when I arrived at about 1:05pm on Monday afternoons involved waking up the 15 or so clients from their dorms at precisely 1:12pm to get them ready to stroll into conference room 307 for “group,” or the anger management session, at 1:15. The clients are required to do laundry on a specific day and time, and even have a blocked out time period where they are in the library.

At first, this schedule reminded me of being in elementary school. In elementary school, kids have their teachers plan out every second of every day. There are certain tasks and responsibilities required and expected of these young kids, and if they do not obey, there are consequences. However, there is one key difference: at about 3:45, when the school day ends, these kids leave school. They have freedom, to a certain degree, depending on their guardian’s parenting styles.

As this man was lamenting about the strict schedule at Rubicon and how he was not used to being told when we was allowed to do things, such as read and sleep, a female client interrupted him.

“You never been to jail?” she asked him incredulously.

This question stood out to me. Even more so than elementary school, the way in which Rubicon is structured is in fact quite like prison. Of course, the physical and emotional treatment of the clients is much better than in prison. But this man felt like the treatment he was receiving was paternalistic and rigid. Clients cannot freely leave the facility. Other clients chimed in, saying they, too, felt as if the strict schedule was tiresome, especially when it came to using the phone to call their families. Only a few minutes’ time was alone.

The fact that this woman who was surprised that the male client had never been to jail to experience this type of scheduling really reminded me that everyone has a different story, and we shouldn’t assume things in people. For this woman, it was clear that it was very normal for people to have been in jail. In my experiences in life, having not been in jail would be the norm.

I see similar themes in my work in the Boys and Girls Club, my Bonner site. For many kids, it’s normal for them to live with their grandparents while their parents are in jail, or for them to move to a different section of town because a shooting had occurred across the street from their house. Keeping in mind that norms different for every person is something I’ve learned to do while working in Richmond.