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The Problem with Normality - A Look at a South African Township

When something becomes normal you stop noticing it. When you first learned to tie your shoelaces, you noticed every single step of tying them. You noticed because you were trying to remember what to do. Today you can tie your shoelaces without thinking. So you don't notice what you're doing.

When something becomes normal you stop noticing it.

When you first learned to tie your shoelaces, you noticed every single step of tying them. You noticed because you were trying to remember what to do.

Today you can tie your shoelaces without thinking. So you don't notice what you're doing.

If you grew up in poverty and walk into a rich household, you will notice how different it is. Likewise, if you grew up in riches and walk into a poor household, you will notice how different it is.

If, however, you stay in a poor household for a while, even though you grew up in riches, you will seize to think about it.

Once you've adjusted to something, it becomes normal to you. It's similar to falling in love - once the stage of getting to know someone is over, it's only too easy to make them part of the scenery. Which is why we have to practice to pay attention; we have to remember that our time with someone is limited. Likewise, we have to remember what we can do to make our time with someone even better than it is. As soon as we stop paying attention, we forget.

Becoming aware of our own thoughts is hard because they're normal to us. If you always felt inferior when walking into a crowd, you won't even notice you do so. It's normal to you, even if there is no reason for you to feel inferior, just as there is no reason for you to freak out before a date, be stressed at work, or get nervous when doing public speaking.

Normality is simply what we're used to. And once we're used to it, we stop paying attention to it. It goes unseen. Even our own thoughts. Maybe ever so often something alerts us to the fact it isn't what it should, or could, be. Maybe we don't have to accept feeling terrified when we are in a crowd of people. But to change our thoughts requires work. And for some reason it seems our brain is more comfortable not changing. It's like a workout - we know it'd do us good, but it requires effort. Much easier to sit at home on the couch being miserable.

I work in a township in South Africa. Hangberg, it's called. It's in the outskirts of Cape Town, in a suburb called Hout Bay. Stunning place. Stunning landscape. It's a place filled with natural beauty and fruitful soil. Tourism abounds. There's an ocean filled with fish. The climate is temperate, if windy. Even if you don't have a lot of money it's a place where you could live a good life.

Yet, what you will find in this township is alcoholism, drug addiction (mainly to "tik," or crystal meth as it's also known as), rape, unplanned pregnancies, HIV, prostitution, incest, depression, poor diet, domestic violence, criminality and so forth.

The little ones. Before "normal" becomes normal.

To the people living there, that's normal. It's normal to suffer. The only things they might appreciate are things that take them away from the suffering momentarily. Often that's alcohol, drugs, or sex.

These people don't suffer to the extent they do because they have to, but because they've chosen to. They were likely never aware of making the choice though. That's the sad part. They just succumbed to normality. And so they ended up staying with the person who beats them at home, or who makes a living selling drugs.

I work with children in Hangberg and I can see them suffering because of the situation. They are still acutely aware that this isn't normal. They feel the pain in an entirely different way from the adults. They haven't given up yet. Still, they start acting out their wounds from an early age - they feel pain, so they start inducing pain. They are screaming out that something is wrong and that they are hurting. At the same time, they will be drawn to any adult that shows them love like moths to a flame, because that's what they truly want. That's what they need.

The children grow up too, though. And as they do they are blinded by their circumstance. They come to expect certain things. They come to believe that life in the township is normal. It's normal to have parents who beat you, get high and go to jail. It's normal to live surrounded by aggression and deprivation. And eventually it's normal to become the parent who beats kids, gets high and goes to jail.

These people have a choice, but just like we have a choice not to feel shy, scared, fearful, etc. in certain situations in life, but don't really notice, they've become so accustomed to it, they don't even realize there is a choice. Normality, sick as it may be, holds them in its deceptive prison. It's deceptive because it doesn't feel like a prison. It feels... normal.

Of course, education is also needed. You need to know the alternative route to be able to take it.

I'm on the board of two charities in Hout Bay - the Proudly Hout Bay Women's Forum and Little Angel's Community Center for Children and Youth. Both projects aim to shift the idea of normality to something else. To a better reality. One where health is in focus.


What I also work on though, is to check my own reality. Because sometimes, I'm only too blinded by my own sense of normality.

Here's a thought: nothing but happiness is normal. If you don't feel 100 percent satisfied with something, you need to do a mental workout to change either your own outlook, or the situation. Train yourself to notice when something doesn't feel right. No matter how "normal" it is.

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I bet that if any of us opened up a thesaurus of health symptoms and conditions we'd be filled with serious concerns about our health after only a couple of pages. Health-related symptoms are one of the highest searched criteria on the web.

However, there are times when many of us feel jaded or despondent, our quality of sleep is not great, we're experiencing miscellaneous aches and pains. Sometimes being given a label only adds to the worry of it all by fuelling stress and health anxiety. It's important to be wary of labels, especially when self-diagnosing health issues!

As a long-established counsellor and hypnotherapist it's not uncommon for me to be asked for a diagnosis by my clients. 'Does this mean I'm stressed, depressed, suffering from anxiety?' they may ask. But, just as when you buy something from a shop which has a sticky label firmly attached, I often find that by giving someone a specific label to explain their feelings it can mean they need extra therapy sessions to then detach that label!

Yes, sometimes clients are relieved when they can put a name to how they're feeling, but oftentimes there are effective ways of dealing with issues without having to label and categorise them. It's okay to accept that there are times when we're weary, sad, stressed or overwhelmed. Things in life may gradually accumulate and result in us feeling battered and bruised. Not everything's a serious health issue though, and sometimes those times provide a nudge to sort out how we're running our life.

Learning effective ways to deal with challenges can teach us better ways to cope, to recover from the knocks life intermittently throws our way and then to turn each bad situation around.

- Accept that sometimes feeling tired, out of sorts, vaguely unwell is how it is. We may have a phase of not sleeping too well, of being a little weepy, of feeling grumpy or a bit down. Be gentle with yourself at those times. Occasionally our hormones, body clock, even a change in the weather or the cycle of the moon can throw us out of balance. Treat yourself with kindness; go to bed a little earlier, ensure you eat well, keep hydrated, take some gentle exercise, maybe get away for an hour or even a day or two.

- We teach people how to treat us. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said this, but certainly a high percentage of communication is done non-verbally. We communicate our responses to situations through cues so subtle that we may be unaware of them; fear, guilt, resignation, a desire to please are all evidenced through our breathing, stance, body language, posture. Tuning in and becoming aware of what we're projecting can turn a situation around.

- Remaining silent and uncommunicative, or alternatively always saying 'yes', can be interpreted as you being okay with how things are being handled. Take responsibility for how you come across and start to teach people to treat you well.

- Be careful not to compare yourself and how you're doing or coping with others. We all have different stories, priorities, situations we're dealing with, support networks, abilities and motivations. One person's nightmare situation may be another's piece of cake, and vice versa. Comparisonitis can result in massive insecurities.

- When we're exhausted and feeling low it may be because we're sorry for ourselves, feeling hard done by, unappreciated or taken for granted. Becoming appropriately assertive can be the way forward. All too often frustrations build up and then we explode over the smallest of things, crying, 'how dare you, it's not fair, after all I've done for you!' Or conversely we retreat into sadness, introspection and melancholia. Often a better outcome is achieved through love, affection and by staying calm and even-tempered. Learning to say, 'no', firmly and appropriately, perhaps without explanation or justification, can teach both yourself and others to appreciate and value you more.

- Being short of time is something many of us struggle with, but spreading ourselves too thinly can lead to burnout and overload. Clues that all is not well can be frequently going to bed later, getting up earlier, missing meals, cancelling breaks, exercise and fun. Again self-help comes from taking personal responsibility and communicating to others how you're feeling and what you need. Is there only you who's competent to do those tasks? Maybe it's time to train someone else, learn to delegate or be more realistic about your work v health choices.

- Deal with stress. Ensure that you have a set time when you switch off, unless there's an occasional, genuine emergency. Are there specific times when you frequently feel frazzled? We all have our early warning signals of stress. Become acquainted with yours and identify when you need a 'water-cooler' break, a piece of fruit, time for a game of golf or a long leisurely lunch. Research has found that we perform better, often bringing new ideas and thinking into a problem, once we've had some time away to detach a little.

If you find you're becoming increasingly stressed, snappy, not sleeping or are experiencing low mood booking a health check-up is advisable. However, many of us can learn to intervene early on and start to introduce positive, ongoing self-care. Appreciate you can only do so much each day before mistakes, accidents and poor concentration start to affect your health. By introducing good habits you achieve a healthier balance in your life, becoming equipped to deal with those unavoidable times when sacrifices have to be made, you need to work longer hours or juggle unanticipated demands.

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